Daniel Dennett and Robert Thurman Talk About Religion, Reincarnation, and Consciousness

I just finished reading a dialogue between Daniel Dennett and Robert Thurman. They’ve discussed Daniel Dennett’s latest book, Breaking the Spell. I’m glad to see them agree when it comes to the topic of religion. Here’s a relevant quote.

Dennett: "…The title of my book concerns two spells: one of them is the veil of polite ignorance of religion."

Thurman: "The taboo to talk about it, right."

"That’s the spell I want to break. And I do break it. I *want* to break
it. But as for the question of whether I want to break the spell of
religion altogether, I am completely agnostic on that. I have not
decided how I feel about that. I don’t know enough. I do not know what
we would replace religion with."

Thurman: "Well, we have
evidence that in the Soviet Union and in China, when they tried to
replace religion they deified the leaders of the society, and they
became really destructive."

Dennett: "That was not, it seems, a good policy."

Thurman: "That was a really bad idea."

Dennett: "Any more than prohibition, we learned. The war on drugs is another bad idea."

"What about religion itself? You seem to use ‘religion’ as if it was
coterminous ???? with belief in a creator God. I appreciated you
leaving Buddhism out of the picture entirely, which some people think
of as a religion, although but I don’t. As I told you, I think of it as
one third religion. Certainly Buddhism does not believe in a creator
God, neither does Confucianism or Daoism. Some other traditions too
believe in multiplicities of gods and things like that. But that’s an
old-fashioned definition of religion. Religion defined as the belief in
God was Tyler’s definition."

Dennett: "My definition is a social system that postulates supernatural agents whose approval is to be sought."

Thurman: "They don’t have to be a creator?"

Dennett: "No."

"John Dewey, for example, wished to take the good elements of religion
away from religion and make them possible as an education for people.
He had a plan like that because he came from a fundamentalist
background. He saw that religion was having good effects on some people
in some cases. He was not, obviously, living under the current
Republican administration. But the thought about the dangers of the
institution, and how to take that out of that. But you are not really
proposing that, are you?"

Dennett: "No. In fact, I don’t know
whether some version of that would be a good idea or not. I don’t think
that Dewey had studied religion enough to know, and I haven’t studied
it enough to know. What I do think is important that we do right now,
is educate each other a lot more. I’ve been fascinated by the reaction
to one of my, it seems to me, quite uncontroversial suggestions, namely
that we should have a curriculum on world religions in the public
schools and for home schooling, with *facts* on world religions, and
that parents can teach their kids whatever they want as long as they
also teach this this. This has been called totalitarian by one

Thurman: "Really? That there’s a curriculum on world
religions so that students in schools learn about each other’s
religion? Just the factual things about them? Totalitarian?"

Dennett: "Totalitarian, yes."

"Well, you can be happy that you don’t have to worry about such a
reviewer. About ten years ago, here at Columbia, when this business was
going on in Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, I came up with this. I
was quite exercised, because I happened to know someone from the
politics of that area. It was about the possibility of creating a
Religion Studies program in Sarajevo University. They didn’t have such
a thing. In communist countries the study of the world religions would
be done by scholars in the Atheism Department. So, they would study the
different kins of opiates of the people. They learned the textures?????
and scriptures and so forth, but there was no concept of a Department
of Religious Studies. That’s really an American thing. There are very
few European universities that have that. In Eastern Europe, once the
communist lid was taken off, these religions have rearisen in the very
fundamentalist form, unaffected by the last eighty years of communist
rule. That’s why the Protocols of Zion are recirculated in Poland and
Russia. These backward things would have no chance if religion was more
in dialogue with modernity. It has not been, because it has been
underground. I was shocked that some people who are trying to
ameliorate the conflicts and violence in those cultures still think
that religion is whithering away, so they don’t think that there should
be Religion Departments. And then those scholars don’t know what to do:
they go to Literature Departments; they have no place to mobilizethe
people in the streets of Sarajevo – in one block of Sarajevo you will
have a synagogue, a mosque, a catholic church and an orthodox church,
or maybe even several of them in one block – who have lived there for
decades without killing each other. When the Jews were thrown out of
Spain in 1429, they went to Sarajevo under the Aramens?????, and they
were much more tolerantly looked after. And yet, they never learned
about each others faiths. Therefore demagogues could exploit them to
demonize each other and we saw what happened in Yugoslavia."

Dennett: "Indeed."

But then the real fun begins when Dennett and Thurman started talking about consciousness and reincarnation. You have to read the whole thing to be entertained by it. Here’s a quote:

"There’s a Buddhist terminological ???? principle that I like to take a
moment to explain to you, and that is that all teachings or theories
about relative reality are only relative." … "Therefore, they’re only
valid or invalid in a certain context. All teachings about ultimate
reality are actually completely useless *except* the absolute negation
that there is no capturable ultimate reality, like a refutation of the
idea of an absolute God that creates the world, or any absolute,
actually, that’s relevant to the world. In a way, it’s a very simple
thing: an absolute can’t be relative, so therefore it’s irrelevant to
the relative. Only that theory has definitive status in Buddhist
philosophy. This basically opens all theorizing about relativity to
being relational and useful in this context or that. The theory of
involuntary rebirth – which it is better called than reincarnation, at
least for ordinary people – is considered very important in a general
ethical level, not in a deep metaphysical level."

Dennett: "They got to be."… "Now, I confess I simply can’t fathom most of what you just said."

Thurman: "That’s good!"

"I expect that there’s a great deal in what you say, but it’s the last
bit I want to ask you about. Why should a *moral* point of view hinge
at all on this idea of rebirth? Why not the life that we lead right
now? Aren’t we lucky to be alive? I certainly feel very fortunate to be

Here’s my take on their discussion. I don’t dig Dennett using the label "brights" (I’m on Sam Harris side
on this one), but I do agree with Dennett that I don’t need a concept
of reincarnation to be moral.

As for consciousness, I resonate more
with Thurman’s Buddhist view but I don’t think he did a good job of
refuting Dennett in this dialogue. Dennett is a reductionist when it
comes to explaining consciousness. Not even Thurman can persuade him, especially
since Dennett doesn’t do yoga like Thurman does. So there’d be no
meeting of the minds here. And it’s better to just leave it at that. Anyway, I’m
not worried about Dennett since I don’t think he’d be crashing planes
on buildings or even run for office. In the meantime, I care more about
Dennett’s thesis on religion because it is more politically relevant
and philosophically sound.

Thanks to Jim (aka holotrope) for the heads up!

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