Dan Dennett debates two believers who refuse to say what they believe

I went to this presentation last night, which involved a one-hour moderated discussion followed by a half hour of questions:

The topic, as given at this site was this:  a “conversation that will take the long view on religion as a human enterprise: its history, its power, and its prospects. We hope to bring believers, critics, and everyone in between into a productive—and provocative—dialogue about the place of faith in our changing world.”

That didn’t really happen, but it was an interesting discussion. Read on, though my comments are long.

The discussants included Reza Aslan and Dan Dennett, and you should know who they are, as well as William Schweiker, the Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics at the University of Chicago School of Divinity. Schweiker is also an ordained minister of the United Methodist Church. (Aslan is a Muslim.) The moderator was David Nirenberg, Interim Dean of the University of Chicago Divinity School as well as a Distinguished Service Professor of Medieval History and Social Thought.

Two of the three discussants were believers, Dennett is an atheist, and I’m not sure where Nirenberg falls, but he’s surely sympathetic to religion. In terms of faith, then, it was two against one, or maybe three against one, though Nirenberg did a good job and didn’t dominate the conversation or express his personal opinions.

Here’s the panel (shots are blurry as I used no flash and the shutter speed was 1/8 second):

Left to right: Schweiker, Dennett, Nirenberg, and Aslan


I’ll identify the topics in bold, and will summarize what the discussants said. I won’t be able to resist giving my own commentary as I write.  At the end, I’ll recount the question I asked Schweiker and Aslan and give my overall take.

Nirenberg: What is the place of a “soul” in your scholarly work?  Aslan said that he started off his career trying to separate his personal beliefs from his “scholarly” work, but finds it increasingly untenable to do so. Now, he avers, his religious beliefs are starting to infuse his work. (Sadly, he refused to say what he believed throughout the discussion.)

Schweiker, who also refrained saying anything about his own beliefs, declared that he brings religion into his discussions of ethics because religion raises the “Big Questions” about ethics, and why cut yourself off from an endeavor (religion) that has held sway for thousands of years? He also said that for historical accuracy, one must consider religion when discussing ethics, because there would be NO ethics without religion, including the ethics of Aristotle, Plato, and Kant. In other words, he claimed that religion gave rise to ethics. I doubt that. My own view is that secular ethics inform religion, which then, though its tenets, modifies ethics.

Dennett, the pure naturalist, said that souls are simply “made up of tiny robots” that are material but give us moral consciousness, something no other animal has. Throughout the evening, Dan relied heavily on meme theory, saying that religion is a product mainly of cultural rather than genetic evolution, and exists because memes for religion are self-replicating. I am wary of this, as “memetics” neglects exactly which features of the human mind, some of which must be evolved, make our minds more susceptible to religious memes than to other memes, or more to some religious memes than to other religious memes. In other words, memes are not disembodied, but to spread must interact with our biology. Dan also said that “we learn consciousness”, and here I think he was referring to particular aspects of our consciousness, for surely even a human born and reared in isolation would still be conscious in important ways.

Finally, Dan emphasized throughout a Gedankenexperiment in which robots could be programmed with the entire neuronal setup of a human. He said this would give them moral responsibility. And indeed it would—if humans have moral responsibility. I don’t think we do: I think we are responsible for our acts, but are not “morally” responsible for our acts as we have no libertarian free will and could not have chosen to behave otherwise.

What is a soul, anyway? Aslan said that he had no quarrel about Dennett’s claim that souls, whatever they are, are purely material products of our neuronal wiring. That was weird because with that Aslan abandoned two of the tenets of Islam: the immortal soul and the existence of libertarian free will. (Dennett made clear that, unlike religious “souls”, his version of a soul doesn’t live eternally, but dies with you.)

Aslan argued that he was more interested in what effect belief in the soul has in “making us human.” Throughout the discussion, Aslan punted on his own beliefs and acted as if he was interested solely in the sociology of religion rather than infusing his discussions with his own beliefs—something he said he is increasingly doing but didn’t last night!

Aslan also agreed with Dan that yes, it is possible in principle to transfer our “essence” (including our “souls”) to a robot. That once again flies in the face of Islam. Curiously, nobody defined “soul” except Dennett, who said it was roughly equivalent to an individual’s “dispositions and their architecture”, that is, a combination of one’s consciousness and ways of thinking and behaving. Dan said that to understand the soul conceived in this way, one must use control theory.

This was one of the points where Aslan muddled the discussion by saying that materialists like Dennett use words like “soul” as metaphors that are different from the metaphors that religious people use, but are identical in substance. But Aslan was also confused, because while he said he “didn’t know if consciousness is material,” he also agreed with Dan that it could be downloaded to a robot. If it can, it must be material! Aslan further confused the discussion by adding that if consciousness was indeed the product of purely material and natural processes, it would still be eternal because matter is eternal!

Dan quickly corrected him with the simple statement that it is the organization of matter that determines consciousness and one’s dispositions, and that organization disappears when you die.

Eternity. Schweiker refused to admit that science diminished the hope of eternity, though I can’t recall his explanation why. Dennett, in contrast, said that the finitude of life is what makes it, and morality, so important. If we don’t get a heavenly reward, we must forge a morality based on reason and secular tenets, and assume that people get no further rewards or punishment after they die.

Where did religion come from? Dan used his meme argument here, arguing, as he has in the past, that religion arose from common superstitions of humans, which turned into memes embodying these superstitions. In other words, evolution gave rise to religion, but it was cultural rather than biological evolution. Dennett further argued that religion came from “cultural viruses that spread because they could”, and had a “spreadability” feature lacking in competing memes, or in other religious memes that didn’t take hold.

