FFRF convention speech: On truth, transparency and saying grace: By Daniel C. Dennett

Daniel C. Dennett’s speech, edited for space, was delivered on Oct. 8, 2016, at FFRF’s 39th annual convention in Pittsburgh. He was introduced by Linda LaScola, who, along with Dennett, is one of the founding members of the Clergy Project:

I know most of you already know and admire Dan Dennett. But after listening to his bio that I’m going to read, you’ll understand why I was so impressed to be collaborating with him. Professor Dennett is one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He’s an honorary FFRF director and earned FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2005. He received the Erasmus Prize in 2012 in Amsterdam, which is the highest award that’s given in the Netherlands. And he received the American Humanist of the Year Award in 2004. His books include Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and the soon-to-be-released From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Mind. He has received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Fulbright fellowship and a fellowship at the Center for Advanced Studies and Behavioral Science. As you’ve already heard, he’s co-founded the Clergy Project and he and I co-authored Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind. It’s a great pleasure to introduce to you my colleague, Daniel Dennett.

By Daniel C. Dennett

Thank you all for being here. Ten years ago, a number of us — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and I — wrote books that later became called the books of the Four Horsemen. We were all responding to the same thing, what you might call the theocratic rumble that we heard in this land. And I wonder if you remember how scary that was.

I remember when Breaking the Spell came out. There were presumably smart, knowledgeable, savvy people in New York and the West Coast and elsewhere who advised me that I was going to have to get an unlisted phone number, have bodyguards, wear a bulletproof vest. And I didn’t know they were wrong, but they were. The rising theocratic surge was much more of a paper tiger than we realized.

But what I want to talk about is a long-range worry.

A philosopher whom I much admire and have been friends with for 40 years is Philip Kitcher. He’s at Columbia and a book has just been published called The Philosophy of Philip Kitcher. It’s a bunch of essays about his work with responses from him. And I have a piece in it called, “What to Do While Religions Evolve Before Our Very Eyes.”

Philip is what Jerry Coyne would call a “faitheist.” “I’m an atheist, but . . .”

Philip is an atheist, but he has more than a soft spot for religion. He claims to be on the same page as you and me. We all want to see religion evaporate, if not in our lifetimes, then in the lifetimes of our children or grandchildren. He is quite clear that that is his goal, too, and he’s a good atheist, but he’s very concerned with how we get there.

It’s like the question of how do you pull off a Band-Aid? He wants to do it very gently and slowly, gently and slowly, gently and slowly. And I say, rip it off. Get it done and then we can go on with our lives. And I don’t think it’s obvious what the right answer is, but I do say he hasn’t convinced me.


My favorite philosopher of all is David Hume. My colleague Dennis Rasmussen, in a forthcoming book, The Infidel and the Professor, writes of the philosophy of Hume:

“In 1764, a friend asked Hume for advice about the case of a young clergyman whose religious beliefs were wavering and who was deliberating about whether to give up his orders. Hume counseled him not to, given that reliable occupations were so difficult to come by for a man of letters. As for the young man’s scruples, Hume acidly responded, ‘It is putting too great a respect on the vulgar and on their superstitions to pique one’s self on sincerity with regard to them. Did ever one make it a point of honor to speak truth to children or mad men? I wish you were in my power to be a hypocrite in this particular. The common duties of society usually require it, and thus the ecclesiastical profession only adds a little more to an innocent dissimulation or, rather, simulation without which it is impossible to pass through the world.’ ”

As usual, Hume is a master writer. But I think Hume was dissimulating here. This was not in a published paper. This was in a letter to a friend to pass on to this poor young man who had taken holy orders. And I think that Hume didn’t mean it. And I think what he was doing was creating a useful crutch — exaggerating the triviality of saying a few words so that the young man could not only continue with his post, but do so with a relatively clear conscience. Hume, I’d like to think, was in fact a very generous-minded and sensitive man, and he felt for the young man and contrived a way of giving him a counter-illusion to salve his conscience as he continued espousing the illusion that he was being paid for.

And Richard Dawkins, in his recent second volume of his autobiography, tells a story about New College, the college where he has been a fellow for many years. It’s a very ecclesiastical place. It has a fabulous chapel, a world famous choir and many very distinguished academics. It is one of the jewels of Oxford. In the book, Dawkins tells about one of his duties when he was subwarden, which was saying grace at some meals. What should he do? He said grace.

