The Bit I Liked Best About Dennett’s Book

This post is part of a series discussing Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell.

Daniel Dennett is the only one of the Four Horsemen of New Atheism I hadn’t read, and I felt like, for the sake of completeness if nothing else, I wanted to take a crack at Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.  I’ll be getting more in depth with the meat of Dennett’s thesis tomorrow, but there was one quote near the end I wanted to draw attention to:

Anybody hoping to make sense of any highly sophisticated and difficult field of human effort needs to become a near expert in that field in addition to having the training of his or her home field… [S]cientists intent on explaining religious phenomena are going to have to delve deeply and conscientiously into the lore and practices, the texts and contexts, the daily lives and problems of the people they are studying.

How could this be guaranteed? Religious experts… who are skeptical of the qualifications of those scientists who would study them could create and administer an entrance examination! Anybody who could not pass the entrance exam that they devised would be quite appropriately judged not sufficiently knowledgeable to comprehend the phenomena under investigation, and could be denied access and cooperation. Let the experts make the entrance examination as demanding as they like, and give them total authority on grading it, but require some of their own experts to take the exam as well, and require that the examination be blind-graded… That would give the religious experts a way of confirming their mutual esteem while weeding out the clueless from their own ranks and certifying any qualified investigators.

In other words, make them pass an intellectual Turing Test?

I’d certainly enjoy seeing what people thought was most important to put on the certification exams.  If you want to study the cultural history of a religion, you may not need to know all of the metaphysics.  If you want to address it as a possible truth-telling thing, then you need to be a lot more fluent in theology.  There’s plenty that’s interesting in Dennett’s book, but based on some of the final sections, he doesn’t seem as though he’d pass the certification exam he proposes.

About Leah Libresco

Leah Anthony Libresco graduated from Yale in 2011. She works as an Editorial Assistant at The American Conservative by day, and by night writes for Patheos about theology, philosophy, and math at She was received into the Catholic Church in November 2012."

  • Eli

    But what if you don’t want to make sense of nonsense? What if, instead, you only want to identify it as nonsense and so be rid of it?

    • Robert King

      Wouldn’t you still need to understand it well enough to determine whether it was nonsense or not?

      • Eli

        Yeah, but it isn’t necessary to make sense of something (in this sense) in order to understand it. Look at it this way: do you understand the Klan’s position on black people? (I assume you do.) But how far can you make sense of that position? Hopefully not very far, right? At the very least, you certainly have not yet undergone the kind of training that Dennett and Leah are talking about.

        • Brandon B

          I don’t think you should need to pass a test or study extensively to come to a conclusion for yourself. To try to convince other people, however, some expertise is appropriate.

      • CBrachyrhynchos

        There’s a clear double standard though. A Catholic wishing to profess Catholicism can rest on expertise in Catholicism. A Jew isn’t especially obligated to deal with Christian theology, focusing instead on Judaic thought. Buddhist debates on metaphysics and ethics rarely address those of other religions.

        The atheist though is expected to have expertise in multiple religions both to express skepticism and to describe his or her own beliefs and practices.

        • Randy

          He is not suggesting special tests for atheists. He is suggesting special tests for scientists. Basically if you want to present yourself as an expert in religion you need to know something about religion. He is saying both atheist and religious experts are good and bad. Some know the field and some are ignorant.

          • Irenist

            ^TITCR. An atheist qua atheist need not be an expert on each or even any religion. But an atheist wishing to present herself as an authority on, e.g., Why Christianity Is Wrong And Bad, should be expected to become such an expert. Similarly, a Jew who wants to write a book about Buddhism or a Catholic who wants to write a book about Wicca or whatever permutation you care to think of, should be expected to become an expert on the topic of her own book before holding herself out as one.

        • Ted Seeber

          Skepticism in general is always assumed to be correct without proof.

        • Pseudonym

          The atheist though is expected to have expertise in multiple religions both to express skepticism and to describe his or her own beliefs and practices.

          I personally would not expect this of an atheist. I would, however, expect this of an antitheist. Not believing in deities doesn’t have a high burden of proof. The claim that theism is inherently wrong or dangerous is a claim about all forms of theism, and hence requires considerably more knowledge.

