Dennett: why do atheists know so much about religion?

October 3, 2010 • 7:13 am

Here’s the power of Gnu Atheism: Dan Dennett has a piece in today’s Daily News, “The Unbelievable Truth: Why America has become a nation of religious know-nothings,” analyzing why atheists did better than the faithful on the Pew religion quiz:

However, since the birth of modern science in the 17th century, it has been downhill for literalism . . .

So what’s a religion to do? There are two main tactics.

Plan A: Treat the long, steady retreat into metaphor and mystery as a process of increasing wisdom, and try to educate the congregation to the new sophisticated understandings.

Plan B: Cloak all the doctrines in a convenient fog and then not just excuse the faithful from trying to penetrate the fog, but celebrate the policy of not looking too closely at anyone’s creed – not even your own. . .

Atheists tend to be those curious and truth-loving folks who do take a good hard look at religious professions of faith, and hence they tend to know what they are walking away from.

There have always been atheists, though not always very visible to the public. In fact, the perennial nagging doubts of the few atheists in the crowd have probably been the main force sustaining theology!

Many of those who have thought long and hard about religions – and hence know the answers – don’t actually believe the doctrines that they rightly identify as belonging to the church they are affiliated with . .

They know, for instance, what a good Catholic is “required to profess” as Pope Benedict (when he was Cardinal Ratzinger) often said, and so, if they are Catholics, they profess it. But they find that they cannot actually believe it. Many people maintain their loyalty as vigorous members of their denominations while quietly setting aside the dogmas, either utterly ignored as irrelevant or wreathed in protective layers of metaphor.

The Pew study also reveals why atheist critiques of religious doctrines are largely a waste of effort: Few people believe them in any case; they just say they do.

Well, I’m not so sure about the last bit.  There are plenty of religious people who believe in a personal, theistic God, in the fact that they’ll live after death, in Jesus as God’s son or Mohamed as God’s prophet, and so on.  Surely that is religious doctrine, too.  Nevertheless, Dennett is surely correct that many liberal religious people are hardly distinguishable from atheists.  And it would have been unthinkable a few years ago for a paper as popular as The Daily News to publish a critique like this. That is the success of New Atheism.

42 thoughts on “Dennett: why do atheists know so much about religion?

  1. “Few people believe them in any case; they just say they do.”

    Perhaps it would have been better to say “few people *understand* them in any case; they just say they do.” Then again, how could one?

    1. In my experience, most people don’t know exactly what it is they believe regarding god or why.

      They don’t think about it, because they are afraid that if they do, they might lose faith and suffer the consequences their indoctrinators warned them about.

      It’s much easier to keep things fuzzy and disparage those who ask probing questions about faith.

      1. Or, rather, they find it impossible to comprehend what in the hell “sophisticated” theologians are talking about.

        Pseudo-philosophical legerdemain has an air of authority on its own. Just ask Berlinski.

  2. The sample size for atheist/agnostic was only 212 out of 3412 total interviews. That number is not large enough for real analysis.

    For example compare atheist/agnostic with white evangelicals:

    Atheist/agnostic 20.9/32 = 65% +/- 8.5% = (56.5% to 73.5%).

    White evangelicals 17.6/32 = 55% +/- 5% = (50% to 60%).

    Given those error bars, we can say that atheist/agnostics were just marginally better than white evangelicals. Note those bars intersect, so the opposite could be true (though less likely). In any case the difference is not substantial.

    Rather than patting ourselves on the back, we should be asking why the average was so poor all around, including atheist/agnostics. Those questions were trivial. 65%! That’s a D on a 7th grade quiz!

    1. The difference is that most atheists have no motivation to learn such knowledge but the religious should have.

      1. Notes:

        The sample statistic is 0.65 – 0.55 = 0.10. The stdev of the difference is 0.038 (n1 = 212, n2 = 667). 3 sigma gives a z score of ~ 2.6 on a normalized standard distribution. Thus ME = 2.6*0.038 = 0.099, and CI = 0.10 +/- 0.099

  3. Dennett touches on something I continue to be amazed by.

    Never mind the alleged sophistication of religious philosophy. The proportion of the population who’s even heard of the ontological argument (let alone is capable of pronouncing the word, never mind is able to explicate it) surely has to be in the small single digits at best.

    But pretty much every believer, as a child, learned the Bible stories. And can do a decent job re-telling them to their own children.