There were people who objected, who said it was hypocritical of him to do this. He said he didn’t think it was hypocritical. So where should we draw the line between, as he puts it, a matter of simple courtesy like removing your shoes when entering a Hindu or Buddhist temple, and capitulation into hypocrisy?

Dawkins, in his book, quotes his colleague A.J. Ayer, the philosopher who was also the professor of logic in New College. And Ayer, the famous atheist and logical positivist, his defense for saying grace was, “I will not utter falsehoods, but have no objections to making meaningless statements.”

I think Ayer was dissimulating here, too. Especially if you know any philosophy and if you’ve ever read Language, Truth and Logic by Ayer, you know he had lots of objections to uttering meaningless statements. That’s the whole point of the book: It’s much more honest to utter falsehoods that might be corrected than to utter meaningless statements. But it passed for a while and got him over the embarrassment of saying grace.

Saying grace

So what was the New College grace? Very simple. “Benedictus benedicat.” How many of you, just in the spirit of going along, will now repeat after me, “Benedictus benedicat”? [Many in the audience say it.] How many of you refuse to do that? [Hands go up.] You say that at the beginning of the meal and then at the end of the meal — “Benedicto benedicatur.” Now let’s translate that into English and see if you really want to say it. “May the blessed one bless us, may the blessed one bless us.” Are you happy with that? Anybody? Let us bless the blessed one. [Few in the audience say it.] That’s interesting, isn’t it? You’ll say it in Latin, but you won’t say it in English. Isn’t that sort of a fetishistic response? I mean, are you superstitious or something? Of course, now that you know what it means in English, you’re less likely to say it. But just to show you that this is on a sliding scale, I want to try one more and see how many of you will go along with this.

“Allahu Akbar.” It’s not just “Allah is great,” but “Allah is greater.” Greater than your government, greater than your god. Greater. Are you comfortable saying “Allahu Akbar”? No. Neither, by the way, is Richard. I asked him and he said he would not say it. He would say “Benedicto benedicatur,” but he would not say “Allahu Akbar.” It’s because of his view of the difference between Islam and the kind of Christianity exemplified by the Church of England in New College, which is, of course, about as vitiated and watered down religion as you could possibly have: The Church of England. As the joke goes, somebody says, “Are you religious?” “No, we’re C of E.”

I submit that our reluctance to saying grace is not because we had any superstitious ideas about blasphemy or anything like that. It’s that once they’ve become sacred to some group of people, we know that saying them without meaning them is going to be offensive to some people or seem to give support.

And so the formula itself becomes an object of attention that people fight over and even, in the end, kill over. And I want to know how this happens. First of all, let me say, I don’t know. But I have an idea.

Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life is about the Cambrian explosion, the incredible blossoming of new life forms about 350 million years ago. From the beginning of life, it continued on for about 2 billion years. And then we have the famous eukaryotic revolution. And suddenly, by evolutionary standards, over a few million years, we had this tremendous outpouring of novel forms of life unlike anything we see today.

What triggered the Cambrian explosion? Nobody knows. There are different theories. One that I want to introduce to you, if you haven’t heard about it before, was developed by the Oxford zoologist Andrew Parker and presented in his 2003 book, In the Blink of an Eye.

He argues that the main trigger of all of this tremendous evolutionary design work that happened was in response to the shallow ocean becoming chemically more transparent. Light could get through. And whereas there hadn’t been any eyesight, eyes evolved very quickly.

And as soon as they evolved, this set off an incredible arms race of invention and counter-invention. New methods of locomotion, methods of hiding and seeking, predator-prey interactions, camouflage, evasive behavior.

And the driving force of all of this was the sudden transparency of the medium in which life then existed, permitting long-distance perception and making locomotion a much more potent tool. Before that, you had very little chance of seeing very far because your sense organs pretty much simply told you what was happening at your surface and you sort of groped around in the mud.

Parker’s theory is not known to be right or wrong. He’s had to adjust it to respond to some objections. I’m not saying we should accept it, but I am saying let’s use it as a hypothesis on which we can model another hypothesis, which might be right even if Parker isn’t.

A new transparency

If the Cambrian explosion was triggered by the old transparency, we are now inaugurating the era of the new transparency. It’s not just the internet; it’s cellphones and television. It’s what’s happened in the last 50 years. And the hypothesis is that it’s going to be even more tumultuous and at a much faster pace than the chaotic scramble to avoid extinction that faced all life forms when the Cambrian explosion happened.

