27 June 2007

Review of Breaking The Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Powell’s Book Store is not what most people think of as exciting entertainment for kids. I was recently at the Unitarian-Universalist Association’s Annual General Meeting in Portland, Oregon, and volunteered three mornings during the week with the Young Fun Camp for 8-14 year olds. On my first morning as I helped get the early registrants settled in I inquired about what activities were being planned and the director mentioned a variety of things including that she had brought up Powell’s Bookstore as a possibility. Apparently the counselors did not think the kids would be interested, so it was not on the list. So, I mentioned that my friend Rachel, an 8 year old who was going to be attending, loves Powell’s and that they should include it. The director put it back on the schedule because it was something she was personally interested in, as well.

It turned out to be the single most popular activity of all! With the enthusiasm of the kids generating three separate trips to accommodate the demand (and Rachel, who did not sign-up in time to make it into either of the first two trips that I went on, may have even missed out.)

At Powell’s there was only one book that really caught my attention, probably because I was paying more attention to kids than to books: Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin, 2006) . I had taken a boy to the bathroom then after doing my business was waiting for him outside where it just so happens that the philosophy and atheism sections are located. I saw Richard Dawkins book The God Delusion, but do not have much respect for his public image as an anti-religion fanatic and radical iconoclast of fundamentalist scientism. Daniel Dennett, on the other hand, is a first rate philosopher in my experience, which means that while he may be taking an obvious position in regards to the issue he will make a worthy exploration of the conceptual territory as he leads you along the path to his opinion. While I first saw the book on Friday with the first group, I bought the book on Saturday when I was with the second group, and found it such a compelling read that I finished the book by Monday evening. It helped that I had lots of time on Sunday in Portland and spent nearly all of Monday on the train, a ferry and several busses. I found the philosophical journey of Dennett’s exploration of religion to be very engaging and worthwhile. Although I do have two key critical remarks, the overall approach and Dennett’s style of consideration made it a compelling read.

Dennett does a fantastic job of laying a solid groundwork for treating religion as a valid topic for scientific inquiry. His exploration of and critical insights into the strengths and weaknesses of relevant scientific studies is very valuable. What is even more valuable for the over-all enterprise he is proposing is how he has posed key questions that need to be answered in order for real progress to be achieved. My critical remarks stem from differences in my way of understanding how the different concepts of God relate to each other and what constitutes religion (obviously influenced by my Unitarian-Universalist faith). Thus, my remarks are directed more to the premises that he built his arguments upon, rather than the arguments themselves. Although I don’t think my shift in premises alters his arguments or conclusions very much, I believe if my points are true then the results will provide a much stronger foundation for broader understanding.

First of all, I understand all ideas of God as human ways of comprehending and dealing with the unknown and the unknowable. Since there are always forces and effects in the world that we suspect but cannot verify, cannot directly experience or in some cases can not experience at all, then we have a problem. The problem is that these are categories that we have concepts about but cannot deal with in any concrete literal sense. I am drawing on my understading of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Philosophy in the Flesh: The Embodied Mind and It’s Challenge to Western Thought (Basic Books, 1999) to assert that these categories are inevitable parts of all human experience due to the grounding of all our shared understanding in language and the inherent limitations of language. The unknowable is all possible experiences or phenomena that cannot be expressed in language, thus they cannot in any way be shared and, more importantly, cannot be verified. The unknown are all experiences and phenomena which may be expressed in language but have not yet been explored or accepted as relevant by the person or people who are thinking and reasoning about a situation. If we take God as a convenient label for these bizarre categories then this means that the exact boundaries of God are different for different people at different times depending on their life history and the history of their groups, but they are all dealing with essentially the same conceptual category, the unknown-and-unknowable. Since, there is no way around the fact that we cannot deal concretely and specifically with what we do not know and cannot know, then asking religious people, or anyone else, to define God in any more precise terms than this is a fools errand.

