Daniel C. Dennett, BREAKING THE SPELL, post 2

Finishing up key points and detailed notes on the second half of this book. Will have some general comments, and notes on the appendices, tomorrow.

Key points from second half of book:

  • Belief that belief itself is a good thing is widespread–myths to live by, even in conflict with the pursuit of truth. This need to belief has resulted in a shift, over the centuries, to more abstract ideas of god, away from anthropomorphic versions, and to notions of religious privacy, not to be discussed in public. Belief makes God an intentional object, like a fictional character, which people can have many different ideas about. The resistance to specific definitions of god is a design feature of religions.
  • People can “believe” without understanding. That’s faith. Some beliefs are deliberately made incomprehensible to enforce faith. We may not understand science, but it’s not a faith; it depends on results. When you can’t believe what someone says about their faith, religious avowals are unknowable. The author reviews and dismisses the traditional arguments for the existence of god. Yet, is belief a good thing, or not?
  • For many belief in religion is like falling in love; not subject to rational examination. That says nothing about therefore imposing beliefs on others. Academics also resist scientific investigation, as reductionist. Does it matter whether other people believe in God? Does it matter to God? Certainly to the OT God. Some studies show believers are healthier and may live longer, than nonbelievers. But experiments could be done, as with the efficacy of prayer. If the results were negative, would religions change? No.
  • Religion does not inspire morality; more the opposite. In fact some villains use religion to justify their mayhem. In any case most people in the world say religion is very important in their lives. Yet, like the schemes of con artists, shouldn’t illusions and frauds be exposed? The problem is people can’t agree on which are illusions, or think it simply doesn’t matter which are illusions. What is the justification for tolerance, then? But it does matter when religious radicals kill people.
  • Simply maintaining tradition requires giving up absolutes. What’s left? People would like a set of simple answers. There are none; and so tradition that honors a helpless love of God is shameful. It’s up the moderates to tame the extremists.
  • Atheists are thought to be self-centered know-if-alls; rather, it’s about letting the *self* go and being open to the world’s complexities, and keeping perspective. The religious think being good is being open to the supernatural, the paranormal. This is a *mis*alignment. Research can show the connections, or not, between disbelief in an immortal soul, and being moral.
  • All of this is a theory, requiring research into several unanswered questions. Ethical questions remain about the education of children; shield them from the world? Perhaps better, teach them *all* religions. If children have the right to life, they should have the right to self-determination. Without an open society, we get toxic religions and terrorism. Finally: educate people of the world so they can make informed choices about their lives.

Detailed Notes:

Ch8, Belief in Belief

Returning to the subject of whether or not there are good reasons for believing in God. Once certain ideas were recognized as important and worth stewarding, the idea of believing in belief emerged. Similarly, there is tension between ‘belief’ in democracy, or science, and opportunities to discuss their flaws or violators. Or celebrity trials, testing belief in the rule of law.

Belief in the belief that something matters (as opposed to nihilism) is widespread. And belief in free will (even by those who don’t).

The idea of myths that must be lived by can conflict with the pursuit of truth – e.g. studies that might show actual racial differences must be squelched, even medical studies. Others: belief that romance, or the motivations for performance art. Threats to religious belief can manifest as taboos against drawing pictures of God, or naming him (G-d). So some people, when they stop believing, go on as before, or use something for a substitute.

The need for belief has resulted in the shift, over the centuries, to more abstract conceptions of god, away from anthropomorphic versions. Similar to our now more sophisticated ideas of matter, or energy, but much greater: the Greek idea, or the Old Testament version, of god was much more anthropomorphic, compared to how many people view god today.

A further adaptation is the idea that it’s impolite to ask about matters of faith. A great way to shield against skepticism. An extension of this is to accuse anyone asking about your religion of being Satan. It works for any creed! A milder version is the whole academic industry of theology (p208t) for those uneasy with creeds they were taught as children—and ignored by everyone else.

Conceptions of god have changed—but not the term. (Unlike changes in scientific terminology.) Brand loyalty. It works to the extent that most people can agree they believe in “God”—even if their versions are very different. Thus Hume dismissed the gods of antiquity as not even counting as gods, in modern terms.

