Universal Religious Education in America: A Public Policy Project for the Future
by Dr. Robert D. Crane
One of America’s most articulate and well-known atheists in America, Professor Daniel Dennett, advocates that the survival of American democracy requires that all public schools adopt a national curriculum to teach about religion. His rationale is that religion and religious institutions “provide an infrastructure for moral teamwork,” which secular institutions simply cannot do.
Dennett, who is Director of Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, is controversial, especially among religious leaders, because they regard him as an outspoken, articulate, and proudly self-proclaimed atheist and therefore ipso facto as an enemy of religion. As a person who respects and makes a living from intelligent controversy, Bill Moyers interviewed him for the Charlie Rose Show on April 3, 2006, about his book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
Professor Dennett’s beef is that religion historically and even today serves as a “hypocrisy trap” and as a means to stop the rational thought that is necessary in a democracy. He warns against those who play what he calls “the faith card” in order to impose or maintain their own absolutist sense of meaning and their own exclusive power.
Although much of the interview was about God because Dennett’s rejection of God is what makes him so controversial, Dennett believes that whether God exists or not should not be the question, because agreement can never be reached on this issue. He says he has never met an atheist who was converted to belief in God by studying Saint Thomas Aquinas, or a Roman Catholic who became an atheist because of listening to people like himself.
Dennett says there can be no dialogue between people who say they have faith in God and those who have faith that there is no god to have faith in, but such people may have much good in common that derives from their diametrically opposite faiths about God. He says that God has been decoupled from interfaith discussions anyway, because no-one knows who God is and what atheism or denial of God is.
Dennett says the world is sacred, because one must have a sense of awe at existence. Saint Anselm said simply “God is greater than which nothing can be conceived of.” But, Dennett says, the universe qualifies for this definition. How many members of Congress, he asks, could explain what they mean when they say they believe in or have faith God? How many have faith only in faith, or are religious only because it would break Granny’s heart if they left the faith?
Dennett’s major argument cuts both ways, as do, frankly all his other arguments inasmuch as they can lead to the opposite of his own conclusions. He says that religion is a natural phenomenon, which is why it can be dismissed as a source of truth. One can just as well argue that this is a good indication that religion naturally is a means to truth and the highest level of evolution.
All people, or at least all sensitive people, both Moyer and Dennett agree, have a sense of awe when they enter Chartres Cathedral even if they know nothing of the great history of Western civilization represented in the statues and murals along the walls. Moyers cited Joseph Cambell about awe of beauty and asked Dennett whether he believes in Paul Tillich’s “ground of being.” Dennett says “of course.” For him, however, the “ground of being” is the marvelous evolution that led to the Chartres Cathedral.
As a further example of religion as natural, he says that the instinct is natural to thank a person for a good deed, so people instinctively look for a higher person as an agent of what is good in the world. They ask not what is there, but who is there, the same way that a dog barks at a “who” not a “what” when snows falls off the roof. The agent eventually evolved into a monotheistic personal god.
He believes that religion has evolved throughout the ages, just as have language and music as natural elements of life. The dangerous element of religion has evolved in recent millennia to the sophisticated point of what he calls “mimetic engineering,” whereby organized religion manipulates symbols to grab the human heartstrings. Humans from time immemorial have always loved music and art, but organized religion, he contends, is more recent even than the invention of agriculture. Religion, as he defines it, namely, as an organized system of control, harnesses even beauty in order to harness the powerful emotion of love as a basis for allegiance to one’s own religion, as well as for rejection of the “other.”
He makes the point that even the concept of faith is a recent development. Proto- or folk-religions never separated science and religion because they never saw a conflict. Organized religion deliberately designed God to be beyond verification, which means that the existence of God must be taken on faith, so that if scientific observation conflicts with the teachings of the keepers of the faith then science must be wrong.
He reaches the further conclusion that our genes have built in biases for what used to be good for us, such as sweets, but now we know better and can overcome such biases. Even God became a sweet tooth when it served as a useful organizing force in society, but the concept of God must be contained in modern society so that it will not be used as a vehicle to promote ignorance, prejudice, and destructive conflict.
Dennett is quite profound in his observation that religion serves for many people as an excuse to stop thinking or else to never start, yet we honor people who excel in this. This is why he argues that we must “take the faith card off the table.”
A significant part of the interview demonizes Islam as a classic example of how religion can be used for immoral purposes. Moyers cites a verse of Surah al Ma’ida which allegedly demands that anyone who leaves his faith must be killed. The Islamic faith thus allegedly bans reason from all discussion. Dennett says that this applies to every religion, because they all thrive only by forcing belief in the toxic elements that are inherent in all religion. He defines good Muslims therefore as brave souls like Irshad Manji and Wafa Sultan who attack their own religion as a matter of principle in order to change the entire institution and function of religion in society.
Religion, he says, can be undemocratic if it demands belief in absolutes. He says that we can be tolerant of people who put their religious faith above loyalty to their country, but we can afford to do so only so long as they are in a minority. He cites the three major nations or ethno-religious groups in Iraq as an example of why religion is incompatible with democracy and representative government. He contends that America’s Founders agreed to eliminate absolutes as a subject of politics, and that instead they chose a secular system of government designed to separate Church and State. Of course, Dennett has a rather perverse understanding of why the Great American Experiment was created. He seeks to impose a revisionist history that contradicts everything that motivated America’s founders.
Despite Dennett’s projection of his biases backwards to rewrite history, he does not reject the need for organized religion in every human society, provided that it leaves freedom for rational thought. The danger is that the orchestrators of religion will promote utopian totalitarianism by claiming that our problems are simple, that they have the answers, and that we need look no further. The leaders of organized religions are masters of a whole bag of tricks not merely to raise money by charlatanry but to lure innocent citizens into irrational policy traps from which there may be no escape or at least no recovery.
A major point of the interview and of Dennett’s book, however, is his pragmatic conclusion that religion properly understood is the only force powerful enough to provide a working basis for morality in both personal and community life.
The logical conclusion from all this is Dennett’s proposal that America introduce a compulsory national curriculum on the world religions. He says that any religion that could not thrive in such an atmosphere has little to offer other than its own toxic teachings, and that the result of competition could remove the toxic elements of religion and leave room for religion to play a constructive role in a free society.