Dennett and religion

first paragraph of Daniel Dennett’s answer to the 2007 Edge question (“What are you optimistic about?”):

I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about twenty-five years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe it does today. Of course many people–perhaps a majority of people in the world–will still cling to their religion with the sort of passion that can fuel violence and other intolerant and reprehensible behavior. But the rest of the world will see this behavior for what it is, and learn to work around it until it subsides, as it surely will. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we will need every morsel of this reasonable attitude to deal with such complex global problems as climate change, fresh water, and economic inequality in an effective way. It will be touch and go, and in my pessimistic moods I think Sir Martin Rees may be right: some disaffected religious (or political) group may unleash a biological or nuclear catastrophe that forecloses all our good efforts. But I do think we have the resources and the knowledge to forestall such calamities if we are vigilant.

I’ll agree with him on this point, but with the caveat that he did say that religions will evolve into very different phenomena – not that they will altogether disappear. To help this happen we need not only write books debunking religion, but also to consider what these new forms of religion might look like – so we know what we are working towards.

The main point of his whole response is that it is the superstition of religion that will disappear as people become better informed. So the question is: what would religion look like without the superstition. To work with Wittgenstein i think we could say that religions must become families (ie sets or groupings) of practices: stuff people do, think and say. But that is too general. The key is that these families of practices will evolve from current religions, that is, they will inherit much of the non-superstitious practices of our beloved religions, the stuff people do to be good, to be together and to be happy. The difference is that they will be (somewhat) more rational: they will have to define what their purpose is in non-superstitious or non-metaphysical, ie in down-to-earth terms and work at achieving that.

This assumes though that religions are not essentially based on superstition, that talk about god intervening in history and reasons for doing things that divine commands can be abandoned without the entire structure crumbling to the ground. Note that one does not need to abandon talk about god, but he must always remain a metaphor.

This does not mean that we reduce religions to bland expressions of current ethical prejudices. This is precisely the problem of current liberal christian theology: it reinterprets the bible as preaching what everyone already knows … and nothing more. Religions would remain vibrant sources of new ideas and institutions, uniting and channelling people’s energies and using their long traditions for inspiration. The only thing they would no longer do is to use the word ‘god’ (or synonyms) as the final explanation for what they do, whatever it is that they do.


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