Sunday, October 16, 2016

Is Daniel Dennett a New Atheist?

Over the last several years since returning home from my mission, I have payed close attention to the so called "New Atheist" movement, which began officially in 2004 with the release of Sam Harris' book The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, and continued to pick up steam with the 2006 release of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion, and the 2007 release of the late Christopher Hitchens' book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. For those unfamiliar with the term "New Atheism", in short it is a movement that advocates atheism and humanism, and wishes for the destruction of all religion and religious belief in favor of science and reason. The only thing that is "new" about the New Atheism is its fervor however; one will not find very convincing arguments in either of these three books, this is not the sophisticated atheism of Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, or Antony Flew (before his conversion to deism in 2004). This is not my opinion as much as the opinion of other secular thinkers (for instance, read these reviews of Dawkin's book here, and here).
Daniel C. Dennett

I was however shocked that Daniel C. Dennett, professor of philosophy at Tufts University and my favorite living philosopher, is included in this movement. Not only is he included, he is considered a member of the "Four Horsemen" of the movement (Harris, Dawkins, and Hitchens being the others). Why so? Because in 2007 these four gentlemen sat at a round-table and discussed religion, and since the release of the video (which can be viewed here) the name Four Horsemen has stuck. Dennett, like the others, released a book about religion entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon in 2006.

Earlier this week, I posted a quote from Dennett about free will and determinism (Dennett is a classical compatibilist on free will, as I am), and my friend who is pursuing a PhD in evolutionary biology commented on the post saying that Dennett was a proponent of Intelligent Design Theory (a thought that would cause Dennett to have a heart attack). After telling him that he was thinking of William Dembski, my friend admitted his error, but asked if Dennett was very anti-religious. This post is basically in response to that comment.

Dennett, like Harris, Dawkins, and the late Hitchens, is an atheist and a secularist. He is also a strong advocate of the "Brights" movement (a movement that encourage atheists to call themselves Brights and be proud of their atheism). In spite of this, it is incorrect I think to label Dennett a New Atheist for at least two reasons.

First, while Dennett is not religious himself, he is not anti-religious. In an interview with Dennis Prager, when asked what the central thesis of his book was he said:
"The thesis of my book is that religion can be studied as a natural phenomenon, just like music, or baseball, or money or anything else that is in the natural world, and that we jolly well should do it because it is too important a phenomenon to remain so ignorant about. So we should study it with the full set of tools that science gives us."
Close quote. That is the biggest difference between the Dennett and his fellow horsemen; one thinks that religion should be studied, the others think religion should be destroyed. Also, later in the interview, when asked if he was concerned that if religion were destroyed morality would erode, Dennett admitted that he was, which Harris and Dawkins would certainly reject. This does not mean that Dennett thinks that morality is tied to religion; he rejects that notion in the interview. But, he does see religion ultimately as a source for good and wishes that to continue.

Second, the New Atheism is characterized by not taking religion seriously and not debating with serious religious thinkers. Dawkins' book, when talking about Thomas Aquinas' arguments for God's existence, simply caricatures them rather than engaging them, which is a fine example of how throughout his book he shows over and over again he doesn't know what he is talking about. Also, Dawkins refuses to debate serious Christian thinkers like William Lane Craig or Richard Swinburne, and when asked why he says because Craig approves of genocide, which Craig does not, and even if he did would not excuse Dawkins from debating him, a classic example of a red herring. Harris has debated Craig, but he did nothing during the debate to show that he even understood what the debate was about; the debate about whether the grounds for morality were natural or supernatural, Harris never talked about that and instead attacked Christianity throughout the debate (which can be watched here).

Dennett, being a philosopher and knowing the relevant information, does none of these things. He is very respectful of religion and religious people. While he mentions a few religious arguments in his book and counter-argues them, he never demurs of those who presented the argument he is countering. Also, in contrast to Dawkins, Dennett has debated with noted religious thinkers such as Oxford theology professor Alister McGrath, and he stayed on topic the entire time (debate can be viewed here). In addition, Dennett has debated with Christian philosopher Alvin Plantiga about whether science and religion are compatible, and also co-authored a book with Plantiga about it (which I am currently reading).

In neither temperament or practice is Daniel Dennett a New Atheist; he is an example of what atheists should be as they argue with theists about their beliefs and how we can collectively share the world and make it a better place. If I were ever to become an atheist, I hope to be the kind that Dennett is.

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