    And…not to engage in deceased equine flagellation or anything, but the Bible opens with a story about a magic garden with talking animals and an angry giant. It features a talking flaming plant that teaches the reluctant hero how to wield his magic wand. It ends with a story about a man who reanimates putrid corpses; whose death instigated a zombie invasion of Jerusalem; and who wandered around Jerusalem for a month and a half with a gaping wound in his side — a wound through which he would invite people to fondle his intestines.

    It shouldn’t take any kind of a degree of sophistication to figure out that all that is purest bullshit, yet huge numbers of people think it’s all literally true and that there’s some sort of cosmic significance to the book.

    What gives?

    No, really. I want to know.



    1. What gives is the so-called “cafeteria” approach to religion derided by the late not-so-great John Paul II. All that obvious bullshit gets compartmentalized with the metaphorical bits, as Dennett implies.

      I remember a conversation with a Catholic coworker-friend — we happened to be talking about the wackier dogmas of the religion, and I brought up one of the wackiest: the resurrection of the dead. The “Profession of Faith” (We believe in one God…) bit that everybody gets to stand for and recite features this insanity towards the end.

      After explaining to my friend (she truly did not know) that the resurrection of the dead referred to some bits in Revelation that maintained that the dead would somehow physically reconstitute themselves and go live, body and soul, with Slappy McChrist up in Happyville… she said “Oh – I don’t believe *that*.”

      To which I replied “but that’s what’s in the profession of faith, obligingly parroted by every Catholic congregation every Sunday.” I think I was more polite, actually… I never said “parroted”, or “obligingly”, or “Slappy” or “Happyville”.

      The upshot is that the “faithful”, when the dissonance is shoved up right under their noses, can handwave the more fantastic stuff away as “not being important” or “central” to the teachings of the faith – then the “Sermon on the Mount” predictably comes out. Same thing happens when talking to “enlightened” priests. (see Bill Maher’s “Religulous” when the enlightnened Catholic priest is interviewed.)

      I’m with Dr. Coyne here though — Dennett seems to oversell the religious (moderates) not “believing” the tenets of their faith – at least where it concerns dualism, spirits, personal God, and heaven being “with God” and hell being “not with God”. All religious (American Catholic, esp.) types in my experience “believe” *at least* that garbage, in some form. They’ve predictably retreated from the more fantastic stuff – but the ritual of yammering a bunch of words on Sunday still has not gone away. They can recite the words by rote, but in my experience do not know what those passages mean, nor even seem to understand what “believe” really means in the context of professing one’s faith in solidarity with their congregants.

      Cafeteria Catholicism. You keep picking and choosing what you “believe”, and try not to think about it too hard (because that leads to more bits of the edifice crumbling at every turn). It’s a classic defense mechanism which maintains family unity — maintains some kind of touchstone of common story-telling that they believe is a virtuous behavior in and of itself.

      1. Funny site this —

        It takes Protestants with their rapture interpretation to task for getting it wrong. (the virtuous also suffer during the tribulation, see Matthew – a little more than halfway down the page.) Rather than fall back on metaphor, the site’s author(s) fall back on the inscrutability of it all.

        “…we should remember that these are events which we are neither able to fully comprehend, nor imagine, as nothing of this nature was ever experienced by us. For this reason, we never will be able to solve all the related questions which often arise in inquisitive people’s minds.”

        But “believe” it they does. (at least in some strong sense of the word “believe”) Sorry Dennett. You either “believe” the fantastic stuff in a watered-down sense (belief without comprehension) or one stays ignorant of what the beliefs professed supposedly are (helps to think of these “religious truths” as “not important”).

      2. The thing that confuses me, though…is that, if you keep pressing, you’ll find that there probably isn’t anything your friend actually believes in.

        The Sermon on the Mount is the perfect example. Even Richard Dawkins has held it up as praiseworthy, but the thing is a steaming pile of yak vomit.

        No, really.

        I mean, sure, it’s got a couple good lines in there about “blessed are the cheese makers” and the like, but there’s just so much in there that’s absolutely repulsive that it’s simply unbelievable.

        Matthew 5:17-20 very emphatically states that all the laws of Deuteronomy are in full force. You will recall that those are the laws that dictate capital punishment for picking up sticks on the worng day of the week; that rape victims are required to marry their assaulters; that shellfish is verboten; and all the rest.

        Matthew 5:22 condemns all those who call their brothers fools to hellfire.

        Matthew 5:25-26 says that, if somebody has a beef with you, you should let them steamroller you unchallenged into prison and restitution.

        Matthew 5:28 elevates thoughtcrime to the level of the Ten Commandments.

        Matthew 5:29-30 commands you to mutilate yourself by gouging out your eyes and chopping off your hands if you have impure thoughts, on pain of eternal torture.

