Is God a Human Invention? Commentary # 4
With just enough of learning to misquote...
English Bards and Scotch Reviewers
As Dennett closed his recommendation for religious education for all children, he remarked that any religion that could survive when all children had this kind of information deserved to.
This is an important point in the larger, cultural debate. There is, as I have pointed out before, a great deal of variety in religion, and not every adherent is a fundamentalist. There are a good number of quite rational people who prefer to live and think within a religious tradition, but who are quite aware that their tradition is evolving, and that the idea of God is evolving with it.
It sometimes seems, both in the cultural debate, and in this particular debate, that both sides are only vaguely aware of this fact—a point that will become apparent below.
Dennett, in summing up his presentation, introduces a secular vision of the world, by giving a rough sketch of evolutionary history. Most of this is pure scientific rhetoric, attempting to increase the audience's understanding of the world as seen through the eyes of science.
He then suggests that religion evolves as well—that the God of modern Christianity is quite different, and a great deal more abstract, than the God of ancient Israel.
D'Souza begins his response by announcing that he will correct some factual errors in Dennett's presentation.
What follows reveals an underlying pattern in the debate.
He remarks that Dennett didn't cite any sources, but that he will.
It's very hard to know what to make of this claim.
D'Souza is referring to the question of whether religion is increasing in numbers, and Dennett began his comments on that issue by citing The World Christian Encyclopedia.
Later, he cited a separate study conducted by the National Association of Evangelicals. And the chart he put up, comparing the numbers of adherents to various religions, was clearly marked www.adherents.com.
Dennett not only gave citations for his data, two of his three sources are clearly from people who would be biased, if at all, against his position.
D'Souza, on the other hand, cites one source, and it is not at all clear which of his claims actually come from that source.
His actual counter-claims boil down to two:
- Hinduism is growing, not in numbers, but in seriousness of devotion.
- Christianity is spreading in some parts of the world.
Neither of these contradict what Dennett actually said, which was that the only religion growing in number of adherents was Islam. He wasn't talking about seriousness of devotion, and it is perfectly possible for Christianity to spread in some places while declining, in numbers, overall.
Still, D'Souza closes this issue with a scathing charge that Dennett is entitled to his own opinion, but not "to his own facts".
So is D'Souza being intentionally dishonest here? I don't think so. I don't think it occurs to him to ask himself whether he is being accurate or not.
I think we see, from the beginning of D'Souza's remarks, that he is playing a completely different game at this debate than Dennett is, and that this is reflected in his rhetoric.
This goes back to the two meanings of the word "belief". For Dennett, belief is a matter of understanding, for D'Souza, it is an act of commitment.
D'Souza does not see himself as trying to deepen the audience's understanding of the issues. He sees himself as David, fighting Goliath, an emissary of God and goodness, motivating the audience to reject Dennett and turn to God.
His entire focus is on political rhetoric, and the only question he asks himself is "what can I say that will most influence this group toward me, and away from Dennett?"
Obviously, appearing to be the person who has accurate information is going to gain him that influence. So, he claims that Dennett has given no citations. I'm not sure he even stops to ask himself whether this is true. That's not the question on his mind. The question is whether it will be effective.
He then produces "corrections" which don't even contradict what Dennett has said. But again, he isn't interested in contradicting Dennett so much as he is interested in leaving the impression that he has contradicted him.
I want to be clear, that I am not accusing D'Souza of intentional deceit, I don't believe there is anything particularly calculated about this.
My guess is that he would be surprised to find that he hadn't answered Dennett decisively. Rather, it's a matter of focus. He is simply not interested in understanding, so much as he is in motivating.
It is very likely that these arguments motivate him to believe he is winning, and therefore making sound arguments.
This rootedness in political rhetoric continues with his next topic.
He says that he accepts Dennett's proposal for religious education, but objects to the "dripping elitist contempt in which it is couched."
Once again, he rewrites Dennett's remarks. There was no contempt, elitism, or even dripping in what Dennett said.
But from the point of view of political rhetoric, that isn't even the question. The question is how to motivate these people to leave a collapsing building. If planting the idea that Dennett is elitist will do it, then it is a good thing to do.
And because he is centered in political rhetoric, D'Souza understands one thing better than Dennett appears to. He understands that the audience he is playing to is not the roomful of college students he is standing in, but thousands of believers who will see this debate on the Internet, and who already have a bias against "godless, liberal, college professors, who sneer at common people like us and drink lattes".
He knows that "dripping elitist contempt" in a college professor is an easy sell to these people—or at least the ones who don't think twice, which are who he's aiming at.
And, once again, there is a very good chance that he believes it himself, because, when you are coming from that place you tend to believe any argument that seems politically effective.
He then proceeds to explain how he would change the course in religion instruction.
He would include evidence that the theory of evolution, and atheism, were an inspiration to the Nazis, to Stalin, and to Mao.
This time the influence of political rhetoric is clearest in the argument itself.
Suppose he is right. Suppose, even, that all of the atrocities of both Communist and Nazi regimes could be traced, completely and solely, to atheism and belief in evolution. Would that be evidence that God exists, or that evolution was a fallacy?
From the point of view of scientific rhetoric, such a claim is meaningless. God either exists or not. If he doesn't, all the atrocities in the world won't call him into existence. The same is true of evolution.
But, from the point of view of political rhetoric, the question isn't whether God exists, but what will motivate people to believe in God. And, remember, the belief we're talking about here is not a result of being convinced so much as it is an act of will—like joining a cause.
So are people more likely to join the God cause if they think that atheists do horrible things?
Of course they are.
D'Souza's argument makes perfect sense from the standpoint of a political rhetoric.
As does his next point.
He says he's going to address the question of whether God is a human invention, and immediately quotes Dennett as saying that there "not a single point in religious doctrine that has any factual basis."
He answers this by pointing out that the ten commandments contain prohibitions against stealing and adultery. Since these are matters open to dispute, he claims that they are in the realm of facts.
(As an aside, he remarks that ordinary people think these things are wrong, though, of course, there are some academics who think they are a good idea—another indication that he has his eye on an anti-intellectual audience.)
But what about his point?
Once again, he begins by misquoting Dennett. What Dennett actually said was quite different. He wasn't talking about whether God was a human invention, but answering a charge by D'Souza that he advocated teaching that religion was not true:
"Notice that the truth or falsity of any religious doctrines would not be included in the curriculum, since not a single point of relious doctrine is agreed upon as straightforward fact by the world community."
So D'Sousa begins by taking an explanation as to why Dennett would not have the schools teach which religious doctrines were true or false, and misrepresents it as part of an argument that God is a human invention. Notice that his rewording changed "agreed upon as straightforward fact by the world community" to "has any factual basis"—thus opening the door for a response that had nothing to do with what Dennett actually said.
It's also quite obvious, in the original context, that Dennett is not talking about generally agreed upon moral views. D'Souza was not accusing him of wanting to teach kids that the belief that stealing was wrong was false, but that the supernatural claims of religion are false. And Dennett is merely pointing out that that is not so.
And, even if we accept D'Souza's reframing of Dennett's remarks at face value, surely the religious claim is not so much that stealing is wrong, as it is that God says it is wrong.
It's a complete washout, as scientific rhetoric, but as political rhetoric it gives D'Souza a chance to work in his anti-intellectual touch about those immoral professors, and to make Dennett appear to be claiming that morality has no factual basis.
And that is the kind of thing that can make his intended audience want to choose his side.