Aslan got quite exercised at this point, saying that it was a slur to argue that religions are “viruses of the mind”.  In fact, Aslan claimed that we have no idea of how religions arose, and that “adaptive” hypotheses only tell us what religion does now, not how it came into being. He did say that the most plausible hypothesis for religion’s origin was that it was “a byproduct of other stuff,” and I presume he means here something like Pascal Boyer’s claim that religion is a byproduct of the evolved desire to see intentionality in nature. (Of course there are other “byproduct” explanations, like Dawkins’s suggestion that religion arose in part because of the evolved tendency of kids to accept what their elders say.)

Throughout the evening Aslan kept emphasizing that religion pre-dated our own species, and is an “eternal vital essence” of hominins. Dennett took issue with that, but Aslan claimed that the fact that Neanderthals and Homo erectus were sometimes buried with their “stuff” clearly showed their belief that their stuff would go with the dead to another world. Now I’m not sure about H. erectus, and I think there are other interpretations of being buried with your stuff, but clearly religious belief is very old, though I am not at all sure it antedates the origin of the lineage that turned into “modern” H. sapiens. (I don’t think Neanderthals are a different species from modern H. sapiens, anyway.)

Schweiker, too, said religion is not a virus or a meme to most people, but it wasn’t clear what he himself believed.

Does religion promote morality? Dennett said that perhaps, long ago, religions did promote morality: that morality needed the “emotional manipulation” supplied by religion to get off the ground. But now, he added, religion hinders morality, and it’s tremendously distorted moral thinking. Morality, he said, should not depend on the existence of a God, and you should “be good for goodness’s sake”.

Schweiker more or less agreed, saying (which everyone knew) that adding God to religion as a fount of morality violates Plato’s Euthyphro argument. But Schweiker still maintained that religion puts morality “in a more expansive context.” (I’m not sure what he meant by that; it sounded like Sophisticated Theology® or even a Deepity.) Since the world is religious, Schweiker argued that religion was important for morality as it places it on the “big stage” rather than confining morality to a particular culture. However, Schweiker ignored the palpable observation that morality varies from culture to culture and from faith to faith.

Aslan again got exercised about what Dennett said, asserting that he didn’t agree that the present effect of religion on morality was bad. Aslan didn’t say it was good, either: what he said was that “religion is a human construct”, and so of course it will reflect how humans are; ergo some of religion will be good and some will be bad.  When he said this, I thought, well, wars and dictatorships are also human constructs, but they don’t reflect much that is good in us! Aslan also said that the concept of morality as part of religion is new: that the ancient Greeks didn’t see the gods as promoting moral behavior. Morality infused religion, he said, starting with the Jews.

In response, Dennett said that his point was that religion not only tries to promote morality now (not in ancient times) but is now hindering morality, and is doing so by allowing people to “play the faith card”.  If you say that someone should be moral because your God says so, dictating what is moral, then nonbelievers or those of other faiths must ask, “That’s not good enough. What reasons should we have to consider that behavior X is moral?” Schweiker and Aslan immediately agreed with Dan, and the audience applauded—the only applause for an interim statement that I heard the entire evening.

Again, we see that Schweiker and Aslan were always talking about other people’s religions, studiously avoiding mentioning their own religious beliefs, despite Aslan saying at the outset that his beliefs infused his thinking. I longed to hear one of these guys say, “I believe Gabriel dictated/did not dictate the Qur’an to Muhammad”, or “I believe that Jesus was resurrected after death,” but no such words were said. Why not? I think because if you say stuff like that in front of an academic audience, you look superstitious and silly. There was not a single statement the entire evening bearing on a speaker’s own religious beliefs, except for Dennett saying he had none.

Is religion about truths, beliefs, and practices? Aslan kept saying over and over again that religion is NOT about these things: it is about identity. It marks one’s identity, humans need such markers, and that’s why religion will be with us forever.

That was in response to Dennett saying that religion was on the wane, and that atheists needn’t be so vociferous about it any more because religion is going away as we speak. Our job, said Dan, is just to help ease the world into secularism, like a midwife helping our planet give birth to reason (the last simile is mine). Dan argued that the increase in the proportion of “nones” is evidence for the waning of faith. Aslan vehemently responded that most of the “nones” are religious: they are just people who don’t identify with an established religion. Aslan is right about that, but many of the nones are “spiritual” rather than “religious”, and Aslan even remarked that many of the nones may be secret atheists.  But I think that nearly all data, at least from the West, show that atheism, nonbelief, and secularism are on the rise.

As for religion not being about truths or beliefs, but about identity (i.e., like favoring Manchester City over Manchester United), I take issue with that, and it’s one of the big parts of my book Faith versus Fact. If you survey Americans and Brits (and surely Muslims), you find that they do believe in many factual statements about the cosmos and assert these beliefs in Church. I also claim that without a grounding in these beliefs, religion becomes almost meaningless: it would be a social club without superstitions.

Near the end, Aslan said that in effect he was a physical determinist like Dennett, but said that that this determinism did not “delimit the faith experience.” And at that point a question began forming in my brain—a question I wanted to ask Schweiker and Aslan.

My question to the believers. I didn’t think I’d ask a question during the Q&A period, but several of the questions weren’t really trenchant (e.g., “What is the connection between art and religion?”). And so, at the end of the Q&A period, I raised my hand. I can’t remember exactly what I said, as I was nervous (it’s weird—I get nervous asking questions but when not giving talks), but it went something like this (I may be adding parts, for this is based on the notes I wrote for my question):

“I came here expecting a spirited debate of faith against nonbelief, but what I’m hearing is a secular lovefest. Everyone seems to agree that religion is a human construct, that you don’t need God or religion to buttress morality, and that religion had a secular origin. But the religious people on the panel have avoided discussing their own beliefs: they’ve talked about other people’s beliefs. I’d like to ask Drs. Aslan and Schweiker how their own personal religious beliefs inform their own morality, and how they affect their behavior and ideas in a way that would distinguish their views from those of Dan Dennett.”

