Daniel Dennett 2016 National Convention Speech


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. Now, Professor Daniel Dennett, 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. He received FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2005. He received the Erasmus Prize in 2012 in Amsterdam. It’s the highest award that’s given in the Netherlands. And he received the American Humanist of the Year Award in 2004. Now he’ll be signing copies of “Breaking the Spell: Religious as a natural phenomenon.” Other books include “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”, “Consciousness Explained” and the soon to be released “From Bacteria to Bache and Back: The evolution of mind.” He received two Guggenheim fellowships, a Fulbright fellowship, 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.” And when I meet people who know that we’ve worked together, they look at me with wonderment and they ask what it’s like to work with Dan Dennett. I say it’s wonderful. Many people have seen him on YouTube or read some of his books or essays and they get a correct sense that he’s not only brilliant, but he’s warm and folksy. Not only intellectual, but he has a great sense of humor and is decent and kind. His talk tonight is titled “Has the Damn Broken? Omen and worries.” It’s a great pleasure to introduce to you my colleague Daniel Dennett.


Well thank you all for being here. So I thought I would start by sharing something that many of you have probably seen or heard about, and it’s relevance will be clear as I go on.

Shows a 1957 film clip on Panorama.

That was 1957 on Panorama, which was sort of like 60 Minutes. And Richard Dimbleby was that most august figure of the BBC. The man, the voice who quietly and respectfully intoned all the details of the coronation and other great state events. So he was a man of tremendous credibility, and yet he dared to put on this April Fool’s joke which was so successful that the next day travel agents in the U.K. were inundated with requests from people who wanted to fly off to the spaghetti harvest while it was still going on. So that was 60 years ago.
Ten years ago a number of us — Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and I — all got into the act by writing books that later became called the books of the Four Horsemen. And 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 that’s the way it felt back then; the outrageous arrogance and affrontery with which they proceeded. What they did is they overplayed their hand. If they had just been a little bit more modest and calm, I would probably not have dropped everything and decided I had to do something about it and would have stayed with my other projects to which I am now pretty much returning. The reason I mention this is I want to make sure that we don’t make the same mistake. There’s a lot of good news and we’ve heard from various people, I won’t spend much time on this because we’ve already heard a lot of the good news from the Public Religion Research Institute.

Tries to display a graph

This is a graph that shows the rising percentage of the unaligned, which has gone up from about 5 percent to about 30 percent in recent years. And another chart, which is in some ways even more heartening, which shows the age distribution. How many young people say that they are entirely unaffiliated and the percentages of young people going up and up and up? So that’s good news and the FFRF has had a big role to play in fostering those developments. But freedom from religion is not the only freedom in need of defense today.

A question that has been occupying me of late is if we should we have a daughter foundation — the FFFF. The Freedom From Fascism Foundation. I think we have to take seriously the idea that it’s not just religion. We shouldn’t think that all of the problems are to be laid at the door of various religions.

There are plenty of non-religious fascists out there as well, and their power is growing. The Religious Right is fragmenting, in any case. It’s losing market share and it’s morphing into some new configurations.

An example, in June, quoting from Pew, fully 78 percent of white evangelical voters say they would vote for Trump, including about a third who strongly backed his campaign. That was in June. I read that a group of nearly 80 evangelical leaders published a letter condemning Trump. But will their congregations listen to them, and if they do, will they believe what they hear? Well, that was Thursday, I think maybe today they will believe what they hear.

What I want to talk about tonight is a longer-range worry and a few reflections on the circumstances that produce it. 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.”

Phillip is what Jerry Coyne would call a “faitheist.” “I’m an atheist, but . . .” He is an atheist, but he has more than a soft spot for religion and wants to argue for preserving it, fostering it, helping it through difficult times. He claims to be on the same page as me and you. 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.

I share his concern, and I have to say I think there is a case to be made for his side of it. It’s like the question of how do you pull off a Band-Aid? He’s very, very gently and slowly, and gently and slowly, and 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.

What he introduces is the distinction between what he calls the belief model and the orientation model of religion. The belief model is the traditional model, where your beliefs are the core of your religion. The orientation model says, “no, it’s the community, the alliance, the loyalty, the ritual traditions that should be the core belief’s creed.” That’s a negligible or ignorable or adjustable part of religion. And, as you can imagine, he wants to recommend to us all the orientation model, because he thinks the belief model is simply indefensible, because he’s a good atheist. If you take it literally it’s nonsense.

