Daniel C. Dennett joins Bill Moyers on the Charlie Rose show to describe the biological basis of religious belief, which he explains in his new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies, and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. His other books include Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and Consciousness Explained.
Episode air date: 3rd April 2006
Bill Moyers: Daniel Dennett is here, trailing storm clouds of controversy. He’s a philosopher, a disturber of the peace, a provocateur, who says the confrontation between religious faith and the modern scientific world is not going away. Long ago, Daniel Dennett introduced the first frisbee into Britain when he was studying at Oxford. Ever since, he’s been releasing arguments like thunderbolts, aimed at notions of the supernatural and the ranks of the pious. He says the world is polarizing between the rational and the faithful, and it’s time to break the spell of religion. That’s the title of his latest book, Breaking the Spell, and it’s being hotly debated from pulpits and talk shows to faculty lounges and op-ed pages. It’s just the latest of many books, including Content and Consciousness, Freedom Evolves and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. He teaches at Tuft’s University, where he heads the Center for Cognitive Studies. He’s a self-described bright, the new word for atheist, and wrestling with God is not the only thing he does. He makes cider, picks blueberries. He’s a sculptor and a sailor. Charlie had reached out to him a few weeks ago, and I’m here to welcome Daniel Dennett to the show in Charlie’s stead.
Daniel Dennett: Bill, I’m delighted to be here.
Bill Moyers: People who go around America, confessing that they are — or proclaiming that they are atheistic are not going to win any popularity contests.
Daniel Dennett: Well, I’m not so sure about that. I find that everywhere I go, I find people, particularly young people, coming up to me and saying, thank goodness you’re doing this. We’re so grateful to you. It’s the first time we’ve heard a sane adult say anything like this. Coming out of the closet as a bright is actually I think a very important political thing to do. I know a lot of people in many states would never dare do it.
Bill Moyers: Where did that term come from, bright?
Daniel Dennett: A couple of high school — ex-high school teachers in California came up with the idea. And they started a Web site and started a movement. It wasn’t my coinage, although a lot of people think it was. I just decided this was worth a try, and so I decided to write about that and did an op-ed piece in The New York Times.
Bill Moyers: I remember it. Why not just use the old-fashioned term for atheist, or free thinker, which is a very popular name?
Daniel Dennett: Well, I think the idea was we needed a new, happy term, something a little bit in your face, something with a little bit of an edge so it would catch people’s attention. It was modeled very deliberately and very consciously on the homosexual kidnapping of the word gay, which took some time. It was not all that popular at first, but eventually it caught on, and I think everybody would have to say it was an important political move.
Bill Moyers: When you say these young people come up to you and say thank you, thank you, what are they thanking you for?
Daniel Dennett: They’re thanking me for confirming their hunch that it is quite all right to be an atheist, quite all right to — you can be a moral person, you can be a deeply engaged person, and you don’t have to be apologetic or quiet about it. In the same way you can stand up and say I’m a Baptist or I am a Buddhist, you can say I’m a bright.
Bill Moyers: There’s a church in Austin, Texas, where I went to the University of Texas, a Presbyterian church that kicked up a dust storm of controversy itself recently when it admitted an atheist into membership. The pastor says they’ve gotten letters from both sides, Christians write to them and quote, “How can you let someone join the church who cannot affirm the divinity of Christ? What’s wrong with you liberals?” The atheists get letters asking, “how can you as an atheist surrender your mind to a superstitious institution that gives birth to the inquisition and the crusades?” That pretty well sums up the popularity, doesn’t it?
Daniel Dennett: I think it does. But I don’t think we have to be so polarized. I mean, I don’t go around advertising my atheism all the time. Anybody asks me, I tell them. I don’t think it’s that important, quite frankly. I’m not a militant atheist. In fact, I have a lot of the church-going friends. I even go to church myself on occasion.
Bill Moyers: You go to church? Where?
Daniel Dennett: In New England. I was raised a Congregationalist, and I —
Bill Moyers: You were raised a Christian?
Daniel Dennett: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. And I —
Bill Moyers: Did you think that —
Daniel Dennett: I went to Sunday school. And I learned the hymns. And I still can recite some psalms, I’m pretty sure. Sure.
Bill Moyers: Did you think that the life of Jesus was the greatest story ever told, as many of us believed at the time?
Daniel Dennett: I thought it was a wonderful story, yes. I didn’t believe the supernatural part of it.
Bill Moyers: Even then, even as a child?
Daniel Dennett: I can’t remember. I guess I did for a while. But as soon as I thought about it seriously, I rejected that, sure.
Bill Moyers: When did you become an atheist? What caused the shift?
Daniel Dennett: There was no — there was no dramatic shift. I was I suppose a teenager, thinking about what made sense and what was plausible. And I saw through other supernatural things just fine. I didn’t see any reason to believe in poltergeists or any of the other crazy supernatural stuff, in astrology or transchanneling or anything like that. And I thought, well, I don’t see any reason to believe these stories just because they’re several thousand years ago.
