Thursday, March 1, 2007


From: Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark (David B Hart, First Things, January, 2007)

Generally speaking, Dennett’s method in all his books is too often reminiscent of the forensic technique employed by the Snark, in the Barrister’s dream, to defend a pig charged with abandoning its sty: The Snark admits the desertion but then immediately claims this as proof of the pig’s alibi (for the creature was obviously absent from the scene of the crime at the time of its commission). And past experience perhaps caused me to approach his most recent book with rather low expectations. Even so, I was entirely unprepared for how bad an argument his latest book advances-so bad, in fact, that the truly fascinating question it raises is how so many otherwise intelligent persons could have mistaken it for a coherent or serious philosophical proposition.

The catalogue of complaints that might be brought against Breaking the Spell is large, though no doubt many of them are trivial. The most irksome of the book’s defects are Dennett’s gratingly precious rhetorical tactics, such as his inept and transparent attempt, on the book’s first page, to make his American readers feel like credulous provincials for not having adopted the European’s lofty disdain for religion. Or his use of the term brights to designate atheists and secularists of his stripe (which reminds one of nothing so much as the sort of names packs of popular teenage girls dream up for themselves in high school, but which also-in its favor-is so resplendently asinine a habit of speech that it has the enchanting effect of suggesting precisely the opposite of what Dennett intends).

There are also the embarrassing moments of self-delusion, as when Dennett, the merry "Darwinian fundamentalist," claims that atheists-unlike persons of faith-welcome the ceaseless objective examination of their convictions, or that philosophers are as a rule open to all ideas (which accords with no sane person’s experience of either class of individuals). And then there is his silly tendency to feign mental decrepitude when it serves his purposes, as when he pretends that the concept of God possesses too many variations for him to keep track of, or as when he acts scandalized by the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like apophatic and ontic. And there are the historical errors, such as his ludicrous assertion that the early Christians regarded apostasy as a capital offense.

The prose is rebarbative, moreover, and the book is unpleasantly shapeless: It labors to begin and then tediously meanders to an inconclusive conclusion. There is, as well, the utter tone-deafness evident in Dennett’s attempts to describe how persons of faith speak or think, or what they have been taught, or how they react to challenges to their convictions. He even invents an antagonist for himself whom he christens Professor Faith, a sort of ventriloquist’s doll that he compels to utter the sort of insipid bromides he imagines typical of the believer’s native idiom.

In fact, Dennett expends a surprising amount of energy debating, cajoling, insulting, quoting, and taking umbrage at nonexistent persons. In the book’s insufferably prolonged overture, he repeatedly tells his imaginary religious readers-in a tenderly hectoring tone, as if talking to small children or idiots-that they will probably not read his book to the end, that they may well think it immoral even to consider doing so, and that they are not courageous enough to entertain the doubts it will induce in them. Actually, there is nothing in the book that could possibly shake anyone’s faith, and the only thing likely to dissuade religious readers from finishing it is its author’s interminable proleptic effort to overcome their reluctance. But Dennett is convinced he is dealing with intransigent oafs, and his frustration at their inexplicably unbroken silence occasionally erupts into fury. "I for one am not in awe of your faith," he fulminates at one juncture. "I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasonable certainty that you have all the answers." And this demented apostrophe occurs on the fifty-first page of the book, at which point Dennett still has not commenced his argument in earnest.

This is a lengthy, but wonderful takedown of arguably the most gruesome of the current crop of religion-bashers from the world of the brights, which shows why the reaction of so many religious folks to the attacks of Dawkins, Hitchens, et. al. is not anger and engagement, but mystification.

On the assumption that not all of you will read it through to the end, could anything convey the hubris of the determined secularist missionary better than these few lines from Lewis Carroll:

In one moment I’ve seen what has hitherto been
Enveloped in absolute mystery,
And without extra charge I will give you at large
A lesson in Natural History.


Duck said...

Just think of reading Dennett as penance for unleashing this on the public.

Lest you fret that the well of secularist outrage is almost dry, Christopher Hitchens is coming out with an anti-religious tome. I expect it will be better written than Dawkins or Dennett's awkward screeds. Will you honor us with a review?

erp said...

Chris writes so well, I forgive him anything.

Harry Eagar said...

I was reading Medawar's essay on his disbelief last night. He was rather wistful about it.

His argument boils down to the assertion that reason is necessary but not sufficient, which he also uses regarding scientific beliefs generally.

I don't agree with that, but I am always amused when people argue that unreason in itself is sufficient.