Dennett and The New Atheists

There’s a very interesting article on The New Atheism over at Wired magazine, worth a look (particularly, perhaps, for those in my Kierkegaard class).  I particularly liked the following extract from the conversation the author has with withDaniel Dennett, in particular the line about philosophers being the ones who refuse to accept sacred values.

Yes, there could be a rational religion,” Dennett says. “We could have a rational policy not even to think about certain things.” He understands that this would create constant tension between prohibition and curiosity. But the borders of our sacred beliefs could be well guarded simply by acknowledging that it is pragmatic to refuse to change them.

I ask Dennett if there might not be a contradiction in his scheme. On the one hand, he aggressively confronts the faithful, attacking their sacred beliefs. On the other hand, he proposes that our inherited defaults be put outside the limits of dispute. But this would make our defaults into a religion, unimpeachable and implacable gods. And besides, are we not atheists? Sacred prohibitions are anathema to us.

Dennett replies that exceptions can be made. “Philosophers are the ones who refuse to accept the sacred values,” he says. For instance, Socrates.

I find this answer supremely odd. The image of an atheist religion whose sacred objects, called defaults, are taboo for all except philosophers — this is the material of the cruelest parody. But that’s not what Dennett means. In his scenario, the philosophers are not revered authorities but mental risk-takers and scouts. Their adventures invite ridicule, or worse. “Philosophers should expect to be hooted at and reviled,” Dennett says. “Socrates drank the hemlock. He knew what he was doing.”

With this, I begin to understand what kind of atheist I want to be. Dennett’s invocation of Socrates is a reminder that there are certain actors in history who change the world by staging their own defeat. Having been raised under Christianity, we are well schooled in this tactic of belated victory. The world has reversed its judgment on Socrates, as on Jesus and the fanatical John Brown. All critics of fundamental values, even those who have no magical beliefs, will find themselves tempted to retrace this path. Dawkins’ tense rhetoric of moral choice, Harris’ vision of apocalypse, their contempt for liberals, the invocation of slavery — this is not the language of intellectual debate but of prophecy.”

Read the whole thing here.

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philosopher and filmmaker from brighton, currently teaching philosophy at the Free University of Brighton

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