        Matthew 5:31 outlaws divorce in all cases except the infidelity of the woman.

        You’ll notice that I’ve barely even gotten started, and already we’ve got a half-dozen different instances of insanely primitive brutality that no civilized person could in any way pretend to condone today…

        …except that your friend not only condones it, but thinks it’s the height of wisdom and lovingkindness.

        Of course, if you were to read the Sermon line-by-line and challenge her on these things, she’d come up with more “I don’t really believe that” excuses. Maybe the references are all metaphorical, or who-knows-what.

        But if you go through the entire thing, line-by-line, and find almost nothing you actually believe in…again, I just don’t get it.



        1. It’s the “almost” part of “almost nothing” that’s the clincher, at least it seems to me.

          Every religious Christian I’ve encountered “believes” in the personal God, a heaven and hell (supposedly meaning “with” or “not with” that personal God for eternity), and mind/body dualism, though they don’t get far enough along to think of it as “dualism”. When the specifics come out, so does the “it’s a mystery” stuff. Mind you, the stuff that they believe in has less of a Biblical basis and more of a Papal/historical one, so it does get confusing and indefensible rather quickly.

          Perhaps I agree with Dennett more than I know, now that I think about it. It comes down to the definition of “belief”.

    2. Ben, there is an explicit answer to that question that will astonish you if you take the time to investigate whether it’s true or not.

      It’s the NT and especially the canonical gospels that sucks modern people into the Bible as profound literature. It has an underlying structure that many people can perceive at some level, but almost nobody has understood.

      The gospels are a cleverly crafted satire of messianic Judaism and based explicitly on Titus Flavius’ Judean military campagn during the first Jewish rebellion that culminated in the encirclement and sacking of Jerusalem and the razing of the temple. This of course is exactly in accordance with the Son of Man prophecy.

      That the Roman Flavians commissioned Christianity can be known with certainty because they wanted their feat to be appreciated by posterity, and so they incorporated many puzzles and jokes in the gospels, that cannot reasonably arise by chance, as well as putting references (for example Josephus’ lunatic Jesus character) to the gospels in their official history of the jewish war.

      This was all discovered by Joseph Atwill and I can’t do it justice but you can download the whole book for free here:—Caesars-Messiah—The-Roman-Conspiracy-to-Invent-Jesus

      (if the link fails go to esnips and search Caesar’s Messiah).

      I think it’s unfortunate that this discovery by Atwill is being systematically overlooked. Christianity is perhaps unique in containing the seed of its own destruction in its primary literature. Why are we hesitating to exploit it?

      1. It’s not so much overlooked, as relying on a long chain of events that is a bit improbable and implausible. There might be some truth in it, but, like Robert M Price, I find it a bit of a stretch. Look up Price vs Atwill on the Infidel Guy podcast (this one used to be free, and if you can’t find it email me and I’ll eventually check my mail). It is an interesting theory, though, and given the little bit we do know of Christianitys origins, might encourage more people to explore a bit.

        1. Badger3k, thanks for replying. I wonder if you’ve read the book or substantial parts. If you don’t want to commit to the whole thing I think it’s better to start in the middle somewhere. I like the lunatic Jesus character from Josephus, as I mentioned, it’s in the chapter Until All is Fulfilled if I am remembering right. It certainly seems to be a spoof on Jesus of the NGT to me. How could this be unless Josephus was also in on the religion creation effort?

          I’ve read the Price review and I’ve heard both the IG shows. The interview show was better I thought. In the Price “debate,” I thought Atwill got to wrapped around his proposed experimental method involving people finding similar passages in other literary works. I think it’s a perfectly reasonable assertion he’s making there, he just wasted too much time with it and repeated it too often when he should have been stressing the quality of the literary parallels.

          Price’s review is entirely insubstantive, in my view. His position is basically that he was happy with his worldview before CM came along, and doesn’t need his applecart upset. He has a competing theory of Christianity’s origin, that I find unlikely.

          Seems to me that there are many places to attack Atwill’s thesis if it’s wrong. Price doesn’t even attempt it. For example, is what Atwill claims about the empty tomb story being an elaborate and precisely choreographed comic play, refutable? It’s based on time cues provided that would be better left out if they aren’t deliberately placed to make the choreograph work, seems to me.

          Another way to kill the CM thesis is if the Pauline literature is written genuinely and in the 50s as widely held. This one can be investigated in wikipedia and the dating is entirely based on the assumption of a noncynical origin. It hasn’t been considered that it could be fraudulent, in the scholarly view, so far as I can tell. So it’s like future people reading Gone With the Wind and concludibg it was written in the 1860s. In the CM world it’s part of the joke, of course. Saul was knocked off his horse with the realization that rather than fighting Jewish rebels, he should be subverting them.

