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Ideas of the 21st Century

Ideas of the century: The religious stance (22/50)

Alastair Hannay continues our series by considering religion post-secularisation

monk200Daniel Dennett has said that in twenty-five years religion will command little of the awe it seems to instil today, and remarks that the spread of information through the internet and mobile phones will “gently, irresistibly, undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance.” What, according to Richard Dawkins, will clinch it (at any rate for the qualified or the gullible) is a “final scientific enlightenment” fulfilling Einstein’s dream of “unifying the fundamental laws of physics”. This vision will “deal an overdue death blow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.”

What information is such that, if only we had enough of it, we should all become tolerant and peaceful? What knowledge will make prayer redundant? Curing disease, prolonging life, uncovering the sources of violence (including religious), will that be enough to keep us from our knees? Treating existential angst as a pandemic to be treated with Prozac, would that be preferable to religion? That global chat may have an eirenic effect sounds reasonable, but that religion will prove redundant when the universe succumbs to a unified theory is almost embarrassing in its insensitivity to human nature. Missing here is something Nietzsche grasped when advising us not to “underestimate the value of having been religious”, something touched on by his further question: how, if we have not been religious, can we then “grow wise”?

Some wisdom may nevertheless be distilled from an idea that Dennett himself gave us much more than ten years ago: the intentional stance. This is a strategy recommended by Dennett for predicting without undue fuss how behavioural systems will behave. It assumes beliefs and desires and thus amounts to attributing an element of rationality to the system in question. It sounds like something human systems do all the time, though later Wittgensteinians will say it is a matter not of predicting but of sharing (institutions, practices, beliefs, judgements). But beliefs, yes, and desires, and having reasons based on these; that’s how we understand our understanding of each other.

Dennett, however, packaged the stance in a new proviso: we adopt it (with its “folk” psychology) because in doing so we make good enough predictions of how the system will behave, without having to go into the biological and other abstractions of functional design or the details of the underlying chemistry and physics. But in principle these would give us better or even perfect predictive possibilities, and (a special twist) the system could just as well be inhuman and even a minimal machine, for we are essentially no different. It would be nice to know if anyone has ever performed a perfect prediction about us on such a basis. But Dennett has a lot of theory and a quantum of metaphysics to support his faith in the possibility.

By association something similar might be said on behalf of faith in its traditional setting. Let us talk not of religions, with banners, creeds, doctrines, revelation, etc., but of a religious attitude, a way of reading and responding to the world. To suppose such an attitude should “work” predictively is, of course, to fall immediately into the kind of superstition wisdom-seekers seek to avoid. A religious stance, as we might call it, has no predictive function; indeed it has no instrumental attachments at all except in so far as it might enable one to rise above eventualities, above fortune and misfortune, daily joy and suffering. Its “function” would be to make room for a sense of wholeness or participation in the here and now that is not the mere negation of everyday suffering and loneliness. It is, however, like Dennett’s intentional stance, provisional, though in a different way. His is a useful makeshift in a state of less than certainty due to the contingent unavailability (or impracticability) of better but more cumbersome predictive strategies. Our stance, also provisional and lacking certainty, has no better stances to appeal to except notionally that enjoyed exclusively by God. With nowhere further to go, nor any theory or metaphysics to appeal to other than by way of decoration, the alternative to faith from the point of view of this stance is revocation. Being an entirely private matter and impervious to the outcomes of any predictions, faith can in principle be revoked at any time. Having faith is deciding not to revoke it. Uncertainty and ignorance, says this stance, are not such bad things after all.

Philosophers at their best bear witness to the strain of having undergone life’s stages themselves. They will tend to agree with Nietzsche that having been religious helps. Wittgenstein tempered his atheism with the acknowledgment that he would never try to deprive others of their faith. Recently the words “post-secular age” have formed on lips where we would least expect to find them; lifting an Enlightenment embargo, Habermas allows that religious experience can benefit public debate on ways and means to the good life, even if (reasonably) insisting that the terms in which the good life is defined be kept purely secular. Predicting long-term human behaviour is tricky from any stance, but (to parry Dennett’s own risky surmise) a redefined religion might be just what minds over-exposed to sheer information will find they need to have any mindset at all.

Further reading
On Secularization: Towards a Revised General Theory, David Martin (Ashgate, 2005)

Alastair Hannay is emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Oslo and author of Kierkegaard and Philosophy: Selected Essays (Routledge)

Read all fifty ideas and more in the special 50th issue of tpm


5 comments for “Ideas of the century: The religious stance (22/50)”

  1. Wittgenstein (who was not an atheist) was a hunter who preyed on squeezed philosophers and fantasist-scientists of Dennetts and Dawkins ilk. In like manner this Wittgensteinian enjoys running down and slaughtering these… what are they … intellectual herbivores. And there’s good dining here.

    Take Dennetts own magical brand of intentionality - “animistic intentionalism” - that systems “behave”. Dennett needs to identify necessarily arbitrary sets of physical events (such as “brain” events) as being associated with intentionality or behaviour. Only by magically animating pre-identified physical events with their own intentionality can Dennett hope to persuade us that these physical systems can be identified with intentionality. This animistic intentionality can then bring us, by virtue of the physical placement of its objects, a better degree of certainty about behaviour than the non-physically placed, hence not-so-certain, elements of folk psychology. Just awful, Dennett; what are you up to thar boy? -

    How (and why) does Dennett, the witch-doctor, infuse physical events and objects, like dolls, robots and brains, with intentionality? It’s an old profession, witch-doctoring. Some might be genuine, but Dennett, like so many other scientist-philosphers, uses smoke and mirrors to fool even himself. That’s the power of the materialist belief.

    Meanwhile, Dawkins, the unassailably prized chump who only ever gets to be interviewed by pap-TV or philosophically challenged religioso’s, has found a good pro-materialist promo in Hawking’s pronouncement that scientist’s explanation of creation can do without God. First, it’s not explanation, it’s description. There is a difference boys. By interpreting a creation in terms of the starts we see around us, starts such as quantum appearances and disapearances we simply, as we have always done, describe - not explain - the universe as an object like any other. We are still in as much need of explaining a “creation” as we were before the quantum get-out clause.

    But then I have always found philosophers and scientists, like Dennett and (cough) Dawkins, with a materialist agenda to indulge in their own peculiar brand of supernaturalism.

    Posted by John Jones | September 10, 2010, 11:57 am
  2. The phrase “almost embarassing in its insensitivity to human nature”
    does ring true in this context.

    Posted by amos | September 10, 2010, 3:55 pm
  3. Hi Amos,
    I agree with you. I’m hoping that was quoted out of context or something like that because it really does sound like a huge stretch.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | September 10, 2010, 7:42 pm
  4. John J,
    I’m not crazy about everything you wrote, but I enjoy how you wrote it.

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | September 10, 2010, 7:43 pm
  5. Professor Hannay,
    “Treating existential angst . . . with Prozac, would that be preferable to religion?
    Since you asked and having experienced both religion and prozac, my answer is an enthusiastic “yes.”

    Posted by Ralph Sabella | September 10, 2010, 7:47 pm