Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Reviewing Harris, Dennett, and Aslan

Secularism and Tolerance After 9/11, my review of Sam Harris' The End of Faith, Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, and Reza Aslan's No God But God is now up on the UU World web site. The physical magazines have been mailed to subscribers and I got mine yesterday.

Over the next few weeks I plan to write articles here that spin off of that review and go deeper into various points. (I hope to post the first one later today.) But this would be a good place to have a general discussion.

Let me kick off that discussion by saying a little about why I grouped these three books and wrote this article. For a lot of Humanists and secularists, 9/11 created a sense of urgency about religion. Secularist scholars had been saying for centuries that religion would fade away as science advanced, but it just isn't happening. Instead we seem to be in retreat -- especially in America, but also across the Muslim world: Fundamentalism is advancing and becoming more influential, not fading away. We're still battling over teaching evolution, and it seems unimaginable that America could ever elect an atheist president.

Harris and Dennett are each in their own way saying that secularists have been too complacent and have been playing too nice. We need to actively go after religion, not just wait for some inevitable historical process to play out.

The problem I have with both books is that they preach only to their own secular choir. They present religion in such an oversimplified and stereotyped way that no person who is actually religious will be moved in the slightest by either book. Believers will feel that they have been slandered by people who just don't get it, and (if anything) will be hardened against any real doubt.

Buddha is supposed to have said that hatred will not end through hatred. Well, ignorance will not end through ignorance either. If Humanists are going to carry the battle into the religious community and convert anybody, they're going to have to understand who their potential converts are and why they aren't already Humanists. Harris and Dennett not only don't do this, they seem to have no interest in doing it. For both authors, real religion is fundamentalism. Anybody who isn't either a fundamentalist or a Humanist is just trying to have it both ways.

I picked Aslan's book as a way to contrast this Humanist caricature of religion -- and especially of Islam -- with a genuine thinking person trying to make Islam work in the 21st century. Holding Aslan in mind while you read Harris and Dennett makes the latter two books fall apart; you quickly realize that Aslan's point of view is represented nowhere in the Harris/Dennett picture of religion.


CK said...

Nice review--I will have to check out Aslan. I read both Dennett and Harris this summer. Harris' book disturbed me more, because he glossed over so much in his effort to demonize all forms of faith without "evidence." He sidestepped some serious epistemological problems and overlooked questions about scientific knowledge. And yes, his ethical slipperiness was shocking--I had to re-read the chapter to be sure I wasn't missing something!

I think that sometimes religious moderates may underestimate the damage that fanaticism can do; but recently I've run across more than a few comments about religious liberals and moderates being 'failed fundamentalists.' These criticisms come from both sides, atheist and fundamentalist. It just shows that they're still stuck in a dichotomous way of thinking.

Steve Caldwell said...


You might want to check out the Sam Harris interview in Salon.com:

The disbeliever

I posted a brief blog comment about the article on my blog here:

Interview with Sam Harris (Author of "The End of Faith")

I also posted a brief comment about Harris' book on Chalicechick's blog:


I think that an implicit conclusion that one can draw from Harris' book is the importance of traditional no-hell Universalism in creating the potential for real freedom of belief. Harris make the following observation in his book:

"Intolerance is thus intrinsic to every creed. Once a person believes -- really believes -- that certain ideas can lead to eternal happiness, or to its antithesis, he cannot tolerate the possibility that the people he loves might be led astray by the blandishments of unbelievers. Certainty about the next life is simply incompatible with tolerance in this one."

In other words, get rid of Hell and one can have freedom of belief.

Doug Muder said...


Also note the slight-of-hand in the Harris quote you give: Belief is equated with certainty. This is another way that Harris writes liberalism out of the religious picture.

Jay Conner said...

Harris is also posted at Truthdig, in a summary of his basic argument, and last time I looked, more than 1200 comments.
I found it all basically the sophomoric arguments I made while a sophomore, and that's more then 50 years ago. Advancement should have been made since then, but we're still recycling all the same tired old stuff.

I think it results from an inadequate concept of what a god might be. The old bible concept is nowhere near adequate, and we're left with religion as a kind of blindness when it should be a sort of vision.

Doug Muder said...

I agree with Jay's comment about the inadequacy of the old Bible picture of God. Sometimes Humanists are as conservative about religion as fundamentalists -- they know what religion they rejected, and they don't want you to change it on them. If you do come up with a creative vision of God, you're sure to piss off two kinds of people -- the orthodox and the atheists. Probably about equally.

kimrdhbsms said...

The old bible concept is nowhere near adequate

That's why Zoroaster(and others) refused to let anyone write it down. Writing seems to remove the spirit....

