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Two views on “Science vs. Religion”

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Dan Dennett has a new book out, basically arguing (from what I can gather) that in our hyper-web-informed world, it will be harder and harder for people to continue to have religious beliefs – “It takes twenty years to grow a Baptist and twenty minutes to lose one.” There is an interview with Dennett here, and it closes with an interesting admission on Dennett’s part:

I think that over the centuries, one of the great things that churches of all varieties and religious groups have been able to do is to give people lives of importance, and provide love for people that otherwise don’t get love, along with a sense of community and belonging. This is extraordinarily valuable and important. And the state isn’t going to do it, and many other sorts of organizations seem incapable or unwilling to try. And I do think we want to preserve and enhance that function in society.

I think that’s the one function of religions that I would most want to see fostered and protected. How you can do that, and whether you can do that, with a frank acknowledgment of the mythic character of their creeds? I’m not sure it can be done, but I hope it can.

Secondly, there is an interesting essay by James Shannam arguing that the “conflict” between religion and science is not as stark as it is often presented as being, and that religion and scientific inquiry can, have, and should go hand in hand. Shannam has a book on how the medieval world laid the foundations of modern science. An excerpt from the essay:

Full-on confrontations between science and religion are reasonably rare. Even when such encounters occur, they are usually arguments between co-religionists with shared concerns about how new discoveries affect faith. We find this during the debate that followed the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species where Christians such as Asa Gray defended both the theory of evolution and Christianity’s accommodation with it. Another cause of confusion is when people seeking to attack religion seek to co-opt science onto their side. For instance, whether one is pro-life or not has nothing to do with science, but is often portrayed as such. Concerns about experiments on stem cells also arise from ethics.

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5 Comments

  1. Al says:

    “All you have to do is listen to David Attenborough or Carl Sagan or other brilliant expositors of science to see just how jaw-droppingly beautiful the world is.”

    What if they are describing the lives of your tapeworms?

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  2. Al says:

    I wonder that Dennett simultaneously champions the Internet as a new form of “epistemological pressure” while calling mythology “cheap comic book fare” in comparison to new scientific discoveries.

    First, he makes this New Atheist fallacy of casting out literature as a knee-jerk reaction to hardcore Creationists. Does he mean that, say, the crash of Phaethon in Ovid is less “beautiful” than Carl Sagan going on about the Sun’s eventual death? Uh…why? Isn’t the former about fathers and sons, tyrants and poets – that sort of thing – while the latter’s about the Sun? How does he qualify “beauty” using scientific naturalism anyway? I’m confused.

    Ramifications here beyond battling creationists. I wish Dennett would explicitly defend myth and poetry (I know he wants to) rather than throwing all of it out with creationist textbooks. But like N.Tyson, he doesn’t seem to want to actually read myth so much as attack it for the sake of publicity in a war.

    (Let’s note that the metaphysical core of New Atheism is the Prime Mover: Amazon Prime, which Moves books rights into the hands of a great market.)

    Second, what’s all this about some new wave of intelligence coming out of the world wide web? Expose people to the Internet and they will lose their belief in religion? Give people Comcast and they start glowing with a glimmery sheen of Enlightenment – right there on their chairs. Jump on Firefox and you grow grey curls out of the tops of your head and slowly morph into Isaac Newton. No, Dr. Dennett, I object that the invention of the Internet is, in fact, mainly a tool for playing that game with the little farms while on the pot.

    If anything, the exposure to so much bad information on the web could drive people toward silly religions that deal with the problem of alienation without any depth, away from any real meditation on great religious texts that may or may not lead to an informed atheism or theism (we don’t have the patience for that anymore thanks to the web).

    This might verify that the problem the Bible was trying to deal with in the first place is still around: a multiplicity of views, a relation of man to nature, an ethical dilemma with its basic root in man’s soul. How does a barrage of Internet information change any of that stuff? Seems to me our age of mass marketed information and psychotic academic journalizing is far more “cheap comic book fare” than volumes of lore from thousands of years ago, filled with deeper and more contemporary problems than atheists want to see in them. You’re better off with flaming chariots than the flaming encylopedia of Miley Cyrus that is the Internet.

    Third, let’s pit Dennett against Pascal. One thing being overlooked in Dennett’s sort of argument is the place of skepticism in belief. The endless expanse of the Universe and all its majesty – which Dennett calls beautiful – was a source of faith for Pascal. Increasing skepticism to a certain point can reaffirm Biblical faith, a faith anchored in the fact that men are not able to gain total knowledge of the transcendent. The world’s boiling cauldron of seething, conflicted wills as encountered on the Internet might drive someone closer to the epistemological skepticism required to refresh a fundamentalist belief in God, not enlighten. Let’s not mention how Pascal deals with boredom and the Internet.

    And last but not least, all the New Atheists just need to read Schopenhauer, for God’s sake. Since when is Nature so damned *pretty*? The great dispellers of illusions have a nice one here. Rich white men seem to have the idea that the nature channel is real life – and it’s all so cute and fluffy! Yuck!

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  3. Huenemann says:

    Excellent, Tarbet! The best response I’ve seen yet, by far!

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  4. Cam says:

    A very well written response, Alex, though I fear that outside your circle of philosophically minded peers such responses will inevitably fall on deaf ears. True, healthy skepticism has been replaced in our society by emotion-based adherence and uncritical suspicion of “the other.” While this is one of the more irenic pieces he has written, Dennett’s approach in this article is characteristic of his other works. He hastily criticizes that of which he has little or no expertise simply because it lies outside of his ideological framework, yet his own perspectives are not subject to the same level of scrutiny.

    P.S. Schopenhauer looks like Scrooge McDuck.

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  5. Al says:

    Oh, I’m really just parroting Kleiner. But I’m not sure a circle of “philosophically minded peers” is the answer to society’s suspicion either, Cam. Whatever philosophy has become, people are right to be suspicious about “the semanticist paradigm of context, precapitalist modernist theory and nationalism” or whatever other linguistic monsters emerge from our big contest for funding. Peer-reviewed academic articles resemble a gaggle of peacocks with intricately designed feathers, but the pond smells like duck shit. You can only squeeze so much out of a keyboard. The old problem of the Gorgias is still around: a group of “philosophically-minded peers” in some way needs its Dennetts.

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