Bill Moyers: Did you raise your children to be religious?
Daniel Dennett: No, but we did take them to — we did take them to church so that they could hear the music and learn the songs. We do — we love Christmas. And we have a Christmas carol party that we’ve had for 25 years, and all our friends come, and we all sing the music.
Bill Moyers: What about your grandchildren? Do you want them to be raised in a traditional —
Daniel Dennett: Yes, I’d like them to know the tradition. I have a grandson. And we’ve talked about this. He’s not in fact going to Sunday school now, but that would be fine if he did.
Bill Moyers: We went on Saturday night to Carnegie Hall for Brahms’ “Requiem.” Now, here is a man, a great composer, who had no place in his life really for organized religion. And yet that music opens with the words “blessed are they that mourn for they will be comforted.” And then the fourth movement of the “Requiem” draws on the 84th Psalm, “How lovely art thy tabernacle, o Lord of hosts! My soul longeth, yay, even fainteth for the courts of the Lord; my heart and my flesh crieth out for the living God. Blessed are they that dwell in thy house. They will be still praising thee.” Where do you think such longing arises?
Daniel Dennett: Well, I think the longing for comfort is not hard to understand. Death is a terrible blow, and our species is unique in all the species on the planet in being able to imagine our deaths, and knowing that we’re going to die and not liking that idea. And I think we have two competing urges. This is not so much my theory as the theory of several other people that I discuss in my book. One of them is — and these are rooted actually in our biology. They’re even rooted in our genes. And one of them is to get away from a corpse. It’s dangerous. It’s a source of disease. It is something to withdraw from. At the same time, this is a loved one, and that’s something to approach. So we’re tugged in two completely different directions. And you can’t just leave the body of a loved one. You have to do something. And out of that grows the rituals, the burial rituals, and out of that grows the sense that that person is still there. After all, your head is still teeming with, well, I wonder if she’d like, and what would she think of, and can she see me now? All of these habits of mind that we have about anybody that’s close to us — whether we love them or hate them, actually — those habits don’t just stop when a person dies. And so it’s very natural to understand how those habits could be turned into a sort of hallucinatory presence.
Bill Moyers: Joseph Campbell once said to me that he thought religion may well have begun when the first woman realized that was a corpse beside her and wondered where her husband had gone. You know? But that longing expressed in the woman, that longing expressed in the 84th Psalm moves on from just the desire for comfort to try to touch something transcendental. At least that’s how I read this powerfully poetical language.
Daniel Dennett: Well, Brahms’ “Requiem” is one of the greatest masterpieces of all time. I’ve sung it and loved it for years.
Bill Moyers: What does it touch in you?
Daniel Dennett: It touches many cords in me. I can be reduced to a shivering, trembling hulk by Bach, by the “St. Matthew Passion,” by Brahms. I’ve sung in a lot of choirs and choruses in my day. And the music moves me tremendously.
Bill Moyers: Biologically? Is that a biological —
Daniel Dennett: Of course it is.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean by — you say religion — earlier, you said religion has biological roots. What do you mean by that? You say this response to this great music is biological.
Daniel Dennett: Well, it’s partly biological. There’s a biological basis. All the great composers knew how to pluck the heart strings, how to create effects that were deeply moving. Bach was a genius. He did some very clever things. His great choral cantatas, for instance. He took hymn tunes, the choral tunes that were already deeply familiar to the people that were coming to church. They were like “Home on the Range” or Christmas carols to us. And then he reworked those into these very moving cantatas. He knew what he was doing. He was a master at what I would call memetic (ph) engineering. He was great at redesigning musical artifacts to strum every cord in every person’s heart.
Bill Moyers: But I would not dare put myself in Brahms’ mind, but don’t you think — don’t you think he was reaching for a spiritual — what he called a spiritual response, not a biological response? I want to make sure I understand that difference.
Daniel Dennett: Of course he was. Spiritual in the sense of having to do with your mind and what you know, your culture, the ideas, the stories that matter to you, and why. We, all of us, we start with our language, our mother tongue. This shapes our mind — our minds in unimaginably many ways. We imbibe stories, folklore, the Bible, the Koran, whatever the texts are, but also everything else. Television. George Washington and the cherry tree. All of this lore furnishes our minds, and it’s all available to be spoken to, to be rung in by poets, composers, preachers. Preachers are — I think that a really good preacher is like a jazz musician, is playing the old standards but always changing them, always adding, and surprising the congregation with a few new riffs, and leaving out the parts that didn’t go over so well when he did that same bit a few years ago. And so all of these traditions evolve over time. Sometimes very deliberately, when a church will decide to simply abandon some part of the liturgy or even stop putting those verses of the Bible in any of their — in any of their readings. You know perfectly well that most of the verses of the Bible are never going to be read out in church, because they don’t speak to people today.
Bill Moyers: But in church, the preacher’s sermon, the music, all leads to the invocation of God. And I listen to you — as I listen to you, I wonder, are you saying that God is essentially a linguistic contrivance to respond to the biological —
Daniel Dennett: No, no.
