Daniel Dennett – The Scientific Study of Religion

December 12, 2011

Recently, the Center for Inquiry held a conference titled “Daniel Dennett and the Scientific Study of Religion: A Celebration of the Fifth Anniversary of Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon“. During that conference, John Shook, CFI’s Director of Education, sat down with Dennett for this interview.

Shook and Dennett have a broad conversation ranging from Dennett’s past and current work to his definition of free will. Dennett explains what caused him to write Breaking the Spell in 1996 and the impact it had on him personally.

They talk about how the public views the scientific study of religion and how it has changed in the recent past. Dennett comments on the continued mutation of religions, and how their rate of change seems to be increasing; about how to come out as a non-believer; and much more!

Daniel Dennett
, PhD, is Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University and Co-Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts. Among his many books relating to science and religion are Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (with Alvin Plantinga, 2011); Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006); Freedom Evolves (2003); and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995).

Today’s show is brought to you by Audible. Please visit Audible podcast dot com slash point to get a free audio book download. This is Point of Inquiry for Monday, December 12th, 2011. 

Welcome to Point of Inquiry, I’m Adam Isaac, the producer of the show Point of Inquiry is the radio show and the podcast of the Center for Inquiry, a think tank advancing reason, science and secular values and public affairs at the grassroots. This episode of the show features an interview that a longtime contributor to the show, John Shook, who is director of education at the Center for Inquiry, did during a recent conference we had here at the CFI headquarters in Amherst, New York. 

The interview is with Daniel Dennett, Dennett is a philosopher, a writer and a cognitive scientist whose research centers on philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He’s written many hugely influential books such as Consciousness, Explained Darwin’s Dangerous Idea Evolution and the Meanings of Life and Breaking the Spell. Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. He is currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher, professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. And before we get to that interview, I just want to remind listeners that this episode is sponsored by Audible. Audible is the Internet’s leading provider of spoken audio, entertainment, information and educational programing. You can download content from Audible and play it back on your computer. C.D. or your MP three player Adbul offers over 100000 titles to choose from every genre. Audible has it covered. And not only that, but you, as a point of inquiry listener, can get a free audio book of your choice just by going to audible podcasts, dot com slash points and signing up for a free trial. Whether you want to learn about Athie ISM philosophy or something completely unrelated. You can find that content at Audible. One book that Audible has that I’d personally recommend is Hitch 22, a memoir by Christopher Hitchens. It’s narrated by Hitchens himself. So again, to get this or any other free audio book of your choice, visit audible podcast dot com slash point to sign up for your free trial. 

Welcome to the Center for Inquiry. 

Daniel Dennett, I’m delighted to be drunk. 

And we’re delighted to have you. We thought that five years was was really a very appropriate time for an academic conference that’s going to talk about the field that you made such a huge contribution to. And we brought together at this conference some fine senior and junior scholars. And we’ve already heard a few papers, haven’t we? 

Yeah, I’ve been very impressed. The both the seniors and the juniors, I’m beginning to think that my contribution is more in the in the nature of a catalyst. And they’re the ones that are doing the serious work. And that’s wonderful. 

Well, no one would mistake your book for anything other than very serious work as well. This book, Breaking the Spell, which is now very helpfully in paperback, is a New York Times bestseller. Congratulation, of course, covers a wide amount of territory. I mean, it’s really breathtaking the way that you tackle so many aspects of religion and suggest scientific ways for examining those aspects. Can you talk a little bit about how you came to conceive the book and how you thought such a such an expansive, wide ranging approach was really needed at that time? Because because we’re talking 2004, 2005, as you were writing the book, you know? 

Well, it was a bit earlier than that, I think, in 2003, but I’m not quite sure we can look it up. I did a op ed piece of The New York Times on being a bright and I had been to a conference in Seattle where young people of high school kids, supposedly very smart high school kids that were listening to a bunch of us, six successful thinkers of one sort or another, novelists, poets, scientists, occasional philosopher. And just on a on the spur of the moment, I decided to stand up when it was my turn for my fifteen minutes and say, well, first I to tell you what a bright is. 

