Friday, 27 May 2011

Daniel Dennett Breaks the Spell

It's interesting how over the past decade some of our more militant atheists have taken to using the techniques of religion to promote their cause.  Not that they've become religious - that would be absurd - but they hold conventions, they promote atheism on the backs of buses, and they write works of atheist apologetics.  The advent of Islamic terrorism, and their belief that this is a sign of the deeply dangerous nature of religion (though Stalin's atrocities were somehow not similar evidence of the dangers of atheism), has made them militant.

Like Christian apologetics, these works are not really written for those outside the tent.  They are written for those within to give them ammunition with which to defend their belief, or lack thereof.  The best known work of this sort may be Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, in which the western world's crankiest atheist fires his shotgun furiously at religion.  However, because he knows very little about religion, Dawkins is unable to get a clear sight on his target and misses by a mile. 

Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell is a different kettle of fish.  He is much politer than Dawkins, in the kind of condescending way that would make you think that he, not Dawkins, was the Englishman.  He also appears to know more about religion than Dawkins, although this is rather like saying I know more about nuclear physics than my four-year-old nephew.  Dennett has read a few religious texts, seemingly at random, and found them confusing.  So confusing that he believes they are actually meaningless, and suggests that even religious people don't really believe them (how could anyone believe such nonsense?) they just say they do because that is what their religion requires. 

A couple of times he refers disparagingly to "Paul Tillich's concept of 'The Ground of All Being' (whatever that means)".  Perhaps a good way to find out what Tillich means would be to read his works, but for some reason none of them appear in his extensive bibliography.  Instead he provides an extensive list of works by anthropologists and evolutionary biologists.  No wonder Dennett is baffled.

The full title tells you the story of this book very succinctly - Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon.  Firstly, of course, it contains a double message - believers are "under a spell", somehow deceived into believing, and religion is akin to magic.  The subtitle tells you what sort of spell - a spell created naturally by the processes of human evolution.  This is merely the first of many snide references to religion.  Just because Dennett is politer than Dawkins, this doesn't mean he is any more sympathetic to religious believers.

However, Dennett is not attempting to prove that religion is a natural phenomenon.  Rather, this is his starting point, his foundational assumption.  His purpose, having accepted this assumption pretty much as a matter of course, is to show how it might have come about.  The word might is important here, because he repeatedly stresses that the possible evolutionary processes he cites are unproven - but in his view worthy of, and open to, further research and evidence.  This does not stop him from going from one unproven hypothesis to the next, building a house of cards which could fall at the slightest touch.

He asks us to accept, for starters, that the origin of all religion is ancestor worship.  The evolutionary practice of imprinting on our parents, and obeying them, with its obvious survival benefits, is thus developed into a a metaphysical belief that our ancestors remain present after death.  This, he says, is the origin of animism, the most primitive form of religion and hence the foundation stone of all other religions.  On this rather questionable foundation he then builds his speculative edifice explaining the process of evolution from this point to the elaborate world religions of today.

I won't rehearse the whole tale here.  Read it for yourself if you enjoy such stuff.  What I'd like to point out are just a couple of his key assumptions.  Aside from his assumption that religion is a product of evolution by natural selection, his first foundational assumption is that all religion is basically the same phenomenon.  Hence it makes sense to talk of religions as a single category with a common origin.  Following on from this, we are asked to accept (actually we are not asked, it is just assumed we will) that the religions of more technologically "primitive" people like Australian Aboriginal people or New Guinea tribesman are more primitive than those of techologically advanced nations.  This equation of technological with intellectual primitivity is breathtaking and unstated.

However, Dennett's big idea, borrowed from Dawkins, is the idea of "memes".  He cites the Oxford English Dictionary definition of the word "meme" as "an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means".  However, in explaining the concept and its applicability to religion he goes much further.  Ideas that are passed on and repeated through cultures without a clear origin or single author are said to have a "life" of their own.  To illustrate the idea he uses a number of examples.  For instance, he cites words and their particular pronunication, both of which change over time within a culture without anyone explicitly deciding that this should be so.  He cites folk music, where the words and tune are passed from one person to the other, changing along the way.  Folk songs, and folk religions, he says, have no author, they are "free floating" cultural articles intent, like genes, on their own survival, not on the survival of the species to which they are attached.

