In Conversation with Dan Dennett
For those who are not familiar with Dan Dennett, Professor Daniel C Dennett is University Professor and Austin B Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University in Boston; an accomplished author, Prof. Dennett is famous for his treatises on evolution, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) and Freedom Evolves (2003). One of his most ‘controversial’ books is Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006), which is considered an important landmark in modern atheist thinking, and which earned him his place amongst the ‘Four Horsemen of New Atheism’, along with British biologist Richard Dawkins, American journalist Christopher Hitchens, and American neuroscientist Sam Harris. Recently, Prof. Dennett has published a book on his research, Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-engineer the Mind (2011).
Hailing from the Eastern part of India, Kaustubh Adhikari is a final year graduate (PhD) student in Biostatistics, in the School of Public Health, Harvard University. He was the recipient of the 2009 Robert Balentine Reed Prize for Excellence in Biostatistical Science. He is an editor of Palki, an online bi-lingual (English/Bangla) magazine, as well as a regular contributor to several web-based groups on the topics of rationality, skepticism and contemporary atheism.
Let me start by asking – have you been to India?
No, I haven’t! It’s, really, the only major country that I haven’t been to – I’ve been to China, I’ve been to Japan…
Then I hope you’ll do so someday.
Well, I hope so too! The trouble is that I don’t want to go for three days; if I’m going to go there, I want to spend some time, and it’s hard to find a month or three weeks, you know.
Did you grow up as an atheist?
Well, I attended Sunday school and the congregational church when I was a little boy, until high school. My family wasn’t particularly religious – my mother didn’t go to the church with us; in fact, she sometimes went to the Unitarian church because she liked the minister better there. So I had a proper protestant education, learned a lot about the Bible, sang in a lot of choirs, and briefly, as a teenager, got really interested in religion – as a lot of the teenagers do. But it just struck me at some point, ‘I don’t believe in any of this!’
When was this?
When I was, probably, fourteen or fifteen…
So when did you become, from an ordinary atheist, an activist?
Only in recent years. I think it was the growing obnoxiousness of the Religious Right in America and their growing political influence that struck me as truly unfortunate and lamentable, something that I just couldn’t sit by and let happen.
Richard Dawkins had told me about the Brights. I gave it some thought, and wrote an op-ed piece in the New York Times on the Brights, while he wrote a piece in The Guardian. That might have been it. When that piece came out in the July of 2003, the effect was electrifying. I got hundreds and hundreds of responses to the op-ed from people all over the country. A lot of them were urging me, now that I was in the limelight of this issue, to not stop there.
I didn’t want to write a book about atheism. But I did want to write, as I was thinking a lot, about cultural evolution and religion as a natural phenomenon. So that’s when I decided to do ‘Breaking the Spell’.
It was a real digression from my research. I applied to it as much as I could of what I’ve been working on at that time, but it took me sort of far uphill. I don’t regret it, but I am trying to get back to my main areas of concern – theories of consciousness of the brain.
Among the Four Horsemen, most of them have their own websites – Richard Dawkins has his richarddawkins.net, Sam Harris has his samharris.org, and so forth. You do write some op-ed pieces, but you don’t have a website concentrating upon atheism.
Right, I don’t, and if I did, I wouldn’t have time to do my work! I mean, Richard is officially retired from his chair, Christopher is a journalist; Sam Harris is a young man of boundless energy, and he is more engaged on those fronts than he is with his neuroscience work. But I still have some projects on the side.
But actually, the project I’ve been doing with Linda LaScola where we’re doing in-depth confidential interviews with non-believing pastors and priests – that’s growing, and it’s taking a lot of my time! And I’m very glad we’re doing it.
The first article about it came out in 2010, where you said you don’t really, but would like to, know roughly how many such people there are. Any updates on that?
We’re nearing the end of phase II now. Linda has done a lot more interviews. We’ve expanded our views quite a bit. There are still areas that are not well-represented – we’ve got lots of Protestants, but not enough Catholics. But we’ve got some Mormons. We don’t yet have an Imam – we don’t have any Muslims in for fairly obvious reasons; it’s not that there aren’t any out there, but they would really be risking their lives in coming forward! I mean, it’s risky for all of them, but a Muslim preacher, if outed as non-believing, may be seriously putting his life in jeopardy.
And the results are fascinating – I’m looking forward to working with Linda in order to write up the results of phase II. We still won’t have a good measure of how large this phenomenon is – we’re sure it’s pretty large – the people in the churches that have responded, nobody has said, “Oh, they’re making it up, they’re exaggerating the problem, it’s not a big thing.” Everyone knows it’s an issue, it’s a big phenomenon.
