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
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