I am sure Dennett is not entirely averse to what I have suggested so far based on this quote:

In religion … the experts are not exaggerating for effect when they say they don’t understand what they are talking about. The fundamental incomprehensibility of God is insisted upon as a central tenet of faith, and the propositions in question are themselves declared to be systematically elusive to everybody. Although we can go along with the experts when they advise us which sentences to say we believe, they also insist that they themselves cannot use their expertise to prove—even to one another—that they know what they are talking about. These matters are mysterious to everybody, experts and laypeople alike.
[p. 220, italics in original]

On the other hand, critics of religion, such as Dennett, are right to criticize those who abuse the roles of social authority that have developed to help people to deal with the unknown-and-unknowable. This puts religion in a distinctly different category of endeavor than science. Religion will always be the appropriate institution to deal with the inevitability of mortality, what is the ultimate cause of all that is, and all the other true Mysteries of existence. Science deals with what we can know and is the best method for discerning what is verifiably true in human experience.

Given this view of the categorical distinction between science and religion then they should work hand in hand to provide people with appropriate information and experiences to assist in the process of living and dying gracefully. Religion is the keeper of the Mysteries; responsible for taking best advantage of the human proclivities revealed by science in order to keep the Mysteries in moral perspective for living according to the dictates of Goodness, Truth, Beauty, Joy and Unity. Religion is the proper place to deal with ineffable experiences that cannot be truly shared. Science is the keeper of knowledge and investigator of mysteries; responsible for informing Religion of the most effective methods of doing their job and helping to assess how successfully we facilitate the well-being of individuals, groups, societies and ecologies.

It is important to distinguish the concepts of God that are used in everyday thinking and reasoning about the unknown-and-unknowable from the social concepts and institutions that we use to mutually support our moral choices of action.

The concepts we use to think and reason individually on an everyday basis about the unknown-and-unknowable naturally fall into a simple matrix of 4 distinct conceptual modes. As we think and reason we have to remember or assign qualities to anything that we wish to consider. If we are considering a child’s building block, a literal physical object, we simply recall our perceptions of it’s hardness, color, texture, and other qualities and then based on our understanding of those experiences we think accordingly. If we are attempting to deal with the unknown-and-unknowable then we obviously have to assign qualities and then reason using the qualities assigned in the hopes that we have assigned particular qualities that are sufficiently accurate that the actions we choose then result in the achievement of our goals.

In regards to the unknown-and-unknowable there are two key assumptions that lead to distinct and useful categories:

  1. Does it have qualities that are human-like, or not; is God personal or impersonal?
  2. Is it a force in the world or beyond the world; is God immanent or transcendent?

Based on assigning these qualities we can easily and usefully classify a number of theological concepts. When the unknown-and-unknowable is assumed to have human qualities and is a force in the world then the resulting concepts are Theistic. When you assume that the unknown-and-unknowable is impersonal and beyond the world then your concept is Humanistic. The combination of human qualities that are beyond this world gives us Naturalism and the opposite gives us Mysticism. (This framework is based on Rev. Bruce Bode’s Four Faiths in the Modern World sermon series from August 2006 .)


Dennett is a Humanist attacking Theists for immoral activities that they justify based on their theology rather than actual concrete benefits to the well-being of society. Dennett mostly skirts around the Mystics and the Naturalists though his ideas of folk religion and spirituality may be close.

I believe Dennett’s exploration would benefit from taking on this framework as a premise because it is immanently testable and would provide him with a useful continuum for putting his own views in perspective with the other views that he may not agree with, but concedes are likely to be benign if not beneficial.

The challenge that he ultimately poses, which is at the heart of all human activities not just religious ones, is the morality of the actions we choose. He proposes that everyone of a particular religious faith should take responsibility for the actions of those who profess that faith. Thus, he believes that all Christians are effectively responsible for the actions of the radical elements of Christianity that bomb abortion clinics and that all Muslims are effectively responsible for the radical elements of Islam that encourage suicide bombers. This is problematic because of these faiths are not singular monolithic organizations that can be controlled or held accountable, they are a vast pluralism of different organizations.

Morality is fundamentally about creating and maintaining well-being for us. The variations in moral values are based on having different ideas of who is “us” and how we should go about achieving well-being for our group. There is no question that everyone is trying to behave morally, but there is wide divergence about what constitutes the proper moral assessment of the success of our various actions, especially in the actions we take as a group via agents who are supposed to act on our behalf.