    • Ted Seeber

      Then you can just write a paper, stamp the word “SCIENCE” on it in big letters, and hope nobody notices that you cherry picked the data to fit your obviously prejudicial conclusion.

      Given the state of publishing today, you could also pay to self-publish it and get an ISBN number and get it onto Amazon, where New Atheists will eat it up because they already agree with your conclusion.

    • Christenstain

      Then you have begged the question, but assuming at the outset what you claim to be showing.

  • HBanan

    There is not a double standard, because the test is only required of people who want to study religious phenomena. An atheist football coach, actor, or philosopher need never worry.

    This test would not be required of the average atheist — only of those scientists (of whatever beliefs themselves) who wish to do studies on the members of some religion. For example, scientists who wish to do prayer/MRI studies of nuns SHOULD have a rigorous understanding of what prayer actually means to Catholic nuns. Scientists who wanted to do prayer/MRI studies of Buddhists should know how Buddhists approach prayer — what are their goals and difficulties in praying? Before people agree to be part of a study, they should know that the scientists running it have a basic understanding of their research field. Why should research subjects waste their time and energy when the scientists may know less about prayer than a high school student? It isn’t that they would misinterpret their data, it’s that they’d be asking simplistic, non-informative questions.

    • Alan

      But if he just wants to do prayer/MRI studies of prayer do the particular differences in theology among participating individuals really matter? That certainly seems like a valid null hypothesis to test – maybe if you see different results in the study by the theological beliefs of the participants you would dig into that and bother to understand them but why should that be the default assumption?

      • leahlibresco

        If you’re interested in the MRI stuff, you probably want to know a bit about different prayer traditions within religions. I’d bet simple recitation of a memorized prayer looks different than kataphatic prayer.

        • Alan

          That is a testable hypothesis – but I don’t need to know any of the details of those different prayer types to test it, just that they exist and ensure I am clear with the subjects on what type of prayer I am asking for.

      • deiseach

        Big difference between the ordinary, fumbling novice at prayer and the developed prayer life of a monastic. The ‘prayer of silence’ is the most advanced (and the most difficult) stage of prayer, and (naturally) the easiest to think you’re getting right or achieving when you’re doing nothing of the kind.

        For example, it would help if the research scientist (once he has rounded up his Buddhist monks and Carmelite nuns) knew the difference between “meditation” and “contemplation” as defined in both traditions. If, for instance, he tells his subjects he wants them to meditate, that would result in a different outcome for the Carmelites than if he told them he wanted them to practice contemplation.

        • Alan

          Your certainly right that they would need to be on the same page as the subjects about what different request meant. But that is a far cry from understanding the nuances of who they think they are praying to, or what the theology says about how the prayer will impact whomever they are praying to.

          • Christian H

            Sure, and what you’re doing is the sort of thing that would go into making the test. The tests wouldn’t be about curve balls; they would be about ensuring that the researching knew what was necessary to conduct that research efficiently/usefully.

          • deiseach

            If a scientist (0r a skeptic, or an interested layperson, or whomever) announced that s/he was going to do a test where s/he watered one set of seedlings with holy water and another set with plain water to see if there was any difference, most believers (yeah, I do mean “most” or “a majority”, not “all”) would immediately say “No, there won’t, because that’s not what or how holy water is for or works”.

            I can roll my eyes, but not get any more worked up, about horror novels where someone clones a human from DNA on the Shroud of Turin (I am resisting the temptation to scatter exclamation marks like confetti here) and it’s all a plot by the Catholic Church to force the Second Coming or something because the clone has the powers of Jesus. Er, that’s not how it works, but this is just a cheap pulp fiction, so I don’t get too worked up over it.

            I do get worked up over those who seem to think that you can disprove transubstantion (or knock the doctrine of the Real Presence on the head once and for all) by putting a consecrated host under a microscope or mass spectroscope and show that it is still bread, not human flesh. No, that’s not how it works, and you need to read the theology to understand why your knock-down argument is not convincing (imagine why you wouldn’t be convinced by the likes of Ken Ham claiming that humans and dinosaurs lived side-by-side).

          • Alan

            Great, and I find all that uninteresting as well, I don’t need to throw kids in the volcano to know it won’t appease the gods – but that is nothing like analyzing what is going on in the brain when people, of whatever religion and theological believe, claim to be doing this thing they call ‘prayer’.

