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    A Novel Response to Rick Warren

    One of the interesting developments of the past several years has been what seems to be a more prominent place in American dialogues for the voices of non-believers.  Best-selling books on the subject of atheism have emerged from Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchins.  A humorous examination of religious belief was offered up in cinematic format by Bill Maher.  All of this has more or less been part of rather uncharacteristically mainstream attention, much to the chagrin of self-labeled culture warriors.

    Of course, despite the odd setback, like getting caught having solicitous, extra-marital, homosexual relations with your meth dealer, the evangelical movement is alive and well in America.  Exhibit A: Pastor Rick Warren.  In the video below, philosopher Daniel Dennett offers some interesting responses to some of Warren's claims, including the claim that morality and a belief in evolution aren't reconcilable.

    But, as he does in his book Breaking the Spell, he also posits some interesting premises of his own.  Namely, that religion is a natural phenomenon and that there's something to be learned, something valuable, in understanding how and why it occurs in human culture.  Furthermore, he asks us to entertain the idea of teaching all the facts of all religions in public schools.

    Personally, I'm a big fan of this idea.  It's one that I've brought up for years in discussions about religion in the realm of public education.  After all, it's not discussion of religion that I take issue with.  In fact, the discussion isn't really about keeping religion out of schools anyway.  It's about whether or not we maintain the American tradition, given to us by the genius pairing of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses, of not allowing a particular religion to become dominant in state affairs.  Teaching religious philosophy and theology generally does not strike me as violating these principles.

    However, as Dennett points out, religious leaders have not, so far at least, been very keen on this idea.  To me, this is an indication that the discussion is not really about stamping out all discussion of religion, but rather about controlling that discussion and, most specifically, about whose faith becomes dominant in that discussion.  Though proponents of teaching Intelligent Design, for example, frequently make a plea to "teach the controversy", it would seem that the global controversy of many competing religious ideologies is something they would rather not examine.


    Also, in case you're interested, here is Rick Warren's TED talk to which Dennett is directing his comments:



    Gotta say: I listened to Dennett's entire speech waiting for his response to Warren's claim that being moral and believing in evolution were irreconcilable, and all I heard was he disagreed with the statement ... I didn't hear any whys, no alternative thesis. BTW, my guess is that Warren isn't claiming that you can't be good without God but that there is nothing to convince you to do so, that without God, the center cannot hold ... I consider myself an agnostic and very sympathetic to Dennett's philosphies but I found the speech kind of rambling and mostly incoherent.

    You really thought it was incoherent?  I don't agree at all.  Dennett shows a collection of statements from Warren's book that, in Dennett's interpretation, amount to an argument from Warren that the foundation of morality comes from belief in God and his design, which to Dennett is a refutation of what biological science has to say.  Dennett doesn't just simply say that he doesn't agree with Warren, he is taking issue which each of the statements that comprise the argument.  It's not incumbent upon Dennett to offer an alternative to this, whatever that would look like, in order to be on solid rational ground in refuting Warren's claims, which are either based on valid premises or not.

    I watched them both. I think it's sort of cheap for Dennett to spend half of his talk dissing somebody else's ideas. But he makes good points, of course. I agree that religion should be taught in schools. He's right that an informed citizenry is the cornerstone of successful democracy. But I don't see any hope in that initiative getting off the ground. If the left and the right are somewhat united in their opposition to Warren at the inauguration, they would be BFFs over this issue.

    As for Warren, I found him 100% compelling. But that always happens to me when I'm listening to a pastor do his or her pastor thing. They're leaders because they're charismatic and because they have that ability to draw people in. Every single time I'm listening to a religious leader who is speaking to a broad audience, as opposed to only believers, I find myself drawn in immediately. Then, somewhere along the line, they say something that sends a signal to my brain that reminds me to be wary. I think Warren protests a little too much that never wanted money and he never wanted fame. He mentioned that he had the best selling book in the world about a hundred times. 

    Still, divorcing God from what he said (which I know is counter to his entire argument), he makes some excellent points about stewardship of the planet and being responsible for those who are not able to be responsible for themselves. 

    I can see where Warren and Obama would like each other. They both have that charismatic quality, they are both able to communicate their ideas in a way that makes people sit up and take notice, and they both obviously spend a lot of time wrestling with big ideas. I can see a lot of people who follow Warren being open to Obama. 

    I'm glad you did.  I was hoping people would.  I definitely enjoyed watching both pieces.  FWIW, TED has plenty of other interesting talks in this format.

    Dennett also heaped plenty of praise on Warren's book.  He didn't simply spend half the talk dissing it, but rather addressing some specific underpinnings of Warren's arguments.

    I don't think that Dennett's suggestion will be realized anytime soon, but I think part of the reason that he makes it is that he knows that many of the people who are pushing so fervently at the moment for their own religions to be taught in public schools will reject it, which will help to highlight their true motives.  However, aside from this I think that he is correct and that it would enrich the lives of students and perhaps contribute to a more enlightened society.  (Then again, I was brought up by a teacher and am practically a communist when it comes to public education.)

