Lecture Hopping: Is God A Parasite?

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Bwog is proud to bring the first installment of “Lecture Hopping,” in which correspondents go to speeches, lectures, and public displays of erudition so you don’t have to.

Monday February 13
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon: Daniel C Dennett in conversation with Robert Thurman
Miller Theatre

With his luxuriant white beard and paternal stature—minus the professorial polka dotted tie—philosopher Daniel C. Dennett vaguely resembles Moses as he gestures to his power point slides in Miller Theater. An ironic association, perhaps, for one who denies the existence of God.

That’s not the main point of his talk, of course—no one would be hired these days with the charge of proving God doesn’t exist. Instead, as the Director of Tufts University’s Center for Cognitive Studies, Dennett focuses on something even more unsettling for religious people: the idea of religion as a biological phenomenon. A virus, actually, infecting the human brain and driving us to sacrifice ourselves for something we can’t even see.

Hallelujah! I nearly shout to the audience. It’s a breath of fresh air to hear someone who views spirituality as a human quirk, not as a way of adding meaning to our lives. Although Dennett admits that religion can help people make decisions, he takes umbrage at the idea that people need religion to be moral, and calls the practice of exploiting the human desire for goodness to find converts “the greatest con job that religions have accomplished.”

Enter Professor Robert Thurman. He’s been lying in wait in his large puffy armchair, taking notes and politely considering Dennett’s presentation. I expected the usual fawning interviewer, lobbing softball questions to keep the conversation flowing. But Thurman, the first American ever to be ordained as a Buddhist monk (and yes, Uma’s dad), is a formidable opponent to Dennett’s worldview. This is a duel, not an explication.

Thurman, who is a professor of religion at Columbia, begins benignly enough, telling Dennett about the Columbia’s proposed Center for the Critical Study of Religion. It’s intended, he says, to foster moderates and liberals within religious traditions. Look how enlightened I am, he means. Not like one of those old-world anti-intellectual zealots. (A façade of reasonableness is key in academia).

The two pace mental circles around each other, taking jabs and then fading out. They argue over the implications of explaining religion through biological processes, and what happens to us after death. When Thurman accuses Dennett of propagating the “dogma of materialism,” his argument reveals itself: belief in science’s explanatory power is in itself a religion. He tries to trap the increasingly exasperated Dennett by asking if he would take a supernatural being seriously if it presented itself to him.

“Of course,” Dennett says, not taking the bait.

The debate ranges into obscure topics such as the relativity of consciousness and the physicality of mind, but the audience stays at attention, drawn in by the clash of secularism and spirituality unfolding before them. At the end of one of Thurman’s especially metaphysical monologues, Dennett pauses for a half second.

“I confess that I simply can’t fathom most of what you just said.” Applause.

Thurman is ultimately trying to argue that God must exist, because without one, there would be no basis for morality. Dennett’s “religion of scientism,” Thurman says, has “made Western culture irresponsible.” You almost feel sorry for the man. He just needs it to be true.

Near the end of the talk, Dennett finds a moment to explain the new terminology for atheists and agnostics. They’re called “brights,” modeled on the appropriation of the label “gay” by the homosexual community. Atheists: American’s last “persecuted minority?”

Thurman protests. “What are we? Glum?”

Theists get a name too—they’re “supers,” as in “supernatural.” “Two happy words,” Dennett says of his new nomenclature.

Thurman doesn’t quite know what to say to that. The two stand up and shake hands. I’m far back in the orchestra, but I can take it on faith that Dennett left with the barest of smiles.

Lydia Depillis

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