The Friday Religion Post Volume 957

If only we could transfer all that respect, loyalty and intense devotion from an imaginary being – God – to something real: the wonderful world of goodness we and our ancestors have made, and of which we are now the stewards.

Daniel Dennett.

True, ‘we’, that is, human beings (there any other we? Can one can talk seriously in terms of ‘we the people and the birds and the fish’?), have developed hugely effective sewage systems, highly developed methods of agriculture, anaesthetics, methods of rapid transportation and so on, but these are only good in so far as they address human needs. And the concept of making wonderful things only makes sense if you can wonder at them. But how can you really wonder at things that have been made by humans and are therefore comprehensible in human terms? It might be a source of wonder if we came across a dog who had developed a keen grasp of the essentials of international economics, since that is something we do not expect to dogs do. But humans, like any other species, only do things that they already have the capacity to do.

Do I get a sense that what’s envisioned in Dennett’s phrase is something similar to the shiny happy Christian world of All Things Bright and Beautiful, but with the omnipotent god subtracted? Just as that hymn represents a pleasant world full of nice flowers and the purple headed mountains, but excludes war, famine, pestilence and death, the ‘world of goodness’ blocks out a coeval ‘world of badness’, evidence of which abounds. Furthermore, since Dennett’s ‘world’ is made by humans, he is asking people to treat what humans have made with ‘respect, loyalty and intense devotion’. But isn’t the danger here that the religious worship of one object -the image of an omnipotent god- is substituted for the religious worship of other objects -institutions, political systems, slogans etc? It’s as if Dennett has no problem with forms of behaviour normally classified as religious: he just thinks they should be directed elsewhere. But there are plenty of bad examples of what happens when people become intensely devoted to democracy, or civilization, or other things commonly recognised as motors of progress.

Then there was Robert Winston:

Religion is built into human consciousness and there is plentiful evidence of it being a cohesive force. Apart from the survival of our prehistoric ancestors, in recent times there are powerful examples of how a notion of the transcendental has spurred humans on in desperate situations. Viktor Frankl, in the midst of the extreme deprivation, dehumanisation and despair of Auschwitz observes how, in his assessment, only those with some spirituality – not necessarily a belief in God – survived the depravity of the camp.

The problem I have with this is (apart from the rather dodgy implication that a cohesive force might be a good thing in itself): if he can say that religion is built into human consciousness, then the ability to be aware that religion is built into human consciousness must also be built into human consciousness (he is human, after all). And if this is the case, the religion he describes as being built into human consciousness can’t be religion as we know it (otherwise one could say things, according to the same criteria, such as ‘the sun is built into human consciousness’), leaving one to contemplate if what he is describing is religion at all, in any useful sense of the term.

I have confused myself a bit with the last paragraph. Might need a feed of drink tonight.

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3 Responses to “The Friday Religion Post Volume 957”


  1. 1 copernicus April 25, 2008 at 11:00 pm

    It’s all very distressing this “New Atheism” wank. As if the trough of my despair wasn’t deep and swill-filled enough.

    If you haven’t read it, can I recommend “It Ain’t Necessarily So” by Richard Lewontin?

    Oh look, I just did.

  2. 2 copernicus April 25, 2008 at 11:38 pm

    The fact that Dennett is such an utter dildo coupled with his adoption of the term “bright” to describe him and his idiot pals…well the only response is massive retaliatory violence isn’t it?

    Stop the world. I want off.

  3. 3 Hugh Green April 26, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    The whole There-Is-No-God-You-Idiot movement seems to be turning into a bit of a cult, from what I can see, and yes, the ‘bright’ thing is unspeakably ridiculous.


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