Daniel C. Dennett

This speech was delivered on Oct. 10, 2008, at the 31st annual convention of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, Hyatt Regency Chicago.


Photo: Brent Nicastro

By Daniel C. Dennett

I want to look at the future of religions. I want to give five scenarios: What is going to happen to religion in your lifetime?

1. The Enlightenment is over. Religion will sweep the planet. Then the question is: Which religion will it be? No religion holds a majority in the world. That’s a prospect I think all of us in this room devoutly hope will not happen.

2. Maybe religion is in its death throes. There is some evidence that that is so. It might be that within your lifetime, St. Peter’s Square, the Vatican, will become the European Museum of Roman Catholicism. (Laughter, applause.) Mecca might become the magic kingdom of Allah. If you think that is ridiculous, just remember, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul started off as a church, then a mosque, and today it’s a museum. It didn’t take all that long, so just bear that in mind.

3. Religions will transform themselves into creedless moral teams, with their own songs, their own colors, their own symbols, their own pageantry, but without any creed. I think most of us would be quite content with moral teams. We could say, “Do you want your daughter to marry a Yankees fan?” We could have the same sort of passion that we have for our sports teams, but without the creed and without the irrationality.

4. Religions diminish in prestige and visibility, like smoking. Sometime in the future, it will be considered bad form to draw attention to the fact that somebody is religious. Yes, if you must be religious, that’s all right, we certainly won’t ban it. Please confine your indulgences to places where you won’t interfere with anyone else. Politicians might actually try not to mention whether or not they are religious, and it would be bad form to point out that someone still had that particular affliction.

5. One more future we have to consider: Judgment Day arrives. Armageddon happens and we are all toast.

Now those are five scenarios. We can see that three of them are quite benign. The fifth is a nonstarter. We don’t have to worry about that. But I think we do have to worry about people who are trying to make it happen. They are extraordinarily dangerous and we should never tire of saying so. So that really leaves us with one sort of future that is seriously problematic for us. All but one of these is wildly wrong and which one is right?

The answer is nobody knows. So whatever we want to happen, you have to realize it’s not plausibly predictable right now. That’s why I wrote my book, Breaking the Spell. Because I thought this is an area of ignorance that is in itself dangerous. We need to look under the hood of religion to see what makes it tick, so we can better think about what steps we might take to get the outcome we most want.

While we are talking about books, I want to mention a book I think you would all be interested in. It’s a book called “Philosophers Without Gods,” edited by Louise M. Anthony. It’s a collection of essays by professional philosophers who are all atheists. Most of them started out with a strong religious education and a deeply religious conviction, and they’ve changed over the years. My piece on mortality, when I had my brush with death when my aorta burst a few years ago, is in it.

But I want to draw your attention to my late dear friend David Lewis, a wonderfully inventive philosopher. He has a piece called “Divine Evil,” an argument that should be in everyone’s kit. The Christian god is a god of judgment and punishment, eternal punishment for unrepentant sinners and disbelievers, if you read the bible literally. God: The perpetrator of infinite pain. How else can you read it? Lewis develops the argument at length and ends on a wonderful note. Nonbelievers have been able to excuse their religious friends on the grounds that they are probably not clear-headed about the commitments of their worship.

We think of them as good people who have not seen the perpetrator’s dark side. And by bringing the problem of divine evil, we’re presenting them with a choice they’ve previously avoided. In the future it’s going to be harder for me to forgive them. It’s a bit of gentle pressure, just something to share with those who maybe haven’t thought it through.

The point of my book was to show we need to study religion the same way we study global warming, the global economy, water and energy problems, and so forth. Why? Because it’s a very important phenomenon.

All the decisions we make in the 21st century about the great problems in the world will be affected by how we deal with the religious phenomena that we are going to be interacting with and which will be interfering with those solutions. If we get it wrong, that would be terrible. If there’s one thing we learned in the 20th century, it’s that good intentions are not enough. We need to understand these phenomena so the policies we vote for, the policies we implement, the policies we strive for, are not wrongheaded because we didn’t understand the phenomena we were dealing with. So we need to study them scientifically.

And that’s the spell that needs to be broken, the prohibition, the taboo, if you will, of studying religion with the same hardheaded, objective, matter-of-fact neutrality that we study these other phenomena. There are plenty of people who study religion, who are scholars of religion, but they, with few exceptions, approach religion with a hyper-diplomacy, hyper-reverence, hyper-respect, and that is what I want to stop. People often say, “How disrespectful, how rude, your questions are!”

