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Daniel Dennett

February 27, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I always enjoy listening to Daniel Dennett speaking. In case you don’t know, he’s an American philosopher and a well known member of the new atheist movement. While he doesn’t hesitate to be critical of religion he isn’t quite as confrontational as other people with similar beliefs (for example Christopher Hitchens who I also enjoy listening to but who does take a more extreme stance).

A recent speech by Dennett agreed with what I have been saying for several years now – so he must be right! What he said is that faith is something to be treated with distrust and even contempt rather than with admiration.

It (metaphorically) makes me feel sick when I hear religious people making admiring comments about one of their friends like “he’s got great faith”. They’re saying he’s a great person who is so strong that he maintains great confidence in his chosen beliefs. If I heard the same statement I would be thinking: he’s a fool who has been taken in by superstition and mythology and doesn’t have the strength, intelligence, or courage to break away from a false belief which has been created through propaganda and lies.

There’s quite a lot of difference between those two interpretations, isn’t there?

So what’s so bad about faith? Dennett put it well when he said it closes down the discussion. If someone has faith that something is true then there’s not a lot that can be done to point out any errors in their belief system. That may sound fine if the person is a member of a well intentioned religion but its not so good if the person is a member of an extreme paramilitary group, for example, but every belief has good and bad aspects so its not necessarily fair to apply different standards to them.

If you rely on faith to support your beliefs then you can believe anything. Faith can be used to substantiate belief in the Christian God, or in Thor, or in the Invisible Pink Unicorn or in the belief that its OK to kill infidels. If we say faith is OK then we can’t really be critical of people who believe stupid and/or evil things because of it.

Of course Christians will say faith is OK but only if you use it to believe the same things that they do. But if faith is really all they have to support their beliefs how does that make them different from anyone else who uses it that way? It would be just as easy for an extremist Muslim to say that faith is only OK if its used to justify suicide bombing attacks.

Another phrase which Dennett uses which I really identify with is that faith provides a gold-plated excuse to stop thinking. That is close to being true. I know believers who do keep thinking but only in a very limited way. For example they will only consider new possibilities if the outcome supports their existing belief system.

Its easy to accuse atheists of the same thing but its not really true. Atheists have no belief system except the idea that they should follow the objective evidence, and I don’t really think that’s a faith in any reasonable sense of the word. Its also ironic that believers congratulate each other on their faith then use it as a way to disparage atheists. They can’t really have it both ways!

There’s one other phrase I have to mention, its that many believers are “morally incapacitated”. Because they follow the rules written in their holy books instead of really thinking through the issues and deciding what is genuinely the most moral action, religious people are actually less moral than atheists in most cases. This is particularly ironic when you consider that they often use their god as a source of morality.

Dennett says debating believers is like a game of cards, but they want to set the rules themselves and one of the rules is they have a card which beats everything else, its like the joker and they can play it any time they like. That card is faith: you cannot beat it because it makes no sense. That’s probably why so many religions emphasise its importance!

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  1. shirhashirim
    March 1, 2010 at 10:31 am

    “Dennett put it well when he said it closes down the discussion”

    Well, so much for the Talmud…

    I’d put it the other way round: there isn’t really much reason for discussion if you’re not convinced you’re right.

  2. ojb42
    March 1, 2010 at 8:47 pm

    Not sure what you mean when you say “so much for the Talmud”. I must say that a lot of Jews have a very enlightened and questioning attitude to the nature of reality, etc. Of course, those who just have faith in whatever holy book they prefer are idiots just like everyone else who depends on faith.

    I have no problem in a debate if people are convinced they are right but they have to be convinced for the right reason. If they think they are right because a book, or a religion, or a religious leader tells them they are and they should have faith and believe that no matter what then they are idiots.

    If they are convinced they are right because they have good reason to think so then debate is fine, at least in that situation they would be prepared to change if their opposition can give them good reason to.

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