Friday, March 17, 2006

My claim to fame

As of tonight, I have an interesting claim to fame. I'm the only person I'm aware of who's been fobbed off by Daniel Dennett.

The scene: a packed lecture hall. Prof. Dennett is here to give a talk on his latest book, "Breaking the spell", which advocates for more detailed study of religion. This isn't something that many people (even those who, like me, believe it to be a worth cause) are willing to explicitly stand up for, due to the copious claims of blasphemy that tend to result, so he gets serious respect.

One of the things he mentions near the end is a way to push forward the study of religion, in a way that even the seriously religious would have trouble taking offence at. He suggests making study of world religions a mandatory part of education. In the UK we already have this, but apparently in the US this suggestion results in some serious shock on the part of his audiences. His stated reason for wanting this is that any religion that could survive the inevitable comparisons would have to be beneficial - that the selective pressure would result in only the nicest religions surviving.

I agree with the conclusion, but I disagree with the argument. It seems logical to me that this selective pressure would instead result in only the most virulent religions - those that make it very very hard to escape - surviving. These would be the ones that managed to completely stall people's rational thinking on the subject - for example, Roman Catholicism, with its threats of eternal damnation for anyone who even for a moment doubts the power of the Holy Spirit, or Islam, with its death threats against apostates, or pretty much any other form of fundamentalism.

The rest would tend to swirl down the plughole towards a sort of creedless humanism, which would sweep the field clear for these extremist religions. In short, we would be strongly selecting religions for increased "cultishness" rather than for increased benevolence.

I called Dennett on this (if anyone else was present: the tall guy in the bottom-right was me!) and his answer was interesting. He could obviously see the point of my question, but he spent his response completely sidestepping the issue and reiterating how not even fundamentalists would really have grounds to complain. That wasn't the point.

I think that teaching of world religions is a wonderful idea, for the slightly less pure reason that it knocks one of the major struts out from under religious beliefs. It's hard to believe that, for example, Christianity is in any way special when you see how much of it appears to have been ripped wholesale from Hinduism. I consider this de-strutting a good thing because it means that, for example, people might actually have to sit and think up a good reason for being anti-gay rather than just parroting Leviticus. From there, they might even be able to find their way through to joining the reality-based community*.

However, I don't think that it would necessarily achieve Dennett's stated goal of benevolent religion. And I think it's interested that Dennett so blatantly evaded the question - he seemed rather uncomfortable at having his pet idea challenged. Is it possible that the master of memes has himself become mildly infected?

(Reality Check Disclaimer: it's entirely possible that I completely misinterpreted his comments, or that he merely didn't have time to go into depth or something)

* More on this phrase later


Andrew Rowell said...

"It's hard to believe that, for example, Christianity is in any way special when you see how much of it appears to have been ripped wholesale from Hinduism."

You what?!!! Can you specify?

Lifewish said...

Ah, right, I wondered what you were referring to on your blog. I'd forget my head if it wasn't screwed on...

I have absolutely no idea how accurate this is, not being a Hindu or a historian, but it's claimed that a large chunk of Jesus' life is very similar to that of Krishna, amongst other historical characters. See here for an overview, and here for explicit similarities between Jesus and Krishna.

There are of course major differences as well - for example, Krishna wasn't crucified. However, other saviour figures such as Osiris and Dionysus were. None of this is evidence for Jesus not existing, nor can it be legitimately considered evidence against Christianity, but it does rather demolish the idea that the claims of Christianity are in any way unique.

(Note: I can't vouch for the accuracy of the linked pages, but they do appear to engage in a fairly decent level of fact-checking)

Andrew Rowell said...


I know next to nothing about Hinduism.

You will probably say go and do your own research!

Are you suggesting that Jesus/Apostles consciously copied Hindu beliefs/writings?
Did Krishna Osiris or Dionysus claim to be the supreme deity? Did they stake their claims on their ability to overcome physical death? Did their "saving work" involve death of an innocent substitute?

Lifewish said...

You will probably say go and do your own research!

No, cos I'm being equally lazy here... :P

Are you suggesting that Jesus/Apostles consciously copied Hindu beliefs/writings?

In a couple of cases, it seems plausible that the writers of the Acts of the Apostles imported standard divine behaviours in from other locations. Remember, at the time when the Acts were written, they would in some sense have been as much a set of marketing materials as they were an attempt to document Jesus' life. Christianity would have been competing with a whole host of broadly similar religions.

In that situation, I can well understand how the good folks involved in turning an oral tradition into a written Gospel might have... embellished a bit, possibly borrowing chunks from other religions. Historically speaking, merely being a religious leader with a bunch of extremely powerful teachings wouldn't have been enough to convince the punters. To get Joe Sixpack on your side, it's necessary to have hooks, and plenty of them. I think Douglas Adams said it best in "Mostly Harmless" (fifth book in the HHGG trilogy):

"The villagers were absolutely hypnotised by all these wonderful magic [television] images flashing over [Random's] wrist. They had only ever seen one spaceship crash, and it had been so violent, frightening and shocking, and had caused so much horrific devastation, fire and death that, stupidly, they had never realised that it was entertainment.

"Old Thrashbarg had been so astonished by it that he had instantly seen Random as an emissary from [God], but had fairly soon afterwards decided that in fact she had been sent as a test of his faith, if not of his patience. He was also alarmed at the number of spaceship crashes he had to start incorporating into his holy stories if he was to hold the attention of the villagers, and not have them rushing off to peer at Random's wrist all the time."

This copying may not have been conscious behaviour on the part of the authors; another possibility is that this is simply a case of convergent evolution. It's been noted by several academics that there's basically a checklist of stories about heroes that tend to crop up a lot, in fiction as well as in religion. Maybe the writers of the Acts were just describing their archetypal hero.

Lifewish said...

Did Krishna Osiris or Dionysus claim to be the supreme deity? Did they stake their claims on their ability to overcome physical death? Did their "saving work" involve death of an innocent substitute?

IIRC, Krishna claimed to be one component of a three-in-one supreme deity (specifically, he was an avatar of Vishnu). Osiris didn't claim to be the supreme deity, but was certainly considered a major God. Dionysus, as far as I can tell, was a composite God, so it's quite hard to tell where he ranked in the pantheon - the references to resurrection seem to treat him as being synonymous with Osiris.

Krishna did not stake his claim on immediate resurrection. Some of the other similarities between the two death stories, however, are fairly striking (although I can't help but wonder if the copying was entirely one-way). Osiris/Dionysus hadn't actually planned to be killed, and weren't considered to be historical humans in the same way*, so couldn't be said to stake any sort of claim on it - they were considered to be gods on entirely different grounds (miracles, mostly).

IIRC, the concept of a scapegoat is fairly unique to the Semitic traditions, so that's something that probably is unique to Jesus.

So, to sum up, Jesus and the others share a lot of the same stories, albeit with greatly varying motivations.

* Although I seem to recall reading someone theorising that Paul also didn't consider Jesus an historical human in the way the Acts described him. Will have to look that up though.