March 2007

Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon.  By Daniel C. Dennett. Viking Adult. 464 pages. $25.95.

Daniel Dennett, Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, has molded a career out of his self-avowed atheism. Actually, he calls himself a "bright," the now-preferred euphemism for unbelievers (see the New Oxford Note, "Here Come the Brights," April 2004).

Dennett surveys a number of theories posited by scholars in an effort to explain the existence of religion throughout all societies in history. For example, the "sweet tooth" theory of religion asserts that there is a portion of the brain that responds to religion in the same manner in which part of the brain responds to sugar. Then there's the "symbiont theory," in which religion functions in a biologically interdependent relationship with its human "host." This relationship may be either benign, mutually beneficial, or, as Dennett seems to prefer, parasitic: "If some religions are culturally evolved parasites," he explains, "we can expect them to be insidiously well designed to conceal their true nature from their hosts, since this is an adaptation that would further their own spread." It doesn't take much imagination to know where he's going with this one.

And then there's the ridiculous "sexual selection" theory, which states that the whimsical preferences of females have forced men throughout the ages to exhibit religious or ceremonial behavior in order to further their chances to mate and reproduce. And finally, various "money theories" claim that religion gives an evolutionary advantage to the elite of society who form a sort of pyramid scheme that "thrives by preying on the ill informed and powerless."

Dennett's terminology is overwhelmingly that of an evolutionary biologist, but this doesn't stop him from expanding the term "evolution," as he does with the "money theories," to include cultural practices, the development of language, and even computer viruses. These claims are based on his assertion that evolution is "substrate neutral" and requires only the three conditions of "1) replication 2) variation (mutation) and 3) differential fitness (competition)."

Similar convoluted, pseudo-scientific phrasings are found throughout the book. For example, Dennett describes computer viruses as "information packets including a phenotypic overcoat that tends to gain them access to replication machinery wherever they encounter it." Perhaps someone should familiarize him with the term "spam."

One suspects, however, that clarity is not one of Dennett's priorities. After reading 400-plus pages of such grandiose esotericism, it becomes hard to tell if Dennett was trying to substitute obfuscation for scholarship, or if, like Balzac and his interminably detailed descriptions, Dennett was simply paid by the line.

While some of Dennett's theories are bizarre to the point of being humorous, the patronizing demeanor with which he advocates further research on religion for the purpose of developing a "public policy" toward it is hardly amusing. In somewhat desperate tones, he maintains that the "current situation is scary…" and advocates more research accompanied, not surprisingly, by the development of a means of protecting children from parental religious formation. Dennett doesn't just want to study religion as a natural phenomenon. He wants to find the cure.

Moreover, Dennett's claims of objectivity and benignity are disingenuous in the extreme. He has constructed an elaborate façade of innocent intellectual inquiry to veil what can only be described as a bizarre combination of tomfoolery and treachery.

- Mary Frances Friedl



A Secular Faith: Why Christianity Favors the Separation of Church and State.  By Darryl Hart. Ivan R. Dee. 273 pages. $26.95.

Darryl Hart, a leading historian of American Protestantism and a director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, lauds Christianity as an apolitical, otherworldly, secular faith. (This "secular faith" is not to be confused with the secularization that demands a godless, anti-religious State.) To enlist the Christian faith for political purposes, he says, is to distort Christianity's essential purpose: the salvation of man from sin and death. Past efforts by Catholics and Protestants to establish Christianity as the religion of the State in either Constantinian or theocratic fashion are condemned by Hart as having done grave harm to Christianity itself. It is not surprising then that Hart sees the American tradition of "Separation of Church and State," safeguarded as it is presumed to be by the Constitution, as rooted in the Gospel.

Declaring himself a "Christian by profession and a conservative by instinct," Hart rejects the proposition that Christianity has any clear political prescriptions, and indicts the conservative Protestant Right, specifically criticizing the Bush Administration's "faith-based initiatives," and the social Gospel which marked a historic shift among Protestants from religious individualism to support for the liberal welfare state.

A Catholic reader will benefit from Hart's summaries of historical studies. But he will likely not agree with the author's assessment that John Kerry is "an observant Roman Catholic." Nor will he agree that Hart's Protestant perspective is faithful to Christian orthodoxy. Hart's plea that Christians live a "hypothetical existence" — i.e., living a life "both secular and Christian" — can only result in a kind of religious schizophrenia wherein Christianity suffers marginalization in the political order of the nation since religious faith is rigidly confined to the "private, personal, and non-public sphere." In this view, government is also liberated from its obligation to legislate in favor of the prescriptions of the Natural Moral Law of God.

The Catholic tradition has never accepted the notion that the political order of any State must be religiously and morally neutral so that an atheistic or agnostic State may well result. Catholic political thought has always acknowledged that the Church is not tied to any particular political system or form of government. She has accepted the distinction between the spiritual and the temporal, and seeks to further the common good of all citizens. The "Separation of Church and State" in the American Republic does not mean the imposition of a secular humanist regime on a people whose religious beliefs are allowed to be expressed privately but cannot be permitted to influence the actual legislation. Contrary to the author's defeatist view that a "Christian faith-politics is inherently incompatible with a pluralistic society," the Catholic view is not that separatist.

It is unfortunate that Hart's Secular Faith betrays the influence of that secularization of the West which was strongly advanced by a fideistic Protestantism and evidences the loss by too many Protestants of the tradition of Natural Law positing an objective moral order known to man's reason. Having the advantage of being guided by the perennial philosophy of the Church and by her teaching authority, Catholics are better positioned to act to improve the political-social order in accordance with those "moral judgments even in matters relating to politics, whenever the fundamental rights of man or the salvation of souls requires it" (Gaudium et Spes, #76). Years ago, Thomas Molnar noted in his Politics and the State: The Catholic View that a "humanistic religion" is, in fact, in the process of being imposed on the American people by powerful elements in academe, the media, government agencies, and the courts: "It is all the more pernicious as it is not publicly recognized as a religion, thus exempt from the guidelines of the separation of state and Church…. The Church owes it to Christ to denounce injustice, immorality, lack of elementary civil and religious freedom, and other acts that negate man's spiritual and social nature."

Correctives to Hart's flawed Secular Faith can be found in Catholic social doctrine.

- James Likoudis





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