Sunday, July 11, 2010

Dan Dennett 2: Atheists Who Believe in God!

Some recent comment-talk under Defining Science! has reminded me that I still have more to talk about re: Dan Dennett - a celebrated philosopher, a self-declared "Bright", once upon a time one of the Four Horsemen of the New Atheism. Despite all this, I maintain he's kind of a rube.

I focused on the whole "Bright" fiasco last time. This time, I want to focus on how, in a debate between himself and Dinesh D'Souza, Dan Dennett replied to the charge that atheists and atheist governments in the 20th century racked up body counts that made past theistic disgraces look rosy in comparison.

If you aren't familiar with Dennett's move here, you may be expecting the usual dodges: Say that it's illicit to compare the body counts. Say that the atheism wasn't what motivated the regimes and movements but something else. But Dan went a different route, one that picks up the No True Scotsman fallacy and does something amazing with it.

"Stalin believed in a God whose will determined what right and wrong was," he said. "[That] God's name was Stalin."

That's Dennett. And yes, Dennett's masterstroke was to deny Stalin was an atheist. Stalin was, according to Dennett, a theist.

Absorb that for a moment. This is, again, a celebrated philosopher at Tufts - this isn't UpYoursJesus1976 in a Bad Company 2 match. We're talking about one of the original Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse. And he uses a move that, frankly, would have sounded - word for word, meaning for meaning - more appropriate coming out of William Lane Craig's mouth.

That's the contrast I'm marveling at here. Just as Dennett didn't see how the whole "We are BRIGHT!" thing could whirl around and kick him in the ass, apparently he didn't see how opening up a committed atheist to the charge of theism on any grounds, much less on moral grounds, could be a major rhetorical blunder.

You'll notice that, despite this move coming from a man Dawkins himself has praised repeatedly, you don't see this argument used often in debate. And "why" is obvious: It's Goddamn stupid. It opens up the original Four Horsemen, the entire atheist movement, and Dennett himself to the charge of being theistic, as well as - in spite of all their raging - religious. Now, they're open to that charge anyway, but making this argument is like saying "C'mon! Tear me to shreds and post this debate on every Christian blog around! The Pope paid me good money to come up here and sabotage this movement!"

This debate also led to another development that just highlights the curious blunders of what, if academic credentials were the measure, should be one of the most imposing debating and reasoning intellects around. I'll get to that another time.

4 comments:

Ilíon said...

All appeals to "the problem of evil," by their very nature, acknowledge the reality of objective moral obligations (and corresponding expectations). Such an acknowledgment does not actually fit into an atheistic worldview; for such acknowledgment indicates and recognizes that atheism is not merely an incomplete worldview, but a false one.

But, that’s a different post than I have in mind at the moment.

What Mr Dennett has done with that amusing move of brightness is to endorse a key point of the Judeo-Christian analysis of and answer to the perennial question of all mankind in all ages and cultures: “What’s wrong with the world?

The Judeo-Christian answer to the question is, “The world is so screwed up because every man seeks to be God; men do moral evil because they refuse to acknowledge that God is God and that they are not.”

Crude said...

Like I said, those words would have, could have, and in fact probably HAVE come out of William Lane Craig's mouth, as well as other christian apologists'. Why Dennett would make such a move is a mystery. I'd guess that he thought it sounded wise and effective, but didn't think through why it sounded that way.

Ilíon said...

But I Christian who said something like that would *never* say, "Ergo, Stalin was not an atheist," for that "conclusion" can be made only by equivocating with the word 'God.'

"Why Dennett would make such a move is a mystery. I'd guess that he thought it sounded wise and effective, but didn't think through why it sounded that way."

Indeed.

Codgitator (Cadgertator) said...

"This is, again, a celebrated philosopher at Tufts - this isn't UpYoursJesus1976 in a Bad Company 2 match."

I like the cut of your jib. heheh