Well, the orientation model, he says, presents us all with a spectrum of possible views, which he has some curious names for. It goes from the mythically self-conscious, through doctrinal indefiniteness to doctrinal entanglement. What does that mean? The mythically self-conscious; these are people who say it’s myth, it’s metaphor. It’s just myth. They are self-conscious about the fact that they are putting their allegiance behind the myth. This is not unlike such organizations as the Baker Street Irregulars who don’t quite worship Sherlock Holmes, but pride themselves in knowing the details of all the Sherlock Holmes stories and they have meetings and scholarly papers and they celebrate Sherlock Holmes. Though they know he’s not a real character, they know he is a fictional character, but they just they just love him as a fictional character. And if there was a Perry Mason group, or something like that, to stand in opposition to them, they would shun the Perry Masonites as they continue.

But this is all mythic, self-consciously myth loving. Doctrinal indefiniteness is that convenient fog that settles in over creeds and permits one to respond to questions with mumble, mumble, mumble, mumble. Which leads, if pressed, to doctrinal entanglement where one, in response to probing or just one’s own curiosity, venturers some faint or growing entanglement with the doctrines of the belief model. Philip is a very astute presenter of this panoply of options. But he does have a problem. He really can’t talk about it in public. That is, he can write a book about it, but it’s not the sort of thing that you can talk about in the sort of wider public because you can’t speak candidly because of the poisonous effects it might have.

You can’t go into the church and say, “All right congregation, what shall we vote for? Shall we be doctrinally indefinite, or are we in for some mythic self-consciousness, or maybe even a little entanglement?” The very self-consciousness of the very reflection on these options is something which has to be kept backstage. You can’t be candid about it.

And that, I submit, puts him in a very awkward position, and it really sort of puts us all in an awkward position. In fact, you can talk about it. That’s what I’m doing right now. But this deflects us from what matters — truth. The very idea of insisting on telling the truth and expecting others to tell the truth is put in jeopardy by the normalization of policies of the sort that Kitchener is recommending.

And, by the way, PRRI found that the most common reason people gave for their lack of religious affiliation was the disbelief in religion’s teachings. So that if the religion manages to fuzz over the boundaries of its doctrines sufficiently, this may keep people from leaving the church, which will actually delay further the end result that Kitcher himself says he wants, which is the gradual evaporation of religion. This is prolonging a moribund tradition by creative obfuscation instead of insisting on telling the truth.

I want to draw attention to a wonderful remark that was made yesterday [at FFRF’s convention] by Carter Warden. He said, “I didn’t lose my faith, I chose to discard it.”
We should take that distinction very seriously and recognize that if we are going to give people the opportunity to make the informed choice that Carter made, we should resist importunings that we go along with doctrinal indefiniteness and other foggy obfuscations of that sort.

Now, how does this come about?

I think what we’re facing today is a sort of credibility vacuum and people are losing track of the importance of, to put it bluntly, meaning what you say. Now, this is not a new problem. It’s actually very old. I want to discuss what several other philosophers have had to say about this.

And I’m going to start with my favorite philosopher of all, David Hume. My colleague Dennis Rasmussen, in a forthcoming book, The Infidel and the Professor, the friendship and philosophy of David Hume and Adam Smith tells the following tale:

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?” And he goes on, “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. I think Hume, I’d like to think, was in fact a very generous-minded and sensitive man, and I like to think that 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.

So that’s Hume dissimulating. 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. It has 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 sub-warden, and that was saying grace at some meals. What should he do?

There were people who objected, said it was hypocritical of him to do this. And he said he didn’t think it hypocritical. He thought he could do it. So where today 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.

So I want to do a little experiment. He, 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.

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.

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”? How many of you refuse to do that? I thought there might be a little bit of a refusal. You say that at the beginning of the meal and then at the end of the meal — “Benedicto benedicatur.” Benedicto benedicatur. Now let’s translate those into English and see if you really want to say them. Maybe you do. “May the blessed one bless us, may the blessed one bless us.” Are you happy with that? Anybody? Let us bless the blessed one.

That’s interesting, isn’t it? Well, now you’ll say in Latin, but you won’t say it in English. Isn’t that sort of fetishistic response? I mean, are you superstitious or something? Of course, now 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.

Are you ready? Allahu Akbar. Really? Really. 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 “Benedict benedicatur” but he would not say “Allahu Akbar,” because of his view of the difference between Islam and at least 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 or, as the joke goes, somebody says, “Are you religious?” “No we’re C of E.”

