A Very Religious Atheist indeed

From my friend Patrick Mitchel, in Dublin, who heard a lecture from Daniel Dennett:

Daniel Dennett, while proclaiming with utter certainty the end of all religion,  is a very religious atheist indeed.

As the evening wore on, it felt more and more like  listening to a rather optimistic, naive, kind-hearted yet legalistic preacher in church.

Moral Behaviour: the entire thrust of his talk was an  exhortation to good and decent and moral behaviour. These are the sorts of values that should shape our behaviour and our world, let’s commit to and work for them.

Mission: he talked of the need to build a missionary movement. Let’s take the secular good news out to the world and make it a better place. His closing words were ‘Let’s do it’. The good news bit was negative – the end of all religion.

Worship: he wanted to inspire us with hymns and get us emotionally inspired, excited, joyful and happy.

Community: Dennett offered the vision of democratic networks emerging of people working towards a common vision of improving the world.  He even suggested that this new atheist movement might consider buying defunct churches in which to meet (he didn’t say what they would do there. Sing atheist songs?).

Eschatological Hope: his whole lecture was built around a narrative of hope – a future vision of a better world (without religion) to inspire us to work passionately in the here and now to bring it about.

Doctrine of Man: Dennett has great faith in humankind. He asserted (while also describing himself as an ‘objective engineer’ of the human consciousness) that ‘People just want to be good.’  Wow.

This is simply a particular religious discourse wrapped up in secular garb. It is all about purpose, identity, meaning beyond ourselves, morality and ethics.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than forty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Watchman

    Francis Schaeffer talks a lot about this in his book, “How Should We Then Live?” where humanism will essentially become the religious identity of a nation someday. Sounds like Schaeffer was on to something.

  • http://augustiniandemocrat.blogspot.com/ John W Brandkamp

    Rousseau would be so proud. Some things never change.

  • mike l.

    Sounds wonderful (except for the songs)… hope, community, purpose, and ethics, without the superstitions. Bravo Mr. Dennett!

  • Jason Lee

    This reminds me of a book by a sociologist of the Soviet Union, THE PLOT TO KILL GOD (2008), in which the author looks at how many “religious” looking atheist rituals and practices cropped up in the course of trying to supplant the worship of God. (see: http://www.amazon.com/Plot-Kill-God-Experiment-Secularization/dp/0520255291/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1297081479&sr=8-1 )

  • Tim

    Purpose, identity, meaning, and morality are not the exclusive province of religion, or even theism for that matter. I personally express all of the above with respect to following God, but I am not so “naive” to think that only those who believe in God(s) can with intellectual integrity aspire to purpose, identity, meaning, and morality.

    Now, you could certainly claim that expressing this very basic and central set of characteristics/tendencies of the human conditions is “religious,” if you were so very intent on using the term, but let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that we would then be using the term precisely in the same way as Daniel Dennett would understand it, and shake our heads with amusement thinking that he is contradicting himself when calling for the end to religion. I trust most of the readers hear at Jesus Creed can spot a clear fallacy of equivocation when they see it.

    *On the subject of morality, and somewhat incidentally touching on the rest, I have already posted my argument in “Polkinghorne on Natural Theology and Moral Law (RJS)” – no on page 8 of Jesus Creed.

  • Jason Lee

    I submit that what Dennett is talking about here isn’t something other than religion. I’m taking a broad view of religion here. Religion is anything that slips beyond the empirical: ‘People just want to be good.’ It can also be beliefs that somehow history has story to it that we know (apparently by faith): ‘a future vision of a better world.’ In this way, many people’s patriotism is actually religion. They often believe in some sort of onlooking forebears, some sort of seemingly eternal national principles, and in a kind of eternal life found in the triumph or continuance of their people, nation, or state.

    Remember that many forms of Buddhism are technically atheistic.

  • http://faithinireland.wordpress.com/ Patrick Mitchel

    Thanks Tim. In the full original post that Scot has clipped from I did make clear that Dennett’s framework explicitly denies any supernatural element and so differs significantly from a Christian view of religious belief.

    Yes, people who do not believe in God(s) can aspire to the values listed. What was striking was the explicit parallels to the structure of religious beliefs (for example he played some atheist hymns to engender and reflect a human need for joy & awe) yet without any acknowledgement that the ethical framework being presented depended on a set faith assumptions just as much as any ‘religion’ (a word which was never defined).

  • Jeremy

    Tim, I would agree on any one of those things. However, when you start to pile them all together, it starts to sound like a church service. This starts become “If it looks like a duck…” territory as it doesn’t fit neatly into a place of simply not believing God exists.

    The question in my mind is really, if religion is valueless, why is it that the framework within which it resides seems inescapable? I think Jason is on to something in that the definition of religion may be too narrowly defined as to allow some ideologies to avoid the category though their function is largely identical. Simple atheism may not be a religion per se, but this is trying to create a support network of worship and eschatology. No way you can just declare “logical fallacy, not a religion!” and move on.

