Is God a Human Invention? Commentary # 3
Today's commentary is on the next two parts of the debate, which I've posted below. Together, they cover most of Daniel Dennett's remaining opening remarks.
In the first two commentaries, I've touched on two points which say a great deal about the whole question of God, as it currently stands, in our culture.
There are two kinds of rhetoric involved in the debate—a rhetoric aimed at understanding (which I have called "scientific"), and a rhetoric aimed at moving people to act (which I have called "political".)
There are two meanings of the word "believe" in the debate, as well, which parallel, to some extent, the two kinds of rhetoric—belief in the everyday sense, which is a matter of understanding, and belief in a special, religious, sense, which is a kind of act.
Dennett began his introduction by undermining a subconscious and false assumption that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, were growing at a rapid rate.
He now introduces a proposal for the educational system. He suggests that we include a fourth "R": Religion.
He wants to include the history of various world religions, their creeds, their rituals, their music, symbols, ethical commands, and prohibitions, as a normal part of the educational process for all students, starting at an early age and continuing through high school.
The idea would be to teach only undisputed facts, and not to teach the truth or falsity of any of these beliefs—merely to acquaint students with all of them:
Hinduism is older than Christianity and Judaism and has no single founder. Its highest god is Brahman. Hindus believe that human souls become one with Brahman when they are perfected, Hindus have lots of other gods and divine beings, various holy texts, and respect sacred cows.
Practitioners of Islam pray 5 times a day, don't drink, and hope to make a pilgrimage to mecca.
There are many different brands of Christianity: Roman Catholicism, Russian Orthodoxy, Greek Orthodoxy, and many kinds of Protestants, including Christian Science, and Mormonism—which believes that Joseph Smith met the Angel Moroni and translated the book of Mormon from strange writing on tablets with the help of supernatural stones.
Members of the Cargo Cult worship John Frum, who they believe will one day come down from the volcano and bring them cargo. They construct fake airports, and dress as Americans, in order to speed his coming.
Although he introduces this part of his talk as a digression from the main theme, it still functions as part of his argument, in several ways:
It makes the point, that the "God" they are debating about is only the god of some of these religions.
It is not a case of "Atheist vs. Believer, but a case of Atheist vs. a modern, twentieth century, adherent to Roman Catholicism (in the case of D'Souza), and the particular god he worships, rather than all the other gods (or lack of gods) in all the other religions of the world.
As scientific rhetoric, this point clarifies the question at hand. We are not talking about just any god here, but a very particular concept of God.
As political rhetoric, the same point also undermines, in advance, the claim that Dennett is disagreeing with most of humanity by being an atheist, while D'Souza is agreeing with most of humanity. (This is a claim that D'Souza actually makes at one point, later in the debate.)
Quite the contrary—D'Souza agrees with Dennett about Thor being a human invention, and about Zeus, and Ba'al, and John Frum.
They are in complete agreement that all gods are human inventions, except for the one that D'Souza happens to worship.
It sets the stage for the following (scientific) argument: Religion is a very common human phenomenon, and comes in a great many forms.
These forms are quite obviously human inventions, in the way that language and culture are human inventions.
(Note, that the terms "scientific" and "political" above refer only to kinds of rhetoric. I'm not claiming, for example, that Dennett is using the scientific method, or has scientific proof that religion is a human invention, but merely that his focus is on changing the audiences understanding of the subject here, rather than on changing their motives.)
So far, so good. But Dennett's next move is little joke, a piece of political rhetoric, which seems to me to be a mistake.
He displays a picture of the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, and points out that it was once a church, then became a mosque, and is now a museum.
He then displays a picture of the Vatican, and suggests that one day soon it may become The European Museum of Roman Catholicism.
He follows this with a picture of Mecca, with the title "Disney's Magic Kingdom of Allah".
There is an implied argument here, which the audience absorbs without much thought because it's presented as a joke. Roman Catholicism and Islam will one day soon be history.
Although I think this is a rather mild mistake, and actually wonder whether it was even intentional, I do take issue with it for several reasons:
This is the first argument Dennett makes or implies which is completely baseless.
The fate of the Hagia Sophia is the fate of a single, relatively unimportant, building. It did not mark the end of either Christianity or Islam, even in that part of the world.
The demise of the the Vatican or Mecca as centers of religion, does, however, imply the serious decline of their respective religions. The parallel he implies does not exist.
This is the first time Dennett uses political rhetoric to motivate the audience toward his position (if religion is on the way out, maybe we should jump on the bandwagon), rather than to merely correct irrational motivations in the other direction.
There's nothing wrong with political rhetoric, per se. But it's a bad idea to root it in a baseless argument, covered by humor.
It invites the audience to laugh at the expense of Catholics and Muslims.
Again, I'm not at all sure that this was Dennett's intent, but that's the way it comes across.
By doing this, it encourages an "Us vs. Them" worldview, which is not likely to convince anyone, supports the view of belief as an act (like joining a club or rooting for a team), and ignores the fact that the audience is much larger than the group of college students he is facing.
It is, as I said, a rather small mistake and perhaps inadvertent. But it's our first example, in this debate, of the misuse of political rhetoric.
There will be more to come.