Bill Moyers: You don’t.
Daniel Dennett: I’m saying that the word God is of course a linguistic contrivance. It’s a word. And that word has been honored so much, has been treated so special that, of course, some religions say you’re not supposed to — you’re not supposed to name God. But that’s really —
Bill Moyers: I am who I am.
Daniel Dennett: That’s, in fact, the same tradition, just with a mirror in front of it. It’s still — it is a sort of creating a fetish around the word. And, as you know, today, hardly any two people agree on what they mean by God. And this creates, in fact, I think a sort of preposterous illusion, where people say, well, you know, we’re not atheists, because we all believe in God. But if you went around and asked the people around the table, well, what do you mean by God? What do you mean by God? What do you mean by God? You’d find it was all different. This is a bad pun. This isn’t something — this isn’t something that they all believe in.
Bill Moyers: What do they believe in?
Daniel Dennett: They believe in belief.
Bill Moyers: Belief?
Daniel Dennett: They believe that belief in God is so important that you should never even think about abandoning it, even if you have to change what you mean by God so much that it’s just unrecognizable to somebody else. But then at least everybody can go around and say, well, I still believe in God.
Bill Moyers: Well, I believe in democracy.
Daniel Dennett: Me, too.
Bill Moyers: Do you believe in God?
Daniel Dennett: No. Well, which God? I don’t believe in the Old Testament God. I certainly don’t believe in Yahweh. I don’t believe in the God that created all creatures great and small. We have no need for a creator God to explain the evolution of the biosphere. Do I believe in Tillich’s ground of all being?
Bill Moyers: I was going to ask you that. What is the ground —
Daniel Dennett: Well, what is the ground? I don’t know if I believe in it. If I knew what it was —
Bill Moyers: An unanswerable question.
Daniel Dennett: Well, maybe —
Bill Moyers: God is the unanswerable question.
Daniel Dennett: But maybe — maybe, you see, for some people, God is whatever it is that created all this wonderful life. Well, in that case, I believe in God because I believe in evolution. And that is what created all of this.
Bill Moyers: Do we have a ground of our being?
Daniel Dennett: Sure. We inhabit a spectacularly wonderful physical universe. It has evolved over billions of years, and life has evolved on this planet for billions of years. And here we are. And it is so wonderful to be alive, to have the privilege of being part of this amazing scene. And it would be nice to be able to say, thank you to somebody. I feel gratitude. But there’s nobody to thank, so the best I can do is resolve to make the planet a little better for the next person.
Bill Moyers: In one of your earlier books, you in fact said the world is sacred.
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Bill Moyers: What did you mean by that?
Daniel Dennett: Just what I just said. I mean, this is something worth devoting yourself to. This is something worth devoting your life to, protecting this, preserving it, honoring it, understanding it, studying it, with a sense of awe. We don’t — I mean, Anselm notoriously, famously defined God as —
Bill Moyers: — philosopher in the Christian Church, right.
Daniel Dennett: — the being greater than which nothing can be conceived. It’s a very hard phrase to get your head around. The most perfect imaginable being. Well, now, is the universe itself the being greater than which nothing can be conceived? Well, it’s greater than I can conceive. It’s greater than any one person, scientist or cosmologist or philosopher can conceive. If that’s what God is, then I believe in it. And I believe that it outstrips my understanding.
Bill Moyers: But you said a moment ago that you wanted to express gratitude. You want to say thanks in response for this marvelous universe.
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Bill Moyers: A lot of people need to thank some being, someone, right?
Daniel Dennett: Why?
Bill Moyers: I said, don’t they?
Daniel Dennett: Well, do they? Why? I think they do, but why?
Bill Moyers: Well, that’s what I ask you. You’re the — you wrote the book, Breaking the Spell.
Daniel Dennett: Well, I think actually the answer to that is quite clear. An instinct that we share with mammals in general is when something that we don’t understand happens, when something startling or surprising or worrisome happens, the most natural thing in the world, it’s really instinctual, is to go, who’s there? Who’s there? And what do you want? Not what’s that, but who’s there? Why? Because sometimes there’s somebody there, and that somebody might want you. So when you’re startled, looking for an agent, looking for a being that has beliefs and desires, looking for a being that’s conscious is a very good strategy, even if you have a lot of false alarms. So your dog does it. The snow falls off the roof and lands with a thud outside the window, and your dog jumps up and growls and looks around. That’s the very same instinct in the dog that we have. The thing — the difference is that in us, it doesn’t stop with just looking around and then going back to sleep. It echoes and echoes and echoes. And so we begin to populate our world with imaginary, invisible agents, the who is there. And that initial population explosion of — that’s not religion, that’s just superstition, that’s goblins and leprechauns and elves and things like that — but they are the ancestors in idea space of the few gods, and then eventually the monotheistic God, that gets the name God with a capital G.
Bill Moyers: So you’re saying religion evolved.
Daniel Dennett: Yes. Absolutely. Of course it did.