        2. NGT should have been NT.

          I want to add that I disagree that the CM idea relies on a long chain of unlikely events. At least, it doesm’t anymore than the claim that Joseph Smith made up Mormonism relies on a long chain of unlikely events.

          1. Had I said “GT” instead of “NGT” I would of course been referring to the “Gnu Testament,” which is what I now see if I read what other people call the New Testament, thanks to the understanding provided by Atwill.

            In case anybody is still reading this, one last thing I will add, is that the idea that it was the Roman cults-of-the-Caesar’s bureaucracy that invented Christianity is not all that new of an idea and not original to Atwill. It also seems perfectly plausible on its face to me. If the choice here is between the NT being created cynically or written by true believers I would challenge people to provide cases where a major religion has been proven to arise through true belief. The examples we have of religions arising in modern times seem to be deliberately fraudulently, that I can think of off hand. So we have a bureaucracy whose business it is to create religions, and a motivation (replacement of militant messianic Judaism, that had been hugely costly to Rome), and a remarkable similarity of the Catholic church to the cults of the Caesar’s, and why the heck would it arise in Rome otherwise, really?

            So other people have noted this previously, is my understanding although I haven’t read much of that literature. What Atwill brings new to the table is that not only did the Romans do the deed, they wanted us to know it, and so they laced the literature with clues. Josephus is the key. It’s important to recognize here that Josephus’ War of the Jews is the official history of the First Jewish Rebellion by the Flavian Caesar’s, not some unbiased history. Caesar Titus dedicates it on the title page. So then when it can be seen that Josephus is having his story fulfill prophesies in the NT, what other (reasonable) interpretation is there? But that is only a tiny bit of the CM thesis. It is supported very broadly. It’s anything but a long chain of unlikely and poorly supported suppositions.

  4. Much as I hate to validate anything Pox Day has ever said, I think there’s an argument to be made for his concept of “low church atheists” in this case. (and only this case)

    The only people who count as atheists in this survey are people who are likely to have examined the religious views of which they are aware and found them wanting. Before openly declaring that they do not believe in the existence of any god, they must have looked at, or at least been aware of, the teachings about a number of gods.

    But a lot of people fall into the “never really thought about it” school. They may or may not really believe all that mumbo-jumbo, but they don’t call themselves atheists because, well, they just haven’t really thought about it.

    IOW, if you were able to magically determine who actually believes in a god or gods, the performance of those who don’t might be a lot worse. Or it might be better if, as Dennett and others say, a lot of people who dutifully recite creeds don’t actually believe them.

    1. Clearly, they’re relying on people who are self-identifying as theists and atheists, there’s really no way to determine which is which outside of them telling you what they consider themselves.

      Therefore, people who are what I like to call “default atheists”, or people who have no religious beliefs, don’t need any and don’t want any, wouldn’t be counted.

  5. “Well, I’m not so sure about the last bit.”

    It depends on the pronoun reference in “Few people believe them in any case;”

    Does the pronoun “them” refer to “atheist critiques of religious doctrines” or “to religious doctrines?”

    1. I’m sure it refers to “religious doctrines” since Dennett had just been discussing how people don’t believe these things.

  6. The Pew study also reveals why atheist critiques of religious doctrines are largely a waste of effort: Few people believe them in any case; they just say they do.

    The paragraph is a bit over-reaching, but is sound when applied to the vast number of “doctrines” one is supposed to believe.

    Christians don’t kill their kids for disobedience. They don’t stone adulterers. They hate rending unto Caesar. They tend to gloss over the whole “mote/log” teaching. They take oaths, swearing to God, even though the bible says not to… Huge numbers believe most of the explicit commands and doctrines are metaphors. Heck, they’ll even ramble on about the ten commandments, but be hard pressed to get five.

    And, of course, there is the competing Church of the NFL. Which comes pretty smack-darn near idolotry…

  7. Dennett’s piece seems to me to be pretty close to a mirror image of the John Shook “atheists are getting a reputation as know-nothings” HuffPo nonsense from several days ago.

    1. With the difference being that Dennett has actual data to back up his argument, while Shook just asserted to nameless individuals. There can be arguments over the quality of the data, or the explanations for the results, or even the methodology, but at least he did mention some.

      1. Oh, certainly.

        I meant “mirror image” to include the quality of the respective arguments—Shook : Dennett :: crappy : good.