    No question about it, Warren is compelling.  It's very easy to see why he's become so popular.  He says things that immediately ring true.  His discussion around purpose is a perfect example of this.  What human being doesn't crave meaning?  So it's easy to see how people are drawn in when they hear someone offering them what they feel compelled to search for.  And, as Dennett noted, some of what he's saying is downright honorable.  I would say that his closing message, where he implores the audience to think about how they can use what they are endowed with to benefit others, is in this category.  Were this the extent of his message, I would have no problem with it, but I also wonder whether he would still be so popular.

    I don't know if you caught it, but I made a separate post in the other thread addressing what I see as similarities between Warren and Obama.  As you've also noted, they have share many qualities.  Recognizing this certainly makes it easy to understand what they have in common outside of some other differences of opinion.  I wish those differences were smaller and less consequential.

    I might be getting two books confused, but I think it was in Arthur C Clarke's novel Childhood's End, that the Overlords, aliens who had taken charge of the nuclear-obsessed Earth's development, showed us the facts behind each religion. IIRC, they had been observing us all along and simply ran their recordings of Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, etc. While many of the origins were noble, none were actually divine, and belief in religion declined.

    Oddly enough, this was on the reading list for my Catholic high school senior English class.

    I'm not surprised to see Childhood's End in a Catholic school syllabus. While obviously inconsistent with Catholic doctrine, it evokes Christian themes of apocalypse, afterlife, and angels. Another great read sci-fi-and-religion read, which I mentioned on O's book thread a few weeks ago, is Maria Doria Russell's The Sparrow about a Jesuit mission to aliens on another planet. Russell is a Catholic turned Jew, which gives her an interesting perspective. But more importantly, she's a great writer who effectively blended a compelling and imaginative story with provocative sociological themes.

    DF, atheist-to-atheist, I don't share your enthusiasm for Dennett. He's dry, dull, pedantic, and condescending. And while I agree with many of his ideas, I don't find them to be very original. There is hardly an anthropologist or sociologist out there who doesn't believe that religion is an important natural and social phenonmeonon worthy of study. BTW, my high school had a world religions course, but I didn't take it because it was the "gut" alternative to European history.

    In any case, I don't think that Dennett-Dawkins point-by-point debunking is an effective way for atheists to persuade the public of anything. Such atheists can never compete with the Rick Warren's of the world. I would rather see religion held up to ridicule, and I'm looking forward to Maher's documentary, which I missed in the the theaters. Is it out on video yet?

    PS Full disclosure: I've started working a religious satire book myself.

    I actually prefer his philosophical writings, which have found their way into textbooks at this point.

    It's interesting to hear that reaction.  I hear people say similar things about Dawkins and, while I understand this impression to a degree, I don't really share it.  There isn't anything particular original at all about questioning religious beliefs.  In my experience, a person is either open to that logically and rationally or not.  If they are, it doesn't take a great many questions or convincing.  Also, Dennett isn't addressing the anthropologists and sociologist of the world, who by the way have relatively little voice in the mainstream.  Dennett has recently found himself with a much wider audience and is addressing them for the first time.

    I agree that there's a charisma-gap between the pastor and the philosopher.  To me, this is a puzzler.  I don't know how to bridge it.  Then again, I don't really react to the Rick Warren's of the world like most people do.  I feel like I'm watching a sloppy magician.  I can see what he's doing before he does it.  I always find myself far more impressed with clear ideas.  Then again, I enjoy listening to Feynman's lectures and find him to be charismatic.  I doubt most people would agree.

    It's interesting that you posit ridicule as an alternative to a structured argument.  I've observed some very strong reactions to people having their beliefs ridiculed.  Do you really see this a tool for convincing people that offers the chance to compete with the charismatic approach of the pastor?

    I highly recommend Religulous, mostly because it's funny.  I saw it opening night and considered writing a review of it, partly because I'd feel much more comfortable reviewing a documentary than a more traditional film, but this was right around the time that I was making the transition to writing here.  I can't recall why I decided not to.  At any rate, I'd be very curious to hear your impression of it and would gladly share mine, but I wouldn't want to spoil it for you.

    Very exciting about the book.  You've got at least one copy sold right here.  On that note, have you ever read the Book of the SubGenius?

    EDIT: RE: Religious satire, a friend just sent me this:

    Book of SubGenius - I haven't read it, but it is now next on my list.

    Satire vs. refutation - I believe that it is virtually impossible to convince anyone to abandon his or her faith. Dogmatic faith, of the sort that rejects evolution, is rarely open to rational argument. I would hazard a guess that Dennett and Dawkins sell most of their books to atheists and agnostics. I don't think that the primary purpose of satire is to convince anyone either. Rather, the role of satire is to raise curtains and kill sacred cows, to make dogmatic religion appear ridiculous so as to encourage some to question it. Analogy: Tina Fey was far more effective than Joe Biden in undermining Sarah Palin. Neither one likely had any effect on the Palin's hard core supporters, but as Palin morphed into a clown, her candidacy became less palatable to the mainstream.

    Dennett - I like his philophy OK, though it's been a while since I've read him. I see him as a Chomsky-figure whose late-life popular work is less original and rigorous than the academic work on which he built is reputation.

    Video - Kinda funny. Gives me an idea for a new powerpoint presentation.

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