A Scientific Approach to Atheism

By Jack Miles,
senior fellow with the Pacific Council on International Policy and general editor of the forthcoming Norton Anthology of World Religions
Thursday, June 29, 2006


Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

By Daniel C. Dennett

Viking. 448 pp. $25.95

Fertility rates in the relatively secular blue states are 12 percent lower than in the relatively religious red states, according to Philip Longman in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy. In Europe, a similar correlation holds. As Longman writes: "Do you seldom, if ever, attend church? For whatever reason, people answering affirmatively . . . are far more likely to live alone, or in childless, cohabitating unions, than those who answer negatively." For the most secular cultures in the world, Longman predicts a temporary drop in absolute population as secular liberals die out and a concomitant cultural transformation as, "by a process similar to survival of the fittest," they are demographically replaced by religious conservatives.

A reproductive differential of this sort, of course, does not prove the truth of the patriarchal religion that Longman sees positively correlated with it, and Daniel C. Dennett would be the first to point this out. But the sense of siege that haunts the eminent philosopher's "Breaking the Spell" may owe something to a background anxiety that though his side, the skeptical side, may have the best arguments, it is dying out anyway.

The spell of Dennett's title is the spell of religion, which "must be broken and broken now." The first hundred pages of his book are titled "Opening Pandora's Box," and he casts himself, rather amazingly, as Pandora in person. Ready or not, here she comes: "Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts. . . . They claim the moral high ground; maybe they deserve it and maybe they don't. Let's find out."

A little of this goes a long way, and 80 more pages in the same vein will pass before the author begins in earnest his critique of the state-of-the-religion question in current evolutionary psychology. Even then, intellectual outbursts emotionally akin to "Let's step outside and settle this, shall we?" keep intruding. Thus we read: "If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were still on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone 'on their side,' theists typically decline to do this." Perhaps so, but then is Dennett prepared to perform a comparable triage for the favorite topics of his fellow atheists? Where do "we atheists" stand, for example, with regard to fellow atheist Howard Stern? We theists would like to know, if Dennett would be so kind, though we fear that out of a mixture of caution, loyalty and unwillingness to offend, he may pass over America's most influential single atheist in silence.

Truth to tell, this kind of game is depressingly easy to play, and it's a rare student of religion who really wants to be drawn into it. Dennett is at his happier pedagogical best in the middle section of this book, titled "The Evolution of Religion," when, functioning as a blend of philosopher of science and science journalist, he reviews the work of evolutionary psychologists such as David Sloan Wilson and Pascal Boyer, contrasts it with that of sociologists such as Rodney Stark and W.S. Bainbridge of the "rational choice" school, and offers a tour d'horizon of entry points into the evolutionary conundrum that religion represents precisely because it seems so extravagantly wasteful. If Homo sapiens were a bird, the bird would be a peacock, and religion would be the tail. Evolutionary biology can explain quite well how an inconveniently large tail in the male peacock confers reproductive advantage. But what reproductive advantage is conferred by the Pyramid of Cheops or, for that matter, by the National Cathedral? There are fascinating ways to engage that question, and Dennett's enthusiasm can be contagious.

And yet two points must be made.

First, if Pandora's box is taken to contain skeptical objections to religion rather than, as in the myth, the sorrows of the human condition, then the box has been open for millenniums. Dennett reduces philosophical skepticism to a few passing references to David Hume, but after Hume there was Nietzsche, and long before either there were ancient worthies such as Democritus, Epicurus and Sextus Empiricus. As for what might be called Darwinian skepticism, the key questions have been on the table since at least the publication of Edward O. Wilson's "Sociobiology: The New Synthesis" in 1975. Social scientists resisted the implications of that work for their methodology, but students of religion, including the religiously affiliated, have by no means ignored it. The growth of the conversation since 1975 may be measured by the heft of J. Harold Ellens's three-volume anthology, due out shortly at Greenwood Press, "Where God and Science Meet: How Brain and Evolutionary Studies Alter Our Understanding of Religion," the opening chapter of which is "The Evolutionary Psychology of Religion," by Dennett's intellectual ally Steven Pinker. I could fill a page with similar examples of work in progress. "The God Gene" has even made it to the cover of Time magazine.

Second, though Dennett pays lip service to the need for Darwinian theorists of religion to acquaint themselves with actual religion as patiently as Darwin acquainted himself with actual animal breeding, in practice he rarely does so. He defines religion, for example, in a parochially Western way as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." A religion without gods, he adds, is "like a vertebrate without a backbone." But this is a definition that does not begin to cope with Buddhism, a religious tradition that seeks not divine approval but an enlightenment that Pankaj Mishra has aptly characterized as "direct knowledge of the unstable and conditioned nature of the mind and the body." Dennett waves off the Buddhist exception to his rule as a temporary inconvenience to be addressed by later research.

Later, when he asserts, "There was a time not so very long ago by evolutionary standards when there was no religion on this planet," one wants to ask, "Oh? And for approximately how long did this period last? How long did Homo sapiens exist as a species before the first appearance of religion, defined as you define it?" How can we possibly know that religion in some form is not simply coeval with the human brain itself? And yet assuming otherwise is crucial to Dennett's dream of a return to a golden age of secularism, if not also to his dream of restating evolutionary psychology as "meme-talk."

"Breaking the Spell" puts this reader in mind of a night at the Jazz Bakery in Los Angeles when, it is said, somebody slipped the drummer Joe La Barbara a note saying that the famous British jazz critic Leonard Feather had arrived. "Oh, goood," La Barbara said. "Now we can begin." Daniel Dennett is to the scientific study of religion what Leonard Feather was to that night at the Bakery: He has a great deal to say, and his opinions are always worth hearing, but the band has been smokin' longer than he seems to realize.

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