        I didn’t intend to imply anything negative at all about Dennett; sorry if it came off that way.

        1. No problem – I didn’t read it that way, but I wanted to bring that point up in case some people tried to use that to say “if you tore apart Shook, isn’t it hypocritical to praise Dennett?”

  8. Well, it’s certainly nice to play some offense for a change.

    I, for one, have been awfully tired of playing defense. Not that anyone has scored any meaningful points, but it’s tiresome to swat the same tired old plays aside.

    I suggest a series of positive essays with regard to atheism. Make them play defense for a while.

    Giberson will be imperious, Plait will accuse us of being dicks, and all the rest. But let’s get back to what we do best. Let them counter our arguments for a while.

  9. Well, I’m not so sure about the last bit. There are plenty of religious people who believe in a personal, theistic God, in the fact that they’ll live after death, in Jesus as God’s son or Mohamed as God’s prophet, and so on.

    Nope, I would totally disagree with that. Almost zero people on Earth act as if they believe in a personal, theistic God.

    Actions speak louder than words. If you say you believe in the power of God but take the antibiotics anyway, or if you say you believe in God’s protection but call 911 just in case, then you don’t really believe in the power of God – you’re just saying you do because it’s what all the cool kids are doing.

    If your actions are equivalent to those of someone who doesn’t believe in God when things actually matter, then you don’t really believe in God.

      1. You know, I wanted to make some comment on that, but found I can’t – it’s short, to the point, and mirrors the other canard, except this one has some truth to it. I like it!

  10. While you certainly have your core group of fanatics who really buy into religious nonsense, the overwhelming majority of “believers” don’t really care, they’re social believers, they think claiming to belong to a religious group makes them look good to the neighbors. Especially in the western world, they give religious lip service, might hit a church service once or twice a year, might have a cross on the wall, might have a Bible in the house gathering dust, but they really have no clue what it is that they’re supposed to believe, beyond the few snippets they catch from the pulpit on Sunday.

    That’s not being religious, that’s playing pretend.

    1. I think you have it right on. If it weren’t for the social pressure, more people would be honest about their nonbelief. And that’s what the atheist-bashing is all about. Gotta keep up the pressure. And if you’re an atheist? We’ll pay you to help out.

      1. That’s exactly right. That’s why there’s so much pushback at attempts at atheist community building. It’s the biggest threat to religious institutions right now.

        My experience is that even among committed churchgoers that I know, they don’t ACTUALLY believe in what I would consider the minimum to be “God”, that is, some sort of intellectual force that has the ability to directly influence and shape our world.

        Which is why I say that for the overwhelming majority of people “God” is actually catharsis. Which is fine actually. Catharsis actually exists. But they don’t talk about it as such. And how they do talk about “God” IMO has real negative social and cultural implications.

    2. Not only right, but important. Without the “social believers”, the United States may be as atheist as Sweden. If many people believe only because others believe, the importance of getting the “atheist message” out is obvious. A tipping point may be easier to reach than the polls on religious belief suggest.

    3. the overwhelming majority of “believers” don’t really care, they’re social believers, they think claiming to belong to a religious group makes them look good to the neighbors.

      Evidence? I don’t think this is at all true, at least in the US. Almost all the believers I know would profess faith in some sort of personal god or at least some universal force, however vague, non-orthodox, and incoherent that belief might actually be. I just don’t buy that the churches in the US are filled with a majority of closet atheists.

      1. Well you know that church attendance on Sunday was once mandated by law (eg in England from 1552 to 1969). And the same in the American colonies for quite some while (look up the Sumptuary Laws, eg of Connecticut, for instance).

        So I have no problem with the idea of churches full of ‘non believers’ – it’s been normal practice for centuries.

      2. I have to agree with Tulse — I’d go so far as to say that the vast majority believe in at least two core beliefs: a personal God, and Jesus being the embodiment of that God. I’d wager the vast majority would consider the statement “He died for your sins” to be true.

        I suppose though, that “believe” in this context may mean something closer to “fervently wish” than “knowing” the sun will come up tomorrow, but I don’t know. They sure seem to talk and act like they are sure of at least these core beliefs, so I’d give them the benefit of the doubt that they believe the stuff, however “belief” is defined.

  11. This is the sort of thing that makes me think that we need to move on from God to the soul. The idea of God is vague, but the conviction that humans have something special that separates them from the animals is damn near universal, and arguably as pernicious as anything else in religion.

  12. Without reading the article, but just the headline I would say:

    Religious people are stupid and, thus believing in fairytales. Atheists are too smart to believe in that nonsense. That answers the question

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