Bill Moyers: Is that what you mean when you say the subtitle of Breaking the Spell is “Religion as a Natural Phenomenon?”
Daniel Dennett: Of course religion evolved. The religion of today is very different from the religion of 2,000 years ago. It’s as different or more than the music of today is different from the music of 2,000 years ago. Music is an natural phenomenon. It didn’t always exist. It’s existed for thousands of years; it’s evolved all along. That’s cultural evolution. Language is a natural phenomenon. Didn’t always exist. It came into existence. It’s evolved. It’s still evolving. Music, language. Religion, it’s another natural phenomenon. Didn’t always exist. It’s — as phenomena go, it’s a quite a young phenomenon. It’s younger than — well, organized religion is younger than agriculture, which is only about 10,000 years old. Language is older than religion. Music is probably older than religion.
Bill Moyers: So then why do — are you saying that people believe because they’ve been programmed to believe?
Daniel Dennett: Programmed? Do you believe that cheese is tasty because you’ve been programmed to believe, tasted it and you liked and I mean — we get our beliefs from the interaction between the world we discover and our innate dispositions, what our genes — our genes do build biases into us. For instance, we have a sweet tooth. We automatically like sweet things better than bitter things. And there’s no mystery about why that is. There’s a deep biological reason why we have a craving for sweet things.
Bill Moyers: As we have a craving for God?
Daniel Dennett: Indeed. In fact, in fact, our sweet tooth is by general admission no longer such a good thing. It’s sort of outlived its biological usefulness. Now that we have in a world where there’s an surfeit of sugar, it’s no longer — it no longer helps us. But we don’t have — we can’t get rid of it. It’s in our genes. But we don’t have to indulge it. We don’t have to succumb to it. Some people do. But we don’t have to. We’ve learned how to — how to work around our sweet tooth. Now, do we have a sweet tooth for God? Yes, we sure do.
Bill Moyers: And you think there’s a surfeit of that sweet tooth for God. Right? That’s what I think one of the things I take away from your book is you think we have a surfeit of belief in God.
Daniel Dennett: No, actually, I do not know. Because here’s what I don’t know. And I say in the book, until we do more research we just can’t tell. We have sugar and we have saccharin. Saccharin is the — is the — maybe the healthier substitute for sugar. And they both satisfy our craving. Now the question is, religion, is it sugar or saccharin? If it’s saccharin and we cut it out of our diet, we may be in real trouble, because then we may indulge our cravings, whatever they are, with things which are worse for us than religion.
Bill Moyers: See, I think this is where your critics really come after you. They say you think that God can be put to a scientific test, like everything else. And if God is God, God is beyond the observation and verification process of science.
Daniel Dennett: Oh, God is very definitely beyond the verification process of science. God has been designed to be beyond the verification process of science. This is one of the — one of the classic adaptations of religions, is to create this gulf so that science can’t get anywhere near God. That’s true. But science can understand that very fact.
Bill Moyers: You say that —
Daniel Dennett: Science can understand how religions evolved and why — by the way, that idea is completely absent in folk religions, which are the ancestors —
Bill Moyers: The idea of?
Daniel Dennett: The idea of God being, as it were, beyond science. They don’t make a distinction between science and religion. In folk religions, it’s all the same. It’s all one. It’s just what everybody knows. And they have no concept of faith. They don’t need a concept of faith. It’s only once you start getting this separation between science and other things that people think they know when maybe they don’t, that’s when the idea of faith looms and becomes a very attractive idea. And indeed, it is. It protects the idea of God from disproof.
Bill Moyers: Why is this of such concern to you, Dan? If my faith doesn’t pick your pocket or break your bone, as Thomas Jefferson said, why should you care what I believe?
Daniel Dennett: Well, exactly. I wouldn’t, except that religious people care so much about what everybody else believes. Why do they care? Why do Christians care what Muslims believe? Why do Muslims care what Christians believe? And to me, the really dangerous thing about religion — and this is not everybody, of course; it’s not half, thank goodness, but it’s many — and that is, the one thing that I think is really dangerous in many religions is that it gives people a gold-plated excuse to stop thinking.
Bill Moyers: To stop thinking.
Daniel Dennett: To stop thinking. To say, I don’t have to think about that because my religion says this is right; this is wrong. It’s as clear as that. It’s black and white. I don’t have to think about this anymore. It’s just a matter of faith. And this — and we honor that. We say, oh, it’s a matter of faith. I think we have to stop honoring people for stopping thinking. I think we have to say to people, fine, you have your faith, great. Your job then, your duty to your own faith is to explain to those of us who do not share your faith why you’re right about this. Let it be true that God told you. Let it be absolutely true. God told you this is the right way and these ways are wrong. Right. Your problem now is to explain to those of us that God didn’t speak to why — why that’s right.
Bill Moyers: But as that story I told of what happened in the Presbyterian church in Austin when the Christians denounced the minister for allowing an atheist in the congregation, and the atheists denounced the atheist for surrendering to the superstition of the church, you can’t have a real dialogue between people who say I’m speaking for God and people who say there is no God to speak. Can you?
