Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Dennett's "Straw Man"

The renowned atheist Daniel Dennett has written another book, entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, where he attempts to slay the dragon of religion with the sword of science. According to this book review in, he's less than successful. Apparently, Dennett has hard time formulating a definition of religion that encompasses the diversity and subtleties of religious experience in human history. This leads him to complain that the concept of God has undergone considerable "distortion" through the ages: "I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation." He argues that, whereas the ancient Israelites believed in an anthropomorphic deity that acted concretely in time and space, modern theology sets forth an "abstract and depersonalized" deity. But in his estimation, belief in this "demythologized" God is not religious faith at all, but instead a dishonest cop-out for people who insist on clinging to religious belief in an age of science. "You're an atheist in my book... don't kid yourself," he writes.

In other words, you either believe in a Zeus-like god or you're an atheist - there's no in between. Of course, by Dennett's definition, I'm an atheist, and so are many of the greatest Christian thinkers of recent history: Tillich, Bultmann, Polkinghorne, and probably Barth. Only fundamentalists who talk about God as if he were the Wizard of Oz are religious in Dennett's book, which nicely confirms his belief that Christians are wacko. Dealing with the likes of Tillich and Niebuhr is hard for atheists, but Pat Robertson is so easy to topple!

As William Vallicella at Maverick Philosopher points out very well, strident atheists like Dennett need their "straw men" and they mold their definitions of religion accordingly:

"What Dennett is implying is that the original monotheistic conception of God had a definite content, but that this conception was deformed and rendered abstract to the point of being emptied of all content. Dennett is of course assuming that the only way the concept of God could have content is for it to have a materialistic, anthropomorphic content. Thus it is not possible on Dennett's scheme to interpret the anthropomorphic language of the Old Testament in a figurative way as pointing to a purely spiritual reality which, as purely spiritual, is neither physical nor human.

Dennett seems in effect to be confronting the theist with a dilemma. Either your God is nothing but an anthropomorphic projection or it is so devoid of recognizable attributes as to be meaningless. Either way, your God does not exist. Surely there is no Big Guy in the Sky, and if your God is just some Higher Power, some unknowable X, about which nothing can be said, then what exactly are you affirming when you affirm that this X exists? Theism is either the crude positing of something as unbelievable as Santa Claus or Wonder Woman, or else it says nothing at all.

Either crude anthropomorphism or utter vacuity.

Dennett's Dilemma -- to give it a name -- is quite reasonable if you grant him his underlying naturalistic and scientistic (not scientific) assumptions, namely, that there is exactly one world, the physical world, and that (future if not contemporary) natural science provides the only knowledge of it. On these assumptions, there simply is nothing that is not physical in nature. Therefore, if God exists, then God is physical in nature. But since no enlightened person can believe that a physical God exists, the only option a sophisticated theist can have is to so sophisticate and refine his conception of God as to drain it of all meaning. And thus, to fill out Dennett's line of thought in my own way, one ends up with pablum such as Tillich's talk of God as one 'ultimate concern.' If God is identified as whatever is one's ultimate concern, then of course God, strictly speaking, does not exist. Dennett and I will surely agree on this point...

Dennett needs to give up the question-begging and the straw-man argumentation. His talk of the 'deformation' of the God concept shows that he is unwilling to allow what he would surely allow with subject-matters, namely, the elaboration of a more adequate concept of the subject-matter in question. Instead, he thinks the theist must be stuck with the crudest conceptions imaginable."

While William is right on target with his criticism of Dennett, he totally misrepresents Tillich's doctrine of God. Indeed, to my way of thinking, Tillich offers one of the best solutions to "Dennett's dilemma." More on this in the future ...


Andy said...

It seems that if you took a similar approach to physics you would say that either you believe the world is strictly deterministic or you must believe that it is entirely random and utterly unpredictable. All this business about probability waves and wave/particle duality is nothing but sophistry for those who wish to cling to a Newtonian system that has failed.

Thomas Adams said...

Great comment, Melancthon!!! Your analogy makes its clear that both religious and scientific concepts evolve as more data and insights become available, and that our previous conceptions (whether of God as "person", or electron as "particle") often turn out to be too simplistic. It’s amazing that Dennett does not allow that theological concepts can be refined in the same manner as scientific theories. He is so convinced that religion is primitive and irrational that he misses the obvious similarities between the scientific and theological methods (something that Polkinghorne has illustrated quite well). Theology, like science, strives for a self-consistent and detailed description of reality, and thus it must allow for change. However, this change is not a salvage operation, but true advancement in our understanding of God and man.

I would be very interested to hear Dennett’s reply to your comment. Undoubtedly, he would say that scientific theories like quantum mechanics are testable, whereas God is not a valid scientific premise. This is undoubtedly true, but could it be otherwise if God is God?