Steelmanning one of Dennett’s arguments

Steelmanning one of Dennett’s arguments November 10, 2012

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

Back in the cultural history of religion sections of the book, Dennett touches on a very powerful argument against religion.  He writes:

“And here is an interesting fact: the transition between folk religion to organized religion is marked by a shift in beliefs from those with very clear, concrete consequences to those with systematically elusive consequences–paying lip service is just about the only way you can act on them…

But what could you do to show that you really believe that the wine in the chalice has been transformed into the blood of Christ?”

Then the argument went a little awry in a way that would have caused him to flunk his own exam for scholars of religion:

You could bet a large sum of money on it and then to send the wine to the biology lab to see if there was hemoglobin in it (and recover the genome of Jesus from the DNA in the bargain!)–except the creed has been cleverly shielded from just such concrete tests. It would be a sacrilege to remove the wine from the ceremony and, besides, taking the wine out of the holy context would surely untransubstantiate it, turning it back into ordinary wine. There is really only one action you can take to demonstrate this belief: you can say that you believe it, over and over, as fervently as the occasion demands.”

Dennett is proposing a testing a quality of the Eucharist that Catholics don’t think exists.  We went over this during the argument about PZ Myers desecrating a Host.   Transubstantiation is changing the essence of the bread and the wine while leaving their accidents (everything accessible to the senses) unchanged.  If wine changed its accidents into blood (Christ’s or anyone elses) that would be, as far as I’m concerned, transfiguration, and you should take it up with Professor McGonegal, not the Pontiff.

It’s too bad Dennett made this mistake, since the facts actually support his point better than the error does.  A change in accident is empirically verifiable.  A change in essence is not.  Catholicism isn’t denying Dennett and others the chance to test it’s claims with regard to the Eucharist, it’s making claims that are empirically unverifiable.

A religion that retreats to Invisible Garage Dragon claims is a lot harder to debunk, but it’s hard not to see that as a defensive, besieged move.  A religion that says nothing touching the natural world or human lives can’t offer much in the way of moral philosophy.  I like Overheard at Yale Div School’s take on this:

“Any faith tradition worth its salt will tell you what to do with your food, your time, your genitals, and your money. Otherwise it’s not a real religion.”

Once a religion shrinks its claims down to the size of, say, moral therapeutic deism, there’s not enough there there to do more than pay lip service, as Dennett says, and then there’s little reason to just keep professing belief in belief.

I did not convert because of empirically testable claims about Catholicism.  There may be miraculous cures that ought to convince atheists, but I haven’t encountered them.   Starting from an atheist prior, a spontaneous remission or other ideopathic healing might be surprising, but not surprising enough to outweigh the prior estimate of the improbability of God.  But there are other kinds of claims to examine.

Some are the more abstract philosophical claims for the necessity of God, which are interesting, but not accessible or urgent feeling unless you have a strong scholastic bent.  But religions also make moral claims, and that’s where, a la Chesterton, we can try and see whether a theology is a truth-telling thing.  Is it self-consistent?  Does it cover the things you already know to be true?  Where it makes different moral claims, do they turn out, on further inspection, to be right after all?

This kind of investigation is more akin to how a chess novice would recognize Kasparov as proficient.  The novice doesn’t have the skill to discern whether each move is clever or foolish, but she can see that Kasparov keeps winning.  Correct moral judgement is less obvious than checkmate, but the general idea is the same.  It’s the problem of finding a teacher when you know that you’re deficient in the subject of instruction.  And these moral claims do require more than lip service.

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