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Daniel Dennett On The Pope's Remarks
Well, truth be told, he didn't comment directly on the Pope's remarks, because I heard him talk this past July at this year's Human Behavior & Evolution Society conference at Penn.

Here's Dennett next to me at dinner, talking to a kid who claimed to be
Brigham Young's grandson, with Leda Cosmides looking on in the background

Dennett spoke out against the prissy way in which we're supposed to regard religion, making the point that religion shouldn't be sancrosanct, but should be examined as dispassionately as other subjects. In Dennett's words to me at dinner:

Give religion no more respect than you’d accord to animal husbandry.

Of course, when he said it, he was looking out across a dining room filled with a few hundred evolutionary psychologists, anthropologists, and ethologists, not a sea of homicidal nutwads. As a friend e-mailed me today:

...I have this summary about all the anger with the Pope:

“We’re so mad about your comments that Islam is violent that we’re going to kill you if you don’t apologize.”

Dennett made a fascinating point -- and I think he's right -- that some people believe in god, and some people believe in the belief in god. I think of intelligent people I know, and I can't really imagine they believe, without proof, in a big Imaginary Friend in the sky. I think they just try not to think about it too much because they find it more comfortable to recede into irrationality. Or, as it relates to organized religion, as Dennett said in his talk:

People do the believing and leave the understanding to the "experts."

Another reason for this might be that they need the group belongingness religion provides -- and they'll suspend disbelief to have it, same as they do in a movie. Unfortunately, real-world suspension of disbelief has real-world consequences. For more on that, see the Sam Harris blog post below. Regarding work on religious group-think, I'll try to post David Sloan Wilson's talk and contribution to the poster session at HBES soon.

Dennett’s one policy recommendation –- education on world religions (for kids):


Dennett explained:

Toxic religions depend on enforced ignorance of the young –- and a religon that can flourish in an informed (citizenry) is a benign religion.

Here's Dennett's book, Breaking The Spell.

Posted by aalkon at September 19, 2006 11:28 AM

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It is puzzling how many intelligent people are also religious people. I always had trouble understanding that until I lived with my wife, a practicing Catholic, for a few years. After several long discussions (over more than a few bottles of wine), I came to realize that intelligent people like her don't really buy into religion. They just find the alternative depressing. Religion gives them hope, like the lottery gives people hope.

Posted by: Jason Ginsburg at September 19, 2006 05:00 AM

As with religion, regarding the lottery, it pays to be rational. Here's the relevant study by Brickman comparing lottery winners' happiness with that of people crippled in a car crash:


Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 19, 2006 05:35 AM

For more on financial irrationality in humans, read Mean Genes by Terry Burnham and Jay Phelan:


Posted by: Amy Alkon at September 19, 2006 05:41 AM

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