Maybe in phase III we’ll be able to devise some way of getting a sort of national survey which will provide some valid numerical estimates.
How many people have you covered in phase II?
I don’t know what the numbers are, but we’ve much more than doubled the initial group.
And it also spawned the secondary project in which I’m not directly involved – I couldn’t be directly involved – called ‘The Clergy Project’ and I think, in the next few days, its public website is going up! This is a very carefully secured website for former ministers, former clergy, and current clergy who are in this predicament, to help each other, and to converse among themselves in confidence. And that means I don’t have access to it.
It’s been running for several months now, on a trial basis. Linda played a pivotal role in helping them set it up, but she has no more access to it than I do, because she’s not a member of the clergy. They’re currently managing it on their own, with some technical and financial support from the Richard Dawkins Foundation, some advice and further support from me, but it’s their own venture. And that will be announced publicly very soon.
Do you sometimes look at other peoples’ work online, such as YouTube videos of Pat Condell?
I spend too much time writing emails! I am not a heavy prowler of the web. What I have is an excellent, prized family of informants who send me stuff. And their judgment about what is worth sending is so good that I tend to rely on them. I figured, if I were to devote more time to going out on the web, the diminishing returns would probably not be worth it. I’ll probably end up wasting my time looking at stuff that I don’t really care about. I get a lot of it.
Especially after writing this book on religion, have you received any threats?
Before Breaking the Spell came out, we thought – people told me – that my life was going to be in danger, and that I was going to get lots of threats. And I didn’t know that it wasn’t true, so I took careful precautions. You know, I do have a file of hate mail, which we treat differently from other mail. But it’s not that large. It’s not such an issue.
What kind of precautions did you take?
Well, I did take more precautions when the book first came out, than I do now. Although we’re thinking about changing this, I haven’t put my itinerary on my personal website. I let people advertise my talks, and they do whatever they want to spread the word; but I haven’t had a list available to anybody about where I’m going. If anybody wants to stalk me, they have to work very hard at it. But I’m just not worried about that.
Your thoughts on the label ‘militant atheists’ being attributed to activist atheists?
If you’re going to try to make a political difference in the world, to be influential, to get people to pay attention to something they’ve not been paying attention to, then you should expect that those who notice are going to respond – either positively, or negatively. If they respond negatively, then they will be looking for ways to diminish, upset, pervert, besmirch your repute.
It hasn’t surprised me or dismayed me; in fact, if anything, I think I’d rather take heart from the fact that, although the four horsemen have written five or six books among us, dozens of books have been written against us! Not a single one of them is any good, or even worth responding to. But the mere fact that they’re out there, that the religious felt that we are worth writing a rebuttal to, shows that we’re striking a nerve. And it’s been fun to identify the flaws in their defensiveness.
For some time I was considering calling it ‘lying for Christ’. But then I came up with a term which I like better. I talked about ‘faith-fibbing’, because ‘fibbing’ is much milder than ‘lying’ – “you’re a fibber” is very different from saying “you’re a liar”. And I began drawing attention to examples of faith-fibbing. And I’ve gotten at least one very public acknowledgement and atonement from the faith-fibbers, along the lines of “you know, he’s right; I was faith-fibbing, and I apologize.”
So, you know, it’s a phenomenon – they can’t resist the temptation to misrepresent, so they misrepresent! And then the thing to do is just to point out, “Have you noticed how these people can’t resist the temptation to misrepresent? What do you think is going on there? Why can’t they just tell the truth?”
About the term ‘the four horsemen of new atheism’, who started using it?
I don’t know who started it, ‘the four horsemen’. I have no idea who started that, but we thought it was amusing.
With the term having originally negative connotations – of apocalypse, death, and destruction – are you okay with its use?
I think the only thing wrong about it is that there’s only room for four of us! In fact, there are great many others, some worthy atheists and freethinkers out there who, maybe, resent the fact that they’re not one of the four. I think it wasn’t our intention. It is an unfortunate side effect of this label, and I try, whenever this issue comes up, to pay proper homage to the others, who are doing the same work, and just as well, and not getting quite the same recognition for it.
If you could extend this circle of four people, whom would you include?
I think I don’t want to do that – I give you three or four names, and really annoy seven or eight others! There are a lot of good ones out there.
Can you say a few words to distinguish the four of you?
We’re doing different things, and all these jobs need to be done. Richard has been brilliant at exposing the sheer incredibility, the preposterousness of religious creeds. Christopher has been brilliant on how much harm religion can do. I think, Sam in that regard is more like Christopher.
