July 13, 2003

A Very Sad Case

Philosophy professor Daniel C. Dennett has written an astonishing op-ed column in The New York Times in which he proclaims his disbelief in God. In openly identifying himself as a so-called "Bright," Dr Dennett complains that politicians and society-at-large belittle and deride his fellow non-believers' views. He ends his article with a clarion call for action, beseeching his fellow citizens to support "bright rights."

Now, I say Dr Dennett's article is astonishing not because I approve of it. I find it astonishing because of its insufferable arrogance, its smarmy self-righteousness, and its breathtaking hostility to religious views. I find it astonishing because of its flawed reasoning, its sneering self-conceit, and its insulting moral relativism. Finally, I find it astonishing because it sums up so very well the complete and utter hubris of what Dr Dennett might call the "aggressive atheistic" mindset.

So let us take a look at the relevant parts of Dr Dennett's essay in depth. He's in italics:

The time has come for us brights to come out of the closet. What is a bright? A bright is a person with a naturalist as opposed to a supernaturalist world view. We brights don't believe in ghosts or elves or the Easter Bunny or God. We disagree about many things, and hold a variety of views about morality, politics and the meaning of life, but we share a disbelief in black magic and life after death.

Since Dr Dennett openly says later in his essay that the "bright" campaign is a public-relations exercise, I find it odd that he sees fit to compare belief in God with belief in the Easter Bunny. I mean, this certainly isn't the way to win friends and influence people in the much larger community of religious believers. Also, what he means to write in his opening sentence is we brights. Forgive him for that: they don't teach writing well in the colleges these days.

The term "bright" is a recent coinage by two brights in Sacramento, Calif., who thought our social group which has a history stretching back to the Enlightenment, if not before could stand an image-buffing and that a fresh name might help. Don't confuse the noun with the adjective: "I'm a bright" is not a boast but a proud avowal of an inquisitive world view.

Well, one could argue that modern-day atheism, such as it is, began in the works of certain ancient philosophers and Pelagius, the 4th-5th century heretic; and was refined from there on out. I can see why Dr Dennett might not want to mention him as an inspiration, given that even he admits atheists' image needs buffing. That said, I am not impressed at Dr Dennett's shoddy attempt at doublethink either. The words "boast" and "proud" do, after all, go hand-in-hand; and this is made clear through Dr Dennett's proclamation that the atheists' world-view is inquisitive -- and its unsaid inference that a religious world-view is not.

For the reality is exactly the opposite. Most Christians and other religious are by their nature inquisitive folk, and we see the hand of God at work in every new astronomical discovery or scientific breakthrough. On the other hand, when unexplainable phenomena occur either in the historical record or even in the present day, an atheist would by animal instinct write it off as having some natural cause, even if not readily apparent. Their supposed tautology -- God has not been proven to exist, therefore He does not exist -- is a mile wide but an inch deep. And only an uninquisitive sort would write off the possibility that such logic could in fact be flawed.

You may well be a bright. If not, you certainly deal with brights daily. That's because we are all around you: we're doctors, nurses, police officers, schoolteachers, crossing guards and men and women serving in the military. We are your sons and daughters, your brothers and sisters...

What? No mention of petty thieves, bank robbers, gangsters, wife-beaters, confidence men, grafters and swindlers? No mention of deadbeat brothers-in-law, drunks, document forgers? They're all around us too, you know!

... Our colleges and universities teem with brights. Among scientists, we are a commanding majority ...

Please don't remind me. Now I'm going to get depressed.

... Wanting to preserve and transmit a great culture, we even teach Sunday school and Hebrew classes ...

Wanting to stay on good terms with the wife is more like it.

Many of the nation's clergy members are closet brights, I suspect. We are, in fact, the moral backbone of the nation: brights take their civic duties seriously precisely because they don't trust God to save humanity from its follies.

We quote from Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles for our response to this little bullet. We will put it in bold just so Dr Dennett and his sympathizers see what we think of his proclamation:

Eminent, eminent people, one and all, members of the Society for the Prevention of Fantasy, advocates of the banishment of Halloween and Guy Fawkes, killers of bats, burners of books, bearers of torches; good clean citizens, every one, who had waited until the rough men had come up and buried the Martians and cleansed the cities and built the towns and repaired the highways and made everything safe. And then, with everything well on its way to Safety, the Spoil-Funs, the people with mercurochrome for blood and iodine-colored eyes, came now to set up their Moral Climates and dole out goodness to everyone. And they were his friends!