No, I’m a I’m a bright. This had an electrifying effect. 

Well, tell us what to what did you say? Who. Who are these brights? Why are you well? 

Well, the term had recently been invented by some actually some former high school teachers, science teachers in California as a as a nice term for atheist free thinker, humanist are explicitly modeled on the brilliant political stroke of coming up with the word gay for homosexuals. So they wanted us sufficiently. They wanted to hijack another English word and turn it into a happier term for for those of us who who are not religious, who don’t believe in the supernatural. And so I thought, well, let’s find out. So I tried it out in this setting in Seattle. 

And I was actually quite moved when during the break, all these kids, really smart kids from all over the country, they came up to me, not all of them, of course, but a lot of them did. And they said, oh, you can’t know how important it was to hear. You know, a grown up, an adult stand up in public and say that I hear I have thought that there was nobody else that shared my view. And the whole audience sensed that. And one of the lovely and amusing side effects is that after my talk, which was one of the early ones, there were maybe a dozen or so more, including several by Nobel laureates and several of them two or three, maybe four, said, oh, by the way, I’m a bright to great cheers went up. 

So I thought, well, this is really something. 

So then I wrote that I wrote the op ed piece about that, and it appeared in the summer. And who reads The New York Times op ed page in July? 

Well, it was the most cited, the most asked for the most sent piece of the month, I think. And I was just inundated with mail, email mostly, and phone calls and radio interviews and almost all of it was positive. And a lot of it was really asking me to take advantage of the limelight. 

I found myself in and to use the attention as a as a as an opportunity to say something more about religion in America. Well, I didn’t want to write a book about the history of atheists or anything like that, or indeed about the bright movement, although I was happy to call myself a bright still and there wasn’t enough to write about. But I began to think about, well, what what would be interesting to do would be to apply. What I’ve been working on, in any case, consciousness, evolution, cultural evolution, the evolution of mind, and to use that as a. As a springboard, use that as the foundation for a calm, objective, naturalistic look at religion, and it meant a lot of homework for me because I hadn’t I hadn’t really delved into this very much, although I’d thought about it quite a bit over the years. And so it really did take. It took about three years out of my life, out of my academic life, where that’s what I did. Pretty, pretty solid. 

Well, that explains the impressive breadth of effort to really examine religion from so many angles. 

Well, I got I had a lot of help, too. 

Every book does every day. What was the reaction to the to the book like to you personally? You immediately were nominated as a as a horseman, I recall. 

Yeah. That was that was that was amusing. I don’t know who. I don’t know who first came up with the. I think it was somebody who was opposed to us. I think it’s it would be too self-congratulatory a label I think. 

I think it was it was some smart alec defender of religion. Whoo hoo hoo. Rather dismissively labeled us the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. Well, here’s something that I learned that we didn’t know this I didn’t know. 

Before the publication of my book, there were people presumably very well informed people, people who had their finger on the pulse of the nation at birth, who told me point blank that what I was doing was actually dangerous. That I was going to have to, you know, unless my telephone number and have bodyguards is not professionally dangerous. 

Oh, no, not only not professionally dangerous. 

I didn’t worry about that, but it was actually personally dangerous that I was should have make sure that I had plainclothes police wherever I was speaking and so forth. And. 

I didn’t know that that was false. I what do you do when people who seem to think they know what they’re talking about say that you you are on the side of prudence? So took some took some steps, not many and soon realized. No, no, no. There really wasn’t any data. But that says something about the way people were thinking in this country in 2006. The level of saber rattling coming from the religious right was so intense at that point that this was not a. 

And easily dismissible worry. Fascinating. But we didn’t learn and heavens hit. 

Christopher Hitchens took his book into the Deep South and went roaring through the Bible Belt fearlessly to two. That’s right. Huge crowds. Huge crowds. So it was useful, I think. Right there. 


