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Notre Dame UniversityJuly 2003

"Brights": An Exchange Between Daniel C. Dennett and Michael C. Rea

By Michael C. Rea

On July 12, 2003, Daniel Dennett published an op-ed piece in the New York Times called The Bright Stuff. Two days later, I posted a reply—“Dennett’s Bright Idea”. The reply was forwarded to Dennett, resulting in two further essays—“Shame on Rea”, by Dennett, and my reply, “Self Defense”. All of these essays (except for Dennett’s original New York Times article) are posted below.

This exchange has attracted a lot more attention than I expected it to; and one result has been that various emails have been sent to me, some defending Dennett, others expressing agreement with me. As one might expect, thinking through the exchange in light of these messages has helped bring me to a better understanding of Dennett’s views, as well as to a better understanding of my own. There is much more that could be said on both sides of this debate. What I take to be the main points of my two essays below I still stand by; but some of what I say (especially in the domain of Dennett exegesis) deserves qualification or further support. For this, see the “Addenda” below.

Dennett's Bright Idea

Michael C. Rea

University of Notre Dame

In “The Bright Stuff,” Daniel Dennett boldly steps “out of the closet” as an atheist - or, a “bright” as he prefers to be labeled--and issues a solemn call for respect. A similar call for respect has been issued in England, Dennett points out, by the well-known evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins. What atheists “want most of all”, Dennett says, is “ to be treated with the same respect accorded to Baptists and Hindus and Catholics, no more and no less.”

Dennett certainly isn't making it easy on religious believers. It's hard even to take seriously, much less respect, people who want to be known explicitly as “brights”. But perhaps the name is purely strategic. When argument fails, Dennett and friends can now simply insist that their views must be right because, after all, they aren't the “dumbs”, or the “dimwits”; they are the “brights”, and who would want to find themselves in disagreement with a group of bright people?

But the more serious point to be raised is that a call for “mutual respect” in the realm of religion is a bad joke at best from the likes of Dennett and Dawkins. For example, many religious folk believe that the origin of species lies in God rather than in evolution by the natural selection of randomly varying traits. Some of these people, to be sure, are ignorant of the relevant science; but not nearly all of them are, and some have well-worked out (even if controversial) philosophical positions that allow them to take seriously both what they believe by faith and what they know by way of scientific inquiry. But Dennett has gone on record in his book “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” as thinking that this sort of religious view ought simply to be confined to a “cultural zoo”. “Save the Baptists!” he says; “but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world.” (p. 516) Likewise, Richard Dawkins has gone on record in a New York Times book review as thinking that “it is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked, but [he’d] rather not consider that).”

The fact is, the likes of Dennett and Dawkins aren't the least bit interested in mutual respect. And, in the face of remarks like those quoted above, one might well be forgiven for not being overly concerned about the occasional disrespect that “brights” receive by politicians pandering to their religious constituents. Moreover, if Dennett and Dawkins are representative examples, then it is an outright falsehood to say, as Dennett does, that “Most brights don't play the 'aggressive atheist' role. We don't want to...offend our friends and neighbors, and so we maintain a diplomatic silence.” In fact, in Dennett's own field (philosophy), the so-called “brights” are well in the majority and are often quite aggressive. It's not at all uncommon to meet religious-believing students who have been repeatedly intimidated by the aggressive anti-religious hostility of their atheist professors. Nor, unfortunately, is it terribly uncommon to hear of religious-believing faculty being targets of the same open hostility and disrespect from their atheistic colleagues, or, indeed, to hear of people being passed over for academic jobs or having trouble getting tenure specifically because of their religious beliefs or religious involvement. In light of this, it is hard to take seriously Dennett's talk of “coming out of the closet” as a “bright”. Such talk would perhaps have been appropriate in the 18th Century (when atheists really could claim to have been oppressed). But it is hardly appropriate now.

To be sure, there are plenty of tolerant atheists and agnostics—people who both deliver and deserve the respect for which Dennett and Dawkins have called. But it would be a mistake to call these people “brights”. It would be a mistake because it would be an offense. The genuinely tolerant atheist will refuse the label; for the very respect and humility that characterize her tolerance will also help her to see that in fact there are bright people on both sides of the theist/atheist divide.

