Is faith reasonable? (Part 1)

April 26, 2008

Andrew Sullivan covers some of the debate going on between Daniel Dennett and Lord Winston. The debate topic is: “Is Religion a Threat to Rationality and Science?”

Dennett’s main thrust seems to be that religion is obviously the biggest threat to reason in the world today. Not only that, religion, according to Dennett (professor of Philosophy at Tufts University), is the biggest threat to all of existence:

There is an unbalance in the framing of this resolution, and Robert Winston has the worst of it. He must try to allay a host of concerns, an unending task, while – as everyone knows all too well – in a single cataclysmic day my side could be proven by one fanatical act, not that anyone would be left to cheer my victory. Not just rationality and scientific progress, but just about everything else we hold dear could be laid waste by a single massively deluded “sacramental” act. True, you don’t have to be religious to be crazy, but it helps. Indeed, if you are religious, you don’t have to be crazy in the medically certifiable sense in order to do massively crazy things. And – this is the worst of it – religious faith can give people a sort of hyperbolic confidence, an utter unconcern about whether they might be making a mistake, that enables acts of inhumanity that would otherwise be unthinkable.

Robert Winston disagrees:

The problem with his interesting views of the possible evolutionary basis of religious belief is that he seems unable to treat the beliefs and feelings of believers seriously. Might not God disapprove of this much more? Like many evangelical preachers, he repeatedly seems to claim to be open to the sincerely held views of others. Yet, in Dennett’s world, humans are divided into “brights” or believers – and if you are not a “bright”, you disagree with his point of view because you are intellectually inferior, closed-minded or too scared.

Winston goes on to argue that the mistake of the modern sciences is presuming a certainty about the universe that only science can bring. But certainty, says Lord Winston, is the exact same kind of problem that religious zealots have. Both Dennett and bin-Laden believe they know it all, and their philosophical presuppositions, while leading to radically different lifestyles, are essentially related.

I want to note first of all the wording of the question, “Is Religion a Threat to Rationality and Science.” It does not require a careful examination to conclude that this question is tailor-made for people like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins. It begs the question by assuming that religion is basically irrational. The question, then, is whether religion presents an active threat to reason. I would strongly disagree with the presumption, and argue that it comes from Kierkegaardian philosophy and not from theism itself. If Kierkegaard was correct in his division of the man into categories of existence (aesthetic, ethical, and spiritual), then it does follow that a nebulous spirituality ultimately trumps all reason. If reason is existentially lower than spirituality, logic exists only as a lower way of life.

It should be obvious that this is exactly the kind of religion that Dennett is arguing against. But what should be noted is that Dennett responds to this type of “leap of faith” not by unifying the whole man in a rational, complete manner, but by offering his own naturalistic divisions. Dennett simply switches Kierkegaard’s men around and claims that the Rational Man lives existentially higher (and also more ethically) than his dogmatic colleagues. Dennett wants you to believe that faith in something outside a completely closed universe is evil because it is ultimately less than man should be.

People like professor Dennett are really at a disadvantage when it comes to this debate, because they are constantly aided by questions like this which presume the larger issue to be solved. Dennett doesn’t see that the real rub between religion and science is where they meet to form the whole man (natural + metaphysical). If he did, he might be able to better discuss a solution. But by presuming a anti-Kierkegaardian, naturalistic reality, he compounds the problem.

This ultimately leads his argument to one serious flaw: His argument completely disintegrates based on the existence of religious people who do not fit his radical caricature. If religion, as Dennett is arguing here, is existentially low and harmful to the really real (reason), then we should not expect to see any devout persons who at the same time use their reason or are not fanatics. Yet there are many such people out there (the author would count himself among them). How would Dennett explain this? He would probably argue that proper sociological training has abetted the true nature of their beliefs; but how can he prove this rather defaming statement? It seems culturally elitist at best (for what would be considered “radical” in the modernized West might very well be “ordinary” in, say, Ethiopia), and completely ad hominem at worst.

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