The philosophers Daniel Dennett and Richard Swinburne debate the correct approach to the study of religionby Daniel Dennett / March 22, 2006 / Leave a comment
Dear Richard 5th January 2006
It’s high time science took a good hard look at religion. Why? Because it has become evident in recent years that if we are to make progress on the world’smajor problems, we will have to learn more about religions and the influence they wield over people’s lives and actions. Failure to appreciate the dynamics of religious allegiance, and the psychological impact of religious differences, may lead us to invest heavily in counterproductive policies. The phoenix-like rebound of religion in the former Soviet Union suggests to many that just as prohibition and the war on drugs have proved to be disastrous, if well-meant, attempts to deal with the excesses of these popular indulgences, so any ill-informed effort to rein in the fanatical strains of religion will probably backfire badly if we don’t study the surrounding phenomena carefully and objectively.
From a biological perspective, religion is a remarkably costly human activity that has evolved over the millennia. What “pays for” this profligate expense? Why does it exist and how does it foster such powerful allegiances? To many people, even asking such a question will seem a sacrilege. But to undertake a serious scientific study of religious practices and attitudes, we must set aside the traditional exemption from scrutiny that religions have enjoyed.
Some people are sure that the world would be a better place without religion. I am not persuaded, because I cannot yet characterise anything that could replace it in the hearts of most human beings. (Perhaps we should try to eliminate music while we’re at it. It inflames the passions and seduces many young people into wasted lives.) What people care about deeply deserves to be taken seriously. Exempting religion from scrutiny is actually a patronising way of declaring it to be all just fashion and ceremony.
Either we take religion as seriously as we take global warming and el Niño, and study it intensively, or we treat it as mere superstition and backwardness. As with the other marvels of nature, I find that paying scrupulous attention to its elegant designs increases my appreciation of it, but others may think that too much knowledge of the backstage machinery threatens to diminish their awe, to break a spell that should not be broken. This is not just a difference in taste, or a purely academic disagreement. Our futures…