I would rather put my trust in God's saving grace than Dr Dennett's moral backbone.

As an adult white married male with financial security, I am not in the habit of considering myself a member of any minority in need of protection. If anybody is in the driver's seat, I've thought, it's people like me. But now I'm beginning to feel some heat, and although it's not uncomfortable yet, I've come to realize it's time to sound the alarm.

Gee, it would appear that Dr Dennett doesn't like it when people disagree with him. Clearly he is being persecuted and oppressed.

Whether we brights are a minority or, as I am inclined to believe, a silent majority, our deepest convictions are increasingly dismissed, belittled and condemned by those in power by politicians who go out of their way to invoke God and to stand, self-righteously preening, on what they call "the side of the angels."

Somehow I don't see how invoking God equates with condemning atheism, but many aggressively-atheistic people can't stand it when the Government allows religious displays or "ceremonial Deism." It's a key difference between religious folks and aggressive atheists. Religious folk are happy whenever God gets a mention; atheists can't stand it because they want the rest of us to adhere to their God-less beliefs.

A 2002 survey by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life suggests that 27 million Americans are atheist or agnostic or have no religious preference. That figure may well be too low, since many nonbelievers are reluctant to admit that their religious observance is more a civic or social duty than a religious one more a matter of protective coloration than conviction.

Translation: Twenty-seven million people is approximately nine percent of the population residing in the United States. Dr Dennett does not want to admit that those who share his views may only constitute nine percent of the population residing in the United States.

Of course, I do think it worthy to note that there is a big difference between atheism, agnoticism, and being non-religious. An agnostic does not take one side or the other in the debate, and neither do the non-religious. As such, as Madalyn Murray O'Hair once put it, these folks have "one foot in the God camp." This would seem to separate the chaff from the wheat: only an atheist could truly call himself a "bright," because the agnostic and non-religious are leaving open the possibility that supernaturalism really does exist. So Dr Dennett's claim that there are 27 million brights lurking among 300+ million citizens in all is likely a bit high.

That shouldn't take away from his argument in a logical sense, of course; but to me it shows that he's willing to bend logic's rules a bit if it will help his case.

Most brights don't play the "aggressive atheist" role. We don't want to turn every conversation into a debate about religion, and we don't want to offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.

Go talk to this guy, Dr Dennett. You'll have hours of fun, I can assure you.

But the price is political impotence. Politicians don't think they even have to pay us lip service, and leaders who wouldn't be caught dead making religious or ethnic slurs don't hesitate to disparage the "godless" among us.

Well, this is what happens when folks don't believe in something: they give other things deemed more important, such as tax policy and foreign affairs and retirement benefits, more weight. That's only natural, of course; but until Not Believing in God and Also Wanting to Suppress Other People's Religious Expression becomes a priority among a large segment of the American People, it will stay that way.

It is time to halt this erosion and to take a stand: the United States is not a religious state, it is a secular state that tolerates all religions and yes all manner of nonreligious ethical beliefs as well.

Yes, but I'm thinking that you don't tolerate all religions. I mean, God forbid someone should put an expression of religious thought up on public property. Why the aggressive-atheists don't put up their own expressions next to them is beyond me. I mean, it's their right. But that might be constructive.

I recently took part in a conference in Seattle that brought together leading scientists, artists and authors to talk candidly and informally about their lives to a group of very smart high school students. Toward the end of my allotted 15 minutes, I tried a little experiment. I came out as a bright.

Notice the favor given to intelligence over character. Someone, quick, call John Engel.

Now, my identity would come as no surprise to anybody with the slightest knowledge of my work. Nevertheless, the result was electrifying.

Anybody out there have the slightest knowledge about who the hell Daniel C. Dennett is and his work? We're just wondering here, folks, cause we hadn't heard a thing about the guy or his work before he showed up in The New York Times.

Many students came up to me afterwards to thank me, with considerable passion, for "liberating" them. I hadn't realized how lonely and insecure these thoughtful teenagers felt. They'd never heard a respected adult say, in an entirely matter of fact way, that he didn't believe in God. I had calmly broken a taboo and shown how easy it was.

