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A determined Darwinist

Daniel Dennett saw religion as the great enemy


Daniel Dennett speaks in Göttingen, Germany, on Oct. 19, 2008. Photo by Mathias Schindler/Wikimedia Commons

A determined Darwinist
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Last month, a famous scientist and philosopher died. His name was Daniel Dennett. He was convinced that there was no mind behind the universe, but rather that mind had arisen from the combination of matter and natural selection. Now, his conscience has either been scattered across oblivion or he is in a position to know the truth.

Francis Beckwith, the noted Christian philosopher, reflected on his legacy, saying, “Dennett was a respected member of the profession, having a wide influence outside of the academy, largely as a result of his relationship with atheist popularizers, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris, though they were not his equal philosophically (as they would readily admit).”  

Part of what made Dennett famous was his determination to follow his Darwinistic conclusions about mind and matter all the way to what he thought were their fullest extent. The fullest extent was extreme, indeed. Dennett saw natural selection as the key that put matter on the throne and which utterly destroyed any idea of a mind behind creation. The result was a kind of universal acid (as Dennett described it) that ate away at the human fabric of traditions and principles that once framed the thinking of men and women. In its place would be a complete freedom from religion, which he tended to view as a dangerous and retrograde influence upon humanity.

Dennett harshly criticized fellow Darwinists whom he believed failed to embrace the full implications of naturalism and materialism. While he acted as a kind of inspiration to new atheists such as Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens, he attacked figures such as Stephen Jay Gould (the paleontologist) and Noam Chomsky (the linguist) who were more reserved. In a sense, it is strange that a philosopher would attack an ultra-famous paleontologist on Darwinian grounds, but it shows how fiercely Dennett devoted himself to finding a way to rule out the presence of God.

The enmity and disdain Dennett felt for Christians became evident both in his writings and his public appearances. In a high profile debate with the famed Notre Dame philosopher Alvin Plantinga at a meeting of the American Philosophical Association, Dennett scarcely bothered to give arguments and instead used his time to insult thinkers such as Plantinga as credulous merchants of fairy tales. Plantinga, on the other hand, maintained his calm demeanor and stated a case based on his work in Christian philosophy.

Dennett said that he and others would “at the very least” take the earliest opportunity to demonstrate the falsehood of religious beliefs to children.

Dennett famously argued that religious belief of the Christian type should exist in the future only in “cultural zoos.” In addressing religious believers, whom he characterized both as teaching children falsehoods such as that “the earth is flat” and that human beings are not the product of evolution (a nice conflation of two radically different claims), Dennett said that he and others would “at the very least” take the earliest opportunity to demonstrate the falsehood of religious beliefs to children. Phillip Johnson, the holder of an endowed chair at Berkeley law, noted that Dennett’s “at the very least” could easily be taken to imply that young children should be forcibly removed from the homes of those who hold such beliefs.

When asked about his denigration of religion, he told the New York Times in 2013, “There is simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.” It should be obvious that while convinced Darwinists often fear potential oppression from people such as evangelicals, there is good reason for evangelicals to fear such a threat is more likely from those who hold them in such low regard.

One of the really interesting things that comes through in the Times obituary of Dennett is its emphasis on his belief that free will is nothing more than a fantasy. The article describes Dennett as arguing that random chance is far more important in the way human beings make decisions than such things as character, values, and reasoning. Knowing how much of his life Dennett gave to trying to convince people of the correctness of his point of view, I asked Beckwith to help me reconcile Dennett’s advocacy with his lack of belief in free will. His response is worth quoting in full:

I really can’t reconcile it. At the end of the day, it is just an entailment from his view of nature. It may seem to violate common sense. But, according to Dennett, so much the worse for common sense. On Dennett’s view, what seems to be the case—that we are free and that our knowledge can’t be reduced to the physical world—must yield to the scientistic view of reality no matter how counterintuitive that seems. The great irony is that he was one of the premier advocates for open-mindedness, even though he didn’t believe there was any such thing as a mind that was truly open.


Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D., is the provost and dean of faculty at North Greenville University in South Carolina. He is the author of The End of Secularism, Political Thought: A Student's Guide, and The System Has a Soul. His work has appeared in a wide variety of other books and journals. He is formally affiliated with Touchstone, the Journal of Markets and Morality, the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy, and the Land Center at Southwestern Seminary.


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