Dismissing that myth about the the danger of the religious nut cases was was a valuable thing. I think that helped. I think that was a good thing for the nation to learn. And I think that’s a family of things that I am really quite happy, proud about that I think the new atheist has done is it’s it’s tipped the balance. It’s made it much easier for people to talk about this. It’s meant that people aren’t scared of being run out, of course, and sometimes they still are. There are still lots of places. 

I mean, I’ve I’ve had some very moving mail from people who say if I revealed my views in my town, you know, from a dentist’s, I’d lose all my patients from a dry cleaner. Nobody would bring their dry cleaning to me. My store would go out of business and. But but, you know, we were making progress. 

Yes. Academics now seem to be much more fearless and open about not just publishing, but being able to speak at conferences. The number of conferences either sponsored by atheist organizations or just academic conferences in general has exploded. 

I think that’s true. But I think we should also acknowledge the other side of this, which is academia has always been friendly to atheists and free thought and so forth. And there is some justice in the claim that a devout Christian Scientist feels a little sheepish and shy about acknowledging this. 

It takes some courage. It takes more courage, I think, for, you know, a Pentecostal chemist to stand up and say, I’m a Pentecostal. Oh, that may be then then for somebody like me to stand up, you know, in Harvard Square and say, I am an atheist, that should take any courage at all. 

Do you see the capacity of people who are personally religious in academia actually have also perhaps benefited from this clearing of the public space in public discussion and more institutes about the study of science and religion? Their intersections and conflicts have been springing up. So perhaps it’s of advantage both to the to the people who are already atheists and perhaps also to people who are religious to be able to say, you know what, it’s OK to use a scientific method to investigate what is really going on with human beings and religion. 

I think so, although I think a lot of believers, a lot of religious believers are. 

Nervous about the scientific study of religion. And so they should be my talk today will in part be about how this transparency of information that we’re entering into completely changes the selective environment. 

Well, why don’t you tell us a little bit more about what you’ll be talking about tonight? 

I’m going to be talking about what I call social cells. That are like living cells like you, cryonic or prokaryotic cells like bacterial cells. What’s a cell is the simplest self-sustaining living form. And it has three key capacities. It has, of course, the capacity to reproduce. It has a metabolism and it has a membrane. And the membrane is really important because the membrane controls what gets in and what gets out. It keeps the junk out so that the machinery can keep working. And it takes in whatever energy it has to capture energy. That’s what the metabolism takes care of. So. One can see how this these three parts are absolutely crucial, essential ingredients in any genuinely living thing. But now let’s look at societies and we see that there are things which are strikingly similar to cells. And when we’re looking for the Japanese tea ceremony. Debutant cotillions. Ponzi schemes and Christian churches. And look at the membranes. Look at the look at the systems and point out how much their continued existence. They’re thriving. Depends on their capacity to maintain their membranes. 

And this social groups maintaining, for example, in group out group distinction, for instance, for instance. 

But but more so than that. And. I think it’s quite clear that. 

Religions changed more in the last hundred years, and they changed in the last two millennia. And they’re probably gonna change more in the next 20 years and over the last hundred years. And the reason for that is that in the last 10 years, we’ve had this. Huge change in the social environment. The combination of cell phones and Internet has just transformed the informational sphere. 

Right, communication and a vast step. 

Now, global stage and religions evolved. Socially, of course, not genetically religions evolved in an environment where a certain amount of ignorance could be relied upon. That can no longer be relied upon. And this is changing everything. It’s bringing down dictatorships, that’s with the Arab Spring was really all about. And I think that even Bashar al Assad is his days are numbered and he’s slow to realize this. But but I don’t expect to see him around in power much longer. You simply can’t do that anymore. You simply can’t. And every institution in the world has to confront the fact that it’s sort of living in a fishbowl now. And that’s changing everything at a great rate. 

Do you think that the ability of religious people to learn that there are other religions to learn more about their own religions means that simplistic clash of civilization, notions of trying to explain what’s happening on the world stage might indeed be inadequate because it’s really much easier for religions to compare, share, borrow, mutate. Are we talking about a faster mutation rate for religion? 