I thought that was a good question in view of the avoidance of faith statements made by Schweiker and Aslan—both religious men.

Aslan simply punted: he said that he couldn’t prove whether there was a God or whether we had souls, and his response when asked that is to say things like, “Well, first you have to define what you mean by ‘God’.”

In other words, he didn’t respond. (I can’t remember Schweiker’s response but it was brief, and I was busy writing down what Aslan said.)  This is Karen Armstrong-ian theology: you don’t admit what you believe personally, and reduce all questions to definitional nonsense. I became a bit angry at that point because Schweiker and Aslan simply refused to admit that they entertained any religious beliefs, though the former is a Methodist minister and the latter a Muslim. And I think they punted because they’d look silly professing beliefs about Allah and Jesus.

At that point Dennett (who knew I was there) seemed to look at me, grin a bit (I may be imagining this), and said pithily to the others, “I doubt that what you gentlemen said is what you hear most preachers tell their congregations on Sunday.” In other words, Aslan and Schweiker were professing a rarified, almost atheistic version of religion—a kind of soccer club with incense.

And, as I left the venue clutching a couple of small sandwiches, I thought to myself, “If Aslan ever said that kind of stuff on the steps of the Great Mosque of Mecca, he’d be stoned to death.” (I think I”m plagiarizing a bit from Hitchens here.) What we were dealing with on this panel was not religion as most people practice it, but Sophisticated Theology®.

Two more points. By saying that religion is far more about identity than beliefs and practices, Aslan has removed religion from criticism of its tenets. All you can say to a believer, if Aslan’s claim be true, is “You adopted the wrong identity!”. But of course Aslan is wrong: most believers, and certainly his fellow Muslims, have definite beliefs about reality and about God, and those beliefs undergird their morality. Many of those beliefs come from scriptural interpretation, which is why nearly all surveyed Muslims think that homosexuality is immoral and that women should be submissive to their husbands. And many Muslims want sharia to be the law of the land for all, not just for themselves. Is that just about identity? If so, why force it on others?

Finally, if there was a winner of the evening, it was clearly Dan, and I don’t think I’m being biased here. What happened is that Dan got the other two panelists to admit to many of his materialist and philosophical views, and to avoid mentioning their own faiths—or even the virtue of faith itself.

While I disagree with Dan on the importance of memes in the origin of religion, I am with him on atheism, the source of morality, and physical determinism. And once you accept those things, the rest is commentary.


UPDATE: I heard from a reporter who recorded the entire panel and wanted to quote my question in an article. Since he had a tape recorder, he transcribed the real question I asked in my own words, which differs a bit, though not substantively, from what I recalled above. Here’s what I said:

I came to this expecting a spirited debate about faith versus atheism, and instead I’ve seen a secular love-fest in which religion is talked about as other people’s religion, not what you believe. Two members of the panel are religious and I’m wondering–I’d like to ask Dr. Schweiker and Reza Aslan, Do you even care whether God exists or whether there’s an immortal soul? And if so how does that inform your beliefs and your morality in a way different from how it informs Dan’s?

The stuff about religion being a human construct and stuff is in my notes but I guess I didn’t verbalize it.


  1. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:30 am | Permalink


  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    “School of Divinity” — seems anomalous, or at least anachronistic, at a respected institution of higher learning. If “divinity,” why not astrology? Shouldn’t these folks be shunted off to their own cloistered campuses to study their superstitions, the way they did in the Middle Ages?

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:55 am | Permalink

      In my view, “school of divinity” is a very old fashioned school, which is kept to serve as a type of English department. I think this is due to Emerson and Whitman.

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

      One of the great achievements of Thomas Jefferson was his insistence, when founding the University of Virginia, that that university would never have a divinity school!

      • Steve Pollard
        Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        My old college at Oxford still has more Professors of Theology than of Physics.

        • Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:36 pm | Permalink

          I guess that, other things equal, theology is easier to study. And their department does not need fancy equipment.

          • Liz
            Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:51 pm | Permalink


        • rickflick
          Posted February 6, 2019 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

          It makes me wonder what the hell they can possibly be doing all day.

          • Mark R.
            Posted February 6, 2019 at 8:46 pm | Permalink

            Executive Time dontcha know?

            • rickflick
              Posted February 6, 2019 at 9:44 pm | Permalink

              That’s not a bad thing. Probably keeps them out of too much trouble. Like 45 – the more time on the gulf course, the less time screwing things up.

  3. Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

    I had a similar online discussion with Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher and boy, did that apple fall in a different place from the first one).
    He said roughly the same as Reza Aslan–no ethics without religion. I pointed out that Plato and Aristotle pre-dated Christianity by half a millenium and then he started to get really cross.
    At one point he said “I wouldnt want to live in a world where the evil arent punished” and I thought, “Thanks for your honesty”. I do believe that exactly this thought (and its not a nice one, frankly) is driving a lot (not all) religious framing of ethics–the satisfaction of seeing the wrong-doer punished–maybe not in this life, but the psychological comfort of knowing that they will get theirs in the hereafter.
    That connects closely with what Prof CC finds about retributive punishment of course.

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:45 am | Permalink

      At one point he said “I wouldnt want to live in a world where the evil arent punished” …

      To which the reply is that the world is under no obligation to adjust itself to his liking.