Even so, there are contemporary critics who rail against others’ conceptions of god, e.g. the Mormon conception. P209b.

  • God as intentional object

Of course, most people do regard much lore about God – bearded guy with thunderbolts etc—as silly, but only for fun, not as serious criticism. As Dawkins said we all atheists about most of humanity’s gods. Still, theists don’t tend to discuss those conceptions of god they *don’t* believe in. [footnote: similar pattern with the supposedly ‘serious’ ID advocates, who won’t dismiss the more crazy ones in public.]

The philosophical problem is that of ‘intentional objects’. As with ‘witches’, belief depends on what you mean by them.

People’s *ideas* of other people, like the Queen of England, or fictional characters, like Sherlock Holmes, are all ‘intentional objects’ to philosophers; one can discuss what is true or false about them, for instance. Some people have a belief in a character is a sense like the Baker Street Irregulars, who mine the lore of Sherlock Holmes; others a similarly obsessed about things they think are real, like the Loch Ness monster.

There is not always a correlation between intentional objects and things that are real—the Morning Star and the Evening Star are the same thing (and not stars).

[[ This discussion expresses a core idea about the belief in god – the presumption that everyone is talking about the same thing, when obviously they aren’t ]]

Suppose you do good deeds for the author, without his knowledge, and the author attributes that to ‘lucky stars’. Now suppose the author for some reason believes he has a secret helper, and that it’s Cameron Diaz. Upon learning it’s really you, author could exclaim – you are Cameron Diaz!

Similar wordplay abounds with the word ‘God’, which can be defined almost any way, which the various ‘histories of god’ tend to sidestep with ambiguity. [[ My impression is that Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God deals with changing conceptions of god; but I haven’t read it yet. ]] (Though this ambiguity is the cause of religious wars and many people dying.) Some people even believe in the concept of god (which of course exists) without the belief in god himself, as a better concept of god than others. The resistance to specific definitions of god is a design feature of religions.

  • The division of doxastic labor

There are things we believe are true even though we don’t understand them; we leave it to experts to do the understand, e.g. e=mc2. We don’t believe the proposition—we believe that whatever proposition is expressed by that formula is true.

So this is not a foible of only religious belief; all scientists rely on things they know to be correct but are not themselves experts at understanding. Example from Feynman about ‘understanding’ physics theories. They can’t be understood—they must be learned because they work, experimentally.

In religion, however, even the experts acknowledge that they don’t know what they’re talking about. Such matters are mysterious to everybody. What’s important is belief in belief. Some people don’t believe in god, but believe that belief in god is a good thing, if it were possible. If you believe in something, you also believe that anyone who disbelieves is mistaken – which would be too bad. Thus in most cases people try to persuade others of their beliefs—especially their own children.

(4), the lowest common denominator?

How can we tell how many people believe in god, vs how many believe in belief in god? Many people may answer yes to both questions even if they private doubt. One problem is what we mean by god—many would say they believe without having detailed understanding of what it is they believe (their creed or any other).

Or, you can behave as if you believe without worrying about actual belief, as many Jewish congregations do. Evangelical churches allow for plenty of personal interpretation – unlike fundamentalism, which is more concerned with proper belief. Evangelical give people what they want. And they’re successful…

(5), beliefs designed to be professed

Actions speak louder than words. Beliefs of folk religions had concrete consequences; those of organized religions have become more elusive. You can verify that wine turns to blood, so you just say you believe it, over and over. Catholics must *profess* belief even in things they may not understand. How can you believe something you don’t understand? It takes faith. One way is to rely on threat of hellfire if you don’t believe.

Another way is to make the beliefs incomprehensible. There’s a certain attraction in believing things more paradoxical than what the other guy believes. E.g. transubstantiation. This kind of inflation is a sort of peacock’s tail… to a point. The meme for blind faith comes with discouragement of rational inquiry. That kosher laws are without reason is the point—following them demonstrates one’s faith. Islam requires prayer five times a day.