    • keddaw

      So someone who wants to study ESP must sit a test?

      Surely you can study claimed effects without knowing, or caring, about the nuances?

      • Hidden One

        I’m pretty sure that the people who do serious studies of ESP actually do know about the relevant nuances.

  • Eli

    Also, wait one f’ing second! Leah, you’ve totally misrepresented Dennett’s position. Here’s him, with my emphasis:

    “[S]cientists intent on explaining RELIGIOUS PHENOMENA are going to have to delve deeply and conscientiously into the lore and practices, the texts and contexts, the daily lives and problems of the people they are studying.”

    And here’s you, again with emphasis:

    “If you want to study THE CULTURAL HISTORY of a religion, you may NOT need to know all of the metaphysics. If you want to address it as a possible truth-telling thing, then you need to be a lot more fluent in theology.”

    But culture(/cultural history) is precisely the thing he’s talking about! Culture is a paradigm example of a religious phenomenon. You’ve completely twisted his words!

    • leahlibresco

      Maybe I was unclear. I’m in agreement with the Dennett quote; I endorse it. I was trying to say that, for the work he’s doing in most of the book (cultural history) the test bar doesn’t need to be as high as checking whether the religion is true (which he hits very briefly in the end of the book). It looks like Dennett would have passed the first test and failed the second.

      • Eli

        Now I am more confused. I know that you feel as though you agree with Dennett, that much is clear. But…

        1. Dennett says that a scientific analysis of religious phenomena requires a significant level of interaction with those phenomena; presumably he means to include the social sciences in this statement.
        2. He says nothing about the truth claims of religion in that quote. Not one word.
        3. Meanwhile, you seem to be saying (twice, now) that one can meaningfully study religious phenomena without first significantly interacting with those phenomena; and…
        4. You also accuse him of failing “the second [test]” (i.e., the one about “checking whether the religion is true”), which – again, so far as I can see – does not exist for him. Maybe this is just YOUR second test, but then it isn’t an area where you agree with him or endorse him or anything like that.

        Of course, you didn’t quote the whole book, and I haven’t read the whole book. (I actually gave up on Dennett about 35 pages into “Freedom Evolves.”) So maybe he talks about using a similar test for evaluating truth claims. But that’s not what he means when he talks about scientists studying religious phenomena, nor is that what the “entrance examination” stuff is for.

      • Emily

        I don’t think he passes the first test of understanding how religion works at a cultural or historical level, though! How can he possibly when he establishes himself the gatekeeper of what counts as “religion,” who really believes, what the “core parts” are based on his theories rather than how it actually works in everyday life? If, for instance, he thinks that it’s a matter of saying yes or no to propositions or understanding texts and rituals, which can be approved by a written test administered by “authorities,” he’s going to miss out on huge, gigantic, enormous swaths of religious life that hinge on practice and doubt and community, for example .

  • Ferny

    Isn’t all of this posturing though? Like, I reject the idea that theological constructs about the nature of God can substitute for an actual proof of God, which seems to be the more cogent criteria for thinking the whole product of Christianity is true.

    Do I really need to know that much about theology to infer that it’s going to be continual circular reasoning for an a priori truth claim that I’m going to have to accept before it’s sensible and which isn’t reproducible?

    • Ted Seeber

      The problem is the rejection of God is *also* circular reasoning for an a priori truth claim.

      • Ferny

        Right, but again, this implies that I need to actively reject anything. That posits the category already. I don’t walk around rejecting things I don’t feel I have not observed.

        I’m not implying that there is absolute evidence for one to ‘reject’ God; just that, by any reasonable mechanism that applies roughly universal knowledge acquisition, I don’t have proximate evidence for something and thus, I don’t see it exists.

        • Ted Seeber

          “by any reasonable mechanism that applies roughly universal knowledge acquisition”

          What about the historical method? Or the Councilar method?