      • Posted February 6, 2019 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

        Yes, but I learned that a certain type of religiosity is very closely linked to a desire for retributive justice. Incidentally, I don’t think its any kind of accident that Peter Hitchens was a hard-line Trot before he was religious. It promises the exact same thing–punishment of the guilty (identified by you, of course!)

        • darrelle
          Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

          And if you don’t agree you are morally reprehensible. That, to my mind, is the real trick. That’s the primary “immunizing tactic,” to use a term of Sastra’s. It bypasses any chance of serious discussion, questioning or criticism by the slight of hand of suddenly leaping directly to the assumption that it is universally obvious, a veritable a priori truth, that opposition to the thing in question is morally bad. It reduces the burden of the claimant from having to support their claim to simply having to accuse their questioner of being immoral.

          • Posted February 7, 2019 at 4:39 am | Permalink

            Christian theologians were not exactly shy about the pleasure they (and previous saints) were and would take in the torments of the damned. Its a large reason why I cant take christianity morally seriously
            THOMAS AQUINAS
            “In order that the happiness of the saints may be more delightful to them and that they may render more copious thanks to God for it, they are allowed to see perfectly the sufferings of the damned. So that they may be urged the more to praise God. The saints in heaven know distinctly all that happens to the damned.”
            (Summa Theologica Question XCIV)
            “The sight of hell torments will exalt the happiness of the saints forever. Can the believing father in Heaven be happy with his unbelieving children in Hell? I tell you, yea! Such will be his sense of justice that it will increase rather than diminish his bliss.”
            [“The Eternity of Hell Torments” (Sermon), April 1739]
            “What a spectacle when the world and its many products, shall be consumed in one great flame! How vast a spectacle then bursts upon the eye! What there excites my admiration? What my derision? Which sight gives me joy? As I see illustrious monarchs groaning in the lowest darkness, Philosophers as fire consumes them! Poets trembling before the judgment-seat of Christ! I shall hear the tragedians, louder-voiced in their own calamity; view play-actors in the dissolving flame; behold wrestlers, not in their gymnasia, but tossing in the fiery billows. What inquisitor or priest in his munificence will bestow on you the favor of seeing and exulting in such things as these? Yet even now we in a measure have them by faith in the picturings of imagination.”
            [De Spectaculis, Chapter XXX]
            “They who shall enter into [the] joy [of the Lord] shall know what is going on outside in the outer darkness. The saints knowledge, which shall be great, shall keep them acquainted with the eternal sufferings of the lost.”
            [The City of God, Bk 20, Ch. 22)
            And so on and so forth.
            I think far too little attention is paid to the glee with which humans fasten on having an excuse to enjoy others suffering, once they have been consigned to the role of the damned. Of course–we see this daily in media pile-ons, but we need to acknowledge that this is a deep need across our species.

            • ThyroidPlanet
              Posted February 7, 2019 at 5:52 am | Permalink

              What is that thing called – Progressive Revelation (?) And would it include these specimens?

            • darrelle
              Posted February 7, 2019 at 6:22 am | Permalink

              Thanks for the fascinating quotes. I’ve never seen any of them before.

            • rickflick
              Posted February 7, 2019 at 7:46 am | Permalink

              We had a wonderful lit teacher in high school. He had us read Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”. By then I had also read Russell’s “Why I am Not a Christian”, and other blasphemous tracts. I could only wonder why so many of my classmates attended church every week. Sadism is indeed a deep need.

    • Mark R.
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      And this is precisely what sickens me about many religious people. They think it’s perfectly OK for their g*d to eternally torture fellow humans for not having faith, and they are happy about it. I can see these people imagining themselves in heaven, sitting in front of a portal to hell, watching all the wretches shriek and moan in eternal flame; all the observers with smug smiles on their faces. Talk about a lack of morality.

      • Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

        “I’ve read the Christian Fathers. I’ve read Tertullian, one of the great fathers of the church. Answering some questions… ‘We see why Hell is unpleasant, why is Heaven such fun?’ It seems to be rather dutiful — endless praise, endless worship, endless subjection, endless tedium — you would think that the Lord Himself, after the first five billion years, would have had enough praise. No, it’s got to go on forever. Okay, where are the good bits? Tertullian says, we’ve thought of the good bits. In the intervals of that, you can go to the edge, and you can look down and gloat on the torments and the endless tortures of the damned. We’ve thought of that.”

        — Christopher Hitchens, in a debate with Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, September 16, 2010

        • Mark R.
          Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

          Perfect! Boy do I miss that man. Thanks for the quote.

        • Mike Cracraft
          Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:12 pm | Permalink

          Yeah heaven is great but just watch out for all those dinosaurs roaming around up there.

        • ThyroidPlanet
          Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:17 pm | Permalink

          It’s so Hitchens – I can hear him speak it.

        • darrelle
          Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

          Another appropriate Hitchens quote. This one from the Four Horseman session since Jerry’s recent articles on it prompted me to re-watch the video.

          “. . . and also they can’t be allowed to forget what they used to say when they were strong enough to get away with it, which is, ‘This is really true, in every detail, and if you don’t believe it we’ll kill you. We’ll kill you, and it may take some days to kill you, but we’ll get the job done.’ They wouldn’t have the power they have now if they hadn’t had the power they had then.

          [Christopher Hitchens commenting on differences between appeals to authority among religions (primarily the Abrahamic faiths) vs science regarding the accuracy of their respective claims, from the video The Four Horseman – Hitchens, Dawkins, Dennet, Harris [2007], starting approximately 43:00]

    • davelenny
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

      Yet even the Bible admits the possibility of ethics without religion.

      Both the Old Testament (‘an eye for an eye’)and the New Testament (‘do unto others what you would have them do unto you’) invoke ethical principles found in many societies and not requiring gods, merely a pragmatic and realistic understanding of human psychology.