So I think I think the mutation rate is going to be extremely fast. But let’s let’s look at the let’s look at the inertial forces. Let’s look at the things that are going to hold that back. And one thing is this. There’s a lot of suffering. There’s a lot of loss involved here. 

I like to put it to my Western friends, my Western European and, you know, but developed real friends. I imagine that we were visited by spaceship’s. That brought another civilization to us and our kids just went wild for the pastimes and fads and whatever of the space people, and they not only did they no longer learn the violin, they didn’t learn the guitar. 

They didn’t play baseball. They didn’t play softball. They didn’t speak. They had a they just abandoned. Human culture and went whole headlong for this new alien culture. Wouldn’t we feel terribly threatened? Wouldn’t we feel desperate? Wouldn’t we just feel as if our every shred of our of our identity and security was being overthrown by these without a shot fired? Well, that’s how people feel in large parts of the world when they see to when they see the invasion. 

And it comes out as an expression of religious conservatism, frequent, you know, frequently inertia that you spoke of. Yeah, yeah. 

And and and you can hardly blame them. I mean, they are seeing their world turned upside down. They’re seeing their children abandoning things that that they learn from their great grandchild grandfathers. And and that has got to be extraordinarily painful and and fearful. 

Now, that makes sense, religions can change slowly, but if asked to adapt too fast or abandon old ways too fast. Instead they sort of freeze up and harden and what we might call more conservative or even fundamentalist term, I think. 

And I think that all of the the dynamics of that process. We’re not going to be able to control it in detail, the best we can hope to do is to ease the pain, quite frankly, and to try to keep the lid on and. In particular. To acknowledge. The suffering acknowledged the loss. Of those who are being engulfed, languages are going extinct at a great rate. Whole cultures are going extinct. That cannot be fun. And even if we think as as I do that. 

The the wave of culture that is replacing them is, by and large, much better. It’s it’s it’s better for women, it’s better for children, it’s better for health is better for everything. 

There are prices to be paid and the prices are being paid, not equally. 

That makes sense. Let me ask a follow up question on this vein. In this era of globalization and world communication on balance right now, would it be your judgment that religion is a net negative for humanity or could in many parts of the world religion sufficiently capable of mutating, let’s say, still be a net positive for any portions of humanity? Where do you come down on that classic question so many atheists are asked, is religion just bad for humanity now, even if it might have been once a good? 

I think that’s a good question, precisely because we can’t answer it. We can’t answer it because. As you hint. Every religion is going to be changing at a great rate. 

I can certainly characterize forms of religion which already exist and have fairly robust existence, which I think are entirely benign or almost entirely benign. And the one thing that’s against them. 

Is that they provide protective coloration for the was that art moderates providing cover further? 

That’s right. 

And as I said, you know, if the if the Mafia just ran more daycare centers and hospitals, you know, they they wouldn’t have such a bad rep. 

Good public relations always helps in any in any market niche and not excluding religion. Let me move on to another topic about the way that religion is very often credited with being very useful for human beings. And that has to do with giving human beings a sense of control. Responsibility agency. Does science rob religions ability to reassure the faithful that they have things like not just souls? Clearly, science is not favorable towards the idea of immortal souls or spirits outside of the body, but towards things like freewill. Could you talk a little bit about what science says about freewill and anything perhaps reassuring to any religious listeners that we might have that, you know, that the scary things that religions put up as monsters coming from naturalism maybe aren’t that scary at all. Maybe it’s not so bad a thing to lose one’s concept of freewill. 