And I, of the four… usually in my career, I’ve been the bad cop; this is when I get to play good cop. I’ve been much more sympathetic to the fact that religions could do a lot of good for a lot of people, and we should keep close track of that, and try to find alternative ways of doing that good work, while I agree completely with the three about the evils. But I have wanted to stress the fact that it’s a mixed phenomenon and we should take seriously that good stuff that comes of it.
If you think about it as a natural phenomenon, then you realize there are other natural phenomena like this too. Floods are terrible, but sometimes floods are good; they have a good side to them. Parasites can actually be good for you if you are too clean – if your childhood is too clean then you’re going to succumb; you should spend a little time in the mud and the dirt. These things are known, and I think that we should acknowledge that and not be afraid to acknowledge that there are times when the support that a religion can provide to an individual or a community or a nation is extremely valuable. It’s like medicine – strong medicine can have a really bad side effect, but sometimes you need a strong medicine.
Well, that’s something you don’t expect from one of the four horsemen!
I think that’s part of the faith-fibbing – when people write about the four of us, they talk about how harsh and strident we are, how we’re in favor of the extinction of religion – and they find a quote from Richard and a quote from Christopher and a quote from Sam, and they don’t quote me, because I never said about it! They sort of leave me out of it after that; they can’t chastise me for things I haven’t done. But, if they want to know, I whole-heartedly support the negative things that Christopher and Richard say.
Especially in the USA, which is kind of the center of this atheist movement, the word atheism is known to everybody, and everybody knows that atheists are out there, but there isn’t that much push towards having atheism recognized as the way the push has been in 1980-90’s about homosexuality. I was looking at this 2011 Gallup survey which says that only around 50% adult Americans would accept an atheist as their president, whereas the acceptance rate is around 70% for homosexuals, and even the lesser religious groups such as the Mormons have the rate much higher. Why isn’t atheism getting that jolt?
Yeah. You know, that’s why the Brights movement was started, to give atheists, humanists and freethinkers a positive label. I thought it was a very clever idea, and still happy to call myself a Bright. It doesn’t seem to have caught on. It might still. The word ‘atheist’ has a bad connotation for most Americans in the same way as ‘homosexual’ or ‘queer’ did once. The word ‘gay’ was a brilliant political stroke. The word ‘bright’ might’ve done that, and it may still, but it hasn’t.
But I think what we’ve done is we’ve brought atheism sort of out of closet, in any case, and we’re making it more and more socially acceptable. People are beginning to realize that there might actually be some value. Then they’re just casually acknowledging to the world, “Oh, in case you wondered, I’m an atheist!” I think it’s very important for people to know that there are some really nice and wonderful people out there who are atheists. I think the celebrity atheists actually play an important role. In fact, that so many religious people are actually irritated by that strikes me as a good sign.
In the ‘new atheists vs. moderate atheists’ debate, where some say that the new atheists have become too ‘militant’, how to you think these two groups can be united?
I don’t know. I think that we need several things to happen. We need a calm, firm, persistent drum-beat of just telling the truth – about how preposterous the official creeds are, how these are just stone-age ideas that we should move beyond. We also need – this is something that I’m stressing more –to point out to the religious – now these are not necessarily non-atheists; there are lots of religious atheists out there – that contrary to what they’ve thought up till now, there is a real corrosive power to their hypocrisy. It’s not as benign as they think it is.
British writer John Gray recently wrote a piece called ‘believing in belief’, which he sort of got the idea from my chapter or ‘belief in belief’; but he, interestingly enough, was saying, “this is what’s wrong with religion, it is still ‘believe in belief’ – that’s not what religion is about.” Well, of course, in a sense he’s right, and that was my point too. But what he is condoning, he is encouraging, is a sort of systematic hypocrisy – “come on folks, we don’t believe in belief, but we just talk as if we do.”
And this is what we’re finding with the LaScola survey. The principle that seems to govern is that – and we got some quite direct quotations about this – the clergies’ variation on the Hippocratic oath of medicine ‘do no harm’ is ‘first, do not undermine the faith in your most literal-minded, traditional believer, so never say anything from the pulpit that would upset the most naïve and literal-minded member of the congregation’. What that means is that preachers engage in a sort of double-talk – they pass the test of being a genuine believer in the creed to anybody out there who has that conviction and is that naïve, but the liberal members of the congregation are supposed to understand that this is all just metaphor. And they do. They don’t mind that the preacher is speaking as so, because they’re sophisticated, they understand this is just metaphor.
But they don’t talk about it. I want to get them talking about it. I want to raise the consciousness on this. And that means that people like John Gray are playing right into my hands! He is raising the consciousness of it, too. I want to say, “Yeah, listen to what this man is saying! Start thinking about asking fellow members of your congregation, if you dare, because no clergyman is going to put up a big sign over the pulpit saying ‘this is all metaphor’”. Well, why not? If that’s what they say in private, why don’t they say in public?
That’s why the working clergy have very little time for fancy theologies. The fancy theologians are all basically atheists – the god they believe in is so far removed from the god that the average believer believes in.
In our primarily Hindu society, I have seen many people who don’t really obey the creeds or venerate the doctrines, but they appreciate those people who follow the rituals and hold their belief – they think there is a need for those people’s beliefs, they believe they should appreciate this need. And I have long since been looking for a good phrase to characterize this behavior. Getting to this chapter on belief in belief while reading your book, I got the satisfaction of finding a proper term.
Yeah, they really do. I think I captured something that needed to be talked about, needed a label.
It is commonly said that all children are born atheists, and will grow up so if not indoctrinated…
I don’t think I have quite said that, but I think they shouldn’t be indoctrinated in any case. Let them grow up as curious as they want to be, and maybe they will be atheists and maybe they won’t be, but at least they’ll have a smorgasbord of possibilities to think about.
But on the other hand, studies have shown that kids, with their high creativity and imagination power, often attribute anthropomorphic power to inanimate objects, and assume a ‘force’ or ‘power’ behind many events which have natural explanations but too complicated to understand at their age. Isn’t that kind of a personal god that they’re having?
Well, somebody sent me a cartoon the other day, of a child standing with his mother, and next to the child is this woman who has a T-shirt that says “I’m with Him”, pointing upwards, and the child asks, “aren’t you a little old to be believing in imaginary friends like that?” That’s a great cartoon, and I’m thinking of using that in some of my talks.
Yeah, I think, what I call the ‘intentional stance’, the hyperactive agent detection device – that’s the source in evolutionary biology of religion right there. It’s the hair-trigger reflex to look for agency, built right in. And when that ramifies, that’s where all the goblins and sprites and elves and fairies of the world come from.
While reading reviews of your book ‘Breaking the Spell’, I came across this one which talks about the theory presented in the Marxist ideology about origins of religion, which says that religion arose from the economic relations of the classes in the society, and is to be understood by studying the social history of man.
To illustrate the idea, we can observe that many times in history, priests and rulers, often in coalition, used religion simply as an organized system to keep people in check – to be able to persecute dissidents by labeling them blasphemers. That is, the priests created religion not from spiritual thoughts but as a political tool, and the people took religion not by faith but for safety.
The said reviewer, who was from some socialist network, said that studies of Marxist literature is typically avoided in US academia as a legacy of the McCarthy era, and that is why you probably kept out the discussion of this idea.
In contrast, the aspect presented in your book about transformation of folk religions to organized religion does refer to this political power, but not in a way as to make one think of it as being invented specifically for political motives. What do you think of the suggestion?
So he thinks that I short-changed the readers – I didn’t pay enough attention to this sort of Marxist theory?
First of all, I think there is certainly more than a little element of truth in the general claim, that one of the residual effects of America’s anti-communist era is that the really brilliant writing of Marx, in particular, more than those of Marxists, have been overlooked. I think it’d be great to re-habilitate a lot of the thinking of Marx. I don’t know it that well, but I know enough to know there’s some really good stuff there. And there are people who teach it well, who are in effect not Marxists in that sense – they’re like Kantians – they’re experts on Marx the way Kantians are experts on Kant.
And this particular theory I think has a lot going for it. But it has to be recast in twenty-first century terms. I think there is a tendency for Marxist thought to be sort of naïve functionalist, a little bit like Durkheim, to postulate social forces that are irreducible to individual actions. So we have to be very careful before we’re going to do that kind of thing. Actually, here’s a place where I think David Sloan Wilson has some good things to say – he says, we can resurrect this sort of social functionalism, but we have to put it, he says, in terms of group selection, while I’ll say in terms of memetic and group selection. The demand that we have an underlying account of the machinery that creates these emergent properties is important; that’s what I think Marx doesn’t really have.
It’s interesting. Same thing about Freud – while there are really good ideas of Freud, but they are couched in a language which is sort of hermetically sealed on the bottom; there is really no way to build up to it. You’re supposed to take it ‘as is’, and that’s too bad, because we can resurrect some brilliant insights of Freud if we pull it out of the brittle hyper-atrophy.
Some people have been saying that the new atheism movement is an “old boys’ club”, where there aren’t that many women activists involved. How do you think this movement can be extended to include more of them?
Yeah, I’ve heard that. There are a few – Natalie Angier, for instance; and of course, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who I think is wonderful; oh yes, Taslima Nasreen; and somebody a little different – in Toronto, there is Irshad Manji – she’s not really an atheist, but she is certainly a very articulate and sane critic of Islam from the inside.
Well, it’s worth pointing out that the same thing is true with religion; there aren’t many women that are clergy. But that’s changing; there are a lot of denominations who haven’t even allowed women to be clergy. That sort of patriarchal tradition is not going to go away overnight.
I could hazard some guesses about why there aren’t more, but they’d be guesses, and I don’t want them to be treated as if they were insights that were based on any research.
But what’ll be the ‘most probable’ guess?
It’s a little bit like the relative scarcity of African-Americans in Philosophy, until very recently. If you’re a smart African-American, there are seriously more important things to do than Philosophy. Put your brilliance, put your analytic skills, to some more pressing problem. And I think a lot of women who would make brilliant atheist polemicists have got other fish to fry that are at least as important, and more pressing to them. For instance, I am of the opinion that only a few people should be philosophers, because we don’t need more philosophers. There are, of course, women who have the required skills of articulation, the polemical skills, as well as the interest in becoming atheist polemicists. But it is quite possible that they may have other agenda. If, for instance, they’d rather be President, that’s a more important avenue to pursue; it’s more important to have a woman president than to have a woman among the four horsemen. And you won’t become president if you are one of the four horsemen!
And further regarding the “old boys’ club”, why isn’t there more participation from Asia, despite having the largest population?
I was going to say that there isn’t a political threat, but that’s not true; I think Hindu fundamentalism is a serious political problem from all what I read. And, of course, somebody whose work I do know is a woman, and that’s Meera Nanda. You know Meera Nanda’s work? I’ve referred to her. But I don’t really know why there aren’t more of them.
Talking about Hinduism, why there isn’t that much criticism of Hinduism or Buddhism compared to that of Christianity or Islam?
It might be for the simple and a bit embarrassing reason that those who have the honorable position of a critic just don’t know enough about it. It’s certainly true with me. What I know about militant Hinduism or any other Asian religion is very limited. I just haven’t done the work.
Can this be a reason that these are somewhat ‘milder’ religions?
That’s been my impression; I’m told by some that that’s an illusion – if you get up close you see that the problems are very similar. I don’t know for sure if that’s true.
It was suggested by an Indian science writer, whom I interviewed, that we have a mild form of religious practice in our culture; and so, if somebody becomes an atheist, it is a mild atheist.
That makes sense to me, but I don’t have the experience, the authority, to confirm it. But that would be plausible to me.
Sam Harris and others have been doing fMRI studies to measure how parts of the brain respond to various questions and answers. What do you think about studying the possible links of humor to brain activity?
The theory of humor discussed in my new book is, of course, due to Matthew Hurley, mainly. This book, like the Consciousness Explained (1991) earlier, has ideas that are new and innovative, and frankly, good enough on their own. You don’t want to tie them prematurely to a primitive, preliminary neuro-anatomical model, because you don’t want the ideas to be thrown out if the model is inaccurate.
I had lots of hunches about how the multiple drafts model of the brain would map onto the cortex and the thalamus, but that’s not what this is primarily about. I could be wrong about all of that; I’m not going to go out on those whims because I don’t want to get shot down for having a crude view of the thalamus.
Everything that’s happened in the twenty-odd years since I published that book ‘Consciousness Explained’ is consistent with the theory I put forward, and now I could go in there; and that’s one of my projects to go in and get serious about the neuro-realities that underlie the frame of the brain model.
Same, I think, is true about the jokes book. Matthew and I and Reg have aspirations to articulate the model further and to test it. I’d like to do the sort of thing for humor that David Huron has done for music in some regards. It’s a wide open field. We just weren’t ready to do that.
How do you see humor as a tool in the atheist movement? Dawkins had said at the Dublin convention, “The beliefs that these people hold are ridiculous. And they need to be exposed as ridiculous. We need satire, we need comedy… we need wit.”
Ha ha ha! Yeah, of course, one thing that a lot of people notice about religion is that it doesn’t have a sense of humor. There’s very little room for humor – humor is sort of antithetical to the whole setting of religion. Religion is the time of solemnity and pious ceremony, and humor is anti-ceremonial. That means, it’s a wonderful tool.
But it fascinates me how, at least in America, in Europe, we have a tremendous amount of humor which is about god and heaven, and I could probably come up with a hundred good jokes. And religious people often laugh away, they love those jokes. It’s interesting that that’s not offensive to people. Why isn’t it offensive? I think the only explanation is that everybody knows this is all just a fairytale!
We’ll finish up with this question – what’s going to be your next book?
It will be on ‘mind tools’.