The Nonbeliever

Interview by Deborah Solomon,Questions for Daniel C. Dennett

The New York Times

January 22, 2006

Q: How could you, as a longtime professor of philosophy at Tufts University, write a book that promotes the idea that religious devotion is a function of biology? Why would you hold a scientist’s microscope to something as intangible as belief?

I don’t know about you, but I find St. Paul’s and St. Peter’s pretty physical.

But your new book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon,” is not about cathedrals. It’s about religious belief, which cannot be dissected in a lab as if it were a disease.

That itself is a scientific claim, and I think it is false. Belief can be explained in much the way that cancer can. I think the time has come to shed our taboo that says, “Oh, let’s just tiptoe by this, we don’t have to study this.” People think they know a lot about religion. But they don’t know.

So what can you tell us about God?

Certainly the idea of a God that can answer prayers and whom you can talk to, and who intervenes in the world – that’s a hopeless idea. There is no such thing.

Yet faith, by definition, means believing in something whose existence cannot be proved scientifically. If we knew for sure that God existed, it would not require a leap of faith to believe in him.

Isn’t it interesting that you want to take that leap? Why do you want to take that leap? Why does our craving for God persist? It may be that we need it for something. It may be that we don’t need it, and it is left over from something that we used to be. There are lots of biological possibilities.

Didn’t religion spring up in its earliest forms in connection with the weather, the desire to make sense of rain and lightning?

We have a built-in, very potent hair-trigger tendency to find agency in things that are not agents, like snow falling off the roof.

There was so much infant mortality in the past, which must have played a large role in encouraging people to believe in an afterlife.

When a person dies, we can’t just turn that off. We go on thinking about that person as if that person were still alive. Our inability to turn off our people-seer and our people-hearer naturally turns into our hallucinations of ghosts, our sense that they are still with us.

But they are still with us, through the process of memory.

These aren’t just memories.

I take it you do not subscribe to the idea of an everlasting soul, which is part of almost every religion.

Ugh. I certainly don’t believe in the soul as an enduring entity. Our brains are made of neurons, and nothing else. Nerve cells are very complicated mechanical systems. You take enough of those, and you put them together, and you get a soul.

That strikes me as a very reductive and uninteresting approach to religious feeling.

Love can be studied scientifically, too.

But what’s the point of that? Wouldn’t it be more worthwhile to spend your time and research money looking for a cure for AIDS?

How about if we study hatred and fear? Don’t you think that would be worthwhile?

Traditionally, evolutionary biologists like Stephen Jay Gould insisted on keeping a separation between hard science and less knowable realms like religion.

He was the evolutionist laureate of the U.S., and everybody got their Darwin from Steve. The trouble was he gave a rather biased view of evolution. He called me a Darwinian fundamentalist.

Which I imagine was his idea of a put-down, since he thought evolutionists should not apply their theories to religion.

Churches make a great show about the creed, but they don’t really care. A lot of the evangelicals don’t really care what you believe as long as you say the right thing and do the right thing and put a lot of money in the collection box.

I take it you are not a churchgoer.

No, not really. Sometimes I go to church for the music.

Yes, the church gave us Bach, in addition to some fairly spectacular architecture and painting.

Churches have given us great treasures. Whether that pays for the harm they have done is another matter

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