Daniel Dennett: I don’t see why not. It seems to me that those people who have their faith, who believe so strongly in God, if they really believe strongly their God — they believe they’re right, they believe that they are — they occupy the moral high ground, they should be only too willing to sit down and put this, not to the scientific test but to the political, moral discussion test of talking about why they believe what they believe and let’s talk about — the main thing we want to talk about is what should we do? What’s the moral course of action to take? And if that is to be a reasonable discussion, we have to take a few cards off the table.
Bill Moyers: Such as?
Daniel Dennett: The faith card. We have to take the faith card off the table.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean take the faith card off the table? I mean if one is a man of faith, one can’t take — you can’t take the gene out.
Daniel Dennett: Well, you know, Lucille says you’re wrong. You know who Lucille is? She’s a friend of mine. She’s always right. I can’t play that card in an argument. This is rude of me to say, you know, Lucille says you’re wrong. You say, well, who’s Lucille? I say, well, a friend of mine, always right. End of the discussion.
Bill Moyers: But we’re confronted today by people who say they know the mind of God and they quote scripture (inaudible).
Daniel Dennett: And I think the way we should deal with them is to say, well, that’s very interesting, because now you have got a real problem. Since the rest of us don’t know the mind of God, we can’t share your direct line, so you’re going to have to do the best you can in a secular discussion about what the right thing to do is. Are you up to the task of explaining to the rest of us who don’t have your hotline to God why you’re right? And don’t just tell me that God told you. We know that. We accept that.
Bill Moyers: All right, suppose I’m sitting here, I’m a Muslim, and I say to you, look, 5 — Book 5, Verse 44 condemns apostasy and says the heretic should be put to death. And I’m telling you that this is my holy script, and I believe that is the case. What do you say to me?
Daniel Dennett: I say, well, the fact that it says it in your holy text is an interesting historical fact, but it doesn’t settle whether it’s right. It just doesn’t.
Bill Moyers: But it settles for me, speaking for the Muslim, that it’s true.
Daniel Dennett: Well, it is possible, of course, that many people are simply morally incapacitated for engaging in moral deliberation.
Bill Moyers: How come? You have to do it — would you have to submit that to a scientific test, and observation and verification?
Daniel Dennett: Well, if they can’t — if they can’t — if they can’t hold a discussion, a reasonable, respectful political discussion about these issues without simply playing the faith card, then I guess they have to admit that they can’t defend what they’re saying. I think the big problem that we have is we have been too willing just to let people play the faith card, and it just trumps everything. And it might have been all right, except it’s being abused a great deal around the world today. And I think — and besides, nobody believes that. Let’s face it, if somebody came up and said, look, my religion says that — well, I don’t have to make up a case. I’m going to take the case of apostasy you just mentioned. There are clerics in Islam right now who say death for apostasy. That’s our religion and we should do it. And I think everybody in the world should stand up and say, don’t be ridiculous, don’t be silly. That is barbaric. It is simply beyond the pale. It doesn’t matter what your tradition is. This is not a tradition that should be honored.
Bill Moyers: If the church wants — the church once — the Catholic Church once put heretics to the stake.
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely right. And they’ve learned better, haven’t they?
Bill Moyers: They have learned.
Daniel Dennett: And I think we should — I think we should not be afraid to say to the Muslim world, come on, wake up. We made this mistake in the past, too — we Christians. But we’re not making it anymore. We Christians, we Jews. Certainly Christians and Jews certainly made that mistake in the past.
Bill Moyers: When I read this book, there were so many themes running through it, you’ll see my margins are pink and red and yellow.
Daniel Dennett: Oh, good, that’s what I wanted to do.
Bill Moyers: But the thing I wrote in one margin was, you know, you were talking here in effect about how democracy — how we as a nation in the early days made an agreement to avoid absolutes. We said, we’re going to put absolutes off the table when it comes to questions of religion. That’s what some people call the separation of church and state. It was that we will not organize our politics around a battle for absolutes. Do you see that in danger today?
Daniel Dennett: Yes, I do indeed. I think we’re living in a time where it’s time for people really to stand up and be counted and make very clear where they stand on the separation of church and state.
Bill Moyers: I saw a sign the other day, a bumper sticker. I’m for the separation of church and hate. Interesting twist.
