Daniel Dennett, the Future of Religion, and Disenchantment

imagesEarlier this week, the Tufts university professor of philosophy and new atheist provocateur Daniel Dennett wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal explaining Why the Future of Religion is Bleak. The basic thrust of the article is that religion thrives whenever information and knowledge is repressed and/or personal or corporate calamity leads the ignorant masses to turn to deity for a crutch. In the age of the internet and mass media, religious dogmatist are no longer able to dupe their followers into thinking there is truth to their religious doctrines, and thus, the future of religion is bleak.

I’ve written before on why religion will not go away. Dennett is simply wrong. Given God’s reality (for which there is ample evidence!), the most fundamental fact about the world is spiritual. Reality is sacred, not secular.

Arguments by theists and atheists for or against God are well-known, widely rehearsed, and much more sophisticated that Dennett lets on in his brief essay (see also the essay by Eric Metaxas on how science increasingly makes the case for God, which has been widely read, and which also appeared in the WSJ).

In this post, I want to dig deeper than the arguments for or against God to consider the kind of world envisioned by those like Dennett and how the envisioned world itself influences the debate on God and religion.

In a word, the world according to Daniel Dennett is disenchanted. No God, no meaning, no purpose, no deep beauty, no sublimity, no transcendence, no mystery. The natural world is all there ever was, is, and will be. End of (a bad) story.

On this picture, it is no wonder that Dennett thinks religion is a great evil. He simply can’t imagine, given his disenchanted view of the cosmos, a world where God exists. I’m not saying he can’t conceive of an idea of God in order to argue against it. Rather, I’m suggesting that there is a failure to imagine what a world of deep beauty, goodness, and transcendence would look like, and thus, those like Dennett miss the millions of daily signposts, or echoes of transcendence, all around them.

As the 17th century Cambridge Platonist Ralph Cudworth puts it, “The secret mysteries of a divine life” must be “kindled from within” the soul.[1] That is, our awareness of God begins to awaken as we begin to see the world as it really is: an enchanted world of deep beauty, goodness, love, and resplendent life . . . shouting from every nook and cranny with echoes of transcendence.

There are “golden cords” all around that lead us to a God of life and love.[2] There are mythic “blue flowers,” everywhere, which awaken our sense of the divine and lead us to an eternal being of goodness and beauty.[3]

What is needed then, I suggest is a return to reality.[4] The world needs re-enchantment. We need to see with fresh eyes its deep beauty, goodness, and life. And then, the golden cord, the blue flower, and majestic sunset (or millions of other daily signposts of transcendence) will serve its purpose of showing the way to the Source of all beauty, goodness, and truth.

No, religion will not go away. One day, the Daniel Dennett’s of the world will. Until then, let’s help, to borrow a book title of Dennett’s, “Break the Spell” of those who are captured by the disenchanted view of the world.




[1] Ralph Cudworth, “A Sermon Preached Before the Honorable House of Commons at Westminster, March 31, 1647,” in Cambridge Platonist Spirituality, ed. Charles Taliaferro and Alison Teply (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2004), 60.

[2] The phrase “Golden Cord” comes from a poem by William Blake who used the metaphor of a golden string, which, if followed aright, will lead us to heaven. See the poem “Jerusalem.” See also the book by Charles Taliaferro, The Golden Cord (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2013).

[3] Blue Flowers were symbolic in 19th century German literature of a kind of homesickness: a homesickness for ultimate truth. C. S. Lewis described himself as a “votary of the blue flower” as he described his sense of longing for God as a young boy.

[4] For those who are philosophers, I am thinking of a kind of Platonic Christianity here. See Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality: A Christian Platonism for Our Times (Eugene: OR: Cascade, 2014).

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