toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 02 - Some Questions About Science

More attempts to reach across to believers. I have to hand it to him though. He really does a great job of making a firm case without being condescending. Well, OK he does use the analogy of believing in Santa Clause, but everyone loves Santa, so I'm sure no believers took offense. *grin*. It would be fascinating to know what sort of readership he actually got for this book. Did many/any believers pick this book up? It seems like the people who need it most (e.g. hard core fundamentalists) would just say: "No matter *what* you find about religion as a human/social phenomena, it is holy, sacred, divine so it will continue no matter what findings you determine." Dennett doesn't seem to address this issue specifically but intuitively it is what I imagine any true believer would be thinking. In fact it seems a little loony to even think a believer would read a book like this. But I hope I'm wrong.

He tries to use the thought experiment of music listening as a way of putting himself in the believers shoes. What if music was determined to be bad for you and society; so much so that we needed to ban it, limit it, etc. It's an OK analogy I guess, but it doesn't do much for me. If music was demonstrably bad then I'd want to know and make an informed decision. But religion, I imagine, for most believers is not a spectator sport. If you believe that in the end everything works out and this world is a temporary phase before the heavenly reward why would you care what an atheist scientist/philosopher thinks? You could show that religion causes cancer and it would just be seen as a test by god. God's ways are above ours, etc. (That's probably one of the most diabolically clever religious memes by the way.)

So to repeat, he does about as good a job as one can imagine of sincerely reaching out to believers, but I just have a hard time imagine he's reaching far enough or that anyone has their hand out across the gulf.

In this chapter Dennett discusses that we can study religion scientifically and we should. The "can" part is easy. We have developed lots of powerful strategies and techniques for studying people and groups in the last century. It turns out that religions are composed of people in groups, so we should be able to learn something about them.

Of course inherent curiosity is enough for many people to study religion but Dennett allows for a certain combination of facts that would make religion off limits: (1) if religion has net benefits to the world and (2) these benefits won't survive the investigation process. It seems like he doesn't come up with a good example of a phenomena that doesn't survive investigation but the one that comes to my mind is a specific instance of a placebo effect. If someone is getting real relief from a certain placebo and no other treatment has worked then it would be cruel to convince them that it's not a real technique. The relief might survive, but it doesn't seem like a worthwhile risk. Ignorance is bliss in some cases.

Of course there are many examples (probably the overwhelming majority) where analysis may have caused some upset but in the long run things were better off. His extended example was sexual behavior.

Dennett fully admits that he is an atheist AND he's trying to talk people out of their religion. He tries to keep them interested by arguing that he is just as interested in making the world a better place as they are so they should consider listening to his proposals, but by the end of this chapter it's almost impossible to imagine believers still reading.



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