Shame on Rea

Daniel C. Dennett

Tufts University

(posted with permission)

Michael Rea charges that Richard Dawkins and I “aren’t the least bit interested in mutual respect.” and are in fact guilty of the intolerance we deplore in religious people. Not so. Neither Dawkins nor I believe in God, but whereas Dawkins is convinced that belief in God, and religion in general, does far more harm than good, I have not yet made up my mind about that. I can see that a lot of good comes from believing in God, and it might still outweigh all the harm. I’m looking into this difficult question. It is an empirical question, in spite of all the variability in values that makes it hard to judge, but some of the goods and harms are clear enough to anyone. For instance, one of the manifest harms caused by religious belief is the way it can sometimes lure an otherwise honest and intelligent, even scholarly, person into shameful misrepresentations of the truth in defense of their creed.

Michael Rea says:

But Dennett has gone on record . . . as thinking that this sort of religious view [creationism] ought simply to be confined to a ‘cultural zoo’. ‘Save the Baptists!’ he says, ‘but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world.

Rea draws these quotations out of context from my rather careful defense of religious toleration. What I was trying to establish in those closing pages of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea was the delicacy and difficulty of balancing the widest acceptable toleration of religious freedom, which I advocate, with the need for public safety in the face of dangerous fanaticisms–this some years before September 11, 2001. I expressly contrasted fanaticism, which must indeed be caged, as we all now recognize (don’t we?), with the benign or at least less malignant forms of religious belief. And I lamented the fate of those waning religious traditions that are kept alive by anthropologists as mere cultural artifacts, “in cultural zoos.” I invite you to read the passages from which Rea has drawn his quotations and ask yourself what, if anything, you find intolerant in them. You may disagree with me about particular cases–female circumcision or sacrifice of animals, for instance -but you surely agree with me that we have to draw the line somewhere: no human sacrifices--no fatwas--deserve the protection of religious toleration. Right? Then ask yourself if Rea owes me, and his readers, an apology for letting his faith distort his integrity on this occasion.

from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea:

But hasn't there been a tremendous rebirth of fundamentalist faith in all these creeds? Yes, unfortunately, there has been, and I think that there are no forces on this planet more dangerous to us all than the fanaticisms of fundamentalism, of all the species: Protestantism, Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism, as well as countless smaller infections. Is there a conflict between science and religion here? There most certainly is.

Darwin's dangerous idea helps to create a condition in the memosphere that in the long run threatens to be just as toxic to these memes as civilization in general has been toxic to the large wild mammals. Save the Elephants! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not by forcing the people of Africa to live nineteenth-century lives, for instance. This is not an idle comparison. The creation of the great wildlife preserves in Africa has often been accompanied by the dislocation--and ultimate destruction--of human populations. (For a chilling vision of this side-effect, see Colin Turnbull, 1972, on the fate of the Ik.) Those who think that we should preserve the elephants' pristine environment at all costs should contemplate the costs of returning the United States to the pristine conditions in which the buffalos roam and the deer and the antelope play. We must find an accommodation.

I love the King James Version of the Bible. My own spirit rebels from a God who is He or She in the same way my heart sinks when I see a lion pacing neurotically back and forth in a small zoo cage. I know, I know, the lion is beautiful but dangerous; if you let the lion roam free, it would kill me; safety demands that it be put in a cage. Safety demands that religions be put in cages too--when absolutely necessary. We just can't have female circumcision and the second-class status of women in Roman Catholicism and Mormonism, to say nothing of their status in Islam. The recent Supreme Court ruling declaring unconstitutional the Florida law prohibiting the sacrificing of animals in the rituals of the Santeria sect (an Afro-Caribbean religion incorporating elements of Yoruba traditions and Roman Catholicism) is a borderline case, at least for many of us. Such rituals are offensive to many, but the protective mantle of religious tradition secures our tolerance. We are wise to respect these traditions. It is, after all, just part of respect for the biosphere.

Save the Baptists! Yes, of course, but not by all means. Not if it means tolerating the deliberate misinforming of children about the natural world. According to a recent poll, 48% of the people in the United States today believe that the book of Genesis is literally true. And 70% believe that "creation science" should be taught in school alongside evolution. Some recent writers recommend a policy in which parents would be able to "opt out" of materials they didn't want their children taught. Should evolution be taught in the schools? Should arithmetic be taught? Should history? Misinforming a child is a terrible offense.