      Why believers think these are god-derived, or even if they do believe that, I don’t know.

  4. Randall Schenck
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    Seems like you needed a Hitch there to wake up the dead. The only way to get these religious elites to say anything understandable is to ring their bell.

  5. Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    In other words, he claimed that religion gave rise to ethics.

    Whereas the truth of the matter is that ethics gave rise to religion.

    People do not get their morals from religion, rather religion gets its morals from people.

    • Sastra
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

      If religion is about identity, as claimed, then saying “ religion” gave rise to morality means morality grew out of collective groups. You’re a member of Tribe A; you have to get along with the other members (and they have to get along with you.)

      Voila! Rules for being fair and honorable are born!

      Redefining words is your friend. It makes words do what you want.

  6. electricacontentblog
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:51 am | Permalink

    This is where I have a real eye roll for Reza Aslan.

    I don’t doubt that *he* is a decent person (beyond what I see as is willingness to sort of provide a smokescreen for some of the disturbing aspects of religious belief in general and Islamic belief in particular). But it seems pretty absurd to suggest that most believers, say, view their faith as a basically cultural thing the way he does.

    So maybe he’s not as narcissistic as I thought. If he were, then he’d probably be holding himself up as more of an example of a person of faith who doesn’t hold any of the bigotries of his faith’s texts and who doesn’t believe in the literalness of those texts, either.

  7. DrBrydon
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I get annoyed at the conflation of morality (which I see as religious) with ethics (which I see as non-religious). Ethics may say it is wrong to kill, but morality says it’s ok to kill all the men and beasts, and make slaves of the women. I see morality as special pleading for one’s prejudices.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

      That’s a good description. Makes sense.

  8. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    But Aslan was also confused, because while he said he “didn’t know if consciousness is material,” he also agreed with Dan that it could be downloaded to a robot.

    Downloaded by whom, a shaman? That’s some weird-ass metaphysics Rezlan’s got going on there.

    • Posted February 8, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Perhaps by a lama. The Dalai Lama is on record as saying that robots will “magically” (my phrase) acquire buddha nature after a certain complexity (or whatever) is available.

  9. Liz
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    My definition of soul is probably something like this:

    Soul: a word used to describe the sensory perception, most often in near death and other biological experiences, of being separated from one’s body.

    Dreams might be somewhere in there also.

    It was my understanding that early creation myths were an example of people trying to explain their realities. To me, this was one of the ways religions started.

    “How Quantum Field Theory Becomes ‘Effective'”
    Posted on June 20, 2013 by Sean Carroll

    It is my understanding also that there is no “divine” explanation for a “soul” or an experience mentioned above. There are physical laws and explanations for everything.

    Many people misinterpret these experiences, such as near death ones, and go directly from atheists to “believers”. This is unfortunate because there are neurological and biological things to be investigated there.

    I think it is important to find out how any why religions came about. People’s interpretations of a “soul” or dreams probably contributed along with power, wanting a truth, laziness in not asking questions, social structure, etc.

    It’s important to get it right and have better tools to teach or interact with religious people.

  10. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 12:44 pm | Permalink

    Our job, said Dan, is just to help ease the world into secularism, like a midwife helping our planet give birth to reason …

    Hope it never comes down to performing a cesarean.

    And I’ma let you folks clean up the afterbirth. 🙂

  11. Ken Kukec
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    … a kind of soccer club with incense.

    That’s a beaut.

    • Frank Bath
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

      Goal! I got a laugh out of that too.

      • Ken Kukec
        Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

        I can hear the vuvuzelas and smell the myrrh from here. 🙂

  12. Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    I wonder if many other people were as surprised as Jerry, or if that’s what they went there to see — Dennett being love-fested into seeing that religion is identity, and you can’t question that, hey (and this identity is based on faith in God, so leave that alone too while you’re at it).

    Back in the pre-scientific days, when there was only mythology/’religion’ and the various crafts and trades, the mythologians could discuss and squabble or get along or kill each other happily and eternally, with no danger of one or the other or both ever being demonstrated to be wrong. Then along comes science, the new kid on the block, and ruins everything for them. I think they still haven’t figured out what hit them, and probably never will. they just want to go back to the old rules, where any claim is allowedd, and all are happy to state their non-facts till the cows come home.

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

      Dennett didn’t get a chance to respond to Aslan’s claim, but I’m pretty damn sure he disagreed with it, as evidenced by his terse remark at the end.

  13. GBJames
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:01 pm | Permalink


  14. Mark Sturtevant
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:15 pm | Permalink

    I can agree well enough with Aslan that the tendency toward religion probably predates our species, if one broadly describes religion as beliefs that are infused with ideas about agency, cause, and effect from ones’ environment.
    If a doorbell rings on the television, our dog goes nuts and runs barking to the front door. After a pause he will sit like a good boy. Because that is what he is supposed to do to get the door to open.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

      I agree. It seems very plausible to me that a (as in one of likely many) characteristic that predisposes humans to religious thinking is indeed our evolved tendency to attribute agency to phenomena we experience but can’t readily explain otherwise. And that evolved characteristic is not unique to humans. It is very noticeable in many other animals and makes a heck of a lot of sense for any organism. My cat thinks every sound is something out to get her. Better safe than sorry.

      • Posted February 6, 2019 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

        Yup, mammals are like that. The human apple (nut?) didn’t fall very far from the tree.

        • darrelle
          Posted February 7, 2019 at 6:27 am | Permalink

          I think ‘nut’ does work better!

  15. Mark R.
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:24 pm | Permalink

    There was no way I was going to make it to Chicago to see this, so it is much appreciated to read your distillation here. Thanks for the interesting summary. I inly applaud when reason outshines theology, sophisticated or not.

