March 29, 2006
H. Allen Orr on Daniel Dennett
From The New Yorker:
[Dennett's] real contribution is an accessible account of what might be called the natural history of religion. (Religion, as he provisionally defines it, involves believing in, and seeking the approval of, a supernatural being.) “There was a time,” he writes, “when there was no religion on this planet, and now there is lots of it. Why?” Why did religion appear in the first place? And why did certain religions spread while others sank into obscurity?
To answer these questions, Dennett says, we must confront two spells. The first is the taboo against asking uncomfortable questions about religion. In his view, religion is simply too important to be spared hard questions. Indeed, he argues, religion is among the most powerful forces on earth and, as religiously inspired warfare and acts of terrorism remind us, it is not always benign. The second spell, in Dennett’s account, is one cast by religion itself. Do we risk dimming religion’s numinous glow by the very act of scientific analysis? Will we, out of what Dennett calls a “pathological excess of curiosity,” rob believers of the deepest and most important part of their lives? Dennett is sensitive to this concern and concedes the danger, but he concludes that the chances of undermining religious sensibility are slight...
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