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Ch. 11 - Now What Do We Do? 
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The Pope of Literature

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Post Re: Ch. 11 - Now What Do We Do?
GOD defiles Reason: I didn't think you'd like to be tied down to a definitive yes or no, anyway.

It isn't that I don't want to be tied down. I don't want to make a black and white issue of something that's more complex than that.

If that's the case, then it's not Dennett who is suggesting what you say he's suggesting.

Dennett is suggesting, and he's being very vague about some points, presumably in order to be diplomatic about suggestions which are likely to meet a flat refusal from some corners. And yeah, I'm suggesting what seems to me to be the most reasonable interpretation of what it is that Dennett is suggestion, but it's open to alternative interpretations as well. I just happen to think that Dennett has furnished good reason to think that he'd point to a particular way of dealing with things, even though he's keeping rather tight-lipped in the book itself.

Me: What he seems to be saying is that any suggestion that the sacred element in religion (and every religion that I know of claims a sacred element -- it's a defining feature, it seems)... ahem, that any suggestion that the sacred element in religion must be respected by researchers is nothing but a smoke screen "designed" -- either intentionally or memetically -- to shield religion from scrutiny.
GDR: What's your opinion about that in general? Do you think anyone at all would ever use the sacred element of their religion to guard against critical questioning?

Yeah, of course people could, and I'm sure that people do. On the tawdry level, sham artists have been doing it for ages. But that doesn't mean that there's an element of sham in every religious feature that makes claims that are unassessable by science. And I happen to think that there are good alternative explanations for those features. It looks to me like Dennett's smoke screen hypothesis is rooted in the assumption that all of these features are best explained by how they protect religion from skepticism. But it doesn't seem to me that skepticism has been, historically, sufficiently continuous or consistent to explain features that you find in almost every durable religious tradition.

Like, have you ever heard the "God is beyond/above logic" meme? ...What do you think is the purpose of that? Isn't that like a smoke screen? A protective shield?

I think it can very often be used to answer questions the person is unable to answer or unwilling to consider. That it lends itself to that use doesn't make it patently obvious that the smoke screen is the original or even primary function of that "meme". (Do we really need to call it a meme here? What use does the term "meme" serve in this context, that isn't covered by the term "idea"?) The idea that God is beyond logic is a direction pointed to be the monotheistic idea. In a polytheistic religion, like that of the ancient Greeks, it wouldn't have made much sense to posit that the gods superceded logic, and they pointed to this hierarchy of being by making the Olympic pantheon subject to Necessity and Order, which were religious conceptions of their own right. But once you've posited that the whole of the material world is the product of a single supernatural being, it becomes possible to ask in what relation that being stands to logic. And Christian theologians have debated the point as to which is ontologically (if not temporally) prior: God or logic.

I don't see any evidence to suggest that "God is beyond logic" arose as an element of apologetics prior to its advent as a point within theological discourse. In other words, it's entirely possible that the idea originated in theological elaboration and from there filtered into common and defensive usage. Dennett certainly doesn't provide any evidence to the contrary, but he seems to think it sufficient to suggest that, since such formulas can be deliberately used as smoke screens, it follows that there initial and primary function is just that. That's a possibility, but it's one that's bolstered mostly by his own bias, and not one that we're safe in building policy on until we've found better reason to accept it at face value.

Dennett doesn't want to do away with religion

Are you sure about that? I think part of his implicit assertion in the book is, that those who engage in this sort of research should be willing to drop religion altogether should the results show that it has more disadvantages than advantages. And I can't say for certain, but his tone and the direction of his conjecture leads me to wonder whether or not he isn't betting that the research will show against religion in the end.

But I think there are scientific explanations for why humans have those feelings about objects or ideas.

Sure. I think that very few religious believers in the industrialized world would argue that point. But that there are scientific explanations for those feelings shouldn't destroy the import of the feeling. Nor does it say much about the religious claims that precipitate those feelings.

If people weren't already indoctrinated in their religion, then there wouldn't be anything to become unhinged about if our society decided to teach our chitlins what religion is and how it has evolved.

I don't think it works that way. It's difficult to function at all without some sort of world view that serves as the nexus for your understanding of the things around you. If it isn't traditional religion, it'll be something else, and when everything you believe about the world is so intimately tied up with one unitary worldview, that worldview will tend to play the same role that traditional religions play. I'm not saying that, if religion were somehow removed from the playing field, something else would become a religion. It's entirely possible that we could displace religion with some combination of science and atheistic philosophy; they wouldn't necessary become religion as a result. But we would still try to weave them into a worldview that made possible certain institutions and behavior (like morality), and that would make them susceptible to the same sort of corruption and misuse that religion suffers now.

misterpessimistic: Exactly! And I feel that it is true whether people realize they are doing it or not.

You feel it's true, but how do you go about demonstrating that it's true. Dennett throws out the suggestion, says that it would make sense, but doesn't provide any solid support for it before he takes it as a given in later chapters.

The 'sacred' is almost always used when I approach people about why they believe, and when I offer arguments against what they offer.

This is more or less what I'm talking about. A distinction needs to be made, and it can be a subtle one if you're not looking for it. The scenario you're talking about is one that encourages religious believers to use the concept of the sacred in a certain sense, but that isn't necessarily the sense in which it was, and is, used in its normal context. You (and probably Dennett, as well) are encountering the term "sacred" in debate -- you've issued some sort of challenge to the person's belief, and they're returning an answer designed to meet that challenge. And if that were the only use of the term "sacred", then we wouldn't expect to find it in other contexts. But the term shows up in religious practice, in other words, when no challenge to belief is being made. In those contexts, there's no reason to assume that it's being invoked in order to answer skepticism. Moreover, there's every reason to believe that those are the normative uses of "sacred", and that the use of "sacred" in debate is an example of turning an idea to serve a goal which it was not originally intended to serve.

It looks to me as though Dennett has made the mistake of thinking that the debate scenario is indicative of the total context in which sacrality is invoked. But there's no reason that we should make the same mistake.

Mon Sep 18, 2006 4:52 pm
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