Doug Muder said...

And Socrates: "Even the best of writings ar but a reminiscence of what we know, ... only in principles of justice and goodness and nobility taught and communicated orally for the sake of instruction and graven in the soul -- which is the true way of writing -- is there clearness and perfection and seriousness." (from the dialog "Phaedrus")

chutney said...

Even that old bible picture of god is problematic. What we think of as the traditional picture of god as painted by the bible is a particularly 19/20th century American take on it. What looks like an old, traditionalist view was innovative and radical at one time. Aside from the obvious superficial similarities---old man in the sky and all that---interpretations of the god of the bible have varied widely throughout history.

Yet another wrinkle the Dennetts and Harrises (and Dawkinses) of the world would prefer to ignore. Obviously, the god they heard about in third grade Sunday School is the one every Christian has always believed in throughout time.

Virtue01 said...

Just to stand up for Dennett for a moment, it seems to me that he is unfairly lumped together with Dawkins and Harris, as though he didn't have his own point of view.

So many people accuse Dennett of oversimplifying what religion is or can be, yet nobody I've seen has substantiated that charge with examples from his book or other writings. I'd like to see them try.

I wonder how many people have actually read "Breaking The Spell." Of those who read the whole thing, how many actually understood it?

Dennett's arguments and conclusions are a whole lot more sophisticated and subtle than those made by Harris and Dawkins. It is probably for that reason that Dennett isn't given the attention he is due, and that louder, more radical authors like Dawkins and Harris get all the attention.

For those who care, Dennett's book is not about revealing religions' shortcomings or exposing religion as a threat to humanity. It's not even an attempt to describe or account for so-called "religious" experiences. Rather, it's an argument for why religion, like all other things in life, should be open to scientific investigation.

While he does discuss how approach such a scientific and rational investigation (which, by the way, has been taken up at various points and in various manners since at least the time of David Hume), Dennett makes it quite clear that he is not uniequivocally against religion, and doesn't claim to make any definitive conclusions about the value of religion in general.

That is quite a far cry from the sort of projects Harris and Dawkins have undertaken.

Virtue01 said...

Furthermore, the article "Reviewing Harris, Dennett, and Aslan" criticizes Dennett for apparently not including certain people in his definition of "theist," and certain groups in his definition of "religion." This criticism of Dennett fails to take into account Dennett's reasons for defining terms as he does. Perhaps so-called religious liberalism does not qualify as a religion by Dennett's proposed (and admittedly tentative) definition. That is not an attack on religious liberalism.

The point is that, if we are to understand what religions are (and we should understand what they are), we need to have some definitions. And, as Dennett points out, perhaps some organizations that are currently thought of as religions will not qualify as religions. That has nothing to do with their value or importance in the world; only with their placement in our scientific categorization of phenomena. Indeed, if religious liberalism does not qualify as a religion by Dennett's standards, then whatever Dennett says about religions simply does not apply to religious liberalism. That is a fair conclusion, but one which in no way undermines Dennett's arguments or devalues his work.

Doug Muder said...


Thanks for the comments. I agree that Dennett is doing something different than Harris and Dawkins. He is proposing further study, where H&D don't seem to feel that any further study is necessary.

The rest of your argument seems to me to be founded on the assumption that the scientists who do the study and the writers who popularize it can be trusted to proceed fairly and honestly.

If so, then yes, the conclusions will recognized as valid only for the systems of thought, practice, and belief that the definition applies to, so the exactly content of that definition won't matter.

Can you appreciate the possibility that it will actually work out like this: Religion will get defined in such a way that only stupid religions are admissible, and then it will be proved scientifically that religion is stupid. "Scientists Prove Religion is for Morons" the headlines will read.

As an analogy, a book worth checking out is Afterwards You're a Genius: Faith, Medicine and the Metaphysics of Healing by Chip Brown. One running theme in the book is the way medical research is constantly "disproving" alternative medical practices by over-literalizing the alternative theory's claims, designing experiments that the alternative practitioners themselves would not have expected to show any results, and then announcing that the theory is disproved when the "predicted" results don't appear.

Virtue01 said...

I don't assume that scentists and authors are always honest and fair. Nor do I assume that they are infallible. However, since scientific studies are done out in the open, their shortcomings (intentional or not) are more easily recognized and thereby overcome.

I don't advocate trusting anybody absolutely and without caution, and that goes for scientists and philosophers as well as theologians and preachers. And, frankly, I don't understand why you suggested that my conclusions are based on unwarranted trust.

What I said was that your criticism of Dennett fails to take into account his reasons for defining terms as he does. That has nothing to do with how far we should unconditionally trust him (or other thinkers) to wield those definitions.

