Daniel Dennet on Design and Religion

In this presentation, philosopher Daniel Dennett takes issue with some of the ideas presented by Pastor Rick Warren, author of The Purpose-Driven Life. Warren talks about how great God is, how faith is a good thing, blah blah blah... (you can watch his presentation by placing your mouse over this bubble for a second or two).

It strikes me as interesting that Warren is so concerned with how others perceive him, whether the others be God or other people. Why he gets his sense of self-worth from the outside I don't quite get: why should your life be meaningful only if someone else thinks it's meaningful? Sounds like a case of co-dependence and lack of self-respect, but that's just me.

Anyway, Dennett is candid about the things he appreciates about the book, but explains how religion, rather than having some kind of transcendent origin, is itself a product of evolutionary processes like natural and artificial selection, with constant pressure to be designed and redesigned, and has a biological basis just like the evolution of any anatomical feature.

In attempting to be consistent with the principles of a democratic society, Dennett proposes that every child in public and private school ought to be educated about the facts of all the major world religions, even if they are eventually indoctrinated in the particular religion of their parents. This, he believes, is maximum tolerance for religious freedom and should not be seen as a threat to any one religion. Dennett makes the nice argument that democracy depends on an informed citizenship, and that teaching people about other religions and allowing them to make their own choice concerning what religion to follow, if any, is a way of treating people with dignity and respect as responsible adults.

He also makes the interesting case that religion can be thought of as a memetic parasite that gets into its host and makes it/him/her do certain things that might not be in the individual's self-interest, but which would be in the interest of the parasite (like drive airplanes into buildings, for instance). In other words, rather than argue that there is some sort of benefit people get from belonging to a group glued together by a shared set of religious beliefs, Dennett thinks that religion is a cultural unit of selection (a meme) whose structure allows it to successfully spread itself horizontally and vertically throughout a population. You can see an instance of this type of phenomenon (a gordian worm chemically brainwashing a cricket into jumping into water and killing itself so that the worm can find a mate) in this bubble.

Finally, Dennett argues that faith discourages people from pursuing scientific understanding, that it makes them complacent rather than active, and that the problems of the world require action rather than contemplation... and this is coming from a philosopher!

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