Back in 1984, I published the first of two books on Freewheel called Elbowroom, but the subtitle was as important as the title, The Varieties of Freewill Worth Wanting. And what I argued there is that, oh, I can define and philosophers have defined varieties of freewill that we can’t have that are incompatible with modern science and with what we know. The question is, are they anything we should care about not having? And I argue, no, those are those are not worth wanting. They were seen to be worth wanting because people were confused about what freewill was or could be. There are varieties of free will that are definitely worth wanting that do underwrite our sense of purpose and responsibility. The very meaning of life depends on these senses of free will. They, I argue, are all compatible with what we’re learning from science, unfortunately. You asked me what science tells us. If only that’s what scientists were telling people. But scientists, especially in the last few years, have been on a rampage, writing ill considered public pronouncements about freewill, which are actually, I think in some cases, verge on social irresponsibility. 

For example, you might have in mind brain scientist says you’re a scientist. 

I think that that the recent flood of books by neuroscientists has very little. Worthwhile stuff and a lot that’s seriously confused. And as we’re now beginning to get some actual scientific confirmation of it makes a difference. It makes a difference because there’s some research that shows that if you. Present people with the claim that science has shown that we don’t really have free will in a variety of circumstances, they will actually behave less morally. 

They will be more apt to cheat. There are some very unsettling experiments by Volson school or that that show that an eye it’s important to replicate them and see that what the effects are and what they aren’t. But I take that seriously and I’ve always taken it seriously. 

The the fact is that quite independently of science, people can talk themselves out of free will. They can turn themselves into fatalists. And if you actually succeed in turning yourself into some sort of fatalist, you disable yourself and. We certainly don’t want people disabling themselves with bad science that would just be as wrong, perhaps as disabling it with bad theology. 

Exactly as wrong. So I think this is a very serious issue. 

Well, now for the neuroscientists in our audience and also everyone else. What is Daniel Dennett’s quick definition of one of these scientifically approvable, 100 percent naturalistic, yet friendly to agency definitions of freewill? 

What’s what’s his view of Frelich? It’s going to take more than more than 30. You have all the time you why? It’s not 25 words or less. 

But let let me sort of back up a little bit and then build to it. When life started on this planet, there was no free will. Bacteria have negligible options and negligible capacities to act on those options. 

And basically, they’re very myopic. If something isn’t touching them, not their only sensory count. It takes contact. They don’t have any Distel. They don’t have any vision. They don’t have any hearing. A distal perception like hearing and vision. It’s really important because for the first time when you get that, you can begin to think ahead. You can duck that incoming brick. You can go catch that fleeing dinner or run away from that galloping predator who’s coming towards you. 

That set off an arms race. Now, that gets us to quite an interesting variety of agency. Let’s just not really free agency, but still impressive where there are options. There are good reasons to go one way or another. And to a remarkable extent, organisms are capable of, in effect, tracking those reasons. They tend to do the right thing at the right time because if they didn’t, they’d be suffer. 

Is it the stage at which it becomes appropriate to have Teeley anomic or teleological descript? 

Oh, yes. Of what? Oh, but I mean, I actually don’t think that goes back to the bacteria that does it. 

Oh, this is part of my cat. My current campaign is to is to push harder and harder on the line that I’ve been developing over the years for what I call Free-floating rationales. 

What I want to say is that the nature is a flood with reasons. There are reasons for so many things in the bacterial world. There are reasons why the motor proteins are where they are. There’s reasons why there’s a membrane. There’s reasons all over the place, right down to the right, down to the macromolecules. But those are just not represented anywhere there. They’re not any buddy’s reasons. They’re not the reasons of any mind. They’re the reasons that nature honors in in evolving all these things. The first time these reasons are representative is when clever people, scientists come along and reverse engineer these things and they then they see the reason why the parts are the way they are. And it’s just breathtaking. You find this tremendous ingenuity in nature and. Take a deep breath and just agree. I’m urging that in the same way we can reverse engineer a radio or an automobile engine or a computer and figure out the reasons why the parts are the way they are. We can do the same thing with any living thing, and they are reasons in the same sense. It is true, of course, that the engineers and architects and scientists and others inventors have thought through the reasons to some degree in the artifact, but that it doesn’t matter. 

Their reason is just the same. So first line is there’s reasons everywhere. It’s just that. Only a very limited percentage of the living things. Recognize reasons, represent reasons, are moved by reasons, do things for reasons. There is a reason why trees spread their limbs. But the tree doesn’t have the rings and the tree doesn’t think that nothing. Thinks the reason. There’s reason why bacteria have membranes. But the bacteria don’t have a reason for having memories. In fact, dogs don’t have reasons for what they do. 

Porpoises don’t have reasons for what they do. Even chimpanzees. There’s a reason why chimpanzees do what they do, but they don’t have those reasons in the same way. 

So it’s one thing to have goals, AME’s purposes to achieve these things. And it’s quite another to deliberately know that you’re going about no reasons and be able. 

And, you know, this is a this is a very familiar theme in moral philosophy. You go back to count. 

To be moved by reasons more recently, Wilfred cellar’s talking about the space of reasons and how so much of what we do is built on the sort of interactive game of asking for reasons, being able to give reasons, being able to trade reasons and compare and evaluate reasons, say, well, that’s not a very good reason that we’re the only species on the planet that does that. And freewill of the kind it’s really worth wanting depends on that. That’s why small children. And. Brutes. Animals that don’t have language. That’s why they don’t have freewill in the morally important sense. That’s why if a bear kills a man, that’s not homicide. 

So by making sure that this social space of reasons can be understood entirely naturalistically, you’ve built a bridge. And then by understanding how we develop, talking about giving and sharing of reasons and holding each other responsible for our conduct, that provides then the bridge between the naturally cultural sphere and then our self conception of ourselves. 

So now you see what we do is we work backwards. 

We say, all right, imagine we have morality and we have we want to have the idea of responsibility and holding people responsible both for the good things they do for good deeds. They are the authors of and also for the for the evil they do that. They are the the crimes they commit. 

If you put if you start there and say, well, now what has to be the case. To justifiably, to reasonably, too, with good grounding, hold people responsible for those deeds, you work back on that and that’s what free will is. And it’s. And it is, as it were by definition, important because it’s it’s the necessary condition for the world of of taking life seriously and holding people responsible. 

And that would nicely explain why freedom comes in degrees. Because we’re talking about the development of human capacities in the social realm. As John Dewey once famously quipped, no one ever marched in protest over lack of metaphysical freewill. What people really want is social freedom and more of it frequently. 

Yeah, I think I think that’s true. Metaphysical freewill sort of being somehow insulated from causality is the more you think about it, just a preposterous idea. But it’s deeply rooted in everyday thinking. And and it’s it’s the fact that so many people think that that is just a by definition what freewill is that we get so much thoughtless or Im imperfectly thought out work by neuroscientists who who see. 

The folk link between determinism. And lack of freedom and just take it on its face. And don’t ever stop to look at it. And requestor are those who think that, well, at least we don’t have to worry about this because, of course, quantum physics is in deterministic. They sort of use quantum mechanics as their as their trap door to get out. Yeah. Let’s let’s grant that, at least according to current wisdom, indeterminism indeterminacy, Rheins, thanks to quantum physics. My point is it doesn’t matter. The whole issue between determinism and indeterminable is physics is a red herring. As far as freewill is concerned, the science that you need to understand, to understand free will is not physics, it’s biology. 

So perhaps the neuroscientists and other folks are being too reductionistic trying to look for freedom in the relations among atoms or subatomic particles when they should be looking for where it was all along in the relationships between human beings. 

And. And think about it maybe this way you raise the term reductionism, which usually I like ls when I objected to because it means so many different things to so many different people. 

But what I think most people now. Are quite happy with the idea that. 

Things can be colored, even though their finest parts aren’t colored, atoms aren’t colored, but things can be red and blue and they can’t really be red and blue. It’s not just an illusion that they’re red and green, even though they’re they’re the atoms that they’re made of are not any color at all. 

