Sunday, February 19, 2006

Review of Dennett's "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon"

An excerpt of a review of leading atheist Darwinist philosopher Daniel Dennett's latest book, by Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic. My comments are bold and in square brackets.

The God Genome: "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,' by Daniel C. Dennett. Review by Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times, February 19, 2006. THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. [Agreed. Claims about phenomena are the domain of science. Claims about science itself are the domain of philosophy of science.]

Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. [The emphasis is on the "all". But scientism is a corollary of Dennett's materialism. If matter is all there is, then there is no "mental" that is not, at least in principle, reducible to matter, and so can, at least in principle, be completely explained by science without remainder.]

... Dennett lives in a world in which you must believe in the grossest biologism or in the grossest theism in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in 19th-century England or in the omniscience of a white man with a long beard in the sky. [Dennett (like Dawkins) commits the fallacy of the straw man in their depiction of Christianity. Like most They apparently cannot bring themselves to fairly present the strongest evidence and arguments for Christianity.]

In his own opinion, Dennett is a hero. He is in the business of emancipation, and he reveres himself for it. "By asking for an accounting of the pros and cons of religion, I risk getting poked in the nose or worse," he declares, "and yet I persist." [Dennett deludes himself if he thinks he can just lump Christianity in with all other religions and then discuss them all meaningfully as "religion." Christianity has no problem with the "accounting of [its] pros and cons" if Dennett was willing to listen. But of course, Dennett's prior commitment to his materialist religion means that Dennett cannot even consider that Christianity has anything meaningful to say.]

He wonders whether religious people "will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through." [Dennett continues with his self-delusion that his arguments are unanswerable, when in reality they all depend on his materialist starting assumptions being true. But if Christianity is true (which it is), then Dennett's starting assumptions (e.g. matter is all there = there is no God, etc) are false.]

If you disagree with what Dennett says, it is because you fear what he says. Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as "protectionism."... [Andrew Brown likens Dennett's triumphalist style of argument to "the Americans in Vietnam: he drenches his opponents in high explosive, declares victory, and then gets the hell out":

"There is in his [Dennett's] work a sense that we live in exciting times, when new knowledge of sorts that had previously been thought unattainable is bursting out all over. Like Dawkins, he has the quality of making the world a more interesting place than it was before you read him. The reader is buffeted, frightened and exhilarated, sometimes all at once. Yet, when the pleasure's past, a threatening doubt remains: what, exactly, has one learnt? It's like watching the Americans in Vietnam: he drenches his opponents in high explosive, declares victory, and then gets the hell out." (Brown A., "The Darwin Wars: How Stupid Genes Became Selfish Gods," Simon & Schuster: London, 1999, p.153)!]

Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name ... Is the theistic account of the cosmos true or false? Dennett, amazingly, does not care. "The goal of either proving or disproving God's existence," he concludes, is "not very important." [Translation: Dennett knows he cannot disprove God's existence by rational argument, so he must delude himself that its "not very important" and resort to other means.]

It is history, not philosophy, that will break religion's spell. Dennett's natural history of religion. ... There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is "extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking," nothing more. "Breaking the Spell" is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: "I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don't yet know." [The "yet" is just the usual promissory materialism (or atheism-in-the-gaps). There is no way that Dennett (or anyone) can "extrapolate[e] back to human prehistory" without committing the fallacy of circular reasoning (or begging of the question). Because Dennett starts with materialist assumptions, he cannot come up with a result that is anything but materialistic.]

So all of Dennett's splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and "generating further testable hypotheses" notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing. [If the only "hypotheses" allowed are materialist ones, then Dennett's is just another elaborate exercise in materialist self-deception, claiming that he has established by scientific "evidence and experiment" that all "religion" is false, when in reality he had already assumed that in his first premise .]

And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins? Has Dennett never seen a flower grow from the dust? Or is it the dust that he sees in a flower? "Breaking the Spell" is a long, hectoring exercise in unexamined originalism. [Wieseltier himself (who I presume is Jewish) seems here to unnecessarily concede that naturalism is true (i.e. nature is a closed system of cause-and-effect in which God never has intervened). That is, to Wieseltier's analogy of "a flower grow[ing] from the dust," Dennett could rightly reply that the growth of a flower is a closed system of cause-and-effect in which God does not intervene). Jesus Himself said that in Mark 4:28 that the growth of a plant is automatos (auto = self + matos = desire), i.e. of its own accord, automatic:

"All by itself [Gk. automatos] the soil produces grain-first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head."

