Dennett. Yawn, says Jack Miles.

Apparently, people other than conservative Christian scholars have noticed that Daniel Dennett’s analysis of the divide between religion and skepticism is shallow. See Jack Miles’ Review here.

Dennett sets out to tell us all that we need to break the spell of religion, and break it now. But so much of what he says ends up being more sauce than meat. For example, says Miles:

[I]ntellectual outbursts emotionally akin to “Let’s step outside and settle this, shall we?” keep intruding. Thus we read: “If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were still on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone ‘on their side,’ theists typically decline to do this.” Perhaps so, but then is Dennett prepared to perform a comparable triage for the favorite topics of his fellow atheists? Where do “we atheists” stand, for example, with regard to fellow atheist Howard Stern? We theists would like to know, if Dennett would be so kind, though we fear that out of a mixture of caution, loyalty and unwillingness to offend, he may pass over America’s most influential single atheist in silence.Truth to tell, this kind of game is depressingly easy to play, and it’s a rare student of religion who really wants to be drawn into it.

What’s got Dennett so riled up? Miles suggests that it’s because while skepticism has better arguments, it’s dying out anyway. That may well be how Dennett would choose to describe the state of philosophical affairs, but in light of the recent upsurge in religious belief rather than skepticism in philosophers of religion, this charge is more than a little difficult to maintain without serious misgivings. One sociological fact, however, is much harder to deny:

Fertility rates in the relatively secular blue states are 12 percent lower than in the relatively religious red states, according to Philip Longman in the March/April issue of Foreign Policy. In Europe, a similar correlation holds. As Longman writes: “Do you seldom, if ever, attend church? For whatever reason, people answering affirmatively . . . are far more likely to live alone, or in childless, cohabitating unions, than those who answer negatively.” For the most secular cultures in the world, Longman predicts a temporary drop in absolute population as secular liberals die out and a concomitant cultural transformation as, “by a process similar to survival of the fittest,” they are demographically replaced by religious conservatives.

It’s almost enough to make you believe in Dominion Theology!

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4 thoughts on “Dennett. Yawn, says Jack Miles.

  1. If you have heard of a country called China – it’s quite large, you know – you will notice the flaw in the argument that demographic changes will replace the secular-minded by the believers in God. Leaving aside the present Chinese government’s ideology, the country has little tradition of religion in the sense in which this is understood in the West. Neither Buddhism (as Jack Miles correctly points out in his review of Dennett’s excellent book), nor Confucianism, necessarily require belief in an all-powerful God. The religious folk of the US red states are a mere drop in the demographic ocean compared with the Chinese billions, to most of whom the religious preoccupations of Jews, Christians and Moslems are equally incomprehensible.

  2. Welcome to the blog!

    Yes, it’s certainly true that Dennet’s analysis has gaps. East Asian religion, for example, is excluded by his definitions of what counts as religion as you note. That’s not really a flaw with the claim that religious belief is, demographically speaking, replacing unbelief. It just means that the claim needs to be more specific. It’s happening, but not everywhere (Like Dennett, I’m not sufficiently well informed on whether or not theism is proportionally growing in China or not to comment on what exactly is happening there). So the problem is with Dennett, if anyone. But as it turns out, Dennett finds himself in one of the places where this social phenomenon is happenng, which means that it’s perfectly understandable that he would be concerned about it.

  3. Um. Doesn’t this also assume that the children of church-goers tend to grow up to be church-goers? That’s something I’d not take for granted.

  4. The odds are pretty good actually. However, you’re right that it’s a mistake to look solely to the number of children being born when making any kind of prediction like this, and thinking that growth won’t come by conversion.

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