March 2, 2006

Dennett v. Swinburne on the Origin of Religion and the Existence of God

Prospect Magazine has published a series of letters between Richard Swinburne and Daniel Dennett regarding the existence of God and the historical origin of religious belief, following the publication of Dennett's new book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett's book argues that an evolutionary explanation for religious belief exists, and that religion can and should be examined empirically by science with the initial presumption of "methodological naturalism" (i.e. we must assume for the sake of argument that God does not exist in order to take on this investigation). Swinburne argues that no such investigation can be adequately undertaken without first determining whether the evidence supports belief in the existence of God and his activity in the world, especially with regard to the formation of religious belief. "Methodological naturalism," Swinburne claims, must first be justified by an argument showing that such a method leads to truth, and this will only be the case if its naturalistic assumptions are, in fact, correct.

Posted by Kenny at March 2, 2006 11:55 AM
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Comments

Is that what Dennett's book is about? The way he spins it, his conclusion is merely that we should allow people to undertake such investigations, which suggests that the people who regularly do so in anthropology, religion, philosophy, and biology departments are somehow shunned by the academy for doing so.

Posted by: Jeremy Pierce at August 24, 2006 6:58 AM

Honestly, I haven't read Dennett's book. I inferred from the exchange of letters and some of the other reviews that that was his point, but I could easily be mistaken. I think it is plain to those of us who have spent a substantial amount of time around major universities that those who examine the origin of religion anthropologically are not shunned. It seems to me (and I have been warned by professors as I consider which graduate schools to apply to) that philosophy of religion - including the epistemology of religion, which is what's relevant here - is still not taken seriously by most major secular philosophy departments (with a few notable exceptions - in particular, Cornell and Stanford are often listed by my professors, and I am aware that Oxford, Notre Dame, and Syracuse should be added to the list) so philosophers who study epistemology of religion might be in some sense 'shunned,' but not in any very strong sense. In other words, if THAT'S what Dennett's book is about, it seems that he's just as deeply mistaken as on the other interpretation above.

Posted by: Kenny at August 24, 2006 7:15 AM

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