Thursday, February 09, 2006

Getting Closer to the Truth
It's one of the standard riffs on this blog that toxic religion represents a grave threat not just to the United States, but to post-Enlightenment civilization everywhere. We're seeing its effects in the cartoon protests going on in the Islamic world, and we're living it here in the United States as theocrats move to increase their political power from school boards to the Capitol. And as long as we give religion a privileged status, by putting it in a place where we ask no questions and offer no criticism, we can't deal effectively with the fanatics, theirs and ours.

Daniel Dennett is a philosopher who's written a book called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and he's interviewed in Salon. The goal of the book is to examine where religious belief comes from, but only in terms of what can be proven by the scientific method. Dennett says he doesn't want to undermine faith any more than Alfred Kinsey set out to undermine sex. He argues that just as sex has survived Kinsey, religion can survive similar examination.

Perhaps, but only among those who are willing to submit their religious beliefs to rational examination in the first place. Those whose beliefs represent the greatest threat in the modern world--fundamentalists, Islamic and Christian--will not submit what they believe to rational examination. And so to them, rational arguments take place in dog whistles that they can't hear. Dennett's rational examination is liable to do the most good, then, with the great mass in the middle, people sympathetic to religion but not living every moment obsessed by their gods. Many of them may be persuadable to see that by giving religion a free pass without examination, we willfully ignore the silliness we know it can lead to. If rational examiniation means more skepticism toward fundamentalism on the part of people smart enough to know better, good--especially if that skepticism diminishes the credibility and power the fundies currently possess, especially in the United States.

Dennett wasn't asked directly about the cartoon controversy, but one of his comments speaks to it.
We cannot let any group, however devout, blackmail us into silence by their expressions of hurt feelings whenever they feel that we are getting close to the truth. That is what con artists do when their marks begin to get suspicious, and that is what children do when they can't have their way, and it should be beneath the dignity of any religious group to play that card. The responsibility of science is to safeguard the well-being of those it studies and to tell the truth. If people insist on taking themselves out of the arena of reasonable political discourse and mutual examination, they forfeit their right to be heard. There is no excuse for deliberately insulting anybody, but people who insist on putting their sensibilities on a hair trigger demonstrate that they prefer pity to respect.
("Preferring pity to respect" is a fine capsule description of America's "embattled" fundies, who are so in love with their victimhood that they can't see how much power they really have.) What Dennett is suggesting here, I think, is that it's wrong to go around poking religious believers with a stick just to stir them up--but that when they stir themselves up out of paranoia, for example, we're under no obligation to respond under those circumstances. Which is why I think American media outlets refusing to show or print the cartoons of Muhammad for fear of offending Muslim sensibilities are wrong. If Islam is as strong, right, and powerful as Muslims believe, the Prophet can take it.

Although I'm skeptical of how much good it will do in our real world at the moment, I'm certainly not opposed to rationally examining religious belief. When I began rationally examining mine, it turned out to be (no exaggeration) the best thing that ever happened to me--because I got rid of it. I don't expect the world to follow suit, given that the human species is biologically disposed toward irrational explanations of mysterious things. But the human story is nothing less than the story of our ongoing mastery of the physical world. We've overcome other biological limitations, so why not hope that our religious wiring is one of the next ones to go?

Recommended Reading: Also from Salon, a Danish journalist explains the genesis of the offensive cartoons. Turns out Denmark isn't quite as tolerant as advertised. And Juan Cole explains how anger over the cartoons is being used in different countries around the Muslim world, and how it has nothing to do with Denmark.

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