Daniel Dennett: Yes, that’s good, too. You know, in the book I tell the story which you’ll remember, younger readers won’t, of Charlie Wilson when he was — when Eisenhower wanted to appoint him to be his secretary of defense. This was 50 years ago. And Wilson was the CEO of General Motors. And he said, or was reported to have said, that what’s good for General Motors is good for the country. And he was jumped on by everybody. They said, wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute. And actually, what he said was, what’s good for the country is good for General Motors and vice versa. But what they said is, look, even if you’re right that’s what’s good for General Motors is good for the country, we want to know what would you do if push came to shove? What if in some instance, some policy you had to decide as secretary of defense, you could see what was good for the country wasn’t necessarily good for General Motors, where would your first priority be? They wanted to make sure that his first priority was what’s good for the country, not what’s good for General Motors. And they required him to put his holdings in a blind trust and all the rest of that. Now, imagine a politician today saying, what I’ve always believed is what’s good for the Baptist Church is good for the country. I don’t think we should stand for that. I think we should make the same hue and cry. We should say, hang on. We don’t mind you having your priorities that way, but if that’s what your priorities are, I think we want somebody else to be in office. Because we want people that we have in office to put the preservation of the democracy, the preservation of the separation of church and state, the preservation of our secular democracy, ahead of their religion. Look what we’re doing in Iraq. We’re asking the Iraqis to put being an Iraqi ahead of being a Kurd or a Sunni or a Shiite. And that’s a tall order to ask them to do that. That’s what we’re asking them to do. Well, why don’t we ask ourselves to do the same thing?
Bill Moyers: You know, there are a lot of people who would say amen to that. No pun intended. They would say amen to that. No matter what their strong opinions about their own faith, they would agree with that.
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely right.
Bill Moyers: But the issue is that the people who — the fundamentalists who do believe that the — take the Bible literally, who do believe they know the mind of God and who do want to see their values articulated in the political process and in fact enshrined in our political institutions, I don’t see them wanting to have a conversation with you about this.
Daniel Dennett: Well, I agree. A lot of them don’t want to have the conversation. But I think that we ought to say, well, you know, so far, so far this is a democracy, and that’s how we settle these things, with a conversation. And if they’re not prepared to do that, then I think we have to really seriously think about whether we — first of all, I’m quite — I insist they have every right in this country to put the good of their religion ahead of the good of the country. Fortunately, there are enough people who don’t see it that way, so that we can tolerate those who do. But we don’t have to elect them.
Bill Moyers: What is the most important point of your book that you think has been caricatured or most deeply misunderstood by your critics?
Daniel Dennett: Well, I think the standard claim is I’m trying to destroy religion. And I’m absolutely not trying to destroy religion. I’m trying to make sure that religion is not toxic. Everybody knows that there’s toxic varieties of religion in every religion.
Bill Moyers: Religion heals, religion kills. Right?
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely right. Now, how can we steer away from the toxic varieties? And I have — since we haven’t done the research that I’m calling for, I can’t give a lot of policy recommendations. That would be — that would be contradicting my claim that until we do the research, we don’t know what we’re doing. We’ve got to study religion more. But in the meantime, I have one proposal which I think is really important, and that is we should have a national curriculum on world religions that is compulsory for all school children, from grade school through high school, for the public schools, for the private schools, for the home schooling.
Bill Moyers: Why?
Daniel Dennett: Because if we taught the young people of the country this, then you could teach them whatever else you wanted and I wouldn’t worry about religions that — I think any religion that could flourish under those conditions would be a benign, valuable, a wonderful religion. I think it’s only — if you look at the toxic religions, they are all the religions that survive by the enforced ignorance of their young. And all we have to do, I think, is we can tell people, you can home school your kids, you can give them 30 hours a week of religious instruction. But you also have got to teach them what the people that are not of your faith believe, and you have to teach them about the history of all the faiths in question, including your own.
Bill Moyers: That’s asking a lot of people who take religion so seriously that they do not want their children or their own minds to be competitive with other religions.
Daniel Dennett: Well, but how very un-American of them to think that. I mean, this is the land of democracy and of an informed choice. What are they afraid of?
Bill Moyers: The other criticism that I take from your critics, the chief criticism that I take from your critics is that you want to reduce everything to the scientific process. That you believe everything ultimately can be understood by the process of observation and verification, trial and error, including religious belief.
Daniel Dennett: I don’t think everything can be understood at all levels using science, no. I think we need philosophy and poetry and history, and I mean, if you include those as sciences — and in one sense they are — in German they would be, they’re Viscenshaft (ph). So then history and the study of literature and archaeology, and for that matter poetics and literacy criticism counts as a kind of science. I think everything about religion, everything about everything can be at least partially understood through the methods of rational inquiry. And I am amused when people say they can’t make up their mind whether they say, well you can’t or you shouldn’t. And I think mainly they’re afraid that you can, and that’s why they say you shouldn’t try. It’s amazing how much we can understand about a lot of things. I know that one of the reasons that some people are very anxious about my book is that they see me as showing how the magicians do their tricks. That’s right. That’s right. But, you see, if we’re talking about music, you can go in and you can show how Bach does his tricks and how Brahms does his tricks. You can show how poets do their tricks. You can show how doctors do their tricks. You can show how doctors — how important their bedside manner is. Yes, we can do this. And we can show — we can show how religionists do their tricks, too. And every religion does it. Every religion does it. And why shouldn’t we understand that just as well as we understand — every religion has its own technology for belief maintenance. And we can look under the hood and see how it works.