So the question is, How do we make a proper assessment of our own and others actions with regard to well-being? There are two primary approaches that I am familiar with, literal application of explicit rules and the imaginative application of principles. The literal application of explicit rules has been generally assumed to be correct. The Ten Commandments, as a iconic example, are most often taken to be literal rules for living. However, as anyone who puts more than a passing effort into moral philosophy finds out, there is an immense amount of difficulty that quickly arises.

More recently in the cognitive sciences, according to Lakoff and Johnson in Philosophy in the Flesh, they have found that human brains are simply not wired to make effective use of the literal application of explicit rules. The way we are wired to think is more consistent with the imaginative application of broad principles. This is known as virtues ethics and we can take the same set of Commandments and treat them as principles to be applied according to our good judgment of the details of each situation. (See Mark Johnson’s Moral Imagination, The University of Chicago Press, 1993) Beyond the moral deliberation of individuals in their own minds the key to morality in society is participating in moral discussions to discern how principles are best applied under changing circumstances.

Here’s what Dennett has to say about participating in the moral discussion (although he was talking more specifically about the immorality of unquestioning acceptance of the proscriptions of religious leaders):

… adopt[ing] the moral teachings of one’s own religion without question, because—to put it simply—it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority) … should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing them from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further consideration.
[p. 295-6 italics in original]

Dennett has drawn a clear moral distinction between those who are willing to engage in the moral discussion and those who are not. He is clear that our moral views must be “conscientiously maintained” not just settled once and for all. Regardless of the morality of the resulting action, if you are not willing to enter into the moral discussion then you have abdicated your moral responsibility. He continues:

The argument for this is straightforward. Suppose I have a friend, Fred, who is (in my carefully considered opinion) always right. If I tell you I’m against stem-cell research because “my friend Fred says it’s wrong and that’s all there is to it,” you will just look at me as if I was missing the point of the discussion. This is supposed to be a consideration of reasons, and I have not given you a reason that I in good faith could expect you to appreciate. Suppose you believe that stem-cell research wrong because that is what God has told you. Even if you are right—that is, even if God does indeed exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong—you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept this as a reason. You are being unreasonable in taking your stand. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can’t) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate. And if you reply that you can but you won’t consider reasons for and against your conviction (because it is God’s word, and it would be sacrilegious even to consider whether it might be in error), you avow your willful refusal to abide be the minimal conditions of rational discussion. Either way, your declaration of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.

Notice that this stand involves no disrespect and no prejudging of the possibility that God has told you. If God has told you, then part of your problem is convincing others, to whom God has not (yet) spoken, that this is what we ought to believe. If you refuse or are unable to attempt this, you are actually letting your God down, in the guise of demonstrating your helpless love. You can withdraw from the discussion if you must—that is your right—but then don’t expect us to give your view any particular weight that we cannot discover by other means—and don’t blame us if we don’t “get it.”
[p. 296-7 italics in original]

This brings me to a key question that I have been asking lately, how do we assist people to understand that participation is the key to moral behavior? Where do they get to practice the process of moral discussion?

What I find in the UU faith is a place to participate in moral discussions. The Uncommon Denomination, as we are becoming known as, is the place where we are pioneering the participatory methods of democratic religion. Ours is a participatory religion that facilitates the discussion in which we all have the opportunity to participate rather than writing a script to be performed on command. We do not have a common creed, we have common principles and a multitude of sources that we draw upon to make our decisions to act in the world. What I found at the General Assembly of the Unitarian-Universalist Association was a forum for moral discussions in which we are holding ourselves accountable for not just inviting all people to participate, but trying to discover how to make participation welcoming and enjoyable as well. We are taking the lead on creating a world that works for all beings, not just some. We identify ourselves with all of creation, not just the parts we like.

By coincidence I found Daniel Dennett’s book in the midst of this particular event. The fact is that there were a confluence of circumstances that lead to this coincidence, but I will not pretend to know or understand how those circumstances occurred. It does not matter how I attribute the action of the unknown and unknowable forces at work in this one instance, I will simply take this series of moments as a blessing from God. There is no doubt that the events occurred and that if we exerted enough effort we could explain it all. But, that would be a waste of time and energy so it is easier to invoke a simple term like God to enable us to turn our attention to more important matters that have far greater moral import. In this way God is a very useful concept and, while it is not a scientifically valid approach to explaining the situation, it is a morally valid approach.

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