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Thursday, February 09, 2006

Daniel C. Dennett on studying religion scientifically

The New York Times interviewed Daniel C. Dennett, an important philosopher, and author of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, who leaves no doubt that he does not believe there is a God, on Jan 22nd. The interviewer said that religion was not subject to scientific scrutiny. Dennett's reply was as follows:

That itself is a scientific claim, and I think it is false. Belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can. I think the time has come to shed our taboo that says, "Oh, let's just tiptoe by this, we don't have to study this." People think they know a lot about religion. But they don't know.

Dennett went on to proclaim that there is no such thing as a soul, that prayers are not answered, and that religious belief has done a great deal of harm, although it is responsible for some fine architecture and music, which makes up for the harm to some degree.

What about Dennett's claim? His view, as I understand it, is that religious impulse is merely biological. Somehow, it has been selected for, as, for example, the ability to see in color has been.

Well, possibly an impulse to believe in something supernatural has been selected for. If so, why? Couldn't God have used natural selection to place this desire for the supernatural other in us? Why not? And why should such belief be something that is selected for? From Darwinian theory, because it has some survival value. There is, even in Dennett's scheme, some value in having such.

Belief in a supernatural God may, or may not, have been selected for. Presumably such a possibility could be scientifically studied. But the real claims of real religious belief, as opposed to its existence, I don't think so. Dennett didn't offer to study forgiveness of sin through the sacrifice and resurrection of Christ. I believe that that is real, indeed. I don't expect it can be scientifically proven.

Thanks for reading.


Laura said...

It's amazing how "intelligent" scientist can doubt that God exists. One of the reasons I love science so much is because it proves time and time again that God must be.... it screams out "THERE IS A GOD!!!"

Bonnie said...

You know, I think about how Christian belief might relate to the survival instinct, and I don't think that there's any reason for them to be mutually exclusive. The kicker, though, is that it's not a physical survival that we're talking about, it's a spiritual one. How exactly does that square with a biologically-determined survival instinct?

Martin LaBar said...

Thanks, ladies. Dennett, of course, doesn't believe in spiritual survival.

I think a religious impulse may have some survival value for this life, too. However, that's not what Christianity is all about, or at least it's not supposed to be.