Posted by: Kenn Hermann | February 28, 2006

Demystifying Daniel Dennett

Daniel Dennett has had a long and distinguished career exulting in the sweeping power of his version of the Evolutionary Story to explain all psychical, moral, and religious phenomena. This was, in fact, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). His latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, purports to update Hume with the latest findings of the evolutionary neurosciences.

Leon Wieseltier, the long-time book review editor of The New Republic, uses his well-honed rapier mind to write a devastating critique of Dennett’s book in the The New York Times Book Review, Sunday, February 19, 2005. I will not spoil your pleasure in reading it by trying to summarize his review. Let this one quotation suffice:

“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. 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. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely 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? [this was Darwin’s disturbing question] The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it.” (p. 12) Few have deployed the fallacy of naturalism with greater effect.

I must have missed something . . . . If this book represents the results of Dennett’s rigorous inquiry into the biological origins of religious belief, tell me again why his work at the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University qualifies as ‘science.’


  1. As I understand it, Dennett isn’t making a philosophical attack on theism. Dennett does an important service if he convincingly shows that humans tend to believe in God whether or not God exists. Personally, I think it’s an obvious conclusion, but many people don’t.

    Most Americans don’t question their religion because it is socially unacceptable to do so. They didn’t become religious as a result of a philosophical analysis. Rather, the church and social groups pressure people to outsource their rationality (and morality) to the church. An assault on critical thought is bad news, whether it comes from a religious or secular institution. People need to be taught to think for themselves, not take other peoples’ word for it.

    So, Dennett wants to address a social problem. It is no more ethical for churches to indoctrinate people to be uncritical than it is for casinos to market their products to gambling addicts. And I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that religion addiction runs at much higher rates than gambling addiction.

    By law, casino ads on the radio are suffixed with “Gambling problem? Call 1-800-GAMBLER.” If Dennett is right, then church ads should have to do something similar.

  2. If I could know that ‘you’ were a person, Dr. Logic, and not a sophisticated computer program, I would be delighted to discuss Dennett’s views of the Christian’s trust in Yahweh. I know it’s something I might have to get over, but discussing these things with computer software is still a bit too much for me. But if you were a person, I would say that you only (and Dennett) say these things about belief in God because you don’t believe in God.

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