I see your point about the risk of defining "religion" too strictly. But so far I don't see any problem with Dennett's definition. It is quite common for people to use the term "religion" to refer to just about any set of beliefs. That is sloppy use of the language, in my opinion. I don't see what is religious about "religious humanism " or "religious naturalism."

I'm sure you can define "religion" to include all that, and more, of course. And perhaps Dennett's definition isn't the best possible one (he admits as much, if I recall correctly), though I think his definition is quite good. Like Dennett, I see a lot value in distinguishing between philosophical or spiritual attitudes (such as religious humanism and naturalism) and religious institutions like the Catholic Church.

Doug Muder said...

Virtue01: I wonder if you would be so accepting of an author who purported to be studying and drawing conclusions about "science", but defined the term in such a way that what you considered to be the best science was left out, while a bunch of bogus and pseudo-science was included.

Virtue01 said...

I don't think of any sciences as being better than any others. But I suppose it is possible for somebody to come along and define "science" such that some of the sciences I find particularly interesting are left out. That would be interesting. My acceptance of the hypothetical definition would depend on the consequences of applying it. I wouldn't dismiss the notion outright.

As for my attitude towards the hypothetical author, that would depend on the value and integrity of their attitude and ideas, and on their motivation for making their arguments. Of course, my attitude would also be influenced by what I knew of the author's background.

As for Dennett, I've been a fan of his writings on the philosophy of mind for some time, and I've come to appreciate and respect his philosophical integrity. I am therefore inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, though that doesn't mean I'm willing to accept whatever he says without question.

The most productive and enlightening response to Dennett, I think, is conversational. If you disagree with any of his definitions, you're free to suggest different ones. We can then we can see how that affects our understanding.

Doug Muder said...

"As for Dennett, I've been a fan of his writings on the philosophy of mind for some time, and I've come to appreciate and respect his philosophical integrity. I am therefore inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt, though that doesn't mean I'm willing to accept whatever he says without question."

I came to this book having read "Consciousness Explained" back when it came out. My impression of that book was that its conclusions were baked into its assumptions and definitions from the beginning. There was interesting thought in the book, but Dennett consistently claimed he was doing more than he did -- starting with the title "Consciousness Explained".

What I think CE did was show how self-consistent a functionalist approach to consciousness is: If you start by equating consciousness with its external manifestations, none of the well-known objections force you to abandon that position.

That's an interesting point, and if he had stated it that way I'd have been impressed with the book. But he consistently made much more sweeping claims.

So, given our divergent views of Dennett's earlier work, it's not surprising that we gave him different amounts of benefit-of-the-doubt on this one.

Virtue01 said...

Well, I'll grant that the title of "Consciousness Explained" is misleading. A title more representative of the book's content would've been, "Consciousness Can Be Explained"; but I think you'll agree that the shorter version is catchier and has a bit more of a punch to it.

Regardless of the inappropriateness of that book's title, I don't agree that Dennett ever claimed to do more than he did (in that book or in any other of his publications that I've read). I could be wrong, of course, and wouldn't mind being proven so.

Furthermore, I think you're wrong in suggesting that Dennett equates consciousness to its external manifestations.

The main thrust of "Consciousness Explained", besides giving Dennett room to explain his idea of a Multiple Drafts model of consciousness (an idea which Dennett fully admits is incomplete and still only a suggestion for a model, and not even a rough draft for a scientifically testable model of consciousness), is to demonstrate the benefits of abandoning unnecessarily limiting assumptions about the mind, such as the notions of the Cartesian Theater and qualia.

The point is, I don't recall him claiming to do any more than what he did.

In any case, since you had such a negative conception of that work, it's not surprising that you aren't so willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in "Breaking The Spell", especially since it touches heavily on a subject so obviously dear to you.

Still, even if you don't want to give him the benefit of the doubt, I think his efforts call for a fairer, more productive response. Disagreement is fine, of course. Outright dismissal is another thing entirely.

Don Berg said...

Here's an excerpt from my review of Breaking The Spell, I am curious to know what you think of this idea:

"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."

Doug Muder said...


The two-axis breakdown that you describe would certainly an improvement over a vague project to define and analyze "religion". It's just way too easy to define "religion" as a straw man and then knock it down.

A third axis you might consider is center-of-concern, and it might run from human to divine, or whatever a particular system might put in the higher role.

For example, someone might think that the purpose of religion is to teach humans how to serve God, and whether or not practicing the religion improves human life is beside the point.

Someone else might hold that true religion teaches people the best way to be happy or provides society with the set of rules most conducive to human well-being.