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Breaking the Spell’

In response to:

Religion from the Outside from the June 22, 2006 issue

To the Editors:

Freeman Dyson imposes a curious meaning on the word “prejudice” in his review of my book Breaking the Spell [NYR, June 22]. He has his own prejudice “from the inside” in favor of religion, he says, while I have my prejudice “from the outside” leading to “the opposite conclusion.”

My view of religion and Dennett’s are equally true and equally prejudiced. I see religion as a precious and ancient part of our human heritage. Dennett sees it as a load of superfluous mental baggage which we should be glad to discard.

Readers of my book will find no passages that say, or imply, that verdict, and some that clearly deny it. For instance:

Religion can certainly bring out the best in a person…for day-in, day-out lifelong brac there is probably nothing so effective as religion: it makes powerful and talented people more humble and patient, it makes average people rise above themselves, it provides sturdy support for many people who desperately need help staying away from drink or drugs or crime. People who would otherwise be self-absorbed or shallow or crude or simply quitters are often ennobled by their religion, given a perspective on life that helps them make the hard decisions that we all would be proud to make. [p. 55]

There is much for religion lovers to be proud of in their traditions, and much for all of us to be grateful for. [p. 253]

I am critical of many aspects of religion, and who in his right mind isn’t? But my plea for an objective approach to religions—in which we reverse engineer their many design features to see how and why they work—is directed as much to those who would strengthen, reform, and preserve their religions as to those who would hasten their extinction. I declare myself still agnostic about these alternatives, since I don’t yet know enough—and nobody else does either. That’s why I wrote the book.

Religions are among the most powerful natural phenomena on the planet, and we need to understand them better if we are to make informed and just political decisions. Although there are risks and discomforts involved, we should brace ourselves and set aside our traditional reluctance to investigate religious phenomena scientifically, so that we can come to understand how and why religions inspire such devotion, and figure out how we should deal with them all in the twenty-first century. [p. 28]

But Dyson won’t take me at my word. Is there no possibility of a nonprejudiced approach to religion? In Dyson’s world view, religion can have only friends and enemies, no interested but uncommitted bystanders. This mindset seems to have prevented him from seeing that my book strenuously attempts to avoid both biases—and I think it succeeds—in the only way we have ever found to explore any complicated and controversial phenomenon objectively: by adhering to the methods and working assumptions of science, expanded to encompass the work of historians and other investigators in the humanities—not excluding theologians, but not granting them the deference and immunity from rational criticism to which they are accustomed. That is the spell that I definitely want to break, not the spell of religion itself. Contrary to what Dyson says, I not only don’t dismiss the work of nonscientific explorers of religion as nonscientific; I go to elaborate—some would say tedious—lengths to show how to incorporate it into a unified and ideology-free (and mutually respectful) investigation. How could such a brilliant thinker as Dyson misunderstand this? I suspect it is because he, like some other religious readers, are so accustomed to the hyper-respect their “faith” is normally vouchsafed that when somebody treats it with deliberate matter-of-fact curiosity, they take offense, and cease to think and read carefully.

Why, then, didn’t I write more diplomatically, the way other authors have done? Because that traditional reverence is a large part of the problem: the risk of hurting somebody’s feelings encourages critics to let apologists get away with inexcusable lapses in both rationality and evenhandedness. Why shouldn’t we treat religions with the same respect—no more, no less—that we accord to, say, the pharmaceutical industry, or the world of music, or banking? If religions deserve more respect than that, let those who think so demonstrate it on a level playing field. That is all that I ask, but it is too much for Dyson, who confesses that he sees no way to “draw up a balance sheet” and hence must stick to his “prejudice” and declare in favor of religion. I think we can do better.

Dyson also misunderstands my proposal for a nationwide curriculum on the established facts about the world’s religions. He praises the British system of religious education—which was in fact the inspiration for my proposal—but laments that it would not be possible in the United States. Why not? He seems to think that the Constitution would forbid teaching about religions in the schools, but that is simply false. Aside from that, he offers only rhetorical questions, variations on the refrain: “But who would fix the curriculum?” That is a soluble political problem. We already have achieved a modicum of agreement on the requirements of the three R’s (and American history), so there is plenty of precedent to lean on in determining the topics to be covered in a fourth R. Why do I think investing in such a compulsory educational program would be worth the cost (especially since it would necessarily squeeze something else out of the packed curriculum)? Because all the religious organizations that are widely acknowledged to be toxic—dangerous either to their participants or to innocent outsiders—depend on the enforced ignorance of the young people being raised therein.

My proposed political bargain is strikingly uncomplicated and maximally tolerant: teach your children (at school or at home) this national curriculum and then you can teach them anything else you want. (You can even teach them that the obligatory curriculum is a load of rubbish—but they will be tested on it!) I submit that any religion that can thrive under this requirement deserves to thrive, and any that can’t deserves extinction. Creating a generation of young people that have a matter-of-fact knowledge of the different histories, creeds, practices, obligations, and prohibitions of the world’s religions won’t solve all the problems, but it is a first step toward inoculating them against the diverse attractions of fanaticism.

Daniel Dennett

Tufts University

Medford, Massachusetts

To the Editors:

Freeman Dyson recommends that we should try to understand other people from the inside. But it does seem to be carrying this process of identification a bit far for Dyson to attribute to his own childhood experience the encounter with a train conductor concerning the status of a tortoise:

When I was a boy in England long ago, people who traveled on trains with dogs had to pay for a dog ticket. The question arose whether I needed to buy a dog ticket when I was traveling with a tortoise. The conductor on the train gave me the answer: “Cats is dogs and rabbits is dogs but tortoises is insects and travel free according.”

The very same encounter appeared as a cartoon in Punch in 1869 [see illustration at left]. The caption of the cartoon reads:

Railway Porter (to Old Lady travelling with a Menagerie of Pets). “‘STATION MASTER SAY, MUM, AS CATS IS ‘DOGS,’ AND RABBITS IS ‘DOGS,’ AND SO’S PARROTS; BUT THIS ‘ERE ‘TORTIS’ IS A INSECT, SO THERE AIN’T NO CHARGE FOR IT!” [Punch, 1869, Vol. 57, p. 96]

Nicholas Humphrey

Cambridge, UK

Freeman Dyson replies:

Thanks to Daniel Dennett for his letter, which makes a statement that is clearer and more friendly to religion than the message that I extracted from his book. I apologize to him if I misunderstood his message. The book is full of digressions and contains opinions on both sides of many questions. My job as reviewer was to summarize the overall impressions that I derived from reading it. My impressions were based on the book and not on particular paragraphs.

Thanks to Nicholas Humphrey and Michael Jackson for letters informing me of the 1869 Punch cartoon about tortoises and dogs on trains. My memory of traveling with a tortoise has two possible explanations. The first and more probable is that I heard of the conversation recorded in the Punch cartoon and transformed it over the years into a memory. This would not be the first time that I remembered something that never happened. Memories of childhood recollected in old age are notoriously unreliable. The second possible explanation is that the memory is accurate. In that case the conductor on the train knew the cartoon and said what he was supposed to say according to the script.

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