Comments and Notes on Dyson on Dennett

June 28, 2006 at 3:28 pm

I’ve started reading the New York Review of Books recently and due to either a change my brain’s neuronal wiring or chemistry or that I’ve fallen in love with Lamy pens  I’ve begun to underline anything and everything of interest or even midly questionable to me.

Freeman Dyson Relgion from the Outside 

Mr. Dyson takes on the work of Daniel Dennet 
who he describes as a philosopher, but according to his web page is actually a congitive researcher, which migh explain Mr. Dennet’s quanitification of his arguement into nearly economic models of competition, after all the method of proof from the scientces or empericism can’t quite be applied to religion. It isn’t possible to argue with in the frame of relgion using a scienteific model (or at least usually I would assume the I.D. proponents are attempting to reconcile the two), but Mr. Dyson’s arguement doesn’t rest on such pressumptions. He takes on Dennet from the sociological perspective. According to Mr. Dyson, “Dennet, looking at religion from the outside, comes to the opposite conclusion. He sees the extreme religious sects that are breeding grounds for gangs of young terrorists and murders, with the mass of ordinary belivers giving them moral support.” While Dyson feels that churches hold communities together and provide support for the poor (something provably true, Churches still make up the majority of charitable donations and assistance for the poor in the U.S.). amongst other communal benefits. As Mr. Dyson says, “more attention is paid to providing plenty of free parking and babysitting than to the proper interpretation of passages of scripture.” Which is certianly true. As much as folks in Asia use after school education as day care, Americans seem addicted to the church as a one all for after school use. But getting back to the point. Dennet sees religion as an evolutionary process which has ended with “market-driven evangelical megachurches”. Dennet finds, “evidence that large numbers of people who identify themselves as religious believers do not in fact beleive the doctrines of their religions but only believe in belief as a desirable goal. The phenomenon of ‘belief in belief’ makes religion attractive to many people who would otherwise be hard to convert.”

 It is then ironic then that Dyson’s comments on the megachurches seems to fit with Dennet’s idea, that the modern day American church competes by providing additional services such as day care. I don’t take issue with Dyson’s arguement. Dennt wants to know when religion will go away, Terrorists aren’t terribly popular. Palestinians might have elected Hamas to their government for instance (although not a good instance becuase hamas is more political than religious), but most still voted in a referndum to recongnize Israel, or similarly religious groups. Bin Laden takes great pains to make sure his video statements to the Arab media come across as well reasoned and rationale so as to appeal to the moderate. As Gordon S. Wood writes in “American Religion: The Great Retreat” (it was a review of two histories of American religion in the June 8th issue), “Religion was all-encompassing and despite the advances of science in the seventeenth century it was still the major means by which most people explained the world… They assumed that there existed a single orthodox religious truth to explain the world…” Essentially religion was like scienteific paradigms today, they “competed” to prove their vitality as working models for the “truth”. Dennet’s premise that most people don’t beleive in religion fully is probably rather true (although it does overlook the possibility that religious fundamentalism really is growing perhaps as a result to growing inequalities and a growing lack of faith in modern life) the church has the unique ability to reinvent itself without paying taxes hence it’s competition in growing into entertainment and education strikes me less as the churches competing for converts as for brand image. The scientefic method has advantages over the religious (it’s history is revisable with out losing it’s ability to claim absolute truth and if anything recent publications of The Gospel of Judas show that Christianity’s heretics had deeper political aims than perhaps convictions), and it’s model does seem to be ensured the ability to expand, but Christianity will hardly be destroyed by testable hypothesises and avoiding the specter of politics and interepretations by turning notions into math, it will really only be taken when it can not compete with the external instutions it has always relied on to exist wether truth or government or today health clubs, spas, and after school programs. What will kill religion is when we no longer need it to make our lives comfortable, and that perhaps more than Huxley goes to explain why religion has declined in England where it was a state sponsored affair and hence wasn’t as able to morph into the forms of the American/Canadain model.

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