Well, yeah, that's the thing. It's very easy. It's also very easy, for we as people, to give into our own desires and our own wills and our own flawed instincts. It is the first step down a path which leads to letting one's vices conquer oneself. It is the first step towards one's eventual self-destruction as a moral person.

In addition, many of the later speakers, including several Nobel laureates, were inspired to say that they, too, were brights. In each case the remark drew applause. Even more gratifying were the comments of adults and students alike who sought me out afterward to tell me that, while they themselves were not brights, they supported bright rights. And that is what we want most of all: to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less.

True, but Professor, you have to realize that respect is a two-way street. You've just spent half your op-ed being snarky about the views of Baptists and Hindus and Catholics and Mormons and Jews and Presbyterians, so why should they -- we -- give you that respect in return? I would encourage you to remember the Golden Rule -- do unto others as you would have done unto you. Some old Teacher said it a while back.

If you're a bright, what can you do? First, we can be a powerful force in American political life if we simply identify ourselves. (The founding brights maintain a Web site on which you can stand up and be counted.) I appreciate, however, that while coming out of the closet was easy for an academic like me or for my colleague Richard Dawkins, who has issued a similar call in England in some parts of the country admitting you're a bright could lead to social calamity. So please: no "outing."

OK! Here's the first insulting life comparison, folks! Dr Dennett's thesis here is that it's just as hard to be an atheist in, let us say Tennessee, as it is to be a homosexual.

(crickets chirping)(dog howls in background)

But there's no reason all Americans can't support bright rights. I am neither gay nor African-American, but nobody can use a slur against blacks or homosexuals in my hearing and get away with it. Whatever your theology, you can firmly object when you hear family or friends sneer at atheists or agnostics or other godless folk.

I hope I'm not reading this wrong, but is Dr Dennett seriously equating society's awful and undeniable bad past treatment of blacks and homosexuals to the supposed suffering of atheists? That's certainly how it seems to me. Somehow this just doesn't compute. Having one's after-dinner cocktail ruined because a dinner partner vociferously disagrees with you does not, in my mind, equate to years upon years of slavery, discrimination, or being treated like a second-class citizen.

But I don't know, and perhaps I am reacting to reading this at a truly Godawful hour on Sunday morning. To me, though, everything about Dr Dennett's essay reeks of what's wrong with an aggressively-atheist position: the self-conceit, the arrogance, the almost-blind confidence, the inner surety that he is right and the rest of the world consists of "sheeple." (I hate that word but it gets a lot of use).

And in a way, it's saddening.

I don't think anyone should be discriminated against on the basis of race or sexuality or creed. I'll admit I would like it if non-religious people became religious, but I also know that when all is said and done, they will make their own decision on the matter. You can't force anyone to make decisions in that regard: it just doesn't work.

But neither do I understand why a small minority of those who do not share in religious beliefs cannot merely accept the fact that many Americans do. For we are talking about the small minority of activist atheists who consider their non-religiosity so important that it alone defines them as a person.

No one, of course, would mind if such militant atheists merely wanted to be left alone. But given the past history of that movement, it does not take a leap of faith to argue that this is merely a tactic to denigrate and scorn organized religion and those who believe in it.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at July 13, 2003 02:05 AM | TrackBack

I will point out that the term "bright" is a first step toward the non-religious putting up symbols of their own. They have a word. A symbol next would be nice.

Then maybe all this howling about religious displays could die down, as the non-religious could then simply ask to put up their symbols to mark things like the solstices or whatever else they'd like.

Because as a bright, I am truly repelled by the move to ban religious displays from public property. It sickens me deeply, for it shows an intolerance toward our fellow citizens that is, truly, an ugly thing.

Posted by: Deam Esmay at July 13, 2003 06:48 AM

Also, what he means to write in his opening sentence is we brights. Forgive him for that: they don't teach writing well in the colleges these days.

Erm, "us" is correct there, not "we." Read the sentence without the word "Brights" it. Heh.

Posted by: SFT at July 13, 2003 11:59 AM

1. "Us" is correct.

