Longer listens: Daniel Dennett vs. Leon Wieseltier (with an assist from Wendell Berry)

Published March 20, 2006 8:30PM (EST)

The New Republic's longtime literary editor, Leon Wieseltier, ignited a small firestorm last month with his New York Times review of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett's new book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon." Wieseltier calls the book, which argues that religion should be taken down from its pedestal above the gaze of scientists, a "fairy tale told by evolutionary biology," with "no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative" and "an extravagant speculation based upon his [Dennett's] hope for what is the case, a pious account of his own atheistic longing." The review inspired an agitated letter to the editor from Dennett in which he writes that "the very idea of an intensive scientific exploration of religion so upsets Wieseltier that he resorts to flagrant falsehoods." (Insert your favorite sarcastic remark about intellectual scuffles here.)

Dennett continues his retort to Wieseltier (though without naming him) in this interview (29:45, MP3) with Moira Gunn from IT Conversations, an audio Web site that publishes 10 to 12 programs every week. "I've certainly had some people that just lose it," says Dennett of his critics. "They get into the book and they're so threatened by it and they want to refute it and they don't see how, so they just lash out and there have been some really quite striking cases of that already." Dennett also gives a thumbnail sketch of his approach to religion, which he imagines as triggered by a genetic feature called the orientation reaction, shared with "dogs or wolves and with walruses for that matter," that causes us to try to find agency whenever something puzzling happens. The religious impulse, in other words, is the same as "if your dog jumps up and growls when some snow falls off the roof and lands with a noisy thud outside the window."

Dennett goes on to throw a bone in the direction of such dogged believers: "It's not to say that there isn't a role for the sociologists, for the epistemologists and the theologians and the poets. They have an important role too, but they're not outside the natural order. And part of what makes what they do so wonderful has to lie, in the end, in the biological foundations in our brains."

Along with Wieseltier (and novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson), Wendell Berry is one of the more eloquent critics of such claims that the vocabulary of science, and evolutionary biology in particular, must be granted final authority in the description of human life. In this recording (24:10, Real) from the Lannan Foundation, Berry reads from his book "Life Is a Miracle," which is a counterpolemic to Edward O. Wilson's "Consilience" but which applies equally well to Dennett. "The uniqueness of [an] individual creature is inherent, not in its physical or behavioral anomalies, but in its life," says Berry. "Its life is all that happens to it in its place. Its wholeness is inherent in its life, not in its physiology or biology. This wholeness of creatures and places together is never going to be apparent to an intelligence coldly determined to be empirical or objective. It shows itself to affection and familiarity."

-- Ira Boudway

By Salon Staff

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