    • Liz
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:44 pm | Permalink


    • darrelle
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:29 pm | Permalink


      Very much appreciated Jerry.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 5:20 pm | Permalink


  16. Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:56 pm | Permalink

    “Dan relied heavily on meme theory, saying that religion is a product mainly of cultural rather than genetic evolution, and exists because memes for religion are self-replicating.”

    I would say here for the latter, it is helped along by fear of the unknown, natural phenomenon explained for psychological comfort, etc.
    Supplemented by god moves in mysterious ways and other ambiguous forms of tale telling with rituals of appeasement to lay down coherence in the brain.
    The power hierarchy of small bands expanding to large sedentary populations, from shaman to priest, religion was power, status and wealth.
    Mix in tribalism, rituals, reward! lying to children the inheritance factor, albeit through ignorance and presto!…
    ONE massive ball and chain to drag around for millennia. We have been a slave to these memes because of fear, the power source and driver.
    Science expands, it does not eliminate fear, that would be daft, but understanding what we are actually dealing with, does a good deal to ameliorate.
    Today we have all manner of shirking and sneaky forms to say the same thing, save religion at all costs. No morality without religion is fear of the unknown, ignorance of what we now know of how humans and the universe works.

  17. kurtzs
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 1:59 pm | Permalink

    The challenge to all who claim that souls or deities exist as non-physical phenomena is to provide evidence for *anything* that isn’t energy-matter-information. (physics definitions) If they did so, they’d likely win a Nobel Prize! As to *why* humans are mystical and superstitious, the answer is that those traits aided the evolution of homo superstitious. They were selected at times when tribal cooperation benefited from common myths and values. Teamwork required social cohesion. See my review of The Spirit in the Gene, by Reg Morrison, fwd by Lynn Margulis:

    • Posted February 8, 2019 at 12:16 pm | Permalink

      Energy is not a stuff. Nor is information – they are properties (perhaps relational in the latter case).

  18. Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I think we are responsible for our acts, but are not “morally” responsible for our acts as we have no libertarian free will …

    I would agree with Dan’s conception of “moral responsibility” that does not involve libertarian free will.

    Indeed, recently, Jerry wrote: “With few exceptions, most scientists and philosophers think that morality is at bottom based on human preferences” (I agree, as I think would Dan).

    In which case, why would anything supernatural (such as libertarian free will) be needed in order to count as “morality”?

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:47 pm | Permalink

      Good question. I am not strongly opposed to the term “moral responsibility” so long as people understand that what I mean by it is “responsible for committing an act that is considered immoral.” Why I don’t like the term, though, is because of its implication that you could have chosen to be moral or immoral, when in fact you can’t.

  19. Sastra
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:11 pm | Permalink

    This is Karen Armstrongian theology: you don’t admit what you believe personally, and reduce all questions to definitional nonsense. I became a bit angry at that point because Schweiker and Aslan simply refused to admit that they entertained any religious beliefs, though the former is a Methodist minister and the latter a Muslim. And I think they punted because they’d look silly professing beliefs about Allah and Jesus.

    I think this is what happens when theology actually merges with apologetics. God literally becomes the subjective belief in God. There’s no need to defend a belief in the act of believing. Schweiker and Aslan then weren’t afraid of looking silly: they were afraid of being challenged.

    It’s what Dennett calls “ belief in belief.”

    Modern, liberal theists tend to use the same definition of God.

    God: you tell me what you mean by it, and I’ll tell you it’s got something wrong with it.

  20. Danny Kodicek
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 2:30 pm | Permalink

    I don’t know if I’ve mentioned this here before, but I’ve always loved the quote from Yes, Prime Minister: “Theology is a device for enabling agnostics to stay within the church”

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

      It’s very well observed – surprisingly to the point given when it was written/broadcast.

      [Sir Humphrey] Well, there is always the Dean of Baillie.
      [Hacker (PM)] He’s not really up to it, is he? I gather he’s lazy, vain and uninterested in Christianity.
      [Sir Humphrey] But he’s not AGAINST it! I think he would make a thoroughly suitable British bishop. Cricket, steam engines and a complete ignorance of theology.

      (I think I’ve attributed the dialogue correctly. the script I found was incomplete in that respect.)

      And here’s a clip with your quotation:


  21. revelator60
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    “What we were dealing with on this panel was not religion as most people practice it, but Sophisticated Theology®.”

    On that note, the latest edition of the New York Review of Books mentions Prof. Coyne and “sophisticated theologians” in its review of John Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism.

    Alas, the review is positive. It’s not online and not much of a review either—the hack who wrote it merely recapitulates Gray’s “ideas” while occasionally nodding with approval. I am sick of the fawning coverage given to this meretricious book. So far the only reviewer with teeth has been Simon Blackburn in the Times Literary Supplement (www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/public/enlightened-thinking-atheism-god/).

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 9:32 pm | Permalink

      Yeah, I saw that. There’s no book more likely to win praise from the intellectual and liberal press than an atheist-dissing book written by an atheist.

  22. rickflick
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:39 pm | Permalink

    “Aslan further confused the discussion by adding that if consciousness was indeed the product of purely material and natural processes, it would still be eternal because matter is eternal!”

    Aslan paddles about at the shallow end of the gene pool.

  23. rickflick
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 3:48 pm | Permalink

    “Sadly, he refused to say what he believed throughout the discussion.”

    I think these thinkers are simply cowards. If they said what they personally believed they would be laying themselves open to criticism from Dennett. Dennett, a professor of philosophy, could turn them into chopped liver on a wooden board if they so much as hinted at an opinion based on religious premises.