  • http://garyfeister.blogspot.com Gary Feister

    Can atheists perform moral behavior? Absolutely. Can Satanists? Yes. Can some animals? Yes. Can Christians? The problem is that we tend to focus the fruit (i.e., the behaviors) as the determining factor of its worth or as the goal. What makes the qualitative difference between the behavior of a godly man and that of an atheist? The source of the behavior. “That which is born of the Spirit is spirit; that which is born of the flesh is flesh.” So, even if there were no religions, no hatred, no war, and man was always kind and good toward his fellow man, it still wouldn’t be enough. We would simply perish as morally good people. We must be born again.

  • Richard

    @ 9 Gary

    I think I hear what you’re saying but the reason we focus on fruit is because Jesus and the Biblical witnesses do. The ultimate fruit, which I think is only possible through the movement of the Holy Spirit (no matter how the person refers to himself), is love for enemies.

    As to the original post, reminiscent of Rob Bell stating, “Even saying you don’t believe in God is a type of god” in The Gods Aren’t Angry.

  • Paul D

    “Worship: he wanted to inspire us with hymns and get us emotionally inspired, excited, joyful and happy. . . .He even suggested that this new atheist movement might consider buying defunct churches in which to meet (he didn’t say what they would do there. Sing atheist songs?).”

    But Steve Martin has reminded us, :Atheists don’t have no songs.”
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CWlqpowKkBY

  • dopderbeck

    These observations are absolutely correct.

    This has nothing to do with whether atheists and so on can have morals in general. Of course they can. But what Dennett et al are promoting is an alternative religious system that extends far beyond the bounds of the natural sciences. It is Ayn Rand’s Objectivism dressed up in parascientific garb.

  • http://LostCodex.com DRT

    It seems to me that he is trying to found the United States.

  • http://www.gettingfree.wordpress.com T

    Yet another sign to me that the old categories of “secular” and “religious” are breaking down and blurring together. I’m beginning to believe that they were largely artificial or naive all along. We all have conclusions about reality: who and what are in it, and why and how it all works. At the end of the day, because of our inescapable human limitations, our conclusions over reality are matters of faith, for the atheist and theist alike. The sooner we all move toward a common understanding of this (that all humans, atheists included, live by faith, which David Hume, ironically, proved) the sooner we can have more intelligent conversations about what parts of reality (which ‘articles of faith’) we agree upon, and which ones we disagree on, and which of both we want to preserve and respect freedom to draw one’s own conclusions.

  • http://faithinireland.wordpress.com/ Patrick Mitchel

    Paul D, love the Steve Martin link

  • Dennis Mullen

    Here’s a link to Dennett’s talk (or at least a very similar one). He also refers to the TED conference as an example of this new religious expression being put into practice.

    The MP3 itself:
    http://feeds.tvo.org/~r/tvobigideas/~3/qQK6xnIrEEw/004993_48k.mp3

    The feed page for the Big Ideas podcast:
    http://feeds.tvo.org/tvobigideas

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    T –

    We all have conclusions about reality: who and what are in it, and why and how it all works.

    So far so good. The Germans call this a “weltanschuung”, a “worldview”.

    At the end of the day, because of our inescapable human limitations, our conclusions over reality are matters of faith, for the atheist and theist alike.

    But this is not quite so certain. If nothing else, there is a distinct difference between worldviews with a supernatural component, and those without. Just about everyone has a worldview, sure… but some worldviews are religious and some aren’t.

    Besides which, if “conclusions over reality” are actually “matters of faith” depends very critically on how you define “faith”.

    For example, I don’t have ‘faith’ (in the religious sense) that “I am capable of recognizing and rejecting error at least some of the time” or “Sense-data bears at least some relation to an outside world”. I simply recognize that assuming the converse of these precepts leads to automatic futility and self-defeat. I accept them because there’s simply no practical alternative.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The question in my mind is really, if religion is valueless, why is it that the framework within which it resides seems inescapable?

    What if atheists aren’t, and don’t think other people are, robots? A radical idea, that atheists might not fit the stereotypes, I know. :)

    Humans are social creatures, and the structure of singing and dancing together, being together in a community, is a powerful and basic phenomenon, which would be kinda silly to ignore. See, e.g. “Evolution For Everyone” by David Sloan Wilson for some discussions on this.

    Simple atheism may not be a religion per se, but this is trying to create a support network of worship and eschatology.

    Wait – is “worship” really the same thing as being “emotionally inspired, excited, joyful and happy”?

    And “a future vision of a better world (without religion) to inspire us to work passionately in the here and now to bring it about” isn’t quite the same thing as ‘study of the last times’ either. Having a goal and a standard to aspire to isn’t the same thing as preaching about the end times.

