Religion and Relationship


 Daniel Dennett is a philosopher, one of a small number of strident voices that are known as “new atheists.”  While the excitement over their recent fulminations has died down, the significance of what they said is still receiving comment and has stimulated reactions which deserve comment in their own right.  I would like to enter this conversation.

 In his 2007 volume Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Dennett proposes to examine religion from a scientific reductionist point of view.  “Examine,” is not as neutral a word as it may appear.  For he asks, “what explains the continued existence of an institution which simply has no right to the privileged place afforded it by society.”  The implication is that an “examination” will quickly reveal that the “emperor has no clothes.”  Religion, he suggests, is a major source of the self-inflicted suffering borne by the human species, and its excision will do more for our well-being than we can imagine.  He explicitly limits “religion” to the mainstream social phenomenon.  He is loaded for institutional bear.  His is not an exploration of ideas; it is a foray into social criticism and reform.

 He expressly calls himself a scientific reductionist.  That can mean different things.  The one most assume is the classic form.  By classic reductionism I understand that the explanation of why things are the way they are — i.e., their very intelligibility as here-and-now existents, not just their provenance and material substructure — is due exclusively to the physical substrate and its most primitive processes which are the interactions of a matter that is inert and passive.  All perceptions of “life” or “mind” beyond that are simply illusions.  I call this kind of reductionism, mechanistic.  And I disagree with it. 

In an evolving universe, a mechanistic reductionism based on a view of matter as inert, misinterprets the significance of present reality.  This is particularly salient in the case of the human organism.  Mechanistic reductionism ignores the unique reality and authentic destiny of what has emerged as human.  Scientifically speaking, it proceeds as if emergence were not a fact of biological evolution.[1]  If this is what Dennett means, it would be strange.  Even scientists these days tend not to be reductionists.  They concede that emergent forms should be studied by separate disciplines which have premises and methodologies of their own.  Psychology, sociology, anthropology and a host of other human sciences would have no departments in a reductionist university.

 But there is another kind of reductionism.  Starting with a view of matter as a living dynamism with a potential for self-transcendence, all emergent forms can be understood as the progressive elaborations of increasingly complex and metaphysically significant material interactions.  This kind of reductionism, which I hold, while it may describe the same interactions, stands at an equal distance from mechanistic reductionism and metaphysical dualism.

 Those who oppose classic mechanistic reductionism usually do so on the basis of a metaphysical dualism, i.e., they claim that there exists a separate kind of entity traditionally known as “spirit” which is absolutely immaterial … contrary and opposed to matter in every way except, apparently, in its ability to control and direct matter.  It implies the existence of a whole other world.  I believe that both these positions — metaphysical dualism and mechanistic reductionism — share a vision: that matter is inert and mechanical.  With such premises, the universe is either a huge clock-like machine, or the specifically human must be due to “something else” that is not part of this world.  In my opinion, it is a battle between two myopic Magoos, each one reacting to the false punches of the other, and both flailing the air.  

 What Dennett finds offensive — and rightly so, in my opinion — is the imaginary existence of another world.  But in the rush to deny the dualists recourse to “spirit,” reductionists often end up rejecting those specifically human facts that “spirit” supposedly explained, and therefore they miss the biological significance of what matter has evolved.  Dennett tries to describe human consciousness as it is.  He offers a “belief” that its explanation lies within the parameters of matter itself.  There are mechanisms that are responsible for emergence.  If I understand him correctly, I agree.  But I would only emphasize … there is emergence.  Emergence is not an illusion.

Emergence occurs because matter is a living dynamism with the ability to transcend itself.  Not only has matter evolved biologically more efficient forms, but it has evolved them with features that transcend its own primitive processes without in any way calling upon another “substance” or “kind of entity” to do so.  There is no spirit.  And yet the human organism’s intrinsic biological structure has acquired dimensions that transcend that of all other organisms. It is this transcendence that belies reductionism. This is emergence.

 Interpersonal sociality

 Specifically, in the case of humanity we observe the evolutionary emergence of “interpersonal relationality.”  This uniquely human feature has become an essential — by which I mean “hard-wired,” organismic — element of the human presence-in-the-world.  Even though built on primitive bio-chemical foundations, human existence and human survival depends upon a sociality that is sui generis.  It is not reducible to earlier forms.  This may be where Dennett’s “reductionism” and I part company.

 Human relationality illustrates what the word emergence means in evolutionary science.  Evolution creates new structures, mechanisms and processes that correlate to new biological forms developed over eons of time.  It is exclusively the work of matterIt has resulted in humanity as we know it.  To be a human being is to be socially connected to other self-conscious, intelligent human beings in such a necessary way that were those valences to disappear, the human organism, qua organism, would disintegrate.  This is a proven psycho-physiological fact.  The human individual cannot survive in isolation. 

