View :: Daniel Dennett @ Ideas at the House

November 23rd 2011


Daniel Dennett—philosopher, cognitive scientist, owner of a mighty white beard—is famous as one of the ‘four horsemen of new atheism’ along with pals Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens. As the nice one of this fab four, Dennett’s main agenda has been based on the demolition of the idea that religion is out of bounds for scientific inquiry, and he pursues this with verve and sensitivity.

Dennett’s appearance this month at the Opera House’s ongoing Ideas in the House series focused on the evolutionary path of mainstream religion. The last century, he tells us, has seen more significant changes to religion than any other time in the last several millennia; with the advent of radio, television and mass communication, religions can no longer be sustained solely by the same brand of mystery, exclusivity and limited knowledge. Who, for example, could have predicted televangelism and Scientology just over half a century ago? With this here internet and its spiralling effects on everything, the next 20 years will, he asserts, be very interesting indeed.

Dennett compares religions to other ‘social cells’—like Japanese tea ceremonies and Ponzi schemes—which persist on one hand via traditions and an inherited sense of purpose, and on the other hand via trust, innocence and naivety. None of these social cells had an inventor or group of inventors, but rather they came about when circumstances allowed them to. The appropriateness of there being no intelligent designer in Dennett’s evolutionary account of religion was lost on nobody.

He also spoke about the phenomenon of the closeted atheist clergy, nonbelievers who are trapped by their own sense of responsibility to the church. In a recent study, Dennett came across hundreds of such people who live a tormented double life identical to that lived by homosexuals up until the very recent past. But he is optimistic: if sunlight is the best disinfectant, then the information age will ultimately bring freedom from inner turmoil for millions of people.

As for religions themselves, Dennett traced the recent trend of churches becoming more like community groups, with the inclusion of financial advice, dance parties and a conscious limitation of what Christian administrators call ‘churchiness’. With churches gradually becoming more secular, religious fundamentalism will probably become noisier but less relevant. Ultimately Dennett’s conclusion about the fate of religion is: who cares? With enough prodding in the right direction, he is confident we can keep the best elements of religion without the nefarious underbelly.

Despite some technical difficulties, Dennett’s talk was delivered with warmth, insight and deadpan academic humour. It tears down the tired cliché of the stuffy intellectual trying to steal Christmas. This is crunchy brain food served up in a pretty spectacular setting; Ideas at the House has the cultural credentials to deliver some of the most high-profile smartie pants. Playwriting dynamo Tom Stoppard is coming up on December 17—remember he kept you company during the HSC with his postmodern play thing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. Then American humorist David Sedaris touches down in January before atheist philosopher Alain de Botton takes the floor in February.