If I were asking these questions of say, the oil industry, the financial industry, would they be disrespectful? No. I’m just as respectful of religious leaders and their institutions as I am of financial leaders and pharmaceutical companies and all the rest. No more, no less. There should not be a free ride for religions. It’s that hyper-respect that is the spell we have to break so we can look firmly and calmly at religion.

I love the quote from a minister who was in one of Dan’s television clips about the “Imagine No Religion” billboards: “If our religion can’t stand a close examination, it isn’t worth it.” What I have found, in going around the last two years, talking about my book, often with deeply religious audiences, is that they appreciate the fact that I’m taking them more seriously, by not giving them hyper-respect, than if I was mealy-mouthing the usual diplomatic niceties. They realize that this is a way of being taken seriously.

A little aside: Richard Sosis is a very good anthropologist and one of the best researchers on religion. He wrote a negative review of Breaking the Spell for Free Inquiry. In it, he says Dennett is making life harder for us anthropologists. Why? Because I was sort of blowing their cover. They were going to have a harder time with their informants than they’ve had in the past, because there is this sort of tradition among anthropologists of not being forthright about their utter lack of belief about the doctrines they were exploring. He concluded this was going to make life harder. My response was that I was very glad to get him to express it out loud in public, because it’s exactly what I thought was happening.

On the contrary, I think you’re going to find that they are more suspicious of you because they don’t trust your diplomatic overtures. If you were more candid with them about the fact that you don’t believe a word of it, they might be more trustful. If they don’t trust you, it’s because you are being too diplomatic. We’ll see who is right about that.

In my book, I’m calling for more research. I sketch out the research that’s been done to date. My goal is to say, here is a sketch of a theory about what religion is, how it arose, how it evolved, what it is today, what are the parts and how do they work? It may be wrong. It probably is, in many regards. Now you’ve got something to fix. Fix my theory, replace it with a better one, that’s fine with me. So I don’t have the answers yet, and don’t think I have the answers yet. I’m in no position to say, “Based on my theory, here’s what we should do.” With one exception.

I have one policy recommendation in the whole book and I take it very seriously. That’s my proposal for a 4th “R.” Compulsory religion–compulsory education about world religions for all of our children in public and private schools and in home schooling. This is not religious education in the sense of teaching doctrine. This is about religion. This is facts about religions, about every religion–about the history, creed, rituals, the music, the symbols, the ethical commands and prohibitions. Not just of religions, but of groups that are not religious.

Now why do I think that this is a good idea? Because, I think it will inoculate our children. My claim is that as long as you teach them this, you can teach them whatever else you want as long as it doesn’t disable them from informing themselves further. In other words, this is not any abridgment at all of the principle of freedom of religion, which has been very clearly articulated. We were reminded what the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment say this morning. There’s no abridgment at all. You can teach your kids whatever you want as long as you also teach them this.

Now, we will get to some of the problems with that in a minute. I am serious about this. In three weeks, I am coming back to Chicago to speak at the American Academy of Religion national meeting. I am going to be speaking in a special session on the first day. Thousands of scholars of religion will be in town for that. The theme is public education: knowledge and visions for nontoxic religion. I’m going to lead off and there is a distinguished group of commentators who are going to speak about that. So oddly enough, both the FFRF and the AAR are inviting me to give a talk. It’s pretty much the same talk. What I want to talk about is why it makes sense for all of us. What we are really concerned about is the toxic forms of religion. If it was all just Episcopalians and Unitarians we could all have other projects in our lives. It just wouldn’t be an issue.

I tease my dear friend, Richard Dawkins. I say Richard, you and I share many views about religion, pretty much we agree, but I don’t think you are taking a suitably evolutionary approach. Think of it this way: Is it likely that we are going to extinguish religion or is it likely that religions will evolve into something else? Take an evolutionary perspective and think about what steps we could take to change the selective environment in the world so that the forms of religion that evolved would be benign, harmless, even valuable. That’s a much more realistic goal. In a way, it’s a much more humane goal. What we have to realize is that the religions of today are hugely different than what they were 20 or 30 years ago.

Religion has changed more in the last 30 years than it has in the last 2000. And it may change as much in the next 20 years as it has in the last hundred. Let’s try to get our hands on this, understand the directions in which it’s going, why it’s going in those directions, and see what we might do to have policies that encourage it to evolve in the directions that we want.

A few facts from the World Christian Encyclopedia, which is the most official encyclopedia on all the religions of the world. The only major world religion that is growing right now is Islam, and that is almost all by differential birth rates and not conversion to Islam. Secularism or nonreligionists are growing even faster. Christianity was in the lead at 33% and Islam at 18%. Nonreligionists are pretty close at 16% and growing even faster than Islam. The Southern Baptists are now baptizing about 300,000 souls a year. That’s the same as in the 1950s when the population in the country was half what it is now. In other words, they are losing market share, fast.

