Daniel Dennett

[PHILOSOPHER]

“EVOLUTION IS AN EXPLORATION OF THE POSSIBLE. IT IS A BLIND, PURPOSELESS EXPLORATION, BUT IT’S A VERY GOOD ONE.”
Claims that Daniel Dennett rejects:
Miraculous creationism can account for unexplained scientific phenomena
Evolutionary theory and ethics are mutually exclusive
Competition necessarily trumps cooperation in nature
There are no rules on Mars
Philosophers are idiots

First, to set the record straight: despite accusations to the contrary, Daniel Dennett does not believe that religious people should be put in animal cages. He also doesn’t want to tell your children that Santa Claus is a lie. And it’s probably okay if we keep “In God We Trust” on our coins. He’s just willing to ask in public what a lot of other people have wondered in private: How has religious rhetoric come to dominate our public sphere?

Dennett is the author of several books, including Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves, and is the Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He takes big ideas and weaves them together into enormous ones. Evolutionary theory, consciousness, religion, artificial intelligence, free will, the future of human morality—each of these subjects and more have been subjected to Dennett’s scrutiny. He traces a path through them all, creating a unified philosophy that is both steeped in science and persistently human. His rhetoric and analysis are rigorous but always engaging, and his ideas are firmly grounded in wildebeests, shopping malls, and the NBA.

The following conversation was conducted over the phone, from Boston to Berkeley, in the last fleeting moments before Dennett’s dinner called.

—Eli Horowitz

*

THE BELIEVER: ... as you’ve observed, even though Congress and the whole government has some Christian trappings, it generally operates on a secular-humanist basis. How significant is the actual role of religion in the government now?

DANIEL DENNETT: I think it’s significant as a distorter. I think that yes, by and large, secular thinking actually figures out what policies we’re going to follow. I don’t think that bishops or preachers are behind the scenes determining how people vote or anything of that sort. I don’t believe religion is powerful in that sense. But I think religion is powerful as a sort of distorting medium for everything that goes on in American political life. And I think that although this is largely benign, there are times when it’s really important to clear the air and remind ourselves that this is a secular state. I’m not in favor of expunging “In God We Trust” from all the coins…

BLVR: You don’t think that has an insidious effect?

DD: Well, yes. I think all of this contributes. I think there are lots of people right now—they’re either ignorant or under a misapprehension—who think that America isn’t a secular state. They think it’s a Christian state.

BLVR: Certainly some arguments seem to presuppose that.

DD: I think that it’s time to firmly and gently and politely inform people that it’s not the case. It’s a secular state and it’s a good thing it is.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

To read the full piece, please visit our store to purchase a copy of the magazine.

Eli Horowitz has previously interviewed Kumar Pallana and Master Ashida Kim for the Believer.

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