Things can be alive like a cell, even though they’re made of parts that aren’t alive. In fact, it doesn’t work out that way. We’re in deep trouble. So you can make something living out of parts that are not living. You can make something colored out of parts that aren’t colored. You can make something conscious. Other parts that aren’t conscious. Neurons aren’t conscious. Some people, to my amazement, find it. They want to say, well, even individual neurons, they must be conscious. 

I think, OK, if neurons are conscious, then SOS athlete’s foot. You know, they’re both they’re both, you know, you carry orthotic cells. Not much difference between you really want to say that yeast is conscious? 

Probably not. Probably not. We touched earlier on morality. 

Let me make another bit of a swear word. Let me just finish this finish. I had one more case. 

And if you can make something free out of parts that are free, please go ahead. Free in the important sense, in the same way that being alive and being conscious are being read. These are macroscopic properties that are not shared by their microscopic parts. 

Same thing is true of freedom. And it doesn’t mean that when you put enough neurons together in this way, you have something which violates the laws of physics. Now it’s just. It’s just as determined by the laws of physics if they’re deterministic. It does not escape that. It’s just that it has this property at a higher level, which is the one that matters to us. And it isn’t illusory anymore than being red is illusory or being alive is illusory. 

And indeed, it’s quite manipulable. Anybody who’s raised children knows that agency and responsibility of morality are right there in front of your eyes, and they can be easily controlled to some degree. Indeed, we do want to control the next question I was going to ask has to do with morality. You’ve now had a chance to look at five years of continuing research along the lines of what you talk about in breaking the spell. And we talked about morality. Do you think that studies on the relationships between religion and morality help us understand better why nonbelievers can be good without God? Of course, you believe that nonbelievers can be good without God. But what more do we know about how nonbelievers can be good without God? 

I think that the idea that being good without God is impossible is probably the single most pernicious myth in the world today. It is. And what’s particularly pernicious about it is that it exploits a wonderful human trait. People want to be good. They want to lead good lives. That’s the lovely thing. People really would prefer to be good. And so then along come religions, say, well, you can’t be good without God and convince people that they have to do this. 

That may be the main motivation for people to take religion seriously, try to take religion seriously, try to establish an allegiance with the church because they want to lead good lives. And in many parts of our nation, if you look around the community, you want to see. I want to join some people and do something good. So the only game in town. So, of course, you join the church because there is a community, there’s some teamwork, and it’s it’s the only game in town, you see, for for doing serious, concerted good together. Now, we have secular organizations. 

I remember some years ago and John Gardner started Common Cause, a perfect name, wonderful idea, great secular alternative. But, you know, it just didn’t have legs. It didn’t it didn’t catch on. It didn’t. It didn’t. They didn’t do the organization. Right. They probably should have taken a few more pages out of the Blueprint Book of Religions and figured out how to how to get local chapters that were robust, that had good membranes, that had that could be self-sustaining. 

And and. Until secular organizations figure out how to. Be more attractive. Let’s talk about it in market terms, how to compete in the marketplace for the good teamwork market. Then the religions are going to to to have sway. 

So it’s OK in your view for secular organizations to imitate perhaps some of the structural features and functions of religious organizations without duplicating any of the religious flavor or religious emotion or of that business? You could tear apart those two things. 

Absolutely. My favorite example, one that I’m actually involved with is Ted. And there is a secular religion of a sort. It is completely secular, perhaps mentioned what tt’s TED Capital TBD sort of stands used to stand for technology, entertainment design. If you go to TED dot com, you will find wonderful, wonderful talks, presentation, all those TED talks. I highly recommend that TED talks and they have brilliantly adopted the best of production values. One of the rules is the longest talk is 18 minutes, and that’s about the length of the longest sermon to, you know, you want to. 

You don’t want to talk much more than that. Some churches make the mistake of carrying on longer. 

