Thursday, December 21, 2006

Read any good books lately?

I have been reading a lot recently. In particular, I have just finished reading both Richard Dawkins’ and Dan Dennett’s latest books, both on religion. It was very good to read the two of them together as it made very clear to me the different between the approaches taken by them. So, while I thought that The God Delusion was a very competently written book, most of which I heartily agreed with I also found that Dawkins said very little that was genuinely new. Books like his have been written for centuries now and have had only a limited effect. I can, for example, think back to Russell’s Why I am not a Christian which I had read when I was about eighteen and which was useful at that stage of my life in so far as it showed me that others were thinking along the same lines as I was. So, I am far from saying, like some other atheists, that Dawkins should not have written that book. Still, I think that it is Dennett’s Breaking the Spell that is truly revolutionary. Rather than arguing against religious belief, Dennett proposes to study it, just as you would study any other natural phenomenon. In the long term, I think hat it is this proposal that will be far more damaging to religious organisations as it will lead to their actual emotional and intellectual foundations to the light of science, rather than allowing the debate to remain on the largely pointless discussion of the finer epicycles of the theological defences that have been built up over the centuries against philosophical arguments showing the inherent nonsensicality of religious faith. As Dennett states, he spends no time on theological arguments for the simple reason that neither do most of those who believe – the foundations of their faith lying elsewhere. By moving the discussion to that area and rendering it clearly in scientific terms, Dennett may end up dealing theism a very serious blow indeed.

At it was, I only read Dennett’s bok after having handed in my post-doc proposal but I find that his approach to religion is pretty much what I should like to do with superstition – my reason for concentrating upon superstition being that it seems to me to be a much simpler phenomenon than religion (though that does not make it simple). Dennett has actually set up a research group to investigate religion in the kind of way he proposes in his book. Scientific board willing, I hope to contact that group to see what avenues they are pursuing and to what degree their work is going to be relevant to what I do.


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