Monday, 1 April 2013

An open memo to Daniel C Dennett

Very much enjoyed listening to you on BBC Hardtalk this morning - and nice to hear your voice after years of reading your words!

(1) Stephen Sackur spent quite a long time on "absolute certainty." I wonder if that emphasis is peculiarly British - or even a peculiarly Church of England? It seems to me that in the UK there is quite a fierce fight over, as it were, the final 1% of faith. Perhaps secularism in the UK is shaped by a kind of anti-secularist who is prepared to concede a great deal and then dig in - a kind of opponent less common in the US (and elsewhere?).

I see that final 1% as a territory in which, for the anti-secularist at least, there is an enhanced role for tact, and a reduced role for dialectic steered by evidential claims. Does the secularist necessarily need to dispute that priority?

I am trying to picture those secular practices you talked about replacing religious institutions. Do you think, I wonder, they might still use religious language and ideas, but in a euphemistic way? I'm not sure! But I'm sure there are human institutions whose self-understanding involves propositions which everyone knows, when it comes down to it, aren't strictly true. Their truth is not their point. (So maybe, "We can usefully regard human life from an Inspirational Stance . . .").

The disjunct between what is ritually professed, and what comes out in an anonymised and/or scientistic context, is pretty suggestive. For instance: not too long ago a survey of Church of England clergy suggested that only roughly half believed in the immaculate conception. (OK, I must be careful not to caricature the C of E - it is certainly not already a secular replacement for a religious institution, and belief in the power of prayer, for instance, is widespread and often extremely strong. But still).

Related: right at the start when you mentioned "replacements" I thought it was a caution, rather than a hope. In other words, the decline of institutionalised religion could provide a space for the institutionalisation, or informal flourishing, of other forms of irrationalism. I soon found out what you really meant. But it is intriguing how certain superstitions may act as checks on others.

So perhaps the atheist's job, in this context, is to tactfully nudge and rearrange evidentially unsupportable thoughts, language, practices, rather than try to expunge them. To compartmentalise them, in other words, so that religion and/or its successor superstitions don't compromise us as epistemological and as ethical beings. (I think of Don Cupitt in more or less-this-mould (though perhaps he asks the traditional Christian to concede only 90%, not 99%)).

You mentioned religious scientists who can compartmentalise their mental life, so that their belief in the impossible doesn't compromise their studies. The White Queen in Through the Looking Glass believes in six impossible things before breakfast, very rigorous and extreme compartmentalisation!

The kind of transitional arrangements to a form of rationalism in which superstition resides as a commensalistic or mutualistic presence would have to be much subtler. In this regard, the atheist may need to start being a bit more of a theologian, dwelling in mysteries.

Sometimes fairly literally a theologian: when there is a fierce fight over the last 1% of faith, atheists have an obligation to intervene, with great tact and imagination, in theological debates. They have an obligation to demonstrate exegetical acuity and a kind of intellectually-developed empathy with the experience of revelation and its aftermath. They thereby both earn their authority and have a chance at recovering the rationalist elements of institutionalised irrationalism. (I know this because it came to me in a dream).

(2) Your Intuition Pump (/Pomp) about religion and music is really excellent! What if a scientific consensus told you music was bad for you, that you can allow yourself a little of it (like drink or drugs or delicious food, perhaps), but no more? Perhaps that's what it feels like to be a person of faith confronted with secularism.

Except . . . don't you think it's cheating a little to allow yourself those few bits of music? I just think losing one's faith tends to be a more dramatic shift.

Perhaps a closer analogy would be if all recorded music, all rehearsed music and all music involving instruments were bad for you. You would have to learn to hear a different music: bird song, the cadences of the speaking voice, the music of the wind in the leaves, the song of the cityscape, etc. It sounds pretty awful to me. Or perhaps the analogy should be, you can only listen to Bruce Springsteen (not including the Seeger sessions). OMG, I think I'd have to start a cult!