Abandon Text!

W. H. Auden once said: "Poems are not finished; they are abandoned." I have been abandoning writing projects for many years, since only the pressure of deadline and high expectations ever got me to finish, or even start, anything of merit. This blog is an attempt to create a more consistent, self-directed writing habit. Hopefully a direction and voice will emerge.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Why we believe

The New Yorker ran a review of Daniel Dennett's new book, Break the Spell. I read this with some interest, since Dennett is one of my fallen idols. I was completely taken with The Mind's Eye, which he co-wrote with Douglas Hofstadter, and I was perfectly prepared to love the guy after that. But every exposure other exposure I had to him only diminished my regard, until he seemed nothing but a snooty intellectual with more regard for himself and his ideas than either deserved. When I was student I once called Dennett to try to book him for a public lecture, and he was extremely curt to the point of rudeness; he made me feel like a bug, and unschooled cretin of a bug at that. (By contrast, Hofstadter was warm and understanding on the phone, and a great guy, even when he was telling me he couldn't accept my invitation.)

Breaking the Spell is supposed to be a "natural history of religion" -- an objective study of the phenomena of religion, and theories as to why religion came to exist. Dennett does a little soft-shoe in the book to try to pursuade the reader that such a study of religion is not inherently anti-religion, though you can tell just by the title that he is. The book reviews various theories for the origin of religion, many from others and some from Dennett himself, mostly focused on how religion might have conveyed some kind of evolutionary advantage on the species.

I admit, I'm a little torn here, intellectually. As a thinking person constantly running afoul of people's narrow-minded understanding of religion, I can respect the attempt to take a look at religion objectively. Many religious people are afraid to look at their beliefs objectively, knowing that their faith might be shaken if they think to hard about these things. I don't think it's possible to develop a subtle understanding of such things without asking some questions that may seem taboo.

At the same time, I am so sick and freaking tired of intellectuals like Dennett (or pseudo-intellectuals, in the case of Scott Adams) making out religion to be the root of all evil. Those who see religion as merely delusional pathologies have less subtlety than the fundamentalists they despise so much. The reviewer in the New Yorker sees very clearly that Dennett has his own unquestioning faith in science, based on assumptions that even his own science cannot confirm. Ultimately, we believe what we believe for reasons beyond reason. Rationality might help you understand and refine it, but it can't show you the truth.


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