Collaberating with the MIT computer scientist Deb Roy, I coauthored (in Scientific American in March of 2015) a piece called “Our Transparent Future. No Secret is Safe in the Digital Age. The Implications for Our Future Are Downright Darwinian.” (That is not our title, that’s Scientific American’s title.)

So the idea is that the great change in our world, triggered by the media inundation, can be summed up in a single word: transparency. We all can see farther, faster, cheaper, easier than ever before, and we can be seen. And this makes a tremendous difference.

The epistemological murk of pre-scientific civilization is being replaced by transparency. All the institutions that have developed in civilizations — not just churches, but governments, armies, banks, industries, clubs, families, corporations, all human groups with projects — up until now have evolved in a relatively epistemologically murky environment. It’s been easy to keep secrets. And suddenly it’s very hard to keep secrets. We seem to be living in a post-secret age.

Now some people think this is wonderful. And, in fact, as anybody who knows any game theory will tell you, you absolutely do not want to reveal your plans if you are in any sort of a competitive situation. You have to keep your own plans and intentions secret. You cannot be an effective agent unless you have a nontransparent boundary within which you can conduct your planning and your moves in the world.

Mutual knowledge

This transparency that’s coming is in many regards a good thing, and I don’t want to say it isn’t. It’s a very good thing. I like to quote A.J. Johnson, development director of American Atheists, who said, “The internet is the best thing to happen to atheism since Darwin. Atheists, African-American or otherwise, know that we are not alone.” Which nicely brings up the mutual knowledge aspect. It’s very important not only that I know you’re an atheist and you know I’m an atheist, but I know that you know that I’m an atheist, and you know that I know that I’m an atheist, and so forth.

And this mutual knowledge is actually very important and it is made possible by the new transparency. And it gives us a sort of recursive hall of mirrors.

Here’s an example: In 1975, let’s say, there were many thousands of people who knew of a priest who had sexually abused a child. But almost no one knew that others knew. Today, hundreds of millions of people know that hundreds of millions of people know that thousands of priests have sexually abused children. It’s that mutual knowledge. The fact that people not only know it, but they know that others know it, and those others know that others know it.

And this changes the whole world of those agents in that setting. This is why the Catholic Church is now having a very hard time recruiting priests. Young men have to add to their concerns the likelihood that a lot of people are going to view them with suspicion if they enter the priesthood, simply because of the common mutual knowledge of all of that abuse.
In the Cambrian explosion, most of the exotic forms went extinct. Of course they all didn’t. Every non-plant and non-fungus that’s alive today is descended from the creatures that were alive then.

So which organizations will go extinct? The mutual knowledge changes the epistemological environment in which all organizations must survive. Here’s an arresting fact: In Ireland, a generation ago, there were three priests for every parish. Today, there are three parishes for every priest. That’s about a 10-fold decline. And most of the priests are old.

Downsides to transparency

Now, we may applaud the transparency and think that all the institutions that have thrived in the darkness, and because of the darkness, will go extinct. Good riddance to them. But it may be a bad thing. When we move from epistemology murkiness into transparency, where there are no trusted authorities, there’s no pope, there’s no king, there’s also no Walter Cronkite.

Mutual knowledge does not endow anybody on the planet with that sort of reliability today. And what we have moreover is this sort of reputation arms race. What organizations and individuals are beginning to realize is it doesn’t matter how good a job you do, if somebody else decides to destroy your reputation or credibility, all your good fact-gathering may go for naught.

As usual in arms races, offense is cheaper to design and develop than defense. And, to my knowledge, nobody has yet developed a defense against malicious reputation challenges. And that’s a very frightening prospect. Notice that science as a whole is probably our best, strongest candidate.

That’s one of the best reasons to get behind science, and to announce our support. But don’t go overboard. Don’t make the mistake of worshipping science, but respect science for what it does respectably. And, to those who are critical of science, I love to point out to them, particularly when they describe to me one scientific misdemeanor or another — somebody who’s faked some data and been caught, for instance — I say right, and who discovered that? Who proved that this was fraudulent? The self-policing of science is what’s done it, and religion has nothing like it.

So what do we do? I think we’ve heard from several people what to do. We should do good under the banners of secularism. Not just say we’re good, but show it. Show, don’t just tell. Like the members of FFRF are doing in so many ways and I want to encourage you to do it again, and more. Thanks for your attention.

To read Dennett’s full speech, go to ffrf.org/dennett.

Freedom From Religion Foundation