Thursday, January 26, 2006

Common-Sense Religion

A very odd article by Daniel Dennett at CHR. I found this passage particularly puzzling:

In Marjoe, the 1972 documentary about the bogus evangelist Marjoe Gortner, we see poor people emptying their wallets and purses into the collection plate, their eyes glistening with tears of joy, thrilled to be getting "salvation" from the charismatic phony. The question that has been troubling me ever since I first saw the film is: Who is committing the more reprehensible act — Gortner, who lies to people to get their money, or the filmmakers who expose the lies (with Gortner's enthusiastic complicity), thereby robbing the good folk of the meaning they thought they had found for their lives?


I haven't seen the movie, so I might be missing something; but obviously lying to people to get their money is a more reprehensible act than exposing lies! What sort of moral priorities would one have to have in order to think otherwise? What sort of absurd candidate for a dilemma is this? Nor does it seem at all parallel to the other dilemmas Dennett notes. And this was funny:

Or are all evangelical preachers just as false as Gortner? Certainly Muslims think so, even though they are generally too discreet to say it. And Roman Catholics think that Jews are just as deluded, and Protestants think that Catholics are wasting their time and energy on a largely false religion, and so forth. All Muslims? All Catholics? All Protestants? All Jews?


But which Muslims? Which Catholics? Which Protestants? In fact, anyone who actually takes the trouble to know anything about Muslims knows that Muslims don't generally think evangelical preachers are as false as deliberate liars; they believe them to be mistaken and confused on certain key things, and right about a lot of other things, namely all the doctrinal views they share in common with Muslims. Ditto with Catholics and Jews; ditto with Protestants and Catholics. This is why it's possible to talk across the boundary between them. Dennett goes on to say we don't know how many there are in each group, those who take extreme views and those who actually take the trouble to recognize similarities and distinctions; but it's only because he places such an emphasis on sincerity that this is even relevant to the argument.

And it isn't actually clear why sincerity is playing such a role in the argument. Sincerity only plays a role in assessment of someone's personal character; it tells us nothing about how we should regard a particular position. Pick any position you choose; whether people sincerely accept that position should have an effect on how you deal with them in particular, and none whatsoever on how you deal with the position. The sincerity of a Nazi just makes him more culpable, and alleviates the Nazism not in the least; the insincerity of someone who speaks the truth does not tarnish truth in the least. Dennett's argument is weird because it's a set of equivocations implying to most of us that our faith that truth is better than falsehood is naive; but the equivocations, the failure to make reasonable distinctions, do nothing toward this end. And this annoys me:

In the adult world of religion, people are dying and killing, with the moderates cowed into silence by the intransigence of the radicals in their own faiths, and many adherents afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe for fear of breaking Granny's heart, or offending their neighbors to the point of getting run out of town, or worse.


Again, the question is, Which moderates? If Dennett knew anything about Muslims, for instance, he would know that Muslim moderates have not been silent about extremists, even in very conservative Muslim countries. And the same could be said for many other cases. Further, Dennett just got through claiming that we can't know how many people are sincere or insincere in their faith; so whence comes the 'many' in "many adherents [are] afraid to acknowledge what they actually believe"?

Another puzzle. Dennett says, "In order to adopt such a moderate position, however, you have to loosen your grip on the absolutes that are apparently one of the main attractions of many religious creeds," but at no point in his argument does he give any reasons to think that this is so. He seems to imply that they are (at least more likely to be) insincere -- being a religious moderate generally requires that you be a hypocrite and have a "systematically masked creed". This is perhaps why Dennett puts such emphasis on sincerity: he sympathizes with moderates but regards them as utter hypocrites, and so agonizes over how he should regard them morally. I suppose it's not an uncommon sort of trouble; I have seen it many times with a certain type of very simple-minded Christian who, thinking that all atheists must be hypocrites to be moral, puzzles over whether he should laud them for being moral or condemn them for being hypocrites.

Another odd passage:

Thanks to technology, what almost anybody can do has been multiplied a thousandfold, but our moral understanding about what we ought to do hasn't kept pace. You can have a test-tube baby or take a morning-after pill to keep from having a baby; you can satisfy your sexual urges in the privacy of your room by downloading Internet pornography, or you can copy your favorite music free instead of buying it; you can keep your money in secret offshore bank accounts or purchase stock in cigarette companies that are exploiting impoverished third-world countries; and you can lay minefields, smuggle nuclear weapons in suitcases, make nerve gas, and drop "smart bombs" with pinpoint accuracy. Also, you can arrange to have $100 a month automatically sent from your bank account to provide education for 10 girls in an Islamic country who otherwise would not learn to read and write, or to benefit 100 malnourished people, or provide medical care for AIDS sufferers in Africa. You can use the Internet to organize citizen monitoring of environmental hazards or to check the honesty and performance of government officials — or to spy on your neighbors. Now, what ought we to do?


These are what Dennett later calls imponderable questions -- whether we ought to fund exploitation of the poor, lay minefields, smuggle nuclear weapons in suitcases, make nerve gases, and drop bombs! And again, the question is: Whose moral understanding hasn't kept pace with technology? And according to what criterion do we determine that moral understanding is or is not keeping pace?

Another odd statement:

That's why those who have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem: If they haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of such delegated authority over their lives, then they are taking a personally immoral stand.


But clearly this involves an implausible diagnosis. People with an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings (but which moral teachings?) of their religion aren't necessarily giving pastors/rabbis/imams/priests "delegated authority over their lives"; they are giving the teaching itself moral authority and simply using pastors/priests/rabbis/imams to help them pin down what it is. People often don't delegate much moral authority to pastors and the like; they usually assume that they already know what's moral and what's not, and make use of pastors etc. for things that puzzle them. And they do, in fact, consider on their own whether their pastors etc. are worthy of any authority; because it's a very common phenomenon for people to search out pastors, etc., who already agree with them on the points they consider important, and ignore or condemn those who don't.

Indeed, throughout Dennett makes vague generalizations which he never takes the trouble to clarify or defend; the essay is one long tissue of prejudices and stereotypes from beginning to end. This could have been a tolerable philosophical essay if Dennett had stuck with the theme in his Fred passage, and developed it. It wouldn't have been relevant to much beyond a very simplistic position; but it would have been a respectable argument. But instead of discussing a position, he discusses, in a vague, insinuating way, motives and psychology, without any indication that he needs to show that he is doing more than appealing to stereotypes and prejudices. As it is, Dennett's essay turns out neither to be relevant to much nor to be a respectable argument. Dennett says that deeply religious people who are rationally oriented will have no difficulty at all with his conclusions; but I think -- and hope -- this is not true, because I think and hope that they would have higher standards of reasoning than Dennett shows in this essay.

(See also Macht's discussion of it at prosthesis.)

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