 Let’s explore this. There is no denying the primitive survival origins of human sociality. It goes back well before the appearance of primates or even mammals.  In insects it evolved independently but so effectively that it suggests that communitarianism corresponds to something essential in very structure of organic matter. Collectivities survive where individuals cannot. Hence those individuals with genes that favored grouping survived better and were more likely to achieve “reproductive success.” Group selection for sociality shaped the human genome, and has driven the development of language-based intelligence as well.

 Sociality is clearly the dominant theme in all primatologists’ studies. In 1992 they found that it had a biological foundation.  Neurologists at the University of Parma discovered the existence of “mirror neurons” in primates’ brains that specialize in understanding the “intentional stance” or “mind” of others.[2]  It is a “hard-wired” feature of the organism. 

 Dennett lays a primitive foundation for relationship by deriving it from the perception of intentionality among autonomous agents across the entire spectrum of biological life, even the microscopic.  I agree with this scenario.  He says that, even at the level of protozoan life, suspecting that some object has intentions which may be fatal (“that thing wants to eat me”), gives rise to an intentional stance in living organisms in which imagination (projection of the mind of another) must come into play in some form.  This intentional stance (also called “theory of mind”) is the primitive source of all relationship.  Mirror neurons are this instinct in its (up to now) most evolved form.

 Humans also possess mirror neurons.  Human sociality empowered by mirror neurons is the context for the self-identification of the individual human being as an intelligent autonomous agent within human society. The very thing that makes us human persons, is interaction within the human community made possible by the biological base. The human organism is hard-wired for relationship. 

But there’s more. This human relationality is heuristic.  It guides.  It defines the provisions that the human organism makes for its survival.  People cannot survive without interpersonal relationships, and not only to satisfy primitive biological needs.  It has made family life, not just biological reproduction, the center of human life.  Biologically “superfluous” sociality — relationship — has been our defining characteristic as far back as we have records of our presence on this planet.  It is what we do under the sun.

 All this is by way of understanding religion as a social phenomenon.

Religion as a derivative of human sociality

 Dennett seems to be uninterested in the social dimension of human nature, except for its survival utility to the individual organism.  It is a fall-out of his biological reductionism; it is not faithful to human social reality. Hence he does not notice the most obvious explanation for “religion as a natural phenomenon.”  Religion is the attempt to establish a personal relationship to the perceived “source” of human existence.  Dennett asks, what explains the utterly wasteful expenditure of time and energy called “religion”?  It a question only a reductionist could ask.  What we “like” for “no apparent reason” (like one another, or our “source”), may re-activate an ancient survival strategy; but Dennett tries to reduce everything to that strategy, as if our human need for personal relationship were a superfluous pastime. 

We cannot disregard what our bodies have become.  Human sociality is no longer only what gave it rise. It is no longer simply a biological survival me­cha­nism in all respects comparable to the aggregations of social amoebas. The dependency on interpersonal relationship is what our biological foundations have extruded from their own inner depths and brought into the light of day.  It is something new under the sun; and yet it is totally biological.  It illustrates matter’s creative power it’s true potentia.  It opens a window on what the material universe truly is. It reveals dualism to be an unnecessary redundancy, and Dennett a materialist with myopia.  Neither system shows much insight into the true depths of matter. 

 Please observe: Religion is an exclusive feature of the evolved human organism.  Not even our cousins, the apes, share it.  If it were a simple biological mechanism, why not?  … because religion is a social phenomenon that corresponds to the human relational dimension.  Cui bono? … who benefits? … the human social organism in its evolved state.

Now someone may counter … we have a “source,” obviously, but is that “source” necessarily “God,” and must we necessarily have religion?  If by “God” you mean what “everyone” means by “God,” I say no, it is not.  But that we depend on a “source” is undeniable.  We know it as material energy.  And the fact that earlier, pre-scientific humans would spontaneously attribute their own personal characteristics to it as to a “parent” — generating rituals and mythic narratives to connect with it — is not only understandable, it was inevitable.  The origins of folk religion as a natural phenomenon is a no-brainer.  It hardly requires 300 pages of convoluted biological justification for its explanation … unless you’re a reductionist. 

We cannot begin as atheists, because we necessarily begin as members of an interpersonal society.  Atheism must come later.  We don’t need to explain why early humankind assumed all things were alive and intentional  — which seems to be the task Dennett assigns himself — what we need to explain is how we finally came to believe that a large portion of the matrix that sustains us is not alive and not intentional.  In the context of the long history of human presence on earth, it is not religion that needs to be explained, it is Dennett’s brand of atheism.  Folk religion is the attempt to establish an “interpersonal relationship” with the “source” of existence … with everything that that implies … from assistance in survival to the mirroring that confirms selfhood … just like life in family and clan.  Religion is an expression of sociality; and sociality is an innate part of human nature.

That does not make religion necessary; but it does make it a natural phenomenon.

 Religion also evolves

Dennett not only tries to imagine the folk origins of religion, he defines all religion exclusively in terms of those primitive origins.  But  like everything else, relationships evolve.  As an adult, my relationship to my parents changed radically from what it had been when I was an infant.  Religion is a relationship.  It necessarily began in earlier times as an imaginary projection extrapolated from human interpersonal relationship.  But if allowed to be re-interpreted in the light of current scientific knowledge, religion will necessarily evolve into something quite different.  As I become aware, for example, that there is no “world of spirits,” no “divine providence,” no “intelligent designer,” no “moral lawgiver, monitor and whip,” no “original sin,” nor loss of immortality or bodily integrity, and no “gods” that walked among us … and as I realize that matter-energy is a living dynamism that has drawn out from its own inner depths every last fact, form and feature of this astonishing universe … my relationship to the “source” changes.  It changes so much that the word “god,” because of its former humanoid associations, is no longer appropriate.  The relationship to the “source” matures under the guiding hand of science and thought, not unlike the way childhood relationships mature under the guiding hand of adult experience.  But, unless someone can prove that my relationship to the “source” cannot mature without disappearing, the relationship remains because I am always the product of what sustains my presence-in-the-world.  I am always a material organism dependent on my material matrix for my existence and my abilities — that I am and what I am.   The relationship evolves.  Dennett should understand that. He is a great believer in cultural evolution.

 But will it still be a “relationship”?   We will explore this question more fully at another time: … does the “source” of existence display enough intentionality, enough subjectivity, to justify a relationship which has traditionally been assumed to be humanoid and managed by religion?  Is it even possible that there be a subjectivity that is not human, and so universal and devoid of self that it appears to us as an impersonal force?  Can a subjectivity be inferred without being either identified, localized, specified or defined?  Can the relationship to such a subjectivity be non-rational, even non-dialogic i.e. unilaterally receptive?  Clearly these kinds of questions, even if answered in the affirmative, do not anticipate the retention of the anthropomorphisms of traditional “religion.”  And yet they suggest that intentionality (subjectivity) also characterizes the “source,” material energy.  This may come down to asking … if intentionality exists among all living organisms, as Dennett claims, then what is its source if not material energy itself?

 This procedure would represent an attempt to put into practice what Catholic theologian John Haught proposed at one time. He said evolution should not only be accepted by believers, it should shape and inform theology and guide its development. I applaud the sentiment.  But he does not follow his own counsel.  In his determination to defend “religion,” Haught seems to consider that the metaphors of naïve biblical theism are the appropriate language for dialog. He is also careful not to appear to directly challenge dogmatic absurdities like “Original Sin” and “Papal infallibility,” even though the doctrines are so theologically untenable and humanly damaging that they should be denounced and renounced.  He will not do that.  Does this betray an institutional captivity … or a crypto-fundamentalism?  Twelve years ago, another well-known Catholic theologian told me personally that he did not believe in the divinity of Christ, “but how do I say that”?  This intellectual dishonesty confirms the new atheists in their judgment that religion is a delusion if not an hypocrisy that is destroying us.  Put it all together and you realize that there is a fatal collusion going on here.  Both parties to this conversation seem determined to prevent religion from evolving.  

 Dennett’s goal is not the evolution of religion but its demise.  And to that end, it is not in his interest to deal with a more mature version.  There’s no denying that the infantile form is the way we find it in the real world.  But by not acknowledging that there are evolved “theologies,” Dennett refuses to support the very development that would neutralize the most negative aspects of religion. He may claim it’s not his responsibility. He’s right, of course. It’s the theologian’s job to find ways to release the human energy now futilely absorbed in clinging to self-destructive religious traditions. 

 We are frustrated by the “partisans of God” who seem incapable of conceptualizing religion as anything but an illusory relationship to a humanoid parental specter that doesn’t exist.  But I also have to ask, why can’t a “philosopher” find some higher ground than biological reductionism for assessing religion?  We are sandwiched between two patterns of thought each of which is determined to lock us into a dysfunctional understanding of our “source” and therefore a distorted view of what relationship to that source could be … and what human energies a mature relationship might liberate.

 The attack on fundamentalism and literalism in religion should have been launched long ago from within the religions themselves.  It was not; and there is no indication it will ever be.  So it falls to the rest of us.  The outrage of the “new atheists” is totally justified.  If they challenge an infantile, humanly destructive version of religion, it is because that is what is still out there, tolerated if not abetted through the centuries by religious authorities and their well-paid apologists.

 Tony Equale


[1] (from “emergence” Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD):  Emergence, in evolutionary theory, means the rise of a system that can­not be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions.  … The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared: (1) the origin of life; (2) the origin of nucleus-bearing protozoa [eukaryotes]; (3) the origin of sexually reproducing forms, with an individual destiny lacking in cells that reproduce by fission; (4) the rise of sentient animals, with nervous systems and protobrains; and (5) the appearance of cogitative animals, namely humans. Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle. These are thus cases of emergence.

 , The Age of Empathy, NY Harmony, 2009, p.79.