Isn’t ‘faith’ in some science you don’t quite understand the same? –p232. Author imagines a deeply religious “Professor Faith” who explains that God is “apophatic” – ineffable, beyond human ken. And therefore not something that can *not* be believed in—as being the same as scientists’ conception of matter as something rather mysterious. Author is not persuaded. Scientific faith is a result of results.

(6), Lessons from Lebanon

Two stories. One is about the Druze, a sect in Lebanon, who it is said always lie to outsiders about their beliefs. Thus, no anthropologist could ever learn anything reliable about their beliefs. Unless he became a Druze himself—but in that case you couldn’t rely on anything *he* said. Recalls Wittgenstein’s beetle box – everyone has a box with a “beetle” inside, but no one is allowed to see anyone else’s beetle.

Another story: the spy Kim Philby, who may or may not have been a double/triple/quadruple spy for Britain and the Soviet Union. [[ these stories recall the fiction of PKD and others, in which ‘reality’ is uncertain or unknowable ]]

Everyone’s religious avowals are similarly unknowable.

(7), Does god exist?

Here author reviews the standard arguments for the existence of god, and dismisses them.

  • First, argument from historical documentation. They beg the question. If the Bible, why not the Book of Mormon or Dianetics?
  • Second, the logical arguments. The ontological argument concerns god, by definition, being the greatest conceivable being. Which therefore must exist. Problem: you could just as well suppose a greatest conceivable ice cream sundae; must it therefore exist? [[ furthermore, even if this were valid, it in no way entails this god being primarily interested in humanity, let alone responsive to prayers and guiding individual lives toward good, blah blah blah. Or, just substitute ‘imaginary friend’ into this argument. ]]
  • The cosmological argument presumes that everything must have a cause. Then what caused God? Why not just presume the universe has its own cause? [[ my take on this is that it simply betrays a limitation of human imagination or understanding ]]
  • The argument from design, the anthropic principle. The idea that everything seems designed, so much have had a designer. Author has dealt with this is [previous book] Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Author recounts summary. Spinoza *identified* nature with god, and was branded a heretic.

So of course author is an atheist. Many others might not believe in the traditional god who answers prayers, but are reluctant to say so.

What about belief in belief? It’s largely believed that religion is the basis for morality, else anarchy and chaos. So: do religions, as social phenomena, do more harm than good?

Part III: Religion Today

Ch 9, Toward a Buyer’s Guide to Religions

Most people believe in god because they want to be good. But some object to this whole line of inquiry. Professor Faith would object; it’s not about considering options and making a decision – it’s about seeing the light. It’s like falling in love.

Author would say, yes: it’s a *kind* of falling in love. Questioning religion is like being challenged about one’s lover. It’s not a matter of rational consideration. It’s love. Love for a system of ideas. And it’s a type of romantic love.

Thus the languages are similar. Religion gives lovers cathedrals of beauty. Temples, music. A move about the life of Jesus was called ‘the greatest story ever told’ – we love stories. A story about praying in the forest.

Religious people do many wonderful things. That people love their religions is significant. It could be said that nothing matters more than love. If giving up justice or peace or love—if giving up one of these, it wouldn’t be love. Yet, love is blind; one love pitted against another can lead to tragedy.

If I love music more than anything, should I impose that on everyone? Sports fans do hate other teams.

So we must question this – even though questioning a friend’s love can lead to hurt feelings or cut friendships. The common notion is that love *should* be blind – -and there’s a rational for this, in terms of cutting uncertainty in the marketplace and sticking to a decision (p255).

Perhaps our evolved capacity for romantic love has been exploited by religious memes. Yet religious people are ready to abuse anyone who questions their beliefs. Without realizing that such actions bring dishonor to their faith. Examples from the past century.

Author wonders if the 9/11 attackers had targeted the Statue of Liberty, that Americans would have reacted with such rage they might have triggered a nuclear holocaust. The symbol of the statue would somehow be the most important.

Thus—it’s necessary to break this spell about the inquiry into religion. Is the best way to live a good life through religion?

2, the academic smoke screen

There is also resistance to the study of religion from academics who find any such scientific inquiry (as opposed to a cultural study) reductionist. The charge is that you can’t study religion unless you already have a religious sentiment. Similar defenses about feminist studies, or third world studies. It takes one to know one. Then can we never understand one another? And can you imagine similar defenses from plutocrats, or pedophiles?

