Highlighting the immorality of the moral high ground

March 24, 2006

Anthony Freeman meets Daniel Dennett, who wants religious leaders to examine and disclose the evidence for the teachings of their faiths

From the dawn of civilisation, religion stood centre stage in public life. Kings were vicegerents, or even incarnations of their tribal gods, and priests were their leading counsellors. Even with the rise of monotheism in Europe little changed, except that now the Pope in Rome headed a supranational Church representing a supranational God, with senior officials in every sovereign court and parliament.

Then, a mere 300 years ago, it all ended. With the Enlightenment, the whole character and role of organised religion changed.

Outward forms remained, but the power had drained away. Religion became privatised to the extent that the philosopher A. N. Whitehead could define it as "what the individual does with his own solitude".

Now religion is fighting back, reasserting its role in public and political life. In the US, and increasingly in Britain, conservative religious forces are combining to challenge and redirect domestic policy in areas such as education, medical research and clinical treatment. And the fighting is not only metaphorical. Worldwide, a heady mix of religion, politics and nationalism leads daily to violent clashes between Sikh and Hindu, Catholic and Protestant, Muslim and Jew.

All this action has provoked its own reaction. While modern religion stayed quiet - a ceremonial backdrop in public and individual piety in private - it could live at peace with its powerful successor, the scientific world-view. Now the live-and-let-live days are over. Religion must be called to account, and the one to do it is US philosopher Daniel Dennett.

Dennett is more than 6ft tall, a bearded patriarchal figure who has long been a major voice in philosophy of mind and cognitive studies, writing prolifically from his base at Tufts University in Massachusetts. His academic credentials are impeccable - first Harvard University and then Oxford University in the mid-1960s, where he studied with philosopher Gilbert Ryle - and he has garnered a sheaf of prestigious fellowships and lectureships. He has also been something of a thorn in the side of the Establishment, being strongly committed to empirically based research and writing philosophy that is accessible to general readers.

Dennett sees evolutionary psychology as key to understanding human consciousness, and he approaches his critique of religion from this angle.

The neo-Darwinian study of religion is becoming a well-tilled field by researchers such as anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Robin Dunbar and biologist David Sloan Wilson, all of whose work Dennett draws on. His contribution is to make the fruits of their research the basis of an appeal to religious groups and their leaders to examine the grounds of their convictions.

Religion has long claimed the moral high ground, but its failure to disclose the evidence for its judgments, teachings and demands is, in Dennett's view, immoral. He does not object in principle to religious affiliates following their leaders' advice on moral or civic matters - he defers to expert advice in areas such as physics and biology - but to have moral credibility, all experts and leaders must be transparent as to how they arrive at their conclusions. "It is written" or "God told me" won't do.

His recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon , is not a direct attack on religion but targets the "touch me not" status that lends religion immunity from the rational investigation applied to other sources of authority. Like St John (whom he quotes), Dennett believes that the light of reason will reveal the truth, and the truth will make you free.

He takes as his working definition of religion "a social system whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". The issue is religion's social impact: what are the grounds on which gays are denounced by evangelical Christians, abortions forbidden by the Catholic Church and Muslims led to fly planes into buildings? On what basis are these religiously inspired public and political decisions reached? Only with that evidence to hand can some kind of judgment - moral, political or whatever -be made.

Critics say Dennett should not judge religion by its lunatic fringe. Many Muslim scholars and Christian bishops are embarrassed by assertions and actions of their own faith's fundamentalist wings. Dennett is unrepentant.

How, he asks, can the moderate leaders of any religion justify not condemning fundamentalists and extremists in their own ranks? Admitting in private that they are appalled by these activities, while keeping silent in public, makes them complicit in all the excesses. They have a moral responsibility, he insists, to come out in the open and say these teachings and actions are wrong. So why does he think they fail in this duty? Because to do so would remove the cloak that protects all religious convictions from criticism, and this would make their own positions vulnerable.

Dennett cannot but wonder at the sheer audacity of religion's built-in immunity from criticism and serious investigation of its doctrines - an immunity encapsulated in the mystical apophatic tradition that nothing can be known about God. For him, this is the characteristic of religion that accounts for its survival and disqualifies it from any moral or rational claim to be taken seriously. One of the things that struck him most forcibly in researching his book was the work of Rodney Stark, the sociologist. He analysed religions using a business model and showed how the most successful churches were those that made the most outrageous demands on their members. These findings are borne out by the UK experience, where the mainstream churches that encourage rational faith are in decline, and evangelical congregations - characterised by Jack Spong, the former Bishop of Newark, New Jersey, as "claiming to have all the answers but not allowing any questions" - seem to thrive.

On the first page of his book, Dennett concedes that his knowledge of religion is limited. And he is clear that the future research he advocates must be done by those versed in religion and ideally by those who are within the traditions. He also acknowledges that this is easier said than done. Amen to that. I tried it myself as a middle-ranking Anglican priest.

My more than 20 years in church employment counted for nothing as I found myself without a house or job. Religious reformers sometimes need an outsider to lend a hand with the task.

In any case, Dennett has more experience of, and feeling for, religion than he lets on. He attended church up to his mid-teens and is still moved by the music and ceremony of worship even though he cannot embrace the underlying doctrines. More pertinently, he admits to something that sounds akin to a religious type of conviction: "I have sacred values in the sense that I feel vaguely guilty even thinking about whether they are defensible and would never consider abandoning them (I like to think!)." His list includes democracy, so I ask him straight: "We have recently seen democracy hijacked to justify the sublimely vague war against terror, which has no defined enemy, is totally open-ended, but is being waged with real bombs and costing real lives. How do you feel about that?" His reply is unequivocal: "It's an absolute mess, and I'm appalled by the abuse of the concept of democracy, I'm appalled by the ignorance and arrogance of the (Bush) Administration, by their manipulation of the media, by their failure really to understand what's going on in the Middle East."

And can he accept that there are sincerely religious people who are equally appalled when religion is called in to justify such things? Certainly he can: "And I'm calling on them to do what I'm doing, to get out there and express it and see how they can change it." Can he do the same for democracy? "I can try. I see my sacred values being abused, and I'm out there trying to fix it."

I for one shall be watching. If Dennett can make genuine headway in this self-appointed task, his example could be of more help to those trying to realise their religious values than any number of books.

The Reverend Anthony Freeman is managing editor of the Journal of Consciousness Studies . Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is published by Allen Lane, £25.00.

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