    • darrelle
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

      I think so too. Their authority as Sophisticated Theologians™ is built on obscurity, nebulousness and extravagant use of word salad. This both hides the fact that they aren’t saying much of anything at all and demonstrates to those so inclined to think so that they are sophisticated. But if they were to say something as simple and concrete as, “I believe that Jesus rose from death and ascended to Heaven,” well, that’s not very sophisticated. It’s also something concrete that presents a solid target to anyone who would challenge them. And like you said, if that someone is as learned and savvy as Dan Dennett well, good luck with that.

      Of course, when someone like Dennett does convincingly refute them their followers don’t see it that way no matter how clear it is. They see a strident atheist being a dick. Their commitment to their religious views requires it.

      • Sastra
        Posted February 7, 2019 at 7:29 am | Permalink

        Very well put.

        The only thing I’d add is that it’s very likely that this strategy is unconscious on their part. Since God (and spiritual things in general) are supposed to be beyond our mental grasp and intuited rather than reasoned to, a lack of clarity and detail is seen as a feature as opposed to a bug.

        If someone begins with this attitude towards the divine, they would, if Christian, “believe” that “Jesus” “rose” “from” the “dead.” It’s all analogy when faced with skepticism — from others or from themselves — but they’re “allowed” to think of it more literally because they’re only human.

        • darrelle
          Posted February 7, 2019 at 5:12 pm | Permalink

          Good point, thank you.

    • alexander
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 6:17 pm | Permalink

      “I think these thinkers are simply cowards. If they said what they personally believed they would be laying themselves open to criticism from Dennett.”

      There is also another explanation: They don’t believe in a god, etc., but it is for them socially disadvantageous to say so. It is a situation comparable to many Catholic priests in Europe who, reaching an intellectual maturity at age 40, choose to keep playing the game and ring the church bells to secure the daily sandwich…

      • rickflick
        Posted February 6, 2019 at 9:39 pm | Permalink

        That sounds right. Aslan publishes book that are designed to fascinate the nominally religious. If they felt he was not one of them, it would cost him beaucoup de sales. As a professed Muslim, he’s accepted by christian reader simply because he is a believer in something supernatural.

        Schweiker is a sophisticated bell ringer.

      • Posted February 6, 2019 at 10:00 pm | Permalink

        Honestly wouldn’t be a bad job. It’s easy and leaves plenty of time for whatever else you’re interested in doing.


        • darrelle
          Posted February 7, 2019 at 6:48 am | Permalink

          Very true.

  24. Heather Hastie
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 5:48 pm | Permalink

    I’m a bit confused by Aslan’s insistence that religion is about identity while at the same time saying that many nones actually believe in God or some higher power or something like that. None of that is very specific and therefore, to my mind anyway, can’t be about identity. To be about identity – being part of a religious community – you have to actually say something like, “I’m a Muslim,” as Aslan does.

    Personally I’m not convinced that Aslan really is a Muslim in terms of what he personally believes. I’ve been taking note of him for a while. Imo, his saying he’s a Muslim probably IS about identity. But, as Jerry says, most religious people still believe the supernatural stuff that’s part of their religion.

    • alexander
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

      Well, saying that you aren’t any more a Muslim is still not very good for your health. A problem several enlightened people had during the past centuries, just think of Spinoza.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted February 6, 2019 at 7:21 pm | Permalink

        Yeah, I meant to say something about that. Being a well known Muslim like him would make it even harder to avoid the zealots too.

  25. Roger
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Can’t really blame them for not saying what they believe. “And you know this how?” “Because invisible people told me in my head.” Audience erupts in laughter.

  26. BJ
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    If religion imparted morality any better than securalism in the modern age, Reza Aslan wouldn’t be a liar, fraud, and huckster. Or maybe he’s just faking being religious. We know how many other things he’s faked.

  27. Roo
    Posted February 6, 2019 at 9:12 pm | Permalink

    I’m not sure if it follows that if a soul can be downloaded it must be material, but then, I am not up on the nuances of the word ‘material’ when used in a philosophical sense. It seems to me that saying information is ‘material’ is a very grey area though. The concept of ‘information’ or ‘data’ feels like Buddhist-koan territory – it exists but it doesn’t exist; it is manifest but it is not manifest, etc.

    I agree that the version of religion presented here sounds rarified. Especially in today’s environment. One unfortunate thing I have noted, anecdotally, is that as the country becomes more secular, you see start to see the urban / rural divides that show up geographically turning up in religion as well. The people who leave are often (not always, but often,) the better educated, more progressive and moderate influences, so those that remain become increasingly hardline. I feel like (again, anecdotally,) I’ve seen this really spike in the past five years or so, and sadly it becomes a self-perpetuating cycle as even those (like myself) who remained fairly sympathetic to more progressive religious institutions eventually get pushed to that ‘line in the sand’ (homosexuals are not allowed; why do we need to allow for medically necessary abortions when any good mother would happily give her life for her child, etc.) and feel we can’t implicitly endorse what is being said, and so more people find other spiritual outlets, institutions get even more hardline, and the cycle continues.

    • rickflick
      Posted February 6, 2019 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

      The reason a soul (or anything else) is material is that any information must be stored in a material substance. It does not exist in a material vacuum. So, if your soul is composed of your various attributes such as emotions, attitudes, and tendencies of personality, these are only manifested via data stored in your brain operating withing your body. The soul, then, (or any information), is dependent on one medium or another for it’s existence. The state of your brain can, in principle, be transferred to another medium such as a computer memory.

      • Roo
        Posted February 6, 2019 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

        I would say that ‘dependent upon’ is different than ‘the same essence as’ – for example, the air in a jar is dependent upon the solid matter that the jar is made of to exist, but that does not make them one and the same.

