Religion as Natural Phenomenon

The below is from David Bentley Hart’s book review Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark


Dennett, needless to say, has no curiosity regarding any actual faith or its intellectual tradition. His few references to Christian history make it clear that his historical consciousness is little more than a compilation of threadbare eighteenth-and nineteenth-century caricatures. In the six spacious pages he devotes to the question of whether there is any reason to believe in God (or, really, devotes mostly to quoting himself at length on why the question is not worth considering), he does not address any of the reasons for which persons actually do believe but merely recites a few of the arguments that freshmen are given in introductory courses on the philosophy of religion. Even then, his mental sloth is so enormous that he raises only those counterarguments that all competent scholars of philosophical history know to be the ones that do not work.

The world of faith is all a terra incognita to Dennett; the only map he knows of it is, like the map used by the Bellman, a “perfect and absolute blank!”—though, in Dennett’s case, bearing a warning that “Here there be dragons.” Or, perhaps, “Here there be Boojums”:

beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again! 

All Dennett knows is that something he dreads haunts the world, something intolerant and violent and irrational, and he wants to conjure it away. This, of course, raises the now quite hoary-headed question of how, in the wake of the twentieth century, the committed secularist dare wax either sanctimonious toward faith or sanguine toward secular reason, but Dennett is not one to pause before doubts of that sort. He is certain there is some single immense thing out there called religion, and that by its very nature it endangers us all and ought as a whole to be abolished. This being so, it is probably less important to him that his argument be good than that, for purely persuasive purposes, it appear to be grounded in irrefutable science-which it can never be.

All of this probably matters little, because-again—the most crucial defect of Breaking the Spell is its ultimate pointlessness. Let us assume there is far greater substance to Dennett’s argument than I grant. Very well. Dennett need not have made such an effort to argue his point in the first place. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals. Dennett may imagine that such a suggestion is provocative and novel, and he may believe that there are legions of sincere souls out there desperately committed to the notion that religion itself is some sort of miraculous exception to the rule of nature, but, in either case, he is deceived.

For one thing, it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine that it does so follow is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value. For another thing, no one believes in religion. Christians, for instance, believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his Church as its Lord. This claim is at once historical and spiritual, and has given rise to an immense diversity of natural expressions: moral, artistic, philosophical, social, legal, and (of course) religious. Regarding “religion” as such, though, it is in keeping with theological tradition to see it as something common to all societies, many of whose manifestations are violent, idiotic, despotic, superstitious, amoral, degrading, and false. The most one can say about religion in the abstract is that it gives ambiguous expression to what Christian tradition calls the “natural desire for God,” and to a human openness to spiritual truth, revelation, or grace. Dennett may imagine that, by gravely informing us that this natural desire for God is in fact a desire for God that is natural, he is confronting us with a conceptual revolution, but, in fact, all he has produced is a minor modification of syntax.

These are rather elementary points, really, and rather obvious too. After all, the marvelous strength and fecundity of modern science is the result of the ascetical rigor with which it limits the scope of its inquiries. In the terms of Aristotle’s fourfold scheme of causality, science as we understand it now concerns itself solely with efficient and material causes while leaving the questions of formal and final causes unaddressed. Its aim is the scrupulous reconstruction of how things and events are generated or unfold, not speculation on why things become what they are or on the purpose of their existence. Much less is it concerned with the ontological cause of what it investigates: It has nothing to say regarding being as such, or how it is that anything exists at all, or what makes the universe to be. This is not to say that it has somehow disproved the reality of these other kinds of causality, or even entirely dispensed with formality or finality (at least as heuristic devices). But, still, such causes lie mostly outside the purview of modern science, and one believes in them, if one does, for reasons of an entirely different order.

Of course, one is free to regard formal and final causality as fictions (though they will always tend to reassert themselves, even if only subtly), and one may dismiss the question of being as meaningless or imponderable (though it is neither). But one should also then relinquish ambitions for empirical method it cannot fulfill. This applies to every discourse that aspires to the status of a science. If one wants to pursue a science of religion, one should know from the first that one will never produce a theory that could possibly be relevant to whether one should or should not believe that, for example, the transcendent God has revealed himself in history or within one’s own life.

Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural “all the way down.” Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end—its consummation in God—and is informed by a more eminent causality—the creative will of God—and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.

In the end, nothing of any significance is decided by talking about religion in the abstract. It is a somewhat inane topic, really, relevant neither to belief nor to disbelief. It does not touch on the rationales or the experiences that determine anyone’s ultimate convictions, and certainly nothing important is to be learned from Daniel Dennett’s rancorous exchanges with nonexistent persons regarding the prospects for an impossible science devoted to an intrinsically indeterminate object. If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly—purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor—begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not.

As Peter Heath observed some decades ago in his wonderful book The Philosopher’s Alice, Lewis Carroll was not a writer of nonsense but rather an absurdist, and a Carrollian character is absurd precisely because he does not blithely depart from the rules but “persists in adhering to them long after it has ceased to be sensible to do so, and regardless of the extravagances which hereby result.” When Carroll’s characters assume the authoritative tone, the opinions they express are invariably ridiculous, but those opinions “are held on principle and backed by formal argument. . . . The humor lies not in any arbitrary defiance of principle, but in seeing a reasonable position pushed or twisted by uncritical acceptance into a wholly unreasonable shape.”

Iwould hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book’s argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett’s project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.

Dennett sets out with perhaps a pardonable excess of ambition—in the words of the Butcher,

In one moment I’ve seen what has hitherto been
Enveloped in absolute mystery,
And without extra charge I will give you at large
A lesson in Natural History. 

But it soon becomes obvious that Dennett has no lesson to impart. He is, when all is said and done, merely hunting a Snark, and in some sense he can hardly avoid sharing the Baker’s fate. One need only read Breaking the Spell and then attempt to apply it in some meaningful or illuminative way to the terrible and splendid realities of religious belief to confirm this, because, once one has done that, one will immediately discover that the book’s entire argument has “softly and suddenly vanished away.” And this, to the reflective reader, should come as no surprise, really, given the nature both of Dennett’s quest and of the quarry he has chosen to pursue—“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”

David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and the author of The Beauty of the Infinite.

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