Interview with Daniel Dennett October 4, 2007

Interview with Daniel Dennett

At the Atheist Alliance International Convention, I had a chance to meet several prominent leaders and speakers in the atheist community.

One of them was Daniel Dennett.

Dennett is a Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. He is responsible for helping bring the word “Bright” into the national lexicon because of a piece he wrote for the New York Times.

He is also the author of the best-selling Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.

Dennett answered several questions via email.

Hemant: Given that the books of Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris and yourself have had a great success in initializing the so-called “New Atheism” movement, what do you have in mind to keep the momentum alive and/or to advance it further? (*)

Daniel Dennett: Now that we have captured a useful share of public attention, we need to protect our reputation from the many quite remarkable calumnies and misrepresentations now being issued by hysterical types. I think we should calmly reject these pathetic outbursts and be careful not to respond in kind. Recognizing that people are frightened by us, we should not make the mistake of giving them GROUNDS to see us as villains.

Hemant: What’s your projection for the next ten years of atheism in the US? Will these ideas ever become mainstream?

Daniel Dennett: I have no firm conviction about how long it will take for atheism to become mainstream in the USA. It could happen in less than a decade, or it could take another century of pendulum swings and misused opportunities. In 1985 anybody who had said that international communism and the Soviet Union would collapse within a decade would have been laughed at. (So far as I can recall, nobody said it — it was all but unthinkable.) Could the Roman Catholic Church collapse in a decade? I think it could, but I’m not holding my breath.

Hemant: What can an individual atheist do to make world a better place?

Daniel Dennett: That’s a very important question. We need to show those who fear us that atheists are not value-challenged, and works speak more loudly than words. I think that well-organized and well-publicized campaigns for health, justice, safety, environmental protection, etc. to rival the good works of the churches would actually swell our ranks. Many people want to be part of large, inspiring projects that make the world better. (And we should let believers participate in OUR projects as long as they don’t try to use them to spread their own messages.)

Hemant: Are you optimistic about the future of science education?

Daniel Dennett: Only when I think of the potential to turn around the current situation. When national leaders start making it a visible and valued objective, science education will blossom swiftly. There is plenty of talent and plenty of brilliant material out there. It just needs to be supported.

Hemant: (From a reader) What are you fighting for and what are you fighting against? Are you fighting towards an atheistic society and against faith? What role do you think faith plays in humanity?

Daniel Dennett: The word “faith” has been cheapened and distorted by its use as an excuse for unreason. I have faith in democracy, faith in science, faith in the truth (see my essay with that title), but not unreasoned faith, not blind faith. The success of society and its institutions depends on the ambient confidence of the society’s members in those institutions. That confidence, if it is BEGRUDGED and ringed with suspicion, is uninspiring and fragile. A robust faith in the good institutions of society will always go somewhat beyond the evidence provided, and is willing to take things on trust—until shown otherwise. This has nothing to do with religion, except that for centuries the most effective way of engendering that sort of confidence was through vigorous campaigning by whatever church was in authority. We have to replace religious with secular institutions—such as science.

Hemant: (From a reader) Much of the atheist/theist debate revolves around the subject of evolution. Are there any ways to approach atheism without any theory of evolution, Darwinian or not?

Daniel Dennett: I agree entirely with Richard Dawkins that the argument from design has always been the greatest obstacle to atheism — SOMETHING has to explain all that stupendous design in the biosphere — and evolution by natural selection is the only viable account that we have. Since it is so well confirmed by thousands of unchallenged facts, it provides a sturdy base for atheism; it is hard for me to take seriously an atheism that rejected or ignored evolution, since it would be failing to take on the biggest challenge.

Hemant: (From a reader) Would you ever consider yourself an agnostic? (If not, do you consider agnosticism a weak position to take?)

Daniel Dennett: We should all be open-minded and humble, and recognize that we don’t have all the answers. And about any large questions for which we really don’t have good answers yet, agnosticism is surely the position to adopt. But it is simply misplaced ‘diplomatic’ insincerity to declare oneself an agnostic about the existence of Thor, or Jehovah, or the divinity of Jesus Christ or the Virgin Birth, in my opinion.

Hemant: What was the best critique of Breaking the Spell that a religious person has presented? How would you incorporate your response to his/her criticisms in a future edition of this book?

Daniel Dennett: I haven’t singled out any one critique as the most worthy, but there have been thoughtful, constructive responses by many readers who have declared their continuing allegiance to their religions. I haven’t yet been shown any major new directions by any of these critics, but I have learned a lot from them. I don’t plan to revise Breaking the Spell. I might write a sequel, but next I want to return to the elaboration and improvement of my theory of human consciousness. That’s the most exciting project on my horizon right now.

[tags]atheist, atheism[/tags]

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  • Blair

    If atheism is simply a “lack of belief” in god, then how can there be a “new” atheism?

    Isn’t what we are really talking about is things that are promoted IN ADDITION to atheism? Thing that, since atheism is simply a lack of belief, have nothing to do with atheism per se.

    After all, I have been told that evolution does not equal atheism, nor does science.

  • Aj

    That doesn’t mean atheism can’t have arguments, thinking, and philosophy behind it. It makes sense, but it is untrue, there is no “new atheism”, and people who are identified as such, as far as I know, don’t identify themselves as new atheists. They’re old atheists, the arguments are over one hundred years old, some are ancient.

    Dawkins and Dennett do not say evolution and science equal atheism. Evolution blows away the most persuasive argument for theism to theists, the argument from design. It’s a bad argument on its own, but lots of people are fooled by it.

  • PrimateInRepose

    We need to show those who fear us that atheists are not value-challenged, and works speak more loudly than words.

    then later

    …it is simply misplaced ‘diplomatic’ insincerity to declare oneself an agnostic.

    I’m confused. Does Dennett feel that we should be on a diplomatic mission or not? I agree that its great that many atheists are organizing to do nice things, but I CHOKE on the idea that it should be a performance for others.

    All atheists need to do to dispel bigotry is to speak up and identify themselves as atheist. The rest will take care of itself. Its our silence that has been our problem.

  • llewelly

    I hope you appologized for your dastardly theft of Danniel Dennet’s seat, and thanked him for the (ab)use you got of it.

  • Polly

    Thing that, since atheism is simply a lack of belief, have nothing to do with atheism per se.

    Yes…and no. “Atheism” as it’s usually used is actually more like “materialism.” From there you’re locked into some other views:

    Evolution (unless you can point to a better natural explanation for diversity)
    Reason-based or pragmatic ethical system…or moral relativism.
    Politically, unless you enjoy being persecuted, you will naturally support strong separation of church and state.

    Is it possible to separate atheism from its ramifications? I dunno. Evolution may not be atheism, but atheism almost definitely locks one into agreement with evolution.

    Of course, just disbelieving in a god, doesn’t mean you can’t believe in other supernatural realms or entities or even an afterlife. “Atheist” would still, technically, be an accurate, though horrendously misleading, label for those who reject a god, but believe in such things. That’s why I prefer “materialist.” (but that just makes me sound “greedy”)

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