Perhaps his most telling analogy, and one that gives the game away, is the analogy with Toxoplasma gondii, a parasite which infests rats and causes them to dance in front of cats.  When the cat kills and eats the rat, Toxoplasma crosses into the cat and breeds in its gut.  This dancing behaviour, he says, does not benefit the rat (or the cat), it benefits the parasite.  Memes behave in a similar way (especially religious ones) - they make us do things which are not helpful to us and may be downright dangerous, in order to ensure their own survival.

There are a number of aspects of the idea of memes (the meme for memes, if you like) that make it attractive people like Dennett and therefore ensure its survival.  For one thing, its apparent similarity to the idea of genes makes it sound impressively scientific.  However, unlike genes no-one has yet succeeded in identifying a phyical basis for memes.  Nor does Dennett suggest that they act in the kind of predictable, mathematical way that enabled Gregor Mendel to surmise the existence of genes long before the discovery of DNA.  Indeed, there is no evidence for their existence at all, they are simply an idea.  This makes the Toxoplasma gondii analogy so misleading as to be downright mischievous from someone who pretends to scientific objectivity.  Not only does this nasty little parasite have a physical existence, it is an entire multi-genetic, complex organism in its own right. 

Secondly, the idea of memes enables the likes of Dennett to depersonalise processes they find troublesome.  Instead of being things people do they somehow "do" themselves.  Hence, as Marilynne Robinson points out, they are able to take reasoning and conscious action out of the equation.

Yet this requires a logical leap of which Dennett seems unconscious.  He assumes that because we don't know the identity of the author of a folk song, this means that it doesn't have one.  If I were to remove the cover of Dennett's book and circulate it without its identifying marks, this would not make it any less Dennett's work.  Its readers would just not know that.

In the end, the word "meme"is simply a new piece of jargon, serving like all jargon to obscure rather than enlighten.  You could just as easily use time-honoured words like "idea", "cultural practice" or "belief" and you would not only be more comprehensible, you would be more precise, because these are not the same thing.  You would then be able to talk sensibly about what people are doing when they think, believe and act, without the baggage of a dubious analogy with genetics.

Atheists love this book as well they should.  It is elegant, eloquent and biting.  Religion is subjected to all the rhetorical tricks available to a highly educated, skilled and experienced communicator.  Yet paradoxically it provides comfort to a religious person like me.  If this is the best the atheists have to offer, I have no need to abandon my faith just yet.


Nurks said...

Good stuff Ted. That's one slam-dunk for you.

Hows about writing your own book? "Breaking the Spell: Atheism as a natural phenomena." (I assume Mr Dennett believes his views are also perfectly natural. Or does he deliciously suspect they are in fact super-natural? A cut above mortal thought?)

It does leave me wondering. Would mere naturalness imply his views are false as well? Can I boldly guess he wouldn't think so?

It seems to me, if God is real, theism would be the most natural thing in all the world. Mr Dennett seems to agree. Does it follow that atheism is the aberrant and unnatural view, held by a few tone-deaf folk who lamentably can't hear the Music?

Sammy said...

There are several things that bother me about the militant atheists-

1. They know little about religion. Yes, many religious believers are also ignorant of their own religion. But just because reading the Bible would make you more knowledgeable than most religious believers doesn't mean it makes you an expert on religion.

2. They assume that because religion has been used for evil purposes that religion itself is bad. As you point out, the same doesn't seem to hold for Stalin and atheism.

3. They assume all religious believers are ignorant or foolish. This one bothers me the most because atheists (rightfully) complain when religious believers stereotype them as being immoral or angry with God. Yet they have no problem stereotyping religious believers.

4. They believe that science disproves God. Well, I'm a scientist and I can promise you that it doesn't. Science has nothing to say on whether or not God exists. Science is the empirical study of the physical universe. Since God is not a phenomena that we can empirically observe or measure, God is outside the purview of science. Yes, science can disprove certain religious beliefs, such as creationism, but that is not the same thing as disproving God.

Honestly, I have no problem with most atheists. I care how a person acts, not what they believe. But I find the arguments of Dawkins, Dennett, and others like them, both weak and unconvincing.

Jon said...

Hi Sammy, thanks I agree. BTW I tried to post a comment on your latest post on The Scientific Universalist but it wouldn't let me for some reason.