Some of you may have read an interesting article by New York Times religion writer Laurie Goodstein back in 2006 on the 4% prediction. This prediction comes from a book by a man named Tom Rainer. If current trends continue, then only 4% of Christians will be bible-believing as adults. Only 4% of their members. They are actually very worried about the losses. Of course, they are making up for it in some other places. They are proselytizing very easily in Central and South America, and picking up a lot of the people who are moving away from the Catholic Church who are going over to the evangelical churches. The National Association of Evangelical Pastors passed a resolution deploring the epidemic of young people leaving the evangelical church.

Now I think this is a view of what’s going on in religion that is surprisingly muted–not very much talked about. We hear so much about the resurgence of religion and about how strong it is, but I think there’s quite a lot of evidence that it’s not so much strong as desperate. And for a very good reason–a reason that nevertheless has a sort of dark side. For thousands of years, religious leaders have been able to count on a sort of insulation between the hard world of facts and their populace, their flock.

They could more or less control what those people knew. Can’t do that anymore. Not with technology, not with cell phones, transistor radios and the Internet. All of these forms of communication have simply breached all of those natural barriers. If you’ve read Jeremy Diamond’s wonderful book, Guns, Germs and Steel, you know how it’s really the germs that laid waste to the people when the Europeans went out in the 15th and 16th centuries to explore and colonize.

And something similar is happening right now–not with germs, not with microbes, but with ideas. Around the world, people and cultures are being flooded with western ideas, with American ideas, with American technology and all the ideas that come with them. These ideas to us are largely harmless–we have lived with them so long, we can tolerate them. Think of all the junk in the corners of American culture: the softcore porn, the cheesy stuff of all kinds, the crass materialism, lots of really third-rate ideas. We are relatively immune to them. But people in other parts of the world aren’t. They are wreaking havoc. They are overturning ancient cultures in many ways. And it’s not surprising that people are extremely anxious about this, white-knuckled.

We can get some sense of how they feel if we imagine that spacemen come down visiting us and they get out of their spaceship, little green men, and they got a new kind of music, they got new games, and our kids just go wild for the music, games and clothing. They are just abandoning blue jeans and baseballs and all the things we hold dear. They just won’t have anything to do with them. How would we feel? We would feel that maybe some desperate steps were required to preserve our dear culture and all its wonderfulness from these alien presences.

That’s how many people around the world and many people in this country, too, respond to the bounty we see ourselves delivering to them. We need to understand this, so we can cushion the blow, recognize the very real pain and fear that lie behind a great deal of the animosity that is generated about us, and about us, in particular. It’s misguided, we know that. But we should respect it as well-grounded fear.

Right now, today, there are five or six thousand languages spoken on the planet. In 50 years, the number will be down to maybe 30 or 40. Languages, whole languages, are going extinct at a great rate. Cultures are going extinct with them. No wonder people are anxious about preserving–if I say their culture it isn’t doing it justice–what they love. Just as what you love are the wonderful features of your lives in this country, and all the attitudes and themes and the music and celebrations and so forth. These are in fact jeopardized and we should take that seriously.

Today there are three-quarters of a billion atheists in the world. That’s twice as many atheists as Buddhists, 40 times more atheists than Jews, more than 50 times as many atheists as Mormons, just bear that in mind.

Now all the religions have toxic versions, and the toxic versions all depend on the enforced ignorance of the young. That’s why I have my proposal for the fourth “R.” We already have reading, writing and arithmetic. I propose that knowledge about religions should be part of the curriculum as a sort of public health measure. If we can inform the young, we inoculate them against toxic forms of religion. Notice this is a gentle process. We are going to be making the job more difficult for the brainwashers out there or the indoctrinators. They are going to have to temper their message. They are going to have to try new ways to get their message to young people, because young people will be savvier, will simply know more, and will have a perspective from which to look at those ideas.

What we would want to teach them is about Hinduism, and Islam, and Roman Catholicism, and Russian Orthodoxy, and the Greek Orthodox Church and all the different varieties of Protestantism and the Mormons. These are the sort of facts we would introduce in grade school. By the time they get to high school, they are ready for some of the more complex and darker sides of all of these religions. Of course, we would want to teach them about atheism and agnosticism, too.

