Daniel Dennett: a very religious atheist

Last Thursday night I went with a couple of friends to listen to Daniel Dennett – one of the ‘4 Horsemen’ of the New Atheism – deliver a lecture on a post-religious world. [The other three riders being Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens].

The big hotel ballroom was packed – maybe 400-500 there. Dennett outlined his ‘end of religion’ thesis and his vision of a (better) world free of its restrictions, guilt, irrationality, hypocrisy, and xenophobic hatreds. You get the drift.

He is an engaging speaker, and very good at Q&A which went on for most of an hour after the lecture.

This better world will take the ‘good’ bits of religion (for he graciously did concede some religion is OK in some respects) – stuff like





moral teamwork


love of neighbour


glory and awe


Yes praise. He even played a couple of secular gospel hymns, complete with lyrics like “Bowing to reason we stand together” and “We’ve turned the page, don’t be afraid of the world we’re creating, come on in …” [He said he played these in the States and the crowd was up singing and partying – not a person even twitched in Dublin. An atheist questioner afterwards pleaded with him to drop the ‘brutal’ music and try comedy as a route to joy].

Many criticisms have been made of the New Atheists the most brilliant and devastating by David Bentley Hart in his book Atheist Delusions: the Christian Revolution and its Fashionable Enemies.

One is the sheer intellectual vapidity and meaninglessness of talking of an abstract generalised thing called ‘Religion’ as if there is such a thing. Dennett did this all night. You may as well imagine the world without politics or without culture. It is a nonsense that should earn a Leaving Cert student an F in a Religion exam and becomes an embarrassing conceit by smart people like Dennett who should know better. He also kept saying that Christianity was dualistic in its idea of the immortal soul. Again if you are criticising something you should at least be able accurately to describe its beliefs – especially if you are publishing and speaking on the subject and placing great importance on being taken seriously.

Another is the pure assertion and naive hope that ‘somehow’  [and Dennett did use this word] profoundly moral values, like the ones above, embedded in long Christian tradition and theology, can and will continue to have depth, sustainability and coherence when stripped from their theological context. Dennett offered absolutely no reason why these particular values should be sought in a brave new atheist world. Nor why they would emerge instead of, for example, Nietzsche’s Superman and his ‘will to power’.

When asked about his benign hopes for the future, he said he was an optimist. Fair enough, but it’s hardly the basis for a new secular world order, especially given atheism’s brutal and genocidal 20th Century legacy.

But here’s the thing that was surreal and deeply incongruous about the whole night:

Daniel Dennett, while proclaiming with utter certainty the end of all religion,  is a very religious atheist indeed.

As the evening wore on, it felt more and more like  listening to a rather optimistic, naive, kind-hearted yet legalistic preacher in church.

Moral Behaviour: the entire thrust of his talk was an  exhortation to good and decent and moral behaviour. These are the sorts of values that should shape our behaviour and our world, let’s commit to and work for them.

Mission: he talked of the need to build a missionary movement. Let’s take the secular good news out to the world and make it a better place. His closing words were ‘Let’s do it’. The good news bit was negative – the end of all religion.

Worship: he wanted to inspire us with hymns and get us emotionally inspired, excited, joyful and happy.

Community: Dennett offered the vision of democratic networks emerging of people working towards a common vision of improving the world.  He even suggested that this new atheist movement might consider buying defunct churches in which to meet (he didn’t say what they would do there. Sing atheist songs?).

Eschatological Hope: his whole lecture was built around a narrative of hope – a future vision of a better world (without religion) to inspire us to work passionately in the here and now to bring it about.

Doctrine of Man: Dennett has great faith in humankind. He asserted (while also describing himself as an ‘objective engineer’ of the human consciousness) that ‘People just want to be good.’  Wow.

This is simply a particular religious discourse wrapped up in secular garb. It is all about purpose, identity, meaning beyond ourselves, morality and ethics.

Now of course Dennett would reject this. He does not believe in anything ‘supernatural’. But this is where his ill defined idea of ‘religion’ kicks in.  Christianity, to take one religion, isn’t just an abstract belief in God.  It is belief and action; faith and praxis; relationship with God worked out in kingdom of God living. It also is deeply concerned with “purpose, identity, meaning beyond ourselves, morality and ethics.”

At one point the impression of a genial avuncular uncle switched into bristling impatience with religious people who try to play the ‘faith card’ in public dialogue. To claps from the audience, Dennett exclaimed authoritatively that they have ‘no right’ to do so.

However, the problem with this is that he (and other New Atheists) seems locked into a hubristic modernist mindset, totally oblivious of the reality that he is not mysteriously elevated above the fray in some neutral faith-free zone, uniquely able, because of a supposedly ‘objective’ and impartial and scientific approach, to judge and determine what is ‘truth’. Reading some postmodern philosophy wouldn’t go amiss here.

The irony was that he played the ‘faith card’ all night.

12 thoughts on “Daniel Dennett: a very religious atheist

  1. Very interesting (though I had to look up the definition of “vapidity”). 😉

    Isn’t it frustrating to watch so many people swallow that kind of garbage, seemingly unaware of the gross inconsistencies?
    Ah well, at least they didn’t sing his ridiculous songs.