Bill Moyers: John Cage, the composer, a year after 9/11 wrote a very moving work in memorial for the victims of 9/11. It was performed at Lincoln Center. He said he was trying to create a memory space in that music that he said was inspired by the old majestic cathedrals in France or Italy. Here’s a direct quote from John Cage. “When you walk into the Chartres Cathedral, for example, you experience an immediate sense of something otherworldly. You feel you’re in the presence of many souls, generations upon generations of them. And you sense their collective energy, as if they were all congregated or clustered in that one spot. And even though you might be with a group of people, or the cathedral itself filled with other church goers or tourists, you feel very much alone with your thoughts, and you find them focused in the most extraordinary and spiritual way.” Now, you wouldn’t explain that as a trick, would you?
Daniel Dennett: A trick is a pejorative term. First of all, I completely agree with John Cage.
Bill Moyers: You’ve had that experience.
Daniel Dennett: In fact — indeed. In fact, you mentioned that I was at least a sculptor. And I have a — my one bronze piece that I have is called Three People in a Cathedral. And that’s the very point of it, is to show how going into the cathedral just exalts you. And the three people have sort of taken on this — this — you would say transcendent attitude from their presence in this amazing building. I am a lover of cathedrals. And I feel their power. I do think that that power can be understood. And I don’t think it is diminished. I don’t think it is diminished.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean it can be understood? It can — I said to Joseph Campbell, you’re a man of faith. He said, I don’t need faith; I have experience. Interesting subtle transformation of the question.
Daniel Dennett: Yes.
Bill Moyers: How do you understand that experience in that cathedral?
Daniel Dennett: First of all, it helps to be steeped in the traditions of the cathedral. To be able to look up and to tell which saint that is up there in that niche, and which story is being illustrated in this panel, and to recognize the music and to know its roots. I think that knowing the lore, the traditions, the history of Christianity — it’s the only religion I know well — I couldn’t understand it without steeping myself in that lore a lot. And one of the reasons that I don’t write about Hinduism in this book is I just haven’t had time to marinate in all the world of the Hindus. Other people are going to have to do that.
Bill Moyers: All right, but you know the lore. But there are people — I’ve seen people climb those cathedrals steps who had no knowledge whatsoever of the lore, or the statues, or the carvings, or the tradition, but they are deeply moved by —
Daniel Dennett: And I’m deeply moved by Chichen Itza, which is — which was in Mexico, which was a temple which was used for human sacrifices. It’s an awesome, blood-curdling and hair-raising experience to stand there and to realize what the religious practices were that were engaged in there. It’s very moving, and thank goodness you don’t have to believe in it to be moved.
Bill Moyers: But you’re talking in the cathedrals about the aesthetics of it. Right? Here, you’re talking about the history of it in these —
Daniel Dennett: Well, I’m talking about the aesthetics in both places. I mean, Chichen Itza is a fabulously beautiful place.
Bill Moyers: So is it beauty moving you?
Daniel Dennett: Of course. Religions have always harnessed beauty. Every religion, because this is the way of harnessing love. And what better idea could there be than to bring love to your side and make it a partner in whatever you’re doing? I think one of the reasons that secular organizations can’t compete with churches for creating allegiances, life- long, sacrificing allegiances, is that they are shy about enlisting love and beauty on their sides, whereas religions aren’t shy about that at all. They do a brilliant job.
Bill Moyers: I was very struck in the book that you acknowledge that in large parts of America today, religion does the heavy lifting —
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely.
Bill Moyers: — because those institutions actually attract people’s affections and commitments more than the secular institutions.
Daniel Dennett: Absolutely. And that’s why I don’t want to destroy religion, because I think religions in those guises are doing a tremendous job of creating infrastructure for moral teamwork. And I think —
Bill Moyers: Moral teamwork.
Daniel Dennett: For moral teamwork.
Bill Moyers: What do you mean?
Daniel Dennett: Look at the job the churches did in ending segregation. Look at the job that churches did in ending apartheid. There’s no human institution on planet that can match a church for creating a cadre of people who are powerfully motivated and devoted. They’re willing to take risks. They’re willing to make huge sacrifices. They’re willing to devote their lives to a cause. And that’s all wonderful. There’s one thing about it that I really worry about.
Bill Moyers: What’s that?
Daniel Dennett: And that is, unlike their secular counterparts, they are too willing to say about complicated matters, don’t worry, we’ve got the answer and it’s very simple. And they encourage people to stop thinking. And that’s — if, you know, a secular organization, if it was prepared to say, oh, look, these issues are all very cut and dried. We have got a book which says exactly what you should do on every occasion. Just listen to the authorities in our church. They’re the ones, they’re the only — you don’t have to think it through. They will tell you the right and wrong here. Secular organizations won’t do that.
Bill Moyers: But I know so many people of towering intellect who are — who are Christians, who are people of faith. They don’t see that reason violates their faith.
