No. 118 (essentialsaltes) wrote,
No. 118

Breaking the Aorta

I finished Dan Dennett's Breaking the Spell. It's an intriguing and hard-to-categorize book. In many ways, he is the anti-Dawkins. Rather than swinging a machete of heavy anti-religious wit, Dennett bends over backwards to reassure his religious audience that, like a doctor or dentist, his scientific probing of religion 'won't hurt a bit'. He's trying to allay the fears that this investigation might 'break the spell' of religion. I wish he spent more time doing the investigation than allaying fears. Though the book is filled with many interesting ideas, it still reads as a prologue for work yet to be done.
Perhaps the most intriguing thing is Dennett's idea of 'belief in belief'. Obviously, theists typically believe in God, but another common idea is the 'belief in the belief in God'. In other words the idea that religion itself confers benefits, whether or not the religion is true. A recent Harris poll demonstrated that 42% of Americans aren't absolutely sure of God's existence. Yet, America is hardly 42% agnostic and atheist - those groups tend to poll at around 10-11% at most. So there's something like a third of the country that believes more in belief than they do in God - they absolutely assert that they are religious, but they do not absolutely assert the existence of their god(s).
You've all heard (well, okay, I have -- many a time) the theists who say that, if they lost their faith, they'd immediately run out and start robbing, raping and killing. After all, what's to stop them, if not religion?
This is part of 'belief in belief', the idea that having a religion (any religion) somehow automatically makes you a better person. And that without belief, one is automatically morally defective. Of course, this is baloney. The prison population looks more or less like the nation, religiously speaking. If anything, there is a dearth of atheists in pokey. So belief in belief can act like a self-scare tactic - I hafta believe to be a good person. But it appears that there's no reason to be scared after all. Maybe this is a spell of self-hypnosis that deserves to be broken.
On the whole, the book gets a tepid thumbs up from me. But I give a more enthusiastic recommendation to something Dennett's written even more recently. He's currently in the hospital, recovering from an operation to repair a dissected aorta. (Why is it that guys like Randi and Dennett wind up in the hospital with heart problems while jerks like Haggard enjoy meth-fueled gay orgies?) In any case, it gave Dennett the opportunity to Thank Goodness. (page is a bit munged, start reading at the second Thank Goodness)

The best thing about saying thank goodness in place of thank God is that there really are lots of ways of repaying your debt to goodness—by setting out to create more of it, for the benefit of those to come. Goodness comes in many forms, not just medicine and science. Thank goodness for the music of, say, Randy Newman, which could not exist without all those wonderful pianos and recording studios, to say nothing of the musical contributions of every great composer from Bach through Wagner to Scott Joplin and the Beatles. Thank goodness for fresh drinking water in the tap, and food on our table. Thank goodness for fair elections and truthful journalism. If you want to express your gratitude to goodness, you can plant a tree, feed an orphan, buy books for schoolgirls in the Islamic world, or contribute in thousands of other ways to the manifest improvement of life on this planet now and in the near future.
Tags: blog, book, religion, science

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