But that is the growth of a plant in the present. The question is whether God has ever intervened supernaturally (e.g. in the origin of plants). Or more to the point, whether Christianity is just another religion that has grown up (like "a flower from the dust") with no supernatural intervention by God. But even a cursory reading of the Bible would show Dennett that Christianity claims to be a revealed religion, in which God, against a background of normal natural processes of biology, economics, politics, psychology, sociology, and even religion, intervened supernaturally at strategic points to inject new information and direction. For Dennett to just ignore or deny this is for him to beg the question by assuming from the outset that Christianity is just another natural religion and its accounts of God's supernatural interventions (including the incarnation, miracles, resurrection and ascension of Jesus) are at best mere fables and at worst, frauds.]

It will be plain that Dennett's approach to religion is contrived to evade religion's substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. [Agreed. It is like trying to decide whether Einstein's theory of relativity was true by ignoring its content and concentrating instead on the presumed historical and psychological factors that led to Einstein to propose it!]

If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. ... Dennett's natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it. [This is a version of C.S. Lewis's argument from reason. Materialism (matter is all there is) and Naturalism (nature is all there is) must take a standpoint outside themselves to assert that they are true. But in so doing they refute themselves!]

... Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion, because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer. He writes often, and with great indignation, of religion's strictures against doubts and criticisms, when in fact the religious traditions are replete with doubts and criticisms. Dennett is unacquainted with the distinction between fideism and faith. [In other words, to protect his weak position, Dennett (like Dawkins) has to set up a straw man of "religion" that he can then knock down.]

Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion. But why must we read literally in the realm of religion, when in so many other realms of human expression we read metaphorically, allegorically, symbolically, figuratively, analogically? We see kernels and husks everywhere. There are concepts in many of the fables of faith, philosophical propositions about the nature of the universe. They may be right or they may be wrong, but they are there. [As a Christian, I would put it stronger than this. While much of Christianity uses symbols to point to higher realities, it does contain literal core truths, which if they are literally false, then Christianity is false. For example, St. Paul stated in 1 Corinthians 15:12-20 (and I agree) that if Christ has not been raised from the dead, then the Christian faith is both "false" and "futile":

"12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins. 18Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost. 19If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. 20But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep."]

Dennett recognizes the uses of faith, but not its reasons. In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. [I don't understand Wieseltier here. Quite clearly all "religion" could be false (e.g. if there is no God) and atheistic "philosophy" would be true. Perhaps what Wieseltier means is Dennett's particular materialist grounds for his "repudiation of religion," which would then be a self-refuting "repudiation of philosophy" because it would, as C.S. Lewis showed in his argument from reason above, undermine the validity of reason itself.]

What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken. ... [No doubt Dennett, close-minded dogmatist that he is, will just triumphantly dismiss Wieseltier's review as "protectionism"!

In my morning `quiet time' I have been going through the Messianic Prophecies of the Old Testament and my study this morning was Isaiah 45:22-23:

"Turn to me and be saved, all you ends of the earth; for I am God, and there is no other. By myself I have sworn, my mouth has uttered in all integrity a word that will not be revoked: Before me every knee will bow; by me every tongue will swear" (my emphasis)

My NIV Study Bible's comment on Philippians 2:10-11 (where St. Paul quotes Isa 45:22-23 and applies it to Jesus), has:

"2:10-11 bow ... confess. Cf. Isa 45:23. God's design is that all people everywhere should worship and serve Jesus as Lord. Ultimately all will acknowledge him as Lord (see Ro 14:9), whether willingly or not." (Barker K., ed., "The NIV Study Bible," Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 1985, pp.1805)

So if Christianity is true (which it is) then Dennett (like everyone else) will inevitably one day have to acknowledge Jesus as his Lord, willingly (if he had become a Christian) or unwillingly otherwise. However, in the latter case it will be too little, too late.]

Stephen E. Jones, BSc (Biol).
"Problems of Evolution"

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