D’Souza vs. Dennett: The Aftermath

I just finished watching the 15-part video of the D’Souza vs. Dennett debate
held at Tufts University. All in all it was a good and entertaining
debate. Nothing new with the arguments. But I still recommend watching
it from beginning to end. Now here’s my take…

Before watching the debate my bias was with Dennett.
I was rooting for him. I thought that Dennett would easily topple
D’Souza’s Christian worldview with rational and philosophical
arguments. But surprisingly, not only was D’Souza a better debater
(more articulate and passionate) than Dennett, he also scored points
when he brought up the subjective and consciousness
arguments. D’Souza also pointed out the limits of (hard) science and
its subtle metaphysical assertions when it comes to questions such as
morals, meaning, and human nature (see Part 6 of the debate).
Between Dennett and D’Souza, in terms of passion, effectiveness,
delivery, eloquence and persuasiveness, D’Souza had the upper hand.

However, this doesn’t mean that D’Souza “won” the debate. In terms of
delivery of his message, then yes, D’Souza was the better debater. But
upon closer look at some of his arguments, there’s nothing new that had
not been rationally counter-argued before. His arguments about God (or
the concept of God) range from Argument from Design to Cosmological Argument. Dennett addressed these arguments in his book Breaking the Spell, but unfortunately, he was not articulate enough in this debate to counter D’Souza. Or maybe because D’Souza just talked louder as if he was giving a sermon on the mount?

Take this argument for example. D’Souza said (see Part 5 of the debate):

premises of modern science themselves are based upon Christian
metaphysics: the idea that the universe is rational, it obeys laws,
these laws are accessible to our human minds. There is no Darwinian
reason it must be so. Yes, we evolved, and I agree with Dan [Dennett]
about this. But we evolved to survive, if you will, in hunter gatherer
primitive environments. We did not evolve to figure out the rotation of
the planets. We did not necessarily evolve to figure out the theory of
relativity. So evolution can tell us why we survive and why we adapt.
But evolution can’t tell us why we believe certain things to be true.”

Dennett didn’t rebutt D’Souza on this argument. Too bad though because
Dennett could’ve countered D’Souza with something like this:

Ok, let’s say you are correct about the premise of modern science being
based on Christian metaphysics. So what? All it says is that science
has roots in a Christian culture. Algebra took root in Islam.
As one of the main branches of mathematics Algebra had enriched our
culture and has taken science to where it is right now. But as Sam Harris had eloquently put it,

human beings make an honest effort to get at the truth, they reliably
transcend the accidents of their birth and upbringing. It would, of
course, be absurd to speak of “Christian physics” or “Muslim algebra.”
And there is no such thing as Iraqi or Japanese – as distinct from
American – science. Reasonable people really do have a monopoly on the
truth. And while they might not agree about everything in the near
term, common ground surrounds them on all sides. Consequently, there is
no significant impediments within scientific discourse: It isn’t always
pretty, but the conversation continues without appeals to force or
deference to dogma. There are scientific dogmas, of course, but
wherever they are found, they are set upon with hammer blows. In
science, it is a cardinal sin to pretend to know something that you do
not know. Such pretense is the very essence of religious faith.”

As to the Darwinian imperative, D’Souza had a good point. That is if
Darwinian evolution in its biological sense is used to explain the
evolution of “reason”, or consciousness if you will. But this is not always the case. That’s why memetic methodology has been proposed. Also, the idea of memes (or core value systems) was adapted by Spiral Dynamics
because it is a good model for (individual and cultural) human
development. So the theory of evolution (with the use of memes) can
also explain how humanity evolved to figure out the “rotation of the
planets,” and why people “believe certain things to be true.”

IMHO, there is no runaway winner in this debate because none of them directly addressed the main point of the debate: God is a manmade (human) invention. This is not surprising, because they have to argue the existence or non-existence
of God to address this point. And that is a metaphysical proposition
which is impossible to prove or disprove. So they both ended up taking
turns pooh-flinging at religion and atheism, while accusing each of
other of “caricaturing” each other’s position.

I think these
God debates should be taken down a (metaphysical) notch and address
something more concrete. For example, here are some concrete debate
themes: Should different religions and their pros and cons be taught in
schools? Should parents exclusively pass on their religion to
their children? Should immigrants in secular countries be accepted if
they refused to put the secular values of their host countries above
their religious beliefs?

Dennett started the debate with a slideshow illustrating religion as a natural phenomenon (see Part 1
of the debate). This opening salvo was the highlight of Dennett’s
arguments. Dennett argued that religion evolved overtime just like music and language.
So in effect Dennett implied that since religion evolved then God (or
the concept of God) is also manmade. I was waiting for Dennett to ask
D’Souza these questions: If religion evolves, and the concept of God
evolves along with religion, does God evolve? What does this say about
religions that have evolved but don’t have a concept of God or a
Creator (e.g. Buddhism)? Are non-theistic religion wrong because they don’t have a concept of God?

In any case, I think the valuable meat of this debate is Dennett’s very
compelling argument that religions (at least the major world religions)
and their pros and cons should be (compulsory) taught in schools (see Part 2 and Part 3 of the debate).

D’Souza agreed with Dennett (see Part 4) as long as Atheism is also included in the curriculum. Sounds fair enough to me.


Allow me to answer this from personal experience. I was raised in the
only Christian country in Asia. By virtue of birth, my religion is
Roman Catholic. We had religion classes in elementary and high school
but the curriculum is all Christian (Roman Catholic to be exact). No
religious comparison. No religious evaluation. We’re required to
memorize the Creed. We’re required to make confessions and participate
in Holy Communion. No reasoning was offered. It’s basic dogmatic
indoctrination. I reached college without being exposed to other
religious beliefs (aside from Protestants which are essentially also
Christians). The only time I got exposed to other religions was when I
went out of my way and self-educated myself by reading a small booklet
about world religions.
That booklet was enough to stretch my understanding beyond the
psychological fence of my own religion. I can’t remember the exact
title of that book and the name of the authors but I’m still grateful
for it after all these years. It has been my stepping stone that guided
my psychological development, enabling me to hold different
perspectives at the same time and form value judgments based on a
combination of those perspectives.

If a simple booklet on world religions was enough to help me in my
psychological development, I think that teaching children about
different religions (and their pros and cons; including Atheism) from a
very young age will speed up their psychological development and
minimize religious fundamentalism in the future, not to mention that
children will be more alert with the pitfalls of some New Age hubris
and cultish thinking. This would pave way for more secularization as
well as “healthy” versions of religions. This is the truest sense of religious freedom.

In this sense, by making D’Souza agree to teaching different religions
to children, Daniel Dennett had advanced his agenda a little further.
So I think Dennett has some small victory to celebrate for, even if he
was out-debated by D’Souza.

(Note: Since
D’Souza is single-handedly taking on “the New Atheists,” it would only
be a matter of time before he debate Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris.
I’m looking forward to a D’Souza and Harris debate because among “the
New Atheists” Sam Harris is the only one who had argued for
psychological development and the contemplative science, i.e.
meditation. I’m interested to see how D’Souza’s Christian worldview
would compare with Sam Harris’s Buddhist worldview.)

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