Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Dawkins, Dennett, & James on religion

Is religion one of our species' most valuable "springs of delight," even when it veers (as so often it does) into absurdity and unreasoning dogma? (I don't share Richard Dawkins' view that it pretty much lives there permanently, though he scores plenty of points in that direction in The God Delusion).

William James thought religion to be one of our most important cultural achievements, even while admitting the absurdity of its many and contradictory doctrinal intransigences. In Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) he defined religion as "the feelings, acts, and experiences of individual men in their solitude, so far as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they may consider the divine." Elsewhere James wrote that religion is not about God, it's about life and our quest for a richer, more meaningful experience thereof.

By sharp contrast with James's neutrality about supernaturalism in religious persons' designation of their own sense of "the divine," Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell proposes to define religions as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought... a religion without God or gods is like a vertebrate without a backbone."

I confess some ambivalence about all this. I like the open-endedness of James's receptivity to all kinds of religions, which for him really was just a way of saying "hands off" other people's personal enthusiasms. But I also find myself cheering many of Dawkins' and Dennett's acid repudiations of casual supernaturalism and mysticism, their "Bright"-ness (see www.the_Brights.net).

I plan to discuss some of this tonight, when I teach the second and last installment of an adult evening (fundraiser) course at my kids' school. It'll probably come up in class this afternoon, too, at ESU (my particular Enormous State University) -- today's topic is "the problem of evil." That always provokes students' religious reflexes, and often instigates discord, not a bad thing in a philosophy classroom if it can be constructively harnessed. I look forward to good conversations today.

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