    • Brandon Watson

      You don’t need much at all to infer anything about anything at all; the question is whether your inference is rational, relevant to the evidence, and well-founded in light of that evidence. So the question really is, by what method are you suggesting that we could know both the actual logical structure of theology and the actual epistemological status of its truth claims without knowing the actual content of theology? Usually when we claim to know the logical structure of an area of thought and whether it works on a priori or a posteriori principles, it’s on the basis of an actual familiarity with the area of thought. One can’t just make up claims about logical structure and epistemological status — these claims have to be supported by evidence, and the most obvious sort of evidence is what the theology in question actually involves. If we are setting aside the details of theology as a source of evidence for these things, you’d need some other source of evidence, and this evidence would have to be such that its relevance to these questions about theology (logical and epistemological) could be determined without actual familiarity with any details of theology. What sort of evidence do you have in mind for that function?

      • Ferny

        Right and I’m not positing that if one literally knows nothing about theology, one can actively posit what is going to be its grounding. I’d like to think I know enough as a former practitioner to actively make the point that it seems that most advanced theology doesn’t seem to really grapple with evidence for God outside of arguments that are either reproducible or mostly uncomfortable descriptions of a reality with nothing, of which the Catholic then serves as a vehicle for truth seeking.

        • Brandon Watson

          This is certainly possible; it would depend on how much you actually knew about the most advanced theology, in much the same way that whether a former Canadian could say much about the quality of the constitutional principles underlying Canadian government would depend on how much they, as a Canadian, actually understood about Canadian governance. Living a life shaped by the principles of Canadian governance — which every Canadian does — may or may not give one any particular insight into the coherence and potential of those principles. And likewise, a former Canadian may be very well placed to identify the strengths and weaknesses of Canadian governance; but they may also have ceased to be a Canadian precisely through a failure to understand the underlying principles properly (shallow roots, as the saying goes). The mere fact of having been a practitioner wouldn’t be much of a reason — it’s a very low bar to reach, and doesn’t give evidence of anything more than that one was at least in a position to learn some things about the religion in question, just as having been Canadian (or being Canadian currently) doesn’t tell us much about how well a person understands the Canadian approach to governance. It’s the sort of thing that depends on the details of the life in question.

          • Ferny

            Right, but again, this response seems to premise that you can’t ever make any truth claims (note the lower case t) without a full range of advanced knowledge systems.

            But I think we’ve reached an impasse now.

          • Brandon Watson

            I have no idea what distinction you are trying to make by telling me to note the lower case t in ‘truth claims’; but I am not making the assumption you are suggesting.

            The line of thought is this: conclusions have to be based on relevant evidence adequate to those conclusions. Conclusions about the full logical structure of an area of thought and about the epistemological status of all the major claims in that area of thought (in this case “it’s going to be continual circular reasoning for an a priori truth claim that I’m going to have to accept before it’s sensible and which isn’t reproducible”) therefore requires relevant evidence adequate to those (very comprehensive) conclusions. If one appeals to having been a practitioner as constituting adequate relevant evidence, then one is appealing to personal familiarity with, and understanding of, the area of thought, and in particular, to personal familiarity with the area of thought that is specifically relevant and adequate to these large-scale conclusions. That means that it depends entirely on whether the practitioner in question was actually in a position, and actually practicing in a way, that they could have such a personal familiarity. Whether this is so will simply depend on details.

            My argument doesn’t assume that you need to know advanced theology in order to assess it in general; there’s a particular kind of assessment on the table, the one that you raised: the assessment of its general logical structure and the epistemological status of its claims. My argument does assume that you need evidence adequate and relevant for such an assessment to be reasonable; and on the basis of this I raise, and still raise, the question of what possible evidence could be adequate and relevant for that kind of assessment, and be reasonably established as such, other than that which comes from specific details of theology. Having been a practitioner is not an alternative, because whether or not it is even relevant depends entirely on whether it would have actually given a person an understanding of theology. Thus the Canadian analogy. This argument does not assume or premise that you need full knowledge to make truth claims; it is not even an argument about what have to have in order to make truth claims. It is an argument that what makes being a practitioner relevant as evidence to such an assessment could only be that it, like being a Canadian with regard to Canadian constitutional principles, puts one in a position to have become familiar with the details, which are the actual evidence on which the assessment is based. Thus basing the assessment on one’s having been practitioner is just an indirect way of appealing to the details of theology. If you pick any random former Canadian, whether they are capable of reasonably assessing the coherence and reasonableness of Canadian government depends entirely on whether they are familiar with, and properly understand, the principles of Canadian government. Their being Canadian may well have put them in a position to have this familarity and understanding; but that’s the only way it’s actually relevant.