        That said, again, what specifically is meant by the ‘material’ in ‘materialism’ is not a topic I know about in depth, so this may be covered somewhere within the philosophy.

      • Posted February 7, 2019 at 3:53 am | Permalink

        See Greg Egan’s short story “Learning to Be Me”.


        • rickflick
          Posted February 7, 2019 at 6:59 am | Permalink

          SF is always light years ahead.

        • rickflick
          Posted February 7, 2019 at 7:38 am | Permalink

          BTW, have you switched?

          • Posted February 7, 2019 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

            Who are you asking … ?


            • rickflick
              Posted February 7, 2019 at 2:34 pm | Permalink

              Whom wants to know?

        • Roo
          Posted February 7, 2019 at 10:07 am | Permalink

          Very interesting story! I must say (as a result of meditation, I think,) my worldview now leans more towards the idea that self-conscious experiences are something like sentience illuminating information – and I think that information, in and of itself, is often a shared phenomenon (with a component of sensory information that is specific to individual bodies, so that it will always seem a bit different as experienced from person to person.)

          That said, as to the question of whether not information is ‘material’, again, I’m not sure. It’s like asking if math is material. I mean – ‘-ish’, I guess? But not really. But sort of…

    • Posted February 6, 2019 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      The people who leave are often (not always, but often,) the better educated, more progressive and moderate influences, so those that remain become increasingly hardline.

      I remember Eliezer Yudkowsky calling this evaporative cooling of beliefs. Like how the fastest atoms escape and leave the slower (i.e. colder) atoms behind, the moderate members leave, leaving the radicals behind.


      • Roo
        Posted February 6, 2019 at 10:43 pm | Permalink

        Interesting, I hadn’t heard that term before. I feel it’s an uncomfortable shift all around, as on the one hand I feel saddened about leaving behind familiar communities, and on the other side of things, new groups that were previously more ‘bubble-esque’ (of the spiritual-but-not-religious sort, I mean) have their own growing pains as they decide whether to accommodate or shut out a growing influx of more mainstream types looking for someplace to go. But, as the saying goes, the beat goes on.

    • alexander
      Posted February 7, 2019 at 2:05 am | Permalink

      “I’m not sure if it follows that if a soul can be downloaded it must be material, ”

      Nature published an interesting, but scary, paper:
      Article | OPEN | Published: 04 February 2019

      Click to access s41598-018-36885-0.pdf

      Human Mind Control of Rat Cyborg’s Continuous Locomotion with Wireless Brain-to-Brain Interface
      Shaomin Zhang, Sheng Yuan, […]Gang Pan
      Scientific Reportsvolume 9, Article number: 1321 (2019) | Download Citation

      Brain-machine interfaces (BMIs) provide a promising information channel between the biological brain and external devices and are applied in building brain-to-device control. Prior studies have explored the feasibility of establishing a brain-brain interface (BBI) across various brains via the combination of BMIs. However, using BBI to realize the efficient multidegree control of a living creature, such as a rat, to complete a navigation task in a complex environment has yet to be shown. In this study, we developed a BBI from the human brain to a rat implanted with microelectrodes (i.e., rat cyborg), which integrated electroencephalogram-based motor imagery and brain stimulation to realize human mind control of the rat’s continuous locomotion. Control instructions were transferred from continuous motor imagery decoding results with the proposed control models and were wirelessly sent to the rat cyborg through brain micro-electrical stimulation. The results showed that rat cyborgs could be smoothly and successfully navigated by the human mind to complete a navigation task in a complex maze. Our experiments indicated that the cooperation through transmitting multidimensional information between two brains by computer-assisted BBI is promising.

  28. Posted February 7, 2019 at 5:53 am | Permalink

    Discussions about religion must be concrete, and must never rely on the term “religion”, otherwise they are without a topic. Religion can mean anything, and believers also love to manoeuvre around everything.

    The distinction between religion and culture (and much else) seems ahistorical to me. I believe it unwarranted to extrapolate our (still) murky ideas about religion into an even murkier past. Perhaps the Franks thought they have to bring their “way of life“ to the Saxons, make them more like themselves, not just replace the guy they carry around on the acre to help the crops grow.

    This would change how to go about the emergence of religion. It seems better to assume a proto-religion-culture, perhaps as art, that started as individuals expressing something other people liked, found useful, oddly comforting, explanatory, and so on. Individuals good at this, perhaps “neuro-divergent” (shizotypy etc) would become the proto-intellectual-elite around the campfire. These individuals would express something, and over time, stories and narratives evolved, perhaps as art and wisdom, guided by human nature (especially cognition). We do in fact naturally exist in many worlds, because we imagine, dream, and hallucinate. Those individuals, perhaps as shamans, would navigate, explain and make sense of this all.

    I propose that morality, reasoning and sense-making emerged in a crude manner within this art-wisdom-culturo-religious context (also anchored in language), and was refined over time, leading to ever more specialised professions. Religion, art and philosophy are three types of “residue” that we could not fully resolve yet, and they remained in a more murky and primordial state, that would late be recognized as religion. They still hang together, while we have specialised sciences closely matching their referents of interest. The problem is that our morality, our sense of beauty and much more are still black boxes, and it is this — cultural historical — reason these things are associated with culture-religion-art and so on.

    • Posted February 7, 2019 at 10:22 am | Permalink

      That’s an interesting idea.

      From a Facebook post: “High confidence means that you have constructed a coherent story about an issue, not that you have the right answer. (More or less verbatim from Daniel Kahneman, Nobel winner in economics.)”

      The ability to construct a coherent story (even if false) clearly has value in human society. This is politics as well as religion.


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