Saturday, July 5, 2008

Daniel Dennett on religion

I happened to come across this brief interview with philosopher Daniel Dennett, and I found his answer to a question on the relationship between science and religion to be so exactly congruent with my own beliefs that I am compelled to quote it here.
The problem with any proposed detente in which science and religion are ceded separate bailiwicks or "magisteria" is that, as some wag has put it, this amounts to rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and unto God that which Caesar says God can have. The most recent attempt, by Gould, has not found much favor among the religious precisely because he proposes to leave them so little. Of course, I’m certainly not suggesting that he should have left them more.

There are no factual assertions that religion can reasonably claim as its own, off limits to science. Many who readily grant this have not considered its implications. It means, for instance, that there are no factual assertions about the origin of the universe or its future trajectory, or about historical events (floods, the parting of seas, burning bushes, etc.), about the goal or purpose of life, or about the existence of an afterlife and so on, that are off limits to science. After all, assertions about the purpose or function of organs, the lack of purpose or function of, say, pebbles or galaxies, and assertions about the physical impossibility of psychokinesis, clairvoyance, poltergeists, trance channeling, etc. are all within the purview of science; so are the parallel assertions that strike closer to the traditionally exempt dogmas of long-established religions. You can’t consistently accept that expert scientific testimony can convict a charlatan of faking miracle cures and then deny that the same testimony counts just as conclusively—"beyond a reasonable doubt"—against any factual claims of violations of physical law to be found in the Bible or other religious texts or traditions.

What does that leave for religion to talk about? Moral injunctions and declarations of love (and hate, unfortunately), and other ceremonial speech acts. The moral codes of all the major religions are a treasury of ethical wisdom, agreeing on core precepts, and disagreeing on others that are intuitively less compelling, both to those who honor them and those who don’t. The very fact that we agree that there are moral limits that trump any claim of religious freedom—we wouldn’t accept a religion that engaged in human sacrifice or slavery, for instance—shows that we do not cede to religion, to any religion, the final authority on moral injunctions.

Centuries of ethical research and reflection, by philosophers, political theorists, economists, and other secular thinkers have not yet achieved a consensus on any Grand Unified Theory of ethics, but there is a broad, stable consensus on how to conduct such an inquiry, how to resolve ethical quandaries, and how to deal with as-yet unresolved differences. Religion plays a major role as a source of possible injunctions and precepts, and as a rallying point for public appeal and organization, but it does not set the ground rules of ethical agreement and disagreement, and hence cannot claim ethics or morality as its particular province.

That leaves ceremonial speech acts as religion’s surviving domain. These play a huge role in stabilizing the attitudes and policies of those who participate in them, but the trouble is that ceremony without power does not appear to be a stable arrangement—and appearances here are all important. Once a monarch is stripped of all political power, as in Great Britain, the traditions and trappings tend to lose some of their psychological force, so that their sole surviving function—focusing the solidarity of the citizenry—is somewhat undercut. Whether or not to abolish the monarchy becomes an ever less momentous decision, rather like whether or not to celebrate a national holiday always on a Monday, instead of on its traditional calendar date. Recognizing this threat of erosion, religious people will seldom acknowledge in public that their God has been reduced to something like a figurehead, a mere constitutional monarch, even while their practices and decisions presuppose that this is so.

It is seldom remarked (though often observed in private, I daresay) that many, many people who profess belief in God do not really act the way people who believed in God would act; they act the way people would act who believed in believing in God. That is, they manifestly think that believing in God is—would be—a good thing, a state of mind to be encouraged, by example if possible, so they defend belief-in-God with whatever rhetorical and political tools they can muster. They ask for God’s help, but do not risk anything on receiving it, for instance. They thank God for their blessings, but, following the principle that God helps those who help themselves, they proceed with the major decisions of their lives as if they were going it alone.

Those few individuals who clearly do act as if they believed in God, really believed in God, are in striking contrast: the Christian Scientists who opt for divine intervention over medical attention, for instance, or those who give all their goods to one church or another in expectation of the Apocalypse, or those who eagerly seek martyrdom.

Not wanting the contrast to be so stark, the believers in belief-in-God respond with the doctrine that it is a sin (or at least a doctrinal error) to count on God’s existence to have any particular effect. This has the nice effect of making the behavior of a believer in belief-in-God and the behavior of a believer in God so similar as to be all but indistinguishable.

Once nothing follows from a belief in God that doesn’t equally follow from the presumably weaker creed that it would be good if I believed in God—a doctrine that is readily available to the atheist, after all—religion has been so laundered of content that it is quite possibly consistent with science. Peter de Vries, a genuine believer in God and probably the funniest writer on religion ever, has his hyper-liberal Reverend Mackerel (in his book The Mackerel Plaza) preach the following line: "It is the final proof of God’s omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."

The Reverend Mackerel’s God can co-exist peacefully with science. So can Santa Claus, who need not exist in order to make our yuletide season more jolly.

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