Daniel Dennett: But those are people who are also very often the first to stand up and say in one informal or formal organization or another to their own church, but we don’t approve of the path you’re now taking. We’ve thought about this, and we do not approve the path that you’re taking us down. If you look around, you certainly know thinking Christians who have trouble with one doctrine or another that their particular church maintains. Thinking Catholics, for instance, who have trouble with the church on birth control or on abortion. And I honor the fact that they stand up to the church and they try to change the leadership of their church. I think that’s the way to be a good Christian. That’s the way to be a good Muslim. Look what we have in the Muslim world right now. Two of the people I admire most in the world right now are Wafa Sultan and Irshad Manji, two brave Muslim women who are speaking out against the excesses of Islam. And they are risking their lives to do it.
Bill Moyers: But you say in this country, you think moderates have entered into a conspiracy of silence.
Daniel Dennett: I know. I’m asking them to get as brave as those two Muslim women. Get out there and start changing things.
Bill Moyers: How do we, how do we in this democratic society build humane and efficient institutions that can attract the affection and the loyalty and the commitment of all of us no matter what our powerful —
Daniel Dennett: Boy, that is a great question, Bill. And it’s one that I am trying to answer. And I think the answer may well be, let’s use the churches. Indeed, let’s use the churches. But let’s understand that we’re going to use all the churches, and we are not going to tolerate the enforced ignorance of the young in those churches.
Bill Moyers: Are you in support then of —
Daniel Dennett: They can teach what they want, but they’ve also got to — if — think of the transformation that would be in the Islamic world if young Muslims were taught about the history of Christianity, the history of Buddhism, the history of Hinduism, the history of Confucianism, the history of Islam.
Bill Moyers: The history of God.
Daniel Dennett: The history of all of us. And the history of atheism too. Think of what that would do to Islam. Think of the transformation of Islam. And including the girls in the education. How can we not press this forward?
Bill Moyers: So the theists have not proven that God exists, and the atheists have not proven that God does not exist.
Daniel Dennett: That’s right.
Bill Moyers: Where does this leave us?
Daniel Dennett: It leaves us at a complete standoff, and let’s leave it there. That is not the important issue. I mean, one of — I think one of the points of my book is that for deeply religious people that I’ve talked to, the arguments of philosophers for and against this just don’t cut any ice. That’s fun for philosophers, but that’s not what matters to them. Nobody is convinced of the existence of God by those — I’ve never met a person yet who started off atheistic and then read Aquinas and Anselm and Paley and said, oh, my gosh, I guess God exists. I’ve never met such a person. And I have met very few who were really convinced by the atheist arguments in the other direction either. I think, first of all, as I said, since the term God has been pretty much decoupled from any comprehensible, clear meaning that everybody can share, it means that who knows what atheism even is? I mean, how many different kinds of atheists do I have to be to be an atheist? You are an atheist about every one of those except one. I just go the full route. I don’t see a single one that I think really deserves to be called God, although if somebody wants to say that what they mean when they say they’re a theist is that they believe that the universe is just a wonderful, wonderful place and I say, well, oh, then I believe in that too. Does that make me a theist?
Bill Moyers: But many people still — millions of people still want house calls. They want to be able to know — believe that God has visited them.
Daniel Dennett: And what do we do about this? Because we all recognize that there’s some borderline over which we don’t — we don’t know where to draw the line. Some people are just being deluded. They’re being fleeced. They’re being taken to the cleaners. They may be — they’re giving their money to some charlatan, some faith healer charlatan, and if we know that, do we not have a moral obligation to speak out and say, hang on, do you realize that you’re being conned here? Now, if you do that, you may destroy somebody’s precious illusion. And we shouldn’t do that lightly. And I’m not calling on us to do that. I am saying it’s a problem. And it’s a problem because it creates a hypocrisy trap that we’re all in.
Bill Moyers: Hypocrisy trap.
Daniel Dennett: It was nicely exposed recently when Mel Gibson, a fundamentalist Catholic, blurted out in an interview in the New Yorker that his wife was damned, she was going to hell because she wasn’t a Roman Catholic. And that’s — as he put it, that’s what the chair says and I go with what the chair says. And a lot of people were shocked by this. A lot of Catholics were deeply dismayed by this. Two groups of Catholics, those that don’t believe that at all and just thought, this is an embarrassment to our religion; and those who do believe it, but think it was very impolitic of him to say it. How many are in which group? Who knows. That’s the hypocrisy trap. Right now, we have a Congress — every single member of Congress believes in God. How many do you suppose really believe in God? Who knows. And sometimes they have the best of reasons for not saying what they really believe in.
Bill Moyers: They’ll get beat.
Daniel Dennett: They’ll get beat, that’s — but there’s even other reasons, too. I mean, there’s granny, it would break her heart to know that I’ve lost my faith, so you button — so you button your lip. And so we’re living in a world where there’s just layer after layer after layer of hypocrisy. And I think we should start trying to cut through that.
Bill Moyers: The book is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Daniel C. Dennett. Thank you very much for being with us, and Charlie would send his best.
Daniel Dennett: Thank you, Bill.