A related smoke screen is to claim that culture must be interpreted, not analyzed. And the postmodernists, who think there is no truth, that everything is just stories. (example p262-3). One exception is Walter Burkert, who took it upon himself to learn some evolutionary biology as a way to understand the history of religion.

3, why does it matter what you believe?

Why does it matter to people that other people believe in God? After all, there are plenty of scientific facts that most people don’t know; does it bother those who do?

Does it matter to god? The Old Testament Jehovah was certainly jealous. But why should a more abstract creative intelligence care? But for god to be personal and caring requires the old guy in the sky image, however antiquated many might think it is. By the same token, the adjective “God-fearing” persists. They are not vestiges of some juvenile period in our religious past.

Believers think the personal god is obvious. Despite warnings that deep revelation may be natural—or come from Satan. Yet revelations and standards change with time.

Author may believe that everyone should understand evolution, as a way to make the world a better place—but unlike the religious, he doesn’t celebrate those who think irrationally about it.

So what are the pros and cons of religion? William James started this inquiry, noticing that religion has evolved as human value judgments have changed. He had a Victorian version of Darwinism though, assuming that what survives must be good, that progress is inevitable. He offered two ideas about how religion would make someone better: as a more effective person; or as a morally better person.

4, what can your religion do for you?

James suggested that people need different things from religion, and so religions compromise and change to accommodate them. That is, it experiments and verifies, rather like science does. Certainly it helps attract members for a religion to include things that promote the health and well-being of its members.

And in fact there is substantial evidence the religious people are healthier in ways and may live longer. [[ regardless of whether their religions are true or not, of course ]]. And of course other false beliefs might well improve health by some percent—we could do experiments. It would be an interesting ethical question whether such benefits justified such beliefs. And it might well be that making people aware of the effect would make it go away—another issue to test. But will those skeptical of scientific investigation accept negative results if they turn up? Some kind of scientific validation has been attractive, as seen in the names of certain 20th century religions.

There are also ideas for testing the efficacy of prayer. If true, it would stop science in its track. If false, would religions stop advertising such claims? Pharmaceutical companies do when tests don’t go their way. A 2001 study at Columbia University turned out to be a fraud. Other studies have been criticized; others are on the way; yet some criticize the whole notion of putting god to the test.

And of course there’s plenty of evidence that religious makes believers lives more meaningful in various ways, and these are worth acknowledging.

Ch10, Morality and Religion

Many suppose religion provides a carrot and stick (heaven and hell) to encourage good behavior, otherwise people would lie and cheat and steal. Fortunately, it’s not true; and it’s a demeaning view of human nature. There’s no evidence that the more religious are less likely to commit crimes. There is evidence that ‘brights’ have lower divorce rates, born-again Christians the highest. Naturally, religious groups would like to find evidence of moral virtue among the religious, but somehow it hasn’t been found yet.

Yet, some religious people regard this view as pandering to immaturity, like being good just so Santa will bring you toys. Most moral philosophers agree. Notice the derision over the idea that the 9/11 hijackers were looking forward to 72 virgins in heaven.

Still, such beliefs may have a basis in a kind of insurance among believers that promises will be kept. Analogous to how peacekeeping forces were supposed to hold Iraq together. Thus the system would collapse if the credibility of the beliefs were threatened.

Fortunately today modern democratic states replace the need for god the policeman. But god is also a role model—a loving, forgiving, merciful most perfect being.

So perhaps these are both good reason to leave well enough alone, but whatever benefits religions provide. Perhaps contradictions among dogmas aren’t worth worrying about. Of course this policy would admit that religions aren’t perfect, contrary to the usual insistence in the absolute rightness of religious causes.

Can a secular army prevail against religious fanatics? If we’re not sure we may be inclined send people into battle with promises of religious rewards.

There may be people who are by nature bloodthirsty or thrill-seeking enough to *need* some cause to justify their mayhem—religious causes being the most common. We are even apt to be slightly forgiving of actions done from devout religious conviction; this should change.

2, is religion what gives meaning to your life?