2. Ben, you're only seeing this from one side. Why is it more obnoxious to say "I believe God is a fictional character created by man" than to say "I am a follower of a religion [whose tenets teach that my membership entitles me and my fellow followers to eternal life, and doom non-followers to hell]"? Yes, to say that "God does not exist" is to imply "Your belief that God does exist is wrong." But that's just the nature of holding a different opinion. You automatically infer that Dennett is rude and obnoxious to believers--when there is nothing in his essay that indicates that.

The fact that you find the assertion of non-belief "arrogant" demonstrates precisely Dennett's point: it is next to impossible for a bright to participate in the public debate -- he'll get shouted down in a way that someone who says "I think war in Iraq would be immoral [and thus you are immoral for supporting it]" or "It is our patriotic duty to wage war in Iraq [and thus you are unpatriotic for failing to support such a war]" wouldn't.

3. Dennett is a leading philosopher at Tufts University who has written the definitive works on understanding consciousness and naturalistic views of free will; he was nominated for a National Book Award and a Pulitzer for "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," which is the best popular book on evolution published in the last ten years. That you haven't heard of him reflects more on you than him.

4. You miss the tongue-in-cheek nature of the essay when you criticize Dennett's discussion of "outing."

Posted by: Max Power at July 13, 2003 07:50 PM

Well, look at this, I scooped Ben Kepple. :-) Your training is almost complete, young Jedi....

Posted by: Geoff Brown at July 14, 2003 02:12 AM

Damn... Ben has HTML shut off in his comments...

Posted by: Geoff Brown at July 14, 2003 02:13 AM

*I'm probably going to partially use the wording I've used here for a post on my own blog on the subject.

I'm about ready to divorce myself completely from the "atheist" appellation. It confounds me. My atheism/agnosticism (who cares?) was not a *choice* I made. In a way, it was a *failure*. I was "raised" Lutheran, went to church three times a week, completed Confirmation, played lead guitar in a Christian rock band at my friend's church, went on retreats and camps, and read my Bible.

Yet round about the time I turned 18 or so, it just became apparent to me that if I was going to avoid hypocrisy, I'd have to admit what I'd suspected for quite a while: I had no faith. Faith is believing in something that no one in his right mind would believe in otherwise. I didn't have it.

I'm still fascinated by certain aspects of religion and its history of thought (I took theology classes at a Catholic university, for instance), but that realization and admittance pretty well ended my active participation in religion.

But gee whiz! I'm so tired of the self-righteous, bellicose atheists out there who want to feel embattled by their "plight". I guess I'm not as sophisticated as folks like Dennett, because I just sort of stumbled into my lack of belief. Just know that there are faithless individuals who have a great deal of respect for those who do believe and have not a thing against saying "Under God" in the Pledge, being prayed for, or even attending a church service at Christmas Eve or Easter.

I'm on board with evolution, by default, but so is my mother, a devout and highly-involved Lutheran. But I recognize that for a lot of folks, science books engender the same sort of *faith* as the Bible does for true Christians. I can understand the idea that certain specimens are selected for and that over the course of X generations, this can lead to adaptation and evolutionary change. But I'm not in there in the lab doing the experiments and using carbon-dating data to form a null hypothesis. I'm accepting it based on faith.

"If my neighbor to my left believes in no god and my neighbor to my right believes in one hundred gods, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."

Posted by: Kevin White at July 14, 2003 02:24 AM

Your diatribe is support for everything Dennett says in that editorial. Enough said. But I can't stop there. You've never heard of him? He's been publishing since at least the 70's. His work is taught in many fields, including Computer Science (Artificial Intelligence), Evolutionary Psychology, Cognitive Science, and Philosophy (Free Will, Consciousness). Read anything current in any of these areas and you'll find references back to him. He is also well-read by the general population. Check any bookstore.
"Inquisitive"? Yeah, right.

Posted by: JH at July 18, 2003 11:50 PM

"Most Christians and other religious are by their nature inquisitive folk, and we see the hand of God at work in every new astronomical discovery or scientific breakthrough. "

Well, that is very inquisitive of you. Except most of these astronomical and scientific breakthroughs are the result of the scientific community, not the religious community. Come to think of it, what discovery or breakthrough has the religious community achieved lately? Your quote simply points out that others do the actually research and discovery while you give credit for their work to God.

Posted by: John Ritter at January 7, 2004 09:47 PM