And we would certainly want to teach them about the John Frum Religion. This is a “cargo cult.” In my experience, simply telling students about the cargo cult and how these people on the island of Tanna now worship a god named John Frum, who is an American god with the American flag, all dating from World War II, when people on this island were all brought over to work on an air strip during the Pacific campaign, and the local people were just stunned by all the technology and amazing things they saw.

When the Americans left, it turned into a religion, and it still goes on to this day. They have bamboo imitation rifles and, at one point, they had a bamboo control tower on an air field they built for John Frum to come and bring them all this good cargo. It’s a fascinating story. It’s wonderful to see in our time, documented with pictures and all the rest, the birth of a religion out of nothing at all. It can’t help but create a little tweak, a little moment of doubt in a young mind. Very much like the moment when Julia Sweeney was confronted with the Mormons, and it suddenly got her thinking: Well, was the tradition she was raised in any more realistic than the Mormons?

Now, what I’m suggesting then, is that we have lots of neighbors who have really preposterous views. They are creationists, and they believe all sorts of stupid, ugly rumors and the like. Don’t blame them; blame their pastors. But it’s not a particularly constructive thing to go out and scold their pastors for telling them the lies that they tell them (though I do recommend holding their feet to the fire and pointing out when they spread manifest untruths to their flock).

The reason I say blame them and not your neighbors is that we all believe things we take on good authority from people we trust. Most of what I know about science I take from scientists that I trust and from books that I trust. I can’t check everything out. Everybody has their list of experts. What we want to do is make it harder for the self-appointed experts to do the job they are trying to do by informing their flocks with the facts as we know them. Hold them responsible, make it difficult for them. This morning, Webster Cook said something I decided I wanted to talk about. He talked about how hard it is for atheists to “come out” in college.

And another person this afternoon used the phrase to “come out,” and I think that’s true. I think that one of the best things we can do for our fellow atheists and agnostics is to find ways we can make it easier for them to come out of the closet and say in public that they are atheists. That’s why I was attracted to the idea several years ago when I learned about this movement, The Brights, which has grown 50% in the very recent past. My piece in The New York Times led to thousands of people signing up as card-carrying Brights. Now I know a lot of people in this room really don’t like the term “bright.”

Let me just try to defend the idea. A lot of people say it’s so “in your face,” it’s rude, it suggests that we are the smart ones and they are stupid. That’s one thing it suggests, but it just suggests it, it doesn’t say it. And I want to suggest that we should look at some antonyms. What’s the opposite of bright? Dim? Think about the word “gay” and what the opposite of gay is, because the term “bright” was chosen in conscious mimicry and in honor of the brilliant political stroke which took the word gay, a perfectly respectable and positive American English word, and turned it, simply kidnapped that word. A lot of homosexuals didn’t like it. A lot of homosexuals still don’t like it, but look at the transformation that that word has helped to bring about in this country in just the last 20 or 30 years. It’s been a rousing success.

If we could have the same success with any term, so atheists and agnostics were similarly in public and out front and it was easy to say that people were atheists or agnostics, we would have to count that a great victory. The suggestion might be that the opposite of gay is glum, but, of course, the opposite of gay is straight. Gay is a nice is word. Straight is a nice word. So I thought, “Well, what could we have if you are not a bright? What are you? A super.” Because they believe in the supernatural and we don’t. So we can be the brights and they can be the supers.

Isn’t that nice? Or, maybe they’d like to be the murkies. In fact, I’m tempted to think that supers and murkies are two different varieties of non-brights. There are the supers who are sort of aggressively into the supernatural and then there are the murkies who are sort of embarrassed by that, so they are deeply into incomprehensibility and the mystery and the fact that it is all too hard to fathom.

Maybe it’s an aesthetic matter or a difference in taste. In any case, I’m not a founder of the Brights, but I’m a fan of the Brights, I’m a member of the Brights, and you might want to consider joining the Brights or trying out using the word. I’ve had a lot of excellent conversations using this. And may I say, after my piece on the Brights came out, not only did the Brights organization pick up lots of members, but I got literally thousands of e-mails from young people around the country basically saying, “Oh you can’t imagine how important this is to me, I didn’t know there were people like me, I live in a town where I couldn’t possibly come out yet.” The idea that this was possible was so liberating to them. So sometimes a single word can make a difference. I just draw it to your attention for something to consider.

Rick Warren was mentioned earlier today: The master religion designer. Some of you may know about an annual conference held out in California called TED: Technology, Entertainment, Design. It’s a very wonderful thing. A few years ago, I was speaking at TED. I had spoken there a couple of times before, and the head of it, Chris Anderson, called me the night before I was set to talk, and said, “Look Dan, Rick Warren is giving one of the 18-minute talks and I was hoping you’d be able to speak right after him and talk about his book.” I hadn’t read it, but everybody had been sent his book, The Purpose Driven Life. I said, in the spirit of TED, that yes, I would do a design review of Warren’s book.

