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An interview with Daniel Dennett

Greg Ross

Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett is well known for his popular writings, particularly in applying the principles of evolution to free will and the human mind. He turns his attention to a more sensitive subject in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking, 2006).

The spell that Dennett wants to break is not that of belief itself but of what he calls "belief in belief"—the unspoken social agreement that he says forbids any close study of religion, its origins and its role in human societies. "For many people, probably a majority of the people on earth, nothing matters more than religion," he writes. "For this very reason, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it."Daniel DennettClick to Enlarge Image

Educated at Harvard and Oxford, Dennett has received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Fulbright fellowship and a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies in Behavioral Science. American Scientist Online managing editor Greg Ross interviewed him by e-mail in February 2006.

Why this book? Why now?

Religions loom large in America's future, but nobody knows what they are likely to become—because we are still not studying them with the scientific intensity they require. Why not? Because of the tradition of deference. For instance, we would never let oil industry executives insist that only those within the oil industry had the right (or the qualifications) to study its activities, but we routinely accede to the suggestion that religions can only be studied from within, by the devout. That is the spell I want to break. We need to look under the hoods of religions and see what makes them work, so that we won't be acting blindly when we try to steer events in the future.

William James considered the academic study of religion in The Varieties of Religious Experience. How do you regard his conclusions a century later?

His book is a masterpiece, and I've cited it often in my own. He very deliberately chose not to look at religious organizations and doctrines, instead concentrating on individual experience. I think we've learned a lot in the last century about how the religious experience of the individual relates to those larger organizations, and how the whole set of phenomena evolved. A wider-angle view is needed. Religions are brilliantly designed institutions—designed by natural selection, and by human religion-designers. We need to reverse-engineer the whole structure to see how the parts work.

In using evolutionary principles to explain religion, don't you risk rejection? Religious readers may dismiss the approach out of hand, or demand proof.

Of course they may, but if they are reasonable people, they should reflect that they ought to try to understand the evolutionary perspective before they reject it. There are many features of religions that are illuminated by it. For instance, if evangelicals are intent on converting all the heathen to their religion, it would behoove them, wouldn't it, to try to discover what drives all those heathen to their misbegotten religious views. Before they undertake reforms or revisions of their own practices, they might want to know something of the history of past successes and failures in the efforts of religions to grow with the times. Every religion has evolved over time, and many thousands of religions have gone extinct. Why? We can begin to answer such questions.

It seems that both sides think they hold the trump card. You've offered an evolutionary approach to religion; couldn't religion counter with a divine view of science?

What is a divine view of science? Does the divine view of science encourage airplane builders to defer to the opinions of priests or imams on features of the design of airplane wings and engines? Not that I've heard. Do religious folk seek second opinions from other medical doctors, or from their spiritual advisors before consenting to surgery?

Perhaps they do consult their spiritual advisors, but not because they trust them to know better than medical science what the risks and opportunities are. When it comes to the facts about how things work and what is likely to happen, religion doesn't compete well with science at all. I would think that reflective religious people would recognize that and see that they need to use science to understand the dynamics of their own faith.

For that matter, the evolutionary mechanisms you discuss would also occur if religion were true, wouldn't they?

Yes indeed, and that's one of the reasons why I insist that I am not presupposing atheism in my book. I am an atheist, and happy to admit it. I have nothing to hide. But I am adopting the neutral position of natural science when I study religions.

After all, suppose I were a Catholic and said that I could set aside my Catholicism in the interest of conducting a proper scientific investigation of religion. Would people say that was flat impossible? I don't think so. It is at least equally possible for an atheist to be objective. If devout people acknowledge that people in their own religion could—with effort and careful self-discipline—conduct a neutral, objective study of religion, they ought to allow that others could do likewise.

You note that, in almost all cases, children identify with their parents' religion. Did you grow up in a secular home?

No. I went to church and Sunday school as a child and have sung in choirs and choruses all my life. One of my sisters has devoted her professional life to religious education in that church, and I'm very proud of the wonderful job she has done. After all these years, I still have quite a few Bible verses committed to memory, and I'm glad of it.

What empirical research would you like to see?

We need to understand the wellsprings of commitment and loyalty, the tipping points between sane allegiance and irrational blind loyalty, and the role of doctrine (which I argue is minimal and getting less central all the time). Right now religions are responding to the same sorts of chaotic conditions that ecosystems are responding to now that the natural barriers to plant and animal migration have been largely broached by commerce and transportation. With information flooding into every corner of the world, religious leaders (and followers) are reacting to the challenge of invading ideas, sometimes wisely, sometimes not. We need to understand the dynamics of these reactions, and we won't if we take them at face value. We need to understand the underlying biases that have evolved in our nervous systems and how they are exploited by the memes of religion. Just as we need to understand our "sweet tooth" and our craving for fat if we are going to control our diets, so we need to understand the various sweet teeth (!) we apparently have for religion. If we removed religion, what would sweep in to replace it? Might it be much worse for us?  We don't know.



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