Saturday, February 25, 2006

Dennett Breaking the Spell

Guardian Unlimited Books | Review | Beyond belief

In his preface, Dennett remarks that every foreign reader who saw drafts of the book complained of its American bias. His defence is that it is aimed at an American audience, since it is American fundamentalism that most threatens what he values about his own society. So, after the preliminary pep-talk to the choir, he gives a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon: apparently this programme comes as a tremendous shock to those Americans who have never heard of Hume, William James, or even Terry Pratchett.

I haven't read Dennett's book yet though I will--but I read quite a number of reviews. Apparently one of his themes is that it has been taboo to subject the phenomenon of religious belief to critical scrutiny and that he is out to fix that.

This is a very American thing, reflecting the current culture war between Fundamentalists promoting their agenda and the rest of the American public who are not on board. But it isn't new. Even when I was in high school, quite a long time ago, I learnt that you could score instant points as an "intellectual" by making anti-religious remarks. All you had to do to impress teachers was to say, "God doesn't exist" and they would write flattering comments in the margin of your papers: "Good!" or "I can see you're really thinking!" It didn't seem to matter whether you gave reasons or not: there was the just the idea that atheism was a smart, intellectual idea while religious believe was a dumb, naive idea.

Being an "intellectual" wasn't just a matter of having the right views about religious matters either. We got the idea early on that there was a short list of intellectual ideas, about politics, ethics, social organization and a number of other matters. Being smart was a matter of trotting out the smart ideas. I have a strong suspicion that this is largely a consequence of the American obsession with objective type tests, in particular the role of the SATs, the multiple choice tests that determine college admission. In my high school English classes we got vocabulary lists every week to memorize for the SATs. Oedipus and Hamlet were all very well but we knew that our academic and professional prospects depended on memorizing those lists. Getting the right answers determined whether we would work in management (or marry men who did) and live in leafy suburbs or live in three room apartments and drive trucks (or marry men who did).

Judging from students' blue books and papers I don't think much has changed. Like all members of my tribe I continually write "evidence for this?," "where's the argument?" and simply "why?" in the margins. And students invariably complain that they have given me the right answers and don't understand why they got adverse grades, that they studied with other students who got higher grades, came up with the same answers, and don't understand why their grades were different.

So it was with religion. I lived a sheltered life and never actually met any real Fundamentalists--to me, and to many other Americans they were mythical beasts. But we inherited a ready-made rhetoric from H. L. Mencken reporting on the Scopes "Monkey Trial" who coined the term "Bible Belt" and referred to the citizens of Dayton, Tennessee where the trial was held as "yokels," "morons" and "hillbillies" and from Sinclair Lewis' portrait of Elmer Gantry, the quintessential Fundamentalist preacher. They provided the canonical critique of religious belief, the right answers and the right noises, and the picture of American-style Fundamentalism as the religious paradigm--bigoted, uncritical, unreflective, dogmatic, money-grubbing and hypocritical. Even when I was growing up, when religious practice was still the norm, Mencken and Lewis provided the socially correct take on religion and the correct SAT-style answers: even though nominal religious affiliation and church weddings were de rigeur they still provided the right answers, the smart ideas, that you got points for giving--there are all these fundamentalist yokels out there who are hypocritical, unreflective and uneducated, who beat up on people that have honest doubts (like Frank Shallard in Elmer Gantry) and who taboo the scientific or critical study of religion. I'm not exactly sure how church-goers during the 1950s reconciled this with their religious practice but they did. I think it was something like, "Well, we go to church because we don't rule out the possibility that There's Something There, and because the family that prays together stays together, but of course we're not like those despicable, hypocritical fundamentalist yokels in Gopher Prairie."

Whatever. Dennett is a very smart guy. His piece Where Am I?" is probably the funniest piece of real philosophy ever written. (The funniest parody is Paul Jennings' Report on Resistentialism). Dennett's book is probably pretty good. The thing is that in the US you can always get a hearing by bashing Fundamentalists, claiming that there's a taboo against the the scientific or critical examination of religion and representing atheism as a shocking, radical new idea. And you can still pass yourself off as an intellectual on the cutting edge by replaying Mencken's reportage on the Scopes trial in 1925.


Andrew Brown said...

Yes. The book's formal vices are a tribute to his virtues. If he hadn't seen that there really is a problem with standard atheistical accounts of religious belief, he could have written a much more coherent and less illuminating book.

Actually, there is one further real weakness, related to the Menckenist assumptions, and this is that he keeps talking about what "we" should to, as if the development of religious faith and practice were in the hands of professors of philosophy at Tufts. "We and whose army?" I wrote the the margin.

bls said...

There weren't any fundamentalists in the 1950s. That was right after the war and people weren't nuts yet, and the mainline Protestants were still the big thing. Religion was still fairly normal in those days, although dull.

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