So I read the book on the plane on the way out and did my 18-minute talk, in part, on his book. The goal, Warren tells us is to bring purpose to the lives of millions. And that is a good goal, yes, that is a really great goal. There are, in fact, many young people today who don’t know what the heck they are doing with their lives, and anybody who can excite in them a vision of how to spend their lives, can give them a good goal, can give them a purpose, that’s a good thing to do.

Of course, we then want to look and see what the purpose is. Is the goal achieved? Yes, in his book, he does a wonderful job. Rick Warren’s book has sold over 30 million copies. It dwarfs other bestsellers and it’s in many languages. He’s been exceedingly good at getting the message out, and the means, I say, is a brilliant redesign of traditional religious themes, updating them, and quietly dropping features and putting new interpretations onto other features.

There are excellent insights into human psychology, there’s wise advice on every page, he even invites us to look under the hood. For example, he has an appendix which explains his choices of translations of bible verses and so forth. Quite clearly, Rick Warren worked hard to design that book so it would be maximally accessible and user-friendly and maximally effective, and he did a very good job. Clear, vivid, very accessible, beautifully formatted, and there’s lots of repetition, just enough, in fact.

One problem is that “the truth will set you free,” and there’s some parts of that book I just don’t think are true. Such as, did you know that before the flood, it never rained? (Laughter.) That’s one of the little “facts” you learn in the book. Plants were watered by a sort of god-given underground irrigation system, apparently. There’s lots of biblical literalism, and there’s other things like that that are, quite frankly, falsehoods. I gave my little design talk; it was respectful. It pointed out the strengths of the book, it pointed out some problems, and invited him to respond to these problems. Warren, in fact, walked out in the middle and didn’t stay to respond. I didn’t know that.

But I thought you might be amused to know the response at TED. First of all, Warren himself had gotten a standing ovation for his talk. It was very nice. You can watch this all, by the way, at the TED website, where they have all these videos. I got a standing ovation for my response. It was particularly gratifying, but as I was walking out, a woman came up to me, a woman a little older than I, very well-dressed. People at TED are very well-heeled, paying 6k a seat. She was just shaking. She came up to me and she said, “Now, don’t take this personally, but I think you are a complete asshole.” I replied, “What a fine Christian sentiment, ma’am.”

People are not ready to have their religion subjected to careful, calm, objective analysis and scrutiny. But we should change that, one step at a time. Jeff Sharlet talked about the changing meaning of fundamentalism and it brought to mind, according to the late Steve Gould, that I’m one of those Darwinian fundamentalists. Steve was famous for trying to mush the line between science and religion and say there’s really no conflict. There’s a huge conflict; I think we all know it. Steve had the best of intentions. But, happily, no one really bought that. Neither the scientists nor the religious liked his “non-overlapping majesteria.”

I want to close by telling you about this pin that I’m wearing. I have this little Darwin pin, the fish with legs, which is a nice parody of the Christian fish. I was wearing this pin at a meeting, and the physicist Murray Gell-Mann, who’s quite a polymath, knows lots of languages, came up to me and said, “Dan, I like your pin. ICHTHYS, the Greek word for fish, is the first acronym. The letters stand for ‘Iesus Christos Theou Yios Soter,–Jesus Christ God Son Savior. The reason they used the fish symbol was that their motto spells the word in Greek.’ He went on: ‘What I want to know is what does DARWIN stand for?’ I thought that was a good question.

My Greek is almost nonexistent, but Latin, I took a year or two of that. Latin, of course, doesn’t have a “W” but it does have “U.” So I came up with this, for DARUUIN: Delere Auctorem Rerum Ut Universum Infinitum Noscas– Destroy the Author of things, in order to understand the infinite universe. That is now my motto.

Professor Daniel C. Dennett is Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of Breaking the Spell, Freedom Evolves and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. He taught at U.C. Irvine from 1965 to 1971, when he moved to Tufts. He has also taught at Harvard, Pittsburgh, Oxford and the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Dennett is the author of over 300 scholarly articles on various aspects of the mind, published in journals ranging from Artificial Intelligence and Behavioral and Brain Sciences to Poetics Today and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism. He helped to design exhibits on computers for the Smithsonian Institution, the Museum of Science in Boston, and the Computer Museum in Boston.

Freedom From Religion Foundation