I want to talk about the problem that they raise. The problem with formula of this sort and our reluctance to saying them. I submit that our reluctance to saying them 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 can become very exercised over and even fight over and even, in the end, kill over. And I want to know how this happens. And first of all, let me say, I don’t know. But I have an idea and I’m going to run it by you. I don’t know if many of you are familiar with this. Stephen Jay Gould’s book Wonderful Life. This book is about the Cambrian Explosion, the incredible blossoming of new life forms about 350 million years ago. My favorite tree of life. This is the present, out around here. This is the beginning of life, and life continues on for about a billion years plus more than that. Two billion years really. Until suddenly we have the famous eukaryotic revolution.

And suddenly, by evolutionary standards, over a few million years, we had this tremendous outpouring of novel forms unlike anything we see today. There’s a lot of wonderful artist drawings of the amazing different life forms that flourished for a few million years in response to this explosion that happened. Not for nothing is one of these critters called hallucigenia. 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 creative design, evolutionary design work, that happened, was in response to the shallow ocean becoming chemically, for various reasons, 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 into the future 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.

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 cell phones 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.

I got together with the computer scientist Deb Roy. He has a wonderful TED talk about the language project he did with his son. And he and I, together in Scientific American in March of 2015, published 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.

At any rate, this new transparency. 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 politicians love to talk about transparency. Barack Obama pledged a more transparent presidency, but we shouldn’t jump to the conclusion that that’s a good thing. And, in fact, as anybody who’s 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 non-transparent boundary within which you can conduct your planning and your moves in the world.

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 AJ Johnson, who said, “The internet is the best thing to happen to atheism since Darwin.” Why? Because atheists, African-American or otherwise, know that we are not alone. Which nicely brings up the mutual knowledge aspect. It’s very important that, not just 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. 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.

The archbishop of Minnesota, this is a headline in The Boston Globe of a couple of years ago where he denies touching a minor. I want you to look closely at the statement that he gave to the press. “Dean said he normally stands for these photos with one hand on his staff and the other hand either on the right shoulder of the newly confirmed person or on a stall that hangs from his chest. ‘I do that deliberately and there are hundreds of photographs to verify that fact,’ he wrote.”

Can you imagine a priest writing that sentence for public consumption 20 years ago, 30 years ago, 40 years ago? No. And the mere fact that he protests in this way shows how profoundly the church has been affected by the transparency that it is now engulfed in.

In the Cambrian explosion, most of the exotic forms went extinct. Of course they didn’t all. Every non-plant and non-fungus that’s alive today is really descended from the creatures that were alive then. But they didn’t all go extinct.

So which organizations will go extinct? Ah, 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.

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 and no Richard Dimbleby.

The reason I showed that wonderful joke of his, that prank, is to suggest that, who could do that today? I don’t think there’s anybody that could do that. A lot of people could carry it off, but it wouldn’t have the impact. And it wouldn’t have the impact because nobody, nobody, has the credibility, the authority, to be accepted by most everybody.

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 and evidence-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, to me, echoing what Jerry Coyne had to say earlier.

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. I said right, and who discovered that? Who proved that this was fraudulent? The self-policing of science is what’s done it, and that religion has nothing like it.

But there’s also a touchiness arms race. We heard earlier today from Bonya about the blasphemy laws in Bangladesh, the crime of hurting religious feelings. And now we’re seeing that many people are discovering in this arms race the utility as an offensive or defensive tool of a heightened sensitivity, a heightened religious feelings sensitivity which then scares off many people who otherwise would be critical. It’s this that makes it difficult to find the balance we need when talking about the issues that we’ve been talking about happily amongst ourselves here at this wonderful convention.
There is, moreover, finally a sort of meta-meta-meta arms race. Doug Hofstadter once said to me “Anything you can do I can do meta.” This is sort of the philosopher’s theme. Going meta is to talk about the talk about the talk about something. And you will have noticed how so much of the coverage, for instance, of this election is meta, and meta-meta. Instead of talking about the issues, they’re talking about the strategies, the counter-strategies, the effectiveness of the strategies, the effectiveness of possible counter-strategies, the probability that this strategy will work, and the hour goes by and nobody said anything about the actual issues. It’s all just a game of strategy.

Maybe that’s not so bad, maybe it’s actually good. But it might be bad. It might distract us from truth-telling. That’s what worries me the most. 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.

Freedom From Religion Foundation