Most people in the world say religion is very important in their lives. Should we leave it at that? But what about cults and con artists and “religions” that are frauds?

The film about Marjoe Gortner showed people happily giving money to a fraudster. Was it reprehensible to reveal the fraud to those people, robbing them of their meaning? Imagine two such victims; aren’t they happy? Well, they could donate to honest religions, or to secular groups. We have to ask how to deal with people we think are being conned.

Other moral situations suggest that it’s cruel to interfere with the life-enhancing illusions of others—unless those illusions cause greater ills. [[ we should be drilling toward this central point: these religious dogmas are, in large part, demonstrably false. The question is, does it matter? ]]  The problem is, different people disagree on those ills. Just as followers of different faiths think other faiths are deluded in fundamental ways, though too polite to say so, usually. A few of them do say it—Mel Gibson, who denied salvation to those not catholic. Such remarks embarrass most Catholics, who don’t believe it, or don’t think it should be said. We don’t know how big those various groups are.

How many Muslims truly believe in death for apostates? The whole subject is left undiscussed.

Back to belief in belief: one reason for masking whether belief is true or not is to avoid clashes between contradictory creeds, that would involve intolerance far greater than anything today.

So how do we explain those who are religious but advocate tolerance? [[ my thought has been that, in some sense, it doesn’t matter what other people think; they’re just different ‘tribes’ or ‘families’; and, the wishy-washy ‘we all worship the same god’ ploy ]]

One, the thought that other religions will be brought around, eventually. Two, it doesn’t matter as long as you have some religion. Three, religions are too dear to people to challenge; just wait and it will go away eventually.

But this is all a hypocrisy trap. We have radicals killing people, while others are too polite to offend the neighbors—or risk being run out of town.

What alternatives are there? Some maintain tradition just because it’s tradition; it’s like allegiance to a sports team.

3, what can we say about sacred values?

A moderate position (maintaining tradition) requires giving up absolutes. These days being moral is harder—we know more about what’s going on around the world. There are so many more things we *can* do. What *ought* we to do?

It’s tempting to look for short sets of simple answers. [[ my maxim: religion is attractive, especially fundamentalism, because it makes life so much simpler. You no longer have to think, evaluate evidence, do research; the answers to everything are in the one holy book ]]  (Mencken) Thus the attraction of the Golden Rule, or Ten Commandments. But of course applying such rules isn’t necessarily simple at all. Ceding moral decisions to someone else is a moral decision—appealing to expert specialists. This certainly applies to doctors, lawyers, etc. People you can trust. But you have to have reason to trust: that’s why *unquestioning* faith is a problem—an immoral decision.

This is contrary to the common view that one’s religion is to be followed without question, because god said so, the bible says so, etc. – there is no possibility of moral conversation. It’s like appealing to a friend named Fred just because you believe he’s always right. To be locked to your faith is to be a robotic slave to a meme you can’t evaluate. It’s a willful refusal of rational discussion.

If god really has spoken to you, it’s up to you to convince others; if you can’t, you’re letting your god down. Many religious people have no problem reaching out toward others in discussion. But each group hasn’t had much success dealing with their own radical members.

It’s time for reasonable adherents of all faiths to stand up to the tradition that honors a helpless love of god; it’s shameful. The priests and rabbis cannot hide behind inerrant texts.

You can’t excuse someone who thinks reason is unnecessary because their love of god is so sincere. God should be worthy of reasonable inquiry.

A religion is like an attractive nuisance—like a swimming pool, something that the owners must protect others from. Religions attract terrorists, e.g. as their justifications. Al Qaeda is Islam’s responsibility; abortion-clinic bombers are Christianity’s. Moderates are used by fanatics—Sam Harris, e.g. about the fate of Muslims being in the hands of moderate Muslims. We can all take steps to battle the excesses of religion – but, e.g. not supporting religions at all, supporting secular organizations instead. But the moderates of religions need to battle the extremists – by name.

4, bless my soul: spirituality and selfishness

Materialistic refers to material possessions, also to the idea that there are no immaterial components to reality. It’s frequently said that people have deep need for “spirituality”, but no one explains what that means really. It’s about deep thoughts, really caring, not being materialistic. And the stereotype of the atheist is the self-centered know-it all, without spirituality.