  • T.S. Gay

    Dennett’s position is totally understandable if you are a compatabilist.. That Dennett believes in evidence for both determinism and indeterminism has been substantiated. But what is not being mentioned here is the assumption that if the behavior in a system is natural, a sufficiently detailed investigation would eventually result in an explainable theory of it. Really. It’s just so un-novel, Newtonian, I mean old-fashioned. There are so many fresh approaches. By 1964 John S. Bell was able to define a theorectical test for hidden variables, by 1980 Alain Aspect ruled out local hidden variables, in 1986 Robert Ulanowicz showed that Laplace’s demon had met its end, and in 2008 David Wolpert used Cantor diagonalization to put the final nail in determinism. It’s ironic that so many that are secular and religious show that they still continue to think compatability is a paradigm in an arrow of time approach to life. It’s actually hilarious that they agree in their thought processes, while continuing to believe they are going to disprove the beliefs of the other. Dennett could become a highly learned theologian and he would only join a thousand others who are as dogmatic and uncritically unrealistic as himself.

    • Mitchell Porter

      I knew you’d say that.

    • Ted Seeber

      Indeterminacy is just a find and replace function substituting the word Random for the word God throughout the universe.

      • g


        I just picked three random points in the Catechism of the Catholic Church and looked for the first statement about God made after each one. I got: “By refusing God’s plan of love, [man] deceived himself and became a slave to sin”; “Through his Word, God speaks to man”; “Faith is a personal adherence of the whole man to God who reveals himself”. Not one of those, on replacing “God” with “random” or “randomness”, makes the least bit of sense or would be affirmed by anyone at all. (And not only because of incidental details.)

        • Ted Seeber

          What incidental detail prevents the effects of love being random? Or, given a significantly large number of universes, the production of scripture (or even Jesus, depending on your interpretation of the title “the Word”) from being random?

          And certainly the faith that those who believe in a completely random universe need in randomness to just get out of bed in the morning, is immense (not to mention the faith needed to believe that a bed can exist in a random universe, etc).

          I’ll agree it is nonsense, but what wonderful nonsense to believe in an indeterminate world!

      • Alan

        This just shows you don’t understand what ‘random’ means in the context of quantum physics

        • Ted Seeber

          So pick another word.

          • Alan

            Okay, it is a find and replace of the word random with random – there, now it makes sense.

      • ACN

        I’ll take “Ted deliberately misinterpreting and misrepresenting science” for 800 please, Alex.

        • Ted Seeber

          Indeterminancy isn’t science and can’t be proved.

          • leahlibresco

            Indeterminacy is the province of probability, and there’s plenty you can say.

  • Steve

    “If you want to address it as a possible truth-telling thing, then you need to be a lot more fluent in theology.”
    Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and call BS right here. When discussing the finer points of European History or that of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars it’s beneficial to be well versed in the subjects source materials to be able to speak with any sort of authority. Labeling one as real and the other as fiction does not require the same level of expertise as a historian or Comicon attendee.

    “Scientists intent on explaining religious phenomena” should probably stick to their field of expertise. It hasn’t been intense bible study that has explained most religious phenomena up to this point. It was scientists siting in labs with a pen and a pad doing some verifiable peer-reviewed time tested science.

    • Eli

      “Yeah, I’m gonna go ahead and call BS right here. When discussing the finer points of European History or that of the Galactic Empire from Star Wars it’s beneficial to be well versed in the subjects source materials to be able to speak with any sort of authority. Labeling one as real and the other as fiction does not require the same level of expertise as a historian or Comicon attendee.”

  • Emily

    It’s a good idea, but I have no idea how you could implement it in practice. Which religions get to weigh in? What about smaller groups that aren’t centrally organized? What about where they disagree? How do you weigh the authority of religious practitioners versus theologians, historians of religion, or social scientists? What about cultural differences? If you say, “ok, I’m just going to take a sample of English speaking Protestants and Catholics who volunteer to make the exam,” how do you deal with the fact that your sample is seriously not representative of religion in the world?

    I don’t think it would be practically feasible but I do think some creative thoughts about how you would go about dealing with these questions would lead to a really fascinating discussion on what we think religion *is*, actually!

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