“Are there any believers in the Rapture here tonight?” asked an entertaining Professor Dan Dennett to a packed lecture hall in UCC last night, “and if so, can I have your car?”
Dennett is Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University and one of the infamous Four Horsemen of the so-called New Atheists, along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Sam Harris. He is the author of many books including Breaking the Spell- Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
The Professor began by inviting us to consider what is likely to happen to religion in the future: will religions grow and take over the world completely? will they fade away into insignificance? will they morph into what he calls “creedless moral teams?” will they gradually fall into disfavour rather like drink-driving has- “friends don’t let their friends drive their lives by religion” ? or the final option: Judgment Day arrives (hence the Rapture quote above).
Whatever happens, argued Dennett, religions will change more in the next 10 years than they have in the past 100, the reason he gave being the internet and modern communications making it much harder for religious leaders to hold their flocks together with ancient dogmas.
But while Dennett clearly sees religions- or organised “traditional” religions- declining in influence, with the prospect of churches and mosques becoming museums in the future not unthinkable (even the Vatican?!), the main point of his talk was to consider what are the things religion does well which are good and valuable, and what will replace these functions if religions disappear?
Dennett listed Hope-Love-Beauty-Joy-Moral Teamwork-justice and Freedom as qualities religions have traditionally been very good at providing. One might question all or any of these of course- Justice and Freedom??- but historically religions have been the only organising bodies that could have provided even a semblance of these things, which doesnt mean they have always been successful.
In particular, Dennett feels that religions have often been the only organisations that take in the homeless and the lost in society, and secular alternatives have not usually had this as a priority.
This is partly why Dennett’s insight in Breaking the Spell is so important: “Belief in a Deity is optional” ie, a lot of “belief” or faith expressed in religions are actually secondary to the social and communal functions of the churches, and there are in fact a lot of atheist priests and laypeople.
Ceremony is also important, and Dennett played some secular “Gospel” music by Orlando Napier which seemed to leave the majority of the young student audience rather bemused: I was slightly embarrassed to be one of only about 4 in the audience of 4-500 hundred who raised their hands to say they actually liked the music!
Moral Teamwork is something that would be fulfilled by possibly new organisations dedicated to the Love of truth and Truthfulness- Dennett here alluded to aspects of the skeptics community such as Snopes but interestingly mentioned TED as providing some of these functions to a secular online community.
“People want to be good” Dennett concluded, “and the sooner we create institutions that can do better than religion, the sooner the more toxic elements of religion will fade away.”
There followed a lively question and answer session and I was lucky enough to get in my own question, which was to ask to what extent does the professor think New Age Religion might be filling the gap of organised religions like Christianity in the West; and to what extent could environmentalism be seen as a secular religion, as some of its most vocal critics claim?
In response to the latter point, Dennett agreed that some of the more extreme aspects of the environmental movement- animal rights activists for example- could be seen as religious- he said he thought some people just seem to have a need to hold banners and take action in defence of some cause or other;
but rather lamely (I thought) finished by saying New Age religion is just “not very harmful” which I found surprising, given issues around quack medicine, anti-vaccination etc., but the time had run out by then.
No doubt it depends partly on one’s perspective- although Ireland provides excellent examples of all that is wrong with religion, I imagine an American confronting extreme right-wing Christian Fundamentalism might see things differently.
All in all an enjoyable evening with the great man, and many thanks to UCC Atheists for staging what one person claimed to be the “largest gathering of the non-religious ever in Cork”.