Daniel Dennett is the new H.G. Wells and Leon Wieseltier is his Chesterton. 

Dennett’s latest book, Breaking the Spell:  Religion as Natural Phenomenon, seems to be an updated version (and narrower) version of Wells’ Outline of History in which Wells attempted to explain the events of history with an evolutionary framework (see also the abbreveiated A Short Outline of History).  Chesterton responded to Wells’ effort with his own ‘history’ in The Everlasting Man, a work that remains a compelling and entertaining defense of Christianity.

While Dennett’s project (as outlined in this review by Leon Wieseltier) sounds eerily similar to Wells’, Wieselteir’s response is as strikingly Chestertonian (though he may not think this a compliment!).  The review opens with a bang:

THE question of the place of science in human life is not a scientific question. It is a philosophical question. Scientism, the view that science can explain all human conditions and expressions, mental as well as physical, is a superstition, one of the dominant superstitions of our day; and it is not an insult to science to say so. For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett’s book. “Breaking the Spell” is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.

It gets better.  About agreeing with Dennett, Wieseltier writes:

Any opposition to his scientistic deflation of religion he triumphantly dismisses as “protectionism.” But people who share Dennett’s view of the world he calls “brights.” Brights are not only intellectually better, they are also ethically better. Did you know that “brights have the lowest divorce rate in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest”? Dennett’s own “sacred values” are “democracy, justice, life, love and truth.” This rigs things nicely. If you refuse his “impeccably hardheaded and rational ontology,” then your sacred values must be tyranny, injustice, death, hatred and falsehood. Dennett is the sort of rationalist who gives reason a bad name; and in a new era of American obscurantism, this is not helpful.

“Brights?”  Ridiculous.  About Dennett’s myth about the origins of religion:

There are a number of things that must be said about this story. The first is that it is only a story. It is not based, in any strict sense, on empirical research. Dennett is “extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking,” nothing more. “Breaking the Spell” is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. Even Dennett admits as much: “I am not at all claiming that this is what science has established about religion. . . . We don’t yet know.” So all of Dennett’s splashy allegiance to evidence and experiment and “generating further testable hypotheses” notwithstanding, what he has written is just an extravagant speculation based upon his hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing.

As they say in wrestling (the non-WWF variety), “Takedown!  Two points!”  About Dennett’s denial of reason:

It will be plain that Dennett’s approach to religion is contrived to evade religion’s substance. He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason. In this profound sense, Dennett does not believe in reason. He will be outraged to hear this, since he regards himself as a giant of rationalism. But the reason he imputes to the human creatures depicted in his book is merely a creaturely reason. Dennett’s natural history does not deny reason, it animalizes reason. It portrays reason in service to natural selection, and as a product of natural selection. But if reason is a product of natural selection, then how much confidence can we have in a rational argument for natural selection? The power of reason is owed to the independence of reason, and to nothing else. (In this respect, rationalism is closer to mysticism than it is to materialism.) Evolutionary biology cannot invoke the power of reason even as it destroys it. 

On the uniqueness of humans:

Why is our independence from biology a fact of biology? And if it is a fact of biology, then we are not independent of biology. If our creeds are an expression of our animality, if they require an explanation from natural science, then we have not transcended our genetic imperatives. The human difference, in Dennett’s telling, is a difference in degree, not a difference in kind — a doctrine that may quite plausibly be called biological reductionism.

The charge that the difference between man and ape is one of degree is, I’ll point out, identical to one of the many objections Chesterton raises in The Everlasting Man. 

On the sophisictation of religion:

BEFORE there were naturalist superstitions, there were supernaturalist superstitions. The crudities of religious myth are plentiful, and a sickening amount of savagery has been perpetrated in their name. Yet the excesses of naturalism cannot hide behind the excesses of supernaturalism. Or more to the point, the excesses of naturalism cannot live without the excesses of supernaturalism. Dennett actually prefers folk religion to intellectual religion, because it is nearer to the instinctual mire that enchants him. The move “away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts,” or the increasing philosophical sophistication of religion over the centuries, he views only as “strategic belief-maintenance.” He cannot conceive of a thoughtful believer. He writes often, and with great indignation, of religion’s strictures against doubts and criticisms, when in fact the religious traditions are replete with doubts and criticisms. Dennett is unacquainted with the distinction between fideism and faith. Like many of the fundamentalists whom he despises, he is a literalist in matters of religion.

Wieseltier’s review is a smackdown and worth reading in full.  A tip of the hat goes to Keith Plummer of The Christian Mind for pointing out the excellent and informative review.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Posted by Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is the Founder and Lead Writer of Mere Orthodoxy. He is the author of Earthen Vessels: Why Our Bodies Matter to our Faith and The End of Our Exploring: A Book about Questioning and the Confidence of Faith. Follow him on Twitter or on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. An entertaining selection of quotations, MLA. And thanks for the tip off about the book.

    Reply

  2. I’m… dazzled at the severity of Dennett’s intellectual mistakes (or maybe they weren’t mistakes???), and Wieseltier’s ability to see through them.

    ^^; A++

    Reply

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *