Dan Dennet’s AAI 2009 Talk

This is a reponse to comments on Lesly’s post on Rollins.

In a comment there I posted a video by Dan Dennett to which Lesley responded. My response in turn is a bit too long for a comments section, so here is is…

Hi lesley,

I’ll cover each of your specific points, starting with this one…

“he is called a philosopher, but he adds practically nothing”

Reverse engineering – seeing how things fail in order to understand them. Standard scientific process, used in his case in understanding the brain, psychology, etc. Dennett does know a lot about how the brain works, and how it fails to work. And much of this is about how it fails to work when applied to religious belief.

There is the assumption in the religious community that theologians who think about human behaviour in the context of a religious belief have a real grasp of the human condition, as if they have an insight that religious thought and belief brings to their understanding. Dennett’s purpose here is to point out that they don’t. Rollins and Bell are prime examples of believers who maybe don’t appreciate how their stories and their methods are pure snake oil salesmen tricks. Dennett probably finds it hard to believe that many serious intelligent theologians really believe some of the stuff they come out with; and added to that the experiences he’s had with religious believers you yourself might classify as ‘nutters’, simply because their belief is more literal than yours; then this is why Dennett is appears not to address your position on many of the points he makes.

The part of the video that’s about non-believing preachers is a genuine attempt to understand what is happening. It’s a real psychological investigation. As someone interested in psychology I assume you can appreciate this. Even in this small initial study he classifies them as three liberals and three literals – so already he’s naturally covering a range of beliefs.

“why does everything always revolve around the most extreme form of American evangelicalism?”

First, because that’s a pretty prominent group he encounters, so no surprise their views are tackled most often.

Second extreme evangelism covers some of the same issues raised by the great variety of faith, so no surprise that more literalist views are sometimes tackled.

Dennett’s talk was prior to the study. This paper, http://www.epjournal.net/filestore/EP08122150.pdf, outlines the study. If you think it’s only about ‘nutters’, it isn’t.

Some of the clergy interviewed express very similar beliefs to your own. Just because all the examples don’t match your own doesn’t invalidate them.

“at college… there was no sense of not believing what we were taught because it challenged preconceived ideas”

This may have been your experience, but if you read the experiences of those interviewed you’ll see it’s not always like that.

“as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too.”

That may be the case for many who get through. But on your own blog there are often comments about struggles with faith, so theologians are not always among the happiest and satisfied.

But I don’t think anything controversial has been said that can’t be backed up. Much of what Dennett covers comes from religious people who have rejected faith because they have seen problems with it.

Having said that…

“Prior to that I was in a certain mindset, where I didn’t really question, I was too scared to question, and those who did question were looked on as apostate.” – from your Hotel California post.

“There was so much to scared of, top on the list was Liberal Theology which was the slippery slope to unbelief”

“So we all huddled together in the Hotel California for security, we sounded the same, we acted the same, we looked the same. We looked to the Bible to save us from false prophets and various perceived evils.”

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“Our aversion to stage 4 is increased because of the very real dangers that accompany this stage. ‘Sometimes people drop off the journey totally at this point. Overwhelmed by pain or crises in our lives, we absolutely cut ourselves off from God’.” – Ditto.

These are all from your experience, and they all sound so much like the quotes from the clergy that took part in the study:

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

“regularly uses the words subversive, willful, cunning, trick, liars etc.”

“He suggests that we learn spin when interpreting the Bible. Not true.”

He’s not implying it’s that open, or necessarily intentional, “There isn’t a course [at seminary college] called how to put a spin. It’s taught by example….They’re sort of the truth.” – And this is the point he is making. It’s the mode of religious language that’s deceptive.

In the examples he cites it’s hard not to see it that way. Again, this might not match your experience, or how you see it.

But much of the work of Bell and Rollins for example does sound like the willful misuse of terms; there is trickery in the language and production that is intended to persuade.

Some of the clergy in the study have said they weren’t telling the whole story:

“I knew I’m not going to make it in a conventional church. I didn’t believe the conventional things, even then. I mean, sure, I’m studying theology with Paul Tillich — and Bultmann who says we can’t know much about Jesus, and Paul Tillich’s philosophical stuff about ‘God is the ground of being’. I’m not going to go into a church and talk like this; I’m not going to, I’m not going to – I did not believe the traditional things even then.”

In the cases he cites of those clergy who have to effectively misrepresent to hide their own degree of disagreement with the doctrine, then it is applying spin. And there’s no way that some of the works he cites by religious authors, such as Spong is not spin.

“He suggests that those who lose their faith at college ‘get out while the going is good’… as far as I know vicars are among the happiest and most satisfied people, and they live longest too. What does he mean?”

He’s referring to those like the ones in the study. Read the quotes.

Click to access EP08122150.pdf

It also ties in with this:

“In this stage, our former views of God are radically challenged. The disruption can be so great that we feel like we are losing our faith or betraying loyalties.” – From stage 4 of The Critical Journey, as quoted in your Abyss post.

“He suggests that theology is to answer ‘awkward questions’.. not true.”

But that’s the history of theology, and it’s been going on for centuries, trying to address the awkward questions. This is what Augustine, Aquinas etc. did, putting so much effort into building a more robust doctrine.

You often comment on versions of the faith that you don’t agree with, and you’ve said yourself that much of what you read is disagreeable. Dennett simply finds it all disagreeable.

“He suggests that we try to stop people having inquiring minds.. not true.”

we? – not you. The hierarchy, the establishment of the church.

You’ve said yourself that the there’s a resistance to inquiry that you feel you struggle against yourself.

“And he says that either you believe God has existence or you are an atheist.. why?”

Because to believe in God as expressed by Christians is to believe in an agent. We have no experience of agents that do not have existence.

We can conceptualise God as an agent, just as we can conceptualise pink elephants and unicorns. But you really want to say God IS, and yet claim he does not exist, then you are reducing him to a mere concept, not an actual God.

In this sense God can be a metaphor for something – but then Dennett says, in that case he too can believe in that God, because he too believes in metaphors, he knows what they are.

This is what the ‘History of God’ reference was about. Many religious explanations describe the history of the religion – which is fine, because religion does have a history.

But in saying it’s a history of God implies that there is a God to have a history about, when really it’s a history of the concept of God, not of God.

Dennett says that he too believes in the ‘concept of God’, i.e. he understands what concepts are, and he gets what this specific concept is. He just doesn’t believe in the content of that concept – i.e. God.

This is related to the Use-Mention Error – next.

” ‘History of God’ … And he relates God to the Easter Bunny..”

First, the Easter Bunny, unicorns, flying spaghetti monster, Russell’s teapot, or God, are all examples used to demonstrate the idea that having a concept of something isn’t the same as that something actually being real. All the inexplicable attributes of God, his incomprehensibility, can all be applied to these other examples, but it doesn’t make them any more true. The argument here is about the similarities with the type of claim being made, and not actually equating God to an Easter Bunny.

The example he uses for his deepism is lousy ‘Love is just a word’” – This is to do with the common use-mention error, which he explains clearly. Here’s some detail on it:

This is what it means:


And here:


The specific History of God error:


It’s a point I’ve picked up on in Bell and Rollins. It’s a way of conflating ideas, where the obvious and literal meaning of the sentence is easy for the brain to accept, and primes the brain for the more profound intention, even though the more profound intentional interpretation doesn’t actually make any sense as a sentence.

So, (as I commented on your Rollins post) Rollins (and Bell) provide many examples of what Dennett calls a ‘Deepity’:

– A proposition that seems to be profound because it is logically ill-formed.

– It has (at least) two meanings, and balances precariously between them.

– On one reading it is true but trivial.

– On the other reading it’s false, but would be earth-shattering if true.

And it’s the failure to recognise the U-M error that allows these double readings to be conflated.

When this usage is mixed in with lots of other emotive sentences and vague notions they’re easy to just absorb as if they have meaning. Dennett expresses something like, “Well, sounds okay, but?….well, I suppose I get it…” With repeated exposure this sort of stuff takes on a life of its own as if it actually means something.

Whenever a theist is asked to explain the detail of what is meant, then the simple claim that it’s too deep, beyond our language to express, is what the rationalisation of the problem resorts to.

“I am honestly appalled…so sickeningly prejudiced…I am shocked that Richard Dawkins…you are better than this, I can’t believe you can stomach it…anything racist or anti-gay or politically obnoxious…I find it distasteful…it seemed at the level of the Sun newspaper to me…It is just appalling…If he said these things about black people you would be rightly outraged and liken his propaganda to Hitler…these vile things…I think that is similar to racists equating black people to apes…as unpleasant as him. He represents for me the worst sort of bigotry.”

I can only put this down to you being genuinely disturbed by it. Yes, he’s preaching to the converted and does use some humour, which if you’re on the receiving end could be considered puerile.

But your response raises another issue that is problematic – there is no right of the religious not to be offended, simply because what’s being said is distasteful.

These are serious challenges to claims of ways of knowing things, and religious claims about what is known and how it is known do not stand up to scrutiny. The fact that you genuinely believe what you do does not make it any more viable, and Dennett is under no obligation to pull his punches when criticising ways of thinking that bamboozle so many people.

There are two topics covered seriously.

One, treated second, is the issue of religious language applied to the explanation of religious belief that has been adapting to criticism of literal meaning for centuries. He clearly shows up some of the flaws in the religious language that is used. he bases much of this on his understanding of philosophy, linguistics, psychology and the study of the mind, and the ideas are consistent with those of many leaders in those fields.

The other is the study that is underway to look into the effect of this religious language. In this particular case it’s about how language is used in situations: where clergy struggle with the disparity in types of belief; where there is a wide range of literal to metaphorical meaning, from traditional fundamental theism to near or actual atheism; where clergy have to deal with these conflicts in their own minds and conscience.

I’m sorry you find much of Dennett’s video so distasteful, but I think the arguments are fair, even if you don’t like the presentation.


3 thoughts on “Dan Dennet’s AAI 2009 Talk

  1. Hi Ron,Still feeling offended and believe it is shear prejudice and hatred so I shouldn’t respond, but I will, despite myself:"he is called a philosopher, but he adds practically nothing"Reverse engineering. – I am no theologian but Spong and Holloway have said much more interesting philosophical things in this space, I suspect he hasn’t read them. I call people ‘nutters’ when their prejudice outstrips their reason – not if they are less liberal than me.I am interested in psychology, but the whole tenet to me suggests there is something underhand going on. The notion of trying to find vicars who have lost their faith and are in post smacks of ‘we’re going to show that the church is hypocritical’ and I am unsure what the objective of the exercise is. Plus most serious science has controls, most serious science does not use emotive language, most serious science is open and lets the results drive the conclusions, most serious science does not use emotive language like that video.Yeah – that was in the news and it made me smile because it put liberal theology in the atheist category. That isn’t exposing anyone – that is just misunderstanding. Incidentally, why go after Karen Armstrong and other liberal theologians? Dan’s stated aim at the end was to get rid of religious or neutralise it so it is harmless, I can see fundamentalism is harmful, but Karen has many wise insights that are beneficial. I wish I had heard Dan’s statement at the beginning of the hour rather than the end. There is no pretence of trying to understand, just a desire to overstep to boundaries of other people’s personal lives and impose his world view. No wonder so much was prejudice and rhetoric.He only described some seminaries in America and then generalised. He didn’t check out what most colleges are like, he didn’t say they were unlucky to go to bad ones – he generalised in a very unscientific way. Struggles with faith are great – like struggles with science – they take you further along the journey of understanding.Yes – there are some sections of the church that are driven by fear – that is what I mean by religion can either be driven by fear or love. I too am against this type of faith, but that is not a reflection on the whole of the church, and I am struggling to understand why it is a surprise."regularly uses the words subversive, willful, cunning, trick, liars etc."You didn’t comment on this bit.The Biblical studies were rigorous with no thought about presenting it to others – that is left to us. I just want to say that the spin stuff is utter bollocks. Fine – if he finds some examples at some college maybe there is some evidence, but once again he is generalising and hasn’t checked out his material.Could it not be respectful to allow the parishioners to have a different view of theology to you – it is a broad church and none of us are furnished with the provable truth.The abyss is a well known stage on the journey of faith. I think post abyss we tend to be more liberal, and yes, most parishioners can be pre-abyss but that is ok. I still learn loads from them too. And you can’t force the faith journey.The history of theology is to try to make sense of God, there is much positive in there as well as difficult questions. The use of the word ‘awkward’ suggests they are embarrassing – it is pejorative, like much of his language.I engage with people of all faiths and no faiths, I try to properly understand and I try to be sympathetic and respectful. I see no evidence of this in Dan. “we? – not you. The hierarchy, the establishment of the church.”Well that is doubly not true. The hierarchy welcome questioning.“You've said yourself that the there's a resistance to inquiry that you feel you struggle against yourself.”Yes, but the resistance to inquiry is from those stuck in the fear type of religion, and that will always be so.

  2. "And he says that either you believe God has existence or you are an atheist.. why?"Because to believe in God as expressed by Christians is to believe in an agent. We have no experience of agents that do not have existence.It all depends what we mean by existence.. The word to me suggests something that cannot pre-exist, something that is created. If he means agent then why not use that word?I think the ‘History of God’ thing is pure pedantry.I think the ‘Easter Bunny’ thing is pure ridicule.What I was meaning is ‘Love is just a word’It isn’t just a word – it is an emotion. His example doesn’t work.Just because Dan doesn’t have the time or inclination to understand theology doesn’t mean that it is a series of ‘deepities’ – that is just offensive.I am not offended because I don’t like the content, there is precious little of that, it is the disrespect, the mockery, the attempt to minimise and distort in order to propagate his views. I have no desire for him to pull his punches, but if he wants to engage in genuine debate and not rabble rousing may I suggest he changes his style.“One, treated second, is the issue of religious language applied to the explanation of religious belief that has been adapting to criticism of literal meaning for centuries.”I too am against manipulation and I take this seriously, but I haven’t seen him do any serious study on it – and as you so often say evidence is important.“The other is the study that is underway to look into the effect of this religious language.”I am still confused by what benefit the study has, mainly because it feels like a joke to me calling liberals ‘atheists’ and whoever did it had no understanding of these things.Lesley

  3. Hi RonWondered whether you would be interested in this:http://davidkeen.blogspot.com/Didn't know where to post it so thought here would be good.. I'd be genuinely interested in your thoughts because you seem very reasonable compared to some atheists who border fanatical fervour.. or would you disagree with me about that? I am afraid that is how Richard Dawkins and Dan Dennett appear to me..

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