But they use art, music technology brilliantly and they use the allegiance of the members and they get people if not to tithe, then at least to pay big bucks to be members of that community. And then they give away the product to everybody on the Web. And I think they’re approaching a billion downloads now or across the globe. They’ve got it anyway. Hundreds of millions. Hundreds of millions. More than half a billion people have downloaded TED talks all around the world. They’re being translated into many languages so that you can get subtitles and not just French and German and Spanish and Japanese, but but but languages in Africa and Asia that I don’t even know. The names up are now getting subtitles for those times. 

Well, this example brings us kind of all the way back around where we became because people want to feel connected. They want to feel educated, they want to feel up to date, and they want to be able to share it with friends, neighbors, people of similar interests. And so you’re saying that’s very important for the secular segment of society to be able to advance those sorts of communities where people are really feeling profited from feeling connected, from feeling educated? 

Well, I think. We do want to think very seriously about finding organizations, finding structures, finding infrastructures in which. Well-meaning individuals without losing their individuality. Can contribute to larger causes. Now. The technology now exists for the sort of citizen science, for instance, where thousands of people can for a few minutes a day enter data on. 

Well, there’s one the that that Google is now starting where they’re they’re going to enter data on people with flu symptoms. You don’t have to diagnose flu. You just have to notice people with flu symptoms in your family, in your neighborhood. And if you do notice, it reported as soon as you report it. And this is going to create this huge database would be very valuable to, you know, the disease control people. 

That’s just low hanging fruit. That’s the first of all. 

And for a small n of of hundreds and hundreds of things like this, where individuals without without having to march, without having to stand up and sing hymns, without having to sign on to any creed, can contribute to important social projects. 

Well, that’s very important, I think, for our listeners. We need all the advice we can get about effective strategies for dealing with religion. We have time for for just a little bit more. Let me ask you one one last big question, and you can tackle it any way you wish for. Typical folks out there confronted with religious family, with religious neighbors in a religious community. How can people come out, so to speak, in a constructive way to make them be able to say not just. I don’t believe not just. An atheist, but to come out with some sort of positive, effective response to the resistance that they’re inevitably going to get? How can how can we help these folks? 

Well, for several years after the publication of Breaking the Spell, I went around and spoke to groups of unbelievers, student groups and the like around the country. And very often they would say, well, thanks for. Putting a sort of in the spotlight for a while, we’ve got a lot a lot of new members coming into our groups now. Now, how do you advise us to proceed? And I often shocked them by saying, well, why don’t you get together with all your members and see if you can figure out a cause that you would all tied for? And their eyes goggle and they realize, oh, my goodness. 

I said that would go a long way. I said, how about putting together a group? And going in and helping rebuild houses in the wake of Katrina under the banner of your group, there’s lots of things you could do, local things, international things, and just put the lie to that good without God idea, which returns us to the importance of sociality. 

Atheists shouldn’t just be atheists shouldn’t just be loud and proud, but she should be active contributors to their community. That’s, after all, where they live. 

Yeah, I think I think that to me there’s nothing more boring than just sitting around with a bunch of atheists saying, oh, my gosh, God doesn’t exist, isn’t it? Aren’t those people stupid not to believe in God? Right. Right. We got that long time ago. Now, what are we going to do? 

Well, thank you very much for your time. And darn it. 

Oh, thank you. 

I want to thank you for listening to this episode of Point of Inquiry to get involved with an online conversation about today’s show with Daniel Dennett. Join the online discussion forum at point of inquiry, dawg. Views expressed on point of inquiry aren’t necessarily the views of the Center for Inquiry, nor its affiliated organizations. Questions and comments on today’s show can be sent to feedback at point of inquiry, dawg. 

Part of inquiry is produced by me, Adam Isaac in Amherst, New York, and our music is composed by Emmy Award winning Michael Waylan. Today’s show also featured contributions from Debbie Goddard on today’s host Atomizing. 

John Shook

John Shook was Director of Education and Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Inquiry–Transnational in Amherst, N.Y., and Research Associate in Philosophy at the University at Buffalo, since 2006. He has authored and edited more than a dozen books, is a co-editor of three philosophy journals, and travels for lectures and debates across the United States and around the world.