A faith, like a species, must evolve or go extinct when the environment changes. It is not a gentle process in either case. We see in every Christian subspecies the battle of memes--should women be ordained? should we go back to the Latin liturgy?--and the same can also be observed in the varieties of Judaism and Islam. We must have a similar mixture of respect and self-protective caution about memes. This is already accepted practice, but we tend to avert our attention from its implications. We preach freedom of religion, but only so far. If your religion advocates slavery, or mutilation of women, or infanticide, or puts a price on Salman Rushdie's head because he has insulted it, then your religion has a feature that cannot be respected. It endangers us all.

It is nice to have grizzly bears and wolves living in the wild. They are no longer a menace; we can peacefully coexist, with a little wisdom. The same policy can be discerned in our political tolerance, in religious freedom. You are free to preserve or create any religious creed you wish, so long as it does not become a public menace. We're all on the Earth together, and we have to learn some accommodation

If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God's rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods--that the Earth is flat, that Man is not a product of evolution by natural selection--then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being--the well-being of all of us on the planet-- depends on the education of our descendants.

What then of all the glories of our religious traditions? They should certainly be preserved, as should the languages, the art, the costumes, the rituals, the monuments. Zoos are now more and more being seen as second-class havens for endangered species, but at least they are havens, and what they preserve is irreplaceable. The same is true of complex memes and their phenotypic expressions. Many a fine New England church, costly to maintain, is in danger of destruction. Shall we deconsecrate these churches, and turn them into museums, or retrofit them for some other use? The latter fate is at least to be preferred to their destruction. Many congregations face a cruel choice: their house of worship costs so much to maintain in all its splendor that little of their tithing is left over for the poor. The Catholic Church has faced this problem for centuries, and has maintained a position that is, I think, defensible, but not obviously so: when it spends its treasure to put gold plating on the candlesticks, instead of providing more food and better shelter for the poor of the parish, it has a different vision of what makes life worth living. Our people, it says, benefit more from having a place of splendor in which to worship than from a little more food. Any atheist or agnostic who finds this cost-benefit analysis ludicrous might pause to consider whether to support diverting all charitable and governmental support for museums, symphony orchestras, libraries and scientific laboratories to efforts to provide more food and better living conditions for the least well off. A human life worth living is not something that can be uncontroversially measured, and that is its glory.

And there's the rub. What will happen, one may well wonder, if religion is preserved in cultural zoos, in libraries, in concerts and demonstrations? It is happening; the tourists flock to watch the Native American tribal dances, and for the onlookers, it is folklore, a religious ceremony to be sure, to be treated with respect, but also an example of a meme-complex on the verge of extinction, at least in its strong, ambulatory phase; it has become an invalid, barely kept alive by its custodians. (from pp.515-20)

So was I advocating that creationists be put into zoos? Rea is not alone in making these particular charges, and I have chastised some of his colleagues who have done it before him. They are apparently incorrigible on this matter. They just can’t resist misrepresenting me for the good of the cause. This is an interesting datum, a small measure of the corrosive fear that can infect otherwise sound minds.

Is teaching creationism to a young child as evil as teaching them that, say, Jews–or Palestinians--are subhuman? No, but it is still the teaching of a blatant falsehood to an unsuspecting young mind. When these children grow up, in this Age of the Gene, they will want to know why you lied to them, why you hid the glories of evolutionary biology from them. Do you want to risk the credibility of your whole religious tradition by tethering it to a lie? I agree with Dawkins that “it is absolutely safe to say that if you meet someone who claims not to believe in evolution, that person is ignorant, stupid or insane (or wicked). . .” I think that it is particularly wicked to impose this ignorance on tender young minds. But I don’t advocate putting those who do it in cages or zoos. I advocate the much gentler course of trying to bring them to their senses by exposing their misrepresentations in public. I’m for telling the truth and letting people decide for themselves.



Michael C. Rea

University of Notre Dame

I say that the likes of Dennett and Dawkins aren’t the least bit interested in mutual respect in the realm of religion. As evidence of the claim about Dennett, I cite a remark from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that seems to suggest that certain kinds of Christian views ought to be confined to a cultural zoo. Dennett says that I have misrepresented him. Indeed, he goes so far as to say that, through a shameful failure of integrity, I have deliberately misrepresented him. I reject both charges. Below I explain why.