    As Tim notes, “Purpose, identity, meaning, and morality are not the exclusive province of religion, or even theism for that matter.”

  • Jeremy

    Ray, Eschatology is not purely “End times.” It is rather “ultimate destiny.” A vision of a utopian world devoid of religion is eschatological in the extreme. It is founded firmly in a faith that humanity, through scientific and social progress, will shed its superstitions and live happily ever after.

    Also, I’m aware that atheists aren’t robots or identical. I was 29 when I went and sacrificed my intelligence on the altar of ancient superstition. The thing is, I’ve seen an increasingly religious sounding dialogue occurring, whether it be Dennet talking in church service lingo or Neil deGrasse Tyson and Richard Dawkins arguing over the best way to “spread the good news.” Not all atheists are religious by any means, but there is a growing movement (at least in my observation) of aheist thought that crosses the line.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Jeremy –

    It is rather “ultimate destiny.” A vision of a utopian world devoid of religion is eschatological in the extreme. It is founded firmly in a faith that humanity, through scientific and social progress, will shed its superstitions and live happily ever after.

    I’ve added some emphasis in a few spots. Do you really think those words apply? Believing that things will be overall improved if a perceived problem is resolved isn’t quite the same thing as prescribing an “ultimate density”.

    I don’t know of an atheist who thinks things would be perfect and everyone would sing ‘kumbaya’ together if religion were removed. If you read what atheists actually write, they pretty much universally speak of religion as a source of problems, not the source.

    Also, I’m aware that atheists aren’t robots or identical…

    I know, hence the smiley. No insult or offense was intended; I was riffing a little on an all-too-common stereotype.

    People go to concerts and rallies and shows, and it’s a very common observation that they have a lot in common with religious ceremonies. But most people don’t think those are actually therefore religions. (Well, based on #6, Jason Lee might.)

  • Joshua Wooden

    As interested as I am in the ongoing discussion between belief and disbelief, and especially the New Atheism, I have to ask: what is the significance of the saying it’s a religion or not? What difference does any of this make?

    I don’t mean to slant anyone’s argument, but frankly, I don’t see any discussion along these lines as the least bit productive. It’s not like the conversation will change drastically once Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, Dennett, etc. admit that their movement is a religion (cult?) or not. It’s a movement. They don’t like religion. They think that it’s ignorant and superstitious, and if you are religious, then you are ignorant and superstitious.

    But apart from the humor and vitriol (coming from both sides, if we’re honest), they really aren’t doing much apart from selling books, giving ammunition to people who already agreed with them anyway, and angering people who already disagreed with them anyway. I have not heard of a single conversion story that had anything to do with the New Atheism, so I gotta say, who cares? They’ll live, they’ll die, and when all is said and done, all they will have done is make some people laugh, some people mad, but no one will really be changed.

    Religion is not going anywhere (whether you want it to or not), so let them talk. I for one have heard all of their arguments, read all their books, seen all the debates, watched all the videos…. nothing. Just laughter and anger. But nothing really ever comes of it- nothing.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Joshua –

    …what is the significance of the saying it’s a religion or not? What difference does any of this make?

    Well, it’s usually couched as an accusation of hypocrisy on the part of atheists.

    I have not heard of a single conversion story that had anything to do with the New Atheism, so I gotta say, who cares?

    I’ve heard a few. In any case, simply raising awareness of atheism is a good thing for atheists who have to balance societal expectations versus their own beliefs. Google the phrase “least trusted minority” sometime.

  • Joshua Wooden

    Ray, thanks for you response. This was a while ago, so I don’t know if you’ll read this or not, but anyway, I think a response on my part is warranted.

    I think there’s a misunderstanding of not only what I said, but why I said it. In fact, I am technically on your side in this discussion, believe it or not. I will affirm the fact that I have not personally heard of any conversion to or from atheism that has had anything to do with the New Atheism- mostly just bitterness, anger and vitriol- coming from both sides. I was trying to point out how such “accusations of hypocrisy” (in your words) were ultimately unproductive in fostering a dialogue that moved beyond the vitriol.

    I think we have been to keen to accuse one another of hypocrisy in the past. Perhaps we feel that our own belief is justified when others don’t fully live up to theirs; but ironically, we’re all guilty of hypocrisy. Let’s move beyond the accusation to see one another as human beings, and try to understand one another, before we disagree (and disagree, we probably will). Anyway, that is essentially what I was getting at. I wasn’t trying to overlook or understate the importance of the issue- but I do want to transcend it, and that’s what I’d like to see happen between atheists and communities of faith.

    To those who wish to accuse me of relativism or pluralism (which would not surprise me)- guess again. I am not suggestin that you compromise your beliefs, but that you are so firmly rooted in what you believe that you don’t feel under attack by people who don’t believe what you believe, and then lash out at them. Don’t be of such little faith.


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