  2. Hi Crystal. As you can tell we weren’t impressed with the coherence of his argument, But within our context, such has been the catastrophic story of the Catholic Church in Ireland, that an atheist critique seems obvious and right to many. ‘Religion is bad for you’ seems incontestable to many Irish people.

    The new atheists do pose a challenge to Christians – not so much on the persuasiveness of their anti-religion rhetoric, but in terms of 1 Peter 2:12 “Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.”

    • Very true. And very good perspective.
      So do you think that puts Evangelicals in Ireland in a unique position to provide a positive contrast to the issues that have plagued the RC church or is the contrast of an ‘alternative Christianity’ mostly seen as further proof of the evils of religion and the illegitimacy of Christianity. Or both, maybe?

  3. I think it was Lesslie Newbigin who said ‘the church is the hermeneutic of the gospel’ – that the truth of the good news has to be visibly seen in community and in relationships. It is much more than just say ‘we believe this or that’ but has to be worked out in a loving community of grace, serving others, and marked by humility and integrity. This sort of authenticity is vital for evangelicals and anyone else. It can’t be faked and the wider culture won’t go along out of custom or tradition any more.

    • I like the quote – thanks for sharing.
      I guess my question, though, wasn’t quite worded right.
      I didn’t mean to insinuate that anyone had the market cornered on loving God and loving neighbor because of their theological affiliation.
      I meant to ask, from the perspective of an evangelical, what sort of effect have the feelings of disillusionment that motivate some to rally behind atheism had on attitudes toward the church as a whole? Has there been a measurable increase or decrease in openness to Christianity outside of Catholicism as a result of the mass exodus from the ‘traditional faith’?
      Or maybe that is what you were answering…that the RC issue has little bearing on how well people can hear and accept the gospel, because it is entirely dependent on whether Christians genuinely love and serve each other and their communities?

  4. Good questions …here’s my take.

    There has been research on evangelicals in Ireland that shows they have grown in the last 10 years, (perhaps double in size) and while some of that growth has been due to immigration, the majority of Irish evangelicals are from an Irish Catholic background.

    But still a very small minority and unknown (and a bit strange) to most people.

    Anecdotally I’d say where growth has been happening, it is connected to where there has been gospel preaching and gospel living: things like an emphasis on grace, authentic & loving community, faith related to real life, non-hierarchical and accountable leadership, freedom in worship.

  5. “One is the sheer intellectual vapidity and meaninglessness of talking of an abstract generalised thing called ‘Religion’ as if there is such a thing. Dennett did this all night. You may as well imagine the world without politics or without culture”
    Nonsense analogy, ‘politics’ and ‘culture’ are abstract generalised things and people talk about them with meaning without ‘vapidity’ all the time. And since a quarter of the world don’t have religion anyway, is it really that hard to imagine the other three quarters changing?

    This author (intentionally or not) has misunderstood Dennett.
    It is a self contradiction to describe Dennett as a ‘very religious atheist’, and the author has missed the point, Dennett is saying strongly to remove all the false and outdated parts of religion, e.g. blind faith, omniscient and omnipotent gods, angels, devils, incantations, miracles, dogmas etc. And keep the parts that are helpful, like singing, community etc.

    If you think that morals stem from religion you have neither been well educated or taken the time to check up. And when he said ‘people just want to be good’ he is quite correct, it is not a doctrine, it is an evolved trait from living in smaller communities, so is a theory which can be questioned and will probably adjust over time.

  6. “Without religion” is necessary because religion’s core tenet revolves around a mythical figure of god (pick one.) Certainly there are good and bad individual people, religious and non; however, the goal should be to live in peace, harmony and reason, without the “oversight and judgement” of a supernatural overlord who exists only in the minds of the religionists. A deity that “demands” to be loved and feared simultaneously (S&M), and who can arbitrarily “convict ” you of “thought crimes” (totalitarianism), then send you to hell (with love of course) to burn for all eternity. I’ll save you a seat!

  7. Just a question; I’ve never heard Dennet speak or read his work, but was intrigued by the article. The community, teamwork, praise, etc that Dennet seems to admire in religion, don’t these things all arise from the fact that the people in that community share a particular set of beliefs (in God, karma, etc) and a world view shaped by these beliefs? To me it seems artificial to group a bunch of atheists together (people who share a non-belief in God) and try to build that same sort of community. I’m not saying atheists can’t have that sense of community, but maybe looking for it in a circle that has something more ‘positive’ in common – like an interest in social justice, or science, or theatre – would make more sense?

    • Greetings Timaandra and welcome. Excellent observation. Made me think back to the event, now several years ago. There was overwhelming support for Dennett in a culture rapidly transitioning from what was an from extreme Catholic Christendom to a post-Catholic liberal plurality. So there was unity in that respect (rejecting the totalizing and damaging religious control of the past). But, as you say, a unity around what we are not is very different from having any clear unity as to what we are for.

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