What, exactly, does Dennett think that I have misrepresented? Does he not think that religions that teach that the Bible is the infallible, inspired word of God ought to be confined to a cultural zoo? Look again at the quoted remarks above: Safety demands that religions be put in cages (when absolutely necessary). When would it be necessary? Apparently when they are dangerous. Is it dangerous to believe and teach that the Bible is the infallible, inspired word of God? According to Dennett, it is—at least on the assumption that believing and teaching that the Bible is the infallible word of God involves believing and teaching that the book of Genesis is “literally true”. Is it true, as I claim, that such “dangerous” religious views are also widely held? According to Dennett’s statistics, yes. So is it really plausible to think that I (and others whom he has “chastised”) are deliberately misrepresenting him when we conclude from all of this that, on his view, certain widely held brands of Christianity ought to be confined to a cultural zoo? Hardly.

It’s clear from his remarks that Dennett at least thinks that I have misrepresented him by declaring that he, like Dawkins, is not the least bit interested in “mutual respect” in the realm of religion. And it must be granted that, as he points out, the chapter from which I quoted is indeed a defense of religious tolerance. Moreover, as Dennett would surely emphasize, one can be generally and genuinely respectful of other religions while at the same time dismissing some as absolutely intolerable. The problem, however, is that Dennett wants to dismiss as intolerable (and fanatical) not only marginal, radical religious views but also some that are widely held by well-educated and otherwise reasonable, honest, and sound-minded individuals. Furthermore, he wants to do this while at the same time complaining about the fact that some of those same individuals speak as if they regard his atheism as similarly intolerable. But this makes no sense; and I still believe it to be evidence of the fact that Dennett has no real interest in mutual respect in the arena of religion. As the passages Dennett quotes from Darwin’s Dangerous Idea make clear, if a religious view departs too far from what Dennett takes to be the sober scientific truth, he will regard it as dangerous; and, as those passages also make clear, he thinks that sufficiently dangerous religious views ought to be caged.

Let me make it clear that I don’t really believe that there’s anything morally wrong with Dennett thinking that certain brands of Christianity are not only false but dangerous. I don’t even think it’s morally wrong for Dennett and Dawkins to agree that anyone who so much as claims to reject evolutionary theory (apparently for any reason whatsoever, religious or not) must be ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked. I believe that these views are factually incorrect. (Indeed, I believe that they are not only false but dangerous—and the latter for non-religious as well as religious reasons.) But I don’t believe that Dennett or anyone else is morally blameworthy for holding it. What seems to me to be blameworthy (and ridiculous) is simply their willingness to hold such views while at the same time demanding respect from people who take the same sort of view toward atheism.



Michael C. Rea

University of Notre Dame

Dennett Exegesis: Several people have pressed me on the question whether I’ve really made a case for the claim that Dennett thinks that certain religious views ought to be caged. Tad Brennan (Yale University) was especially helpful on this score. He writes the following (posted with his permission):

“It seems to me that Dennett can easily distinguish between teaching religiously-based falsehoods on the one hand (as creationists and literalists do), and posing a threat to safety that makes suppression absolutely necessary, on the other hand (which he exemplifies, if I recall, by female genital mutilation, human sacrifice, and suicidal fundamentalism, among other things).

He explicitly distinguishes, if I recall, teaching your children that they are 'tools of god', a view which he takes to be false but tolerably innocuous, from teaching your children that they are 'rifles of god', which presumably means teaching them that their religious views give them the license to apply deadly force to others. You may find various slippery slopes in all this, but I don't see them yet; it seems to me that he will be able to maintain a distinction between those religions whose perniciousness demands suppression, and those whose wrongheadedness is of a milder sort, towards which he advocates passive toleration during the course of their evolution or eventual extinction.

Suppose that I dislike all snakes, but divide them into two categories, the venomous, which I intend to eradicate actively, and the nonvenomous, which I believe are doomed to extinction in any case. About the non-venomous snakes I say that their status as snakes deprives them of certain claims on my concern--I will not attempt to save them from extinction by extreme means. Perhaps I will not even make the efforts on their behalf that I would make on behalf of some more endearing mammalian species. Still, I do not advocate their active extermination, as I do with the venomous ones. What is untenