OF CARICATURES AND CURATORS: Daniel Dennett’s “new atheism” (II)
1. The caricature
In the very beginning of Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett announces that he will limit his “examination” of religion to the ordinary anthropomorphic theism as practiced by the traditional ecclesiastical organizations. For those familiar with other ideas about “God,” it feels like a caricature, the proverbial “straw man,” easy to burn at the stake. The tactic exposes him to the accusation that his “study” is really just a replay of the old anti-religious ”attitude” given fresh demand by the events of 9/11 and the aftermath. The title itself reveals his thesis: religion has cast a spell on us, and it needs to be broken.
The idea of “God,” for many, has evolved beyond its traditional forms. By professing to ignore what these people think, Dennett is being inconsistent, and it seems, prejudicial. In his philosophical work he emphasizes the evolution of culture, but when it comes to religion he is strangely not interested in how it may evolve, only its demise. By the end of Part II, in the Chapter entitled “Belief in Belief” he at least makes an effort at a cursory response to some of these more evolved ideas of “God,” — “refuting” them, of course — including that of Baruch Spinoza, to which he appears somewhat sympathetic but insists on calling “atheism.” But more of that later.
On the other hand, caricaturish though it may be from a theological point of view, mainstream religion in fact promotes exactly what Dennett takes aim at: a grossly anthropomorphic, literalist and primitive imagery that is at odds with the conclusions of science and even common sense. Believers may validly challenge Dennett’s straw man as a caricature of religious possibilities, but they cannot deny that it accurately represents the attitudes and assumptions of 90% of mainstream religion — and I am not talking only about fundamentalism.
However muted his manner, it’s clear that Dennett is an angry man. Let’s assume, then, that this means his interest is actually in social reform. If that is true, then we are in a different tribunal altogether. It is no longer the “case against God” that we are dealing with, rather it is the case against the current version of religion. But the institution whose danger to the common good is due to an archaic notion of “God,” does not need to die but to evolve. If Dennett were to apply himself to that task, however, he leaves his best tools at home if he doesn’t ally himself with the other people who share his goal, and that includes many “theologians.” After all, it’s not “God” that created religion, but religion that created “God;” and religion must now deal with what it has created in the light of the discoveries of science and the recrudescence of an intolerable sectarian violence. Atheists are not the only ones who call the traditional anthropomorphic “God” an absurd, untenable and dangerous projection. What needs to be examined and criticized in this case, are the social-institutional factors — the politics and the people as well as the theology they espouse — that are preventing the idea of “God” from evolving.
2. The curators
The persistence of a traditionalist, and scientifically incompatible religious world-view which Dennett so rightly attacks, is not just tolerated but encouraged and exploited by the authorities of the mainstream religions. It has ever been so. They are like the curators in a museum. Religion for them is the reservoir of (marketable) traditions, not a living instrument of human engagement and creativity. In my opinion it reveals their inveterate venality. Religion, whatever else it may be, is a business. That fact suggests why these corporate managers and their paid consultants refuse to challenge the doctrines of traditional religion no matter how absurd they may be; it is the source of their careers and livelihood. It is almost laughable to hear them dismiss Dennett because he does not take on the more evolved versions of religious thought, when they themselves do nothing to promote them in the real world. Elements of their own ancient traditions that in the past offered an alternative were routinely suppressed or marginated. In fact the common imagery about “God” has not changed much in 2500 years, making the Book of Job, for example, as relevant a read today as it was the day it was written. In practice, in the real world, more advanced theologies are a minority report — wishful thinking — presented by academics whose efforts are controlled by arch-conservative authorities. At best these professors may explain and suggest; but generally they challenge nothing, they risk nothing. They are careful always to remain in the good graces of the authorities who make their careers possible. The few who have stated the truth as they see it despite their opposition to the status quo, like Roger Haight, Charles Curran, Tissa Balasuriya, have paid the price with their careers.
Dennett et al., in my opinion, are tackling a job that the theologians should have been doing all along. Since the “new atheists” are not theologians, the way they speak about these matters may leave something to be desired. But at least they are confronting the issue. It’s about time somebody did.
3. Religion is poetry
Religion is the translation of the mystery of the material universe and its transcendent creative dynamism into poetic symbol. The events and facts that religion speaks of are metaphors. Metaphors are not facts; they are evocative symbols. Poetry, and hence religion, performs an important function in human life: it concretizes meaning in symbolic form giving it focus and force. This is the whole story; there is nothing more.
The metaphoric dimension in religious doctrine — its significance and motivational potential — has always been its principle feature, even when it was taken as literal fact. The horrors produced by religion, which the new atheists rightly condemn, are universally attributable to taking doctrine as literal fact. To define religion as poetry is not really all that revolutionary. Our best teachers have always encouraged us to look for the significance behind the doctrine; doctrine’s only importance was what it meant for us.
Poetry plays an essential role in human life, but it does not describe physical, factual, historical reality. Let me state unequivocally: there was no Intelligent Designer who created the universe by personal fiat, no Eden, no original sin, no loss of original immortality or bodily integrity; Jesus’ death did not “buy us back” from captivity to Satan, nor “save” us from an insulted “God’s” implacable wrath; “God” did not write the Bible; there was no “virgin birth;” Jesus was not “God” in any usual sense of the word; he worked wonders but not miracles; his “spirit” lives among his followers, but he did not physically rise from the dead; the wine at mass is not the blood of Christ and the popes are not infallible. Many of us have already come to terms with these issues and many others.
Yet all of these “doctrines,” taken poetically and mined for their significance in a culture that has “floated its boat” on them for more than a thousand years, can have a role in our lives as symbols. But they need not be the only ones, and they need to be re-appraised. Poetry also evolves, Let’s explore this.
Symbols, metaphors, explain, evoke and energize. They are songs, legends, epics, flags, buttons, banners, war-cries, t-shirts, bumper stickers — they take many forms. They have deep significance; they speak to realities that are important to human relationships, but they are not facts. They are human works of art, the vehicles of meaning, intentionality. They are signs that provide an interpretation of what would otherwise be humanly meaningless data, equations, formulas, facts. They are for use on the plane of interpersonal relationship where human beings struggle to survive, have their families and friendships, commit themselves to life … and prepare themselves to die. Symbols take the mathematics of physics, chemistry, biology and organismic anatomy and put it into human language . Religion is a narrative layer on a physiological base … a stony planet’s breathable atmosphere in which we survive as humans, with love, commitment and a sense of awe. It’s not that religion has programmed us to want these things, it is the other way around. We want these things, and so we have spun for ourselves a narrative that evokes them; we have created religion and a “God” that makes it all work. Religion and its “God” is our narrative. It is the product of human culture. We cannot live without it in some form or another because we do not want to live without love, commitment and awe. Dennett himself, even as he trashes religion, searches for reasons to justify freedom, responsibility, love, commitment and respect for the earth. Of course. He’s as human as the rest of us. It’s what we do under the sun.
Because they are not facts, religious narratives are rightly called myths. But since myth refers to something that never happened or never existed, for some people it means simply “fictional” as opposed to factual, and therefore false and not true. “False” is a recent connotation in the history of this very ancient word. “Myth“ came originally from the Greeks who used it to refer to the stories of the gods which explained the meaning of life. Historia, another Greek word, tells the story of human events: what happened; myth was the story of why. Myth is not history. Symbol is not scientific fact. I include all this under the general category of poetic metaphor.
There are different planes of existence. That is not just a literary observation or poetic insight. It is a biological fact. It derives from evolutionary emergence. Each level of existence builds on the one before it, and incorporates the earlier features even while transcending them all and establishing a new level of function never seen before. The new level of function then takes the lead; it guides and directs, but it always remains biological. It assumes a role Dennett calls heuristic. The human organism is a new thing under the sun. No other organism can do what it does. It harnesses its bio-physical substrate to serve its needs, but it drives that substrate in new directions never before imagined.
4. Interpersonal relationship
In the case of humanity, the level of emergence that is specifically human has given rise to a type of relationship among us that we call interpersonal. Relationship is not unique to human beings, although the “interpersonal” way that we relate is.
The biological base on which interpersonal relationships are built is comprised of particles, properties and processes that, in their turn eons and eons earlier, had brought forth from the primitively physical, the chemical and then the biological. At each macro-level of emergence, new features and functions appeared that had never existed before. These emergent features in each case were heuristic — they began to guide the process thereafter, but always hand-in-hand with their substrate, immediate and remote. Emergence is a product of evolution; it is not a new creation ex nihilo. Later versions emerge from earlier versions the way an oak tree emerges from an acorn. To an acorn, an oak tree is not something “new.”
Interpersonal relationship is a feature of human emergence. It is built on animal sociality and the survival advantages of group living, but it goes far beyond them. Interpersonal relationship recapitulates the intentional stance which, according to Dennett, is responsible for human consciousness itself. For humans, the intentional stance includes the recognition of recognition, both in the other and in myself. Interpersonal relationship is what we humans do. It is what makes it possible for us to identify ourselves and survive as human beings.
Interpersonal. Can we unpack that word a little?
We have traditionally distinguished persons from every other kind of organismic individual that we know — plants, animals, insects, fungi, protists. Even some of the higher animals, with whom we may have intimate and affectionate relationships — our pets and farm animals — who reveal an unmistakable individual quality we call “personality,” we nevertheless are very careful not to call “persons.” The word “person” we reserve for human beings alone. Why?
I will venture an answer. We call “persons” those living individuals in whom we unmistakably see ourselves. We see our special way of assuming an intentional stance (recognition) toward other things around us and our unique way of choosing among possible options without the coercions of instinct or necessity. Animals, even our close friends, don’t seem to be able to do that. Sometimes we envy them.
If all we had were relationships with the animals, like Tarzan, we would be perplexed about ourselves indeed. We would think there was something wrong with us. “Why am I so unfocused … so drawn to multiple possibilities, so unable to decide? My friends, the animals, seem to know exactly what to do in every circumstance … and even if it turns out not to be the most effective, they never second guess themselves. What’s wrong with me?”
Once in human community, however, our confusion about ourselves evaporates like the morning mist. We are validated when we encounter other human beings, with a bodies like ours, who also recognize, wait, think, have options, vacillate. The “other” reinforces my sense of my own reality. This other is just like me! … Nasco! I am born! This is the existential import of interpersonal relationships and the organic foundation of human sociality, and from there the collaborative project we call culture. The human being is born as human in society. Society is not a product of the individual; the individual is a product of society.
5. Relationship and religion
Religion, then, in this scheme would be the natural human application of the intentional stance to the broader context of the source of our being and life. Like all relationships, it is a human narrative. All these terms and categories, by the way, for those who are not familiar with his work, are Dennett’s. What seems strange to me is that he doesn’t apply them himself in the case of religion, and instead judges religion from the point of view of a “greedy reductionism” (another term of his) i.e., biological needs that in all other cases of human culture he rejects as non-heuristic. For Dennett, consciousness, the self, personhood, freedom are all real emergent functions of the human organism produced under the guidance of the intentional stance. They are created by human narrative: the recognition and protection of recognition. Religion, I claim, extends that recognition to the “source” of all things. Why aren’t the projections of religion examples of the intentional stance for Dennett? Well, they are, he says, on p.109ff., and then characterizes intentionality (uncharacteristically) as primitively biological. I am baffled. He can’t seriously think that religion is “explained” by our biological needs? (In that case, the apes would also have religion.) And yet it seems that is exactly what he tries to show … as if to explain away religion’s human significance.
The evolution of relationships
Human presence in the world is the product of a long interpersonal relationship of child to parent. This is necessarily so because the human organism requires many years of protective nurturing before survival independence is possible. The childhood self-identity that emerges from the relationship to parents creates a spontaneous “parental” assumption about the source of being and life for all things. That is the “religious narrative” in a nutshell.
However, it does not describe what may be functioning at the biological, or chemical-physical level. If at one time we thought it did, it was an understandable mistake. Religion resides at the level of the intentional stance, the interpersonal relationship — the plane where we live. That is the plane of poetic metaphor. It is what our relationship to our “source” means in human terms — “parent.” But the original projection that our source is literally a “parent” evolves.
The evolution of relationships is a process we are quite familiar with. As we grow out of dependence on parents for survival, we also grow out of the childhood identity — the erstwhile self — that was created and maintained in that family context. Dependence cedes to an assumption of responsibility that makes our relationship to ourselves and our parents evolve. The narrative changes. It turns what was once taken as literal into metaphor. Parental titles remain as symbols of respect, but these people are “mother” and “father” no longer.
“Growing up” means accepting responsibility for one’s own survival in society-as-it-is. Maturity implies submitting to the way our particular economic system functions and finding some way to fit into it. Our religious narrative must evolve analogously. The distaste many feel for the “impersonal” dynamics — random variation and natural selection — that characterize evolution, is similar to the resistance of the young adult to leave home and “get a job.” “Fitting into” a self-evolving material system designed by bio-chemistry and quantum mechanics is not exactly what 15 or 20 years of childhood in a human family prepared us for. Bio-chemical physicality is the ground that our human family life emerged from and by which it continues to be sustained. Cosmic matter is our source and energy. It does not cease being our “source” nor do we cease being its “offspring” just because our “self” was constructed of a later “parental” narrative. Christmas doesn’t disappear when we discover there is no Santa Claus … in fact, it does not really become “Christmas,” in the best sense of that word, until Santa disappears and baby Jesus becomes poetry.
Part of “growing up” involves re-perceiving the role and reality of our parents. They are no longer our providers. They can no longer be considered “all-knowing” and tolerate whatever whims may suit our fancy. For maturity to fully occur, parents must come to be seen as “ordinary human beings,” with their own needs, limits and the same shortsightedness that affects every individual. We must see that they are no longer “all and only for us.” But that doesn’t destroy the relationship or create a new one. Rather the relationship evolves. Optimally it morphs from co-dependence into friendship.
Religion must mature in a similar way. The projections and expectations of “providential” divine protection must come to be re-perceived for what they are: childhood fantasies. To become adults in our appreciation of the Sacred … to move from pabulum to solid food … is to accept our Sacred Source for what we actually know it to be, not what the infantile fantasies of a primitive pre-scientific people imagined … much less the self-divinizing projections of an omnivorous theocratic empire. It means adjusting to the facts. We may not like it, but we have to grow up, or we will forever feel like orphans on the earth, bewildered by a material matrix that seems utterly alien to our human ways, even though it gave us birth.
It is not accidental that I have used Dennett’s own vocabulary and imagery throughout this meditation. I find his way of avoiding “greedy reductionism” while describing human realities as an intentional layer created by narrative that “floats” on a sea of bio-chemical physicality, to be extremely helpful in imagining the emergence and reality of consciousness, selfhood, interpersonal relationships and individual freedom that we cherish so highly. In his system these realities are not illusions, even while they are grounded solely in the workings of material energy. He rejects looking for some other factual source — like a spiritual soul — to explain human behavior beyond the bio-chemical physical base that we know is all that is there.
And just as he says we have an absolute right to “cherish” and “protect” the realities, like freedom, consciousness and personal responsibility — generated by our evolving narratives — which ultimately came to be “hard-wired” to the human organism, I say we have the right to cherish the narratives we use to express our necessary relationship to the creative source of our organisms and life, the material energy of which we are made. Why Dennett suddenly abandons his own understanding of narrative intentionality in order to dismiss “religion” in all its forms absolutely bewilders me. The only explanation for this inconsistency that I can think of is that he unduly limited himself to religion’s current infantile version at the start. But religion is not necessarily tied to its primitive fantasies of parent-like “gods,” or to the Platonic-Cartesian illusions of an imaginary world of spirit. He convinced himself that his straw man was all that religion could ever be — a dead man walking — unable to evolve. You can’t prod this kind of religion to change, it’s a zombie. He should attack it and we should all join him in the effort. But we must acknowledge that his “reductionist” approach is inadequate. The irony is that he has elaborated very creative tools for the interpretation of human realities. He needs to use those tools to help religion evolve, not clamor for its disappearance (a project of doubtful possibility, at any rate). We are definitely better off without religion the way it is, in my opinion, but we will be severely impoverished if we deny ourselves use of the narratives, the metaphors old and new, that help us live with love, commitment and awe: religion the way it should be.
We cherish ourselves, and the life we have as humans. No one can deny us our love of life and the people that fill it, our friends and family, and our way of seeing and cherishing one another. By the same token no one can deny us the right to cherish the source that we can clearly see made all this possible: the material energy of this astonishing universe … the quarks, gluons, electrons and neutrinos from which everything evolved.
Dennett notes that Spinoza identified God and Nature, and asks, “was he personifying nature, or depersonalizing God”? Anyone familiar with Spinoza will know that he imputed no human qualities to God whatsoever. He had to “depersonalize” God, because the only “persons” we know are human. And apparently the only “God” that Dennett will permit is the humanoid version. It follows then, everything else for him is “atheist.” Pardon me if I find this superficial coming from a “philosopher.” He seems not to know Spinoza … nor the scholastic categories from which Spinoza drew his austere vision. Dennett has every right, in my opinion, to challenge the use of the word and concept “God” as hopelessly corrupted by the anthropomorphisms of millennia of benighted believers and venal hierarchies. But he does not have the right to deny us the use of the poetic symbols and metaphors of our choice to celebrate our relationship to our source: the material energy of this cosmos where we “live and move and have our being.”
“The world,” says Dennett, “is sacred.” Ah yes, he noticed, too. If so, then he shouldn’t be surprised if someone sings about it. That’s all religion is … or should be. Anything else is fantasy.
Contemplating the stunning sweep of cosmic history which brought us forth as from a seed — our very bodies after all, are nothing but these particles and their irrepressible energy in an evolved form — it is understandable that a cascade of effusive metaphors might spontaneously erupt: “… Mother … Father … Almighty Architect … Friend … Brother … Lover … Sustaining Matrix … Eternal Destiny … My Self … My Home!”
Material energy, after all, is our very self. Once we realize how intimately we are related, where our very selves and our passion for life comes from … how can we keep from singing … ?
 Breaking the Spell, p.244. N.B. The ninth century Irish mystic theologian John Scotus Eriúgena in a similar fashion called God natura naturans … and the world natura naturata. He suggested that material energy was itself only a metaphor. He called it The Mask of God.
 Ibid. p.245