Author offers better words: it’s about letting your *self* go, being open to the world’s complexities, keeping perspective…

Nicholas Humphrey noted the connection between believing in psychic forces and being honest and upright. The rationale: not believing in a supernatural parent figure is a wicked thing… therefore good people are receptive to paranormal stories.

Author accepts this as a fact of life to be dealt with. The alignment of goodness with a denial of scientific materialism is a *mis*alignment. There’s no reason why disbelief in an immortal soul should make anyone less caring or moral. And of course plenty of ‘spiritual’ people are cruel and arrogant. Including the monks who contemplate only their own spiritual welfare, but do no good out in the world.

Next: further research is needed.

Ch 11, Now What Do We Do?

1, just a theory

The ‘evolution is just a theory not a fact’ is religiously motivated because similar disclaimers are not thrust upon other disciplines. The outline here in chapters 4-8 *is* just a theory. Some parts of this theory imply testable hypotheses. It’s too soon to make recommendations for action. The proposition that god exists isn’t even a theory (ch 8).

So, we could do more research. Or, we could just trust tradition and wing it. Author anticipates objections from those who feel such research isn’t respectful. Research will entail studying religious people and practices themselves. [[ this is rather contrary to the common defense of atheists that they don’t have to know theology to dismiss it… because Dennett is talking about the evolution of religion, not whether religious beliefs are true or not. ]]

2, some avenues to explore, how can we home in on religious conviction?

Unanswered questions:

  • What were our ancestors like before they had religion?
  • Numerous questions about counterintuitive ideas, art, rituals.
  • Why do people join groups?
  • What percentage of people *actually* believe in god?
  • We don’t expect to find god genes or anything like. It’s not likely that spirituality contributed to human genetic fitness is any direct way. And if we did—how would this knowledge be reflected in policy? Warnings to certain people to avoid religion?
  • How do religious convictions differ from secular beliefs?
  • Why are both evangelism and secularism growing? Why the polarization?
  • Need to validate the data. There have been discrepancies in survey about belief in god – e.g. Shermer’s found relatively low numbers.

3, what shall we tell the children?

There hasn’t been much research on religious education of children. Obviously you can’t do experiments on children or families. Consider prohibitions on alcohol and how they apply to children. Dawkins calls it child abuse to consider a child catholic or whatever.

The Jesuit quote about give me the child, but we don’t really know how resilient children are. Some children walk away from religious traditions. Others build ideological prisons. Nicholas Humphrey has considered this. It’s similar to the ethical issue of what to do about stone-age islanders in the Indian Ocean. Shield them from the outside world? Rescue their children? This raises the issue of parents’ rights vs children’s rights—the instinct is to let parents raise kids however they want. But there can be limits. People advocate right to life but not after the child is born—then the child has no rights.

Maybe the answer is to teach people about *all* religions—more not less education in the schools. In a historical fashion. Author proposes parents can teach their kids anything that doesn’t close their minds through fear or hatred, or by disabling them from inquiry.

4, toxic memes

Consider how disgusting Muslims find contemporary western culture. Practices need to be assessed dispassionately.

Communications make it easier than ever for people around the world to be exposed to all kinds of information. In this century it will be western memes, rather than germs, that spread around the world.

A challenge will be to control terrorism, which seems to arise among young men who realize they have bleak futures. Where might this happen next? Perhaps China, as a result of its one child policy.

5, patience and politics

We all have to grow up. Trust an open society, and the need for people to search for meaning in their lives, or we will get toxic religions. Create alternatives—schools. Be honest about religions’ ludicrous claims.

We could lose the tradition of ‘holy soil’. Don’t let the Jews rebuild their Temple, don’t let ancient religions declare their traditions still valid. Discuss things calmly and openly. Marxists believed their cause and taught their children success was inevitable. Today we have the religious end of days beliefs. They believe the end inevitable—but go on working to make it happen. These people are dangerous. There are hundreds of websites about them. You could start with the influential senators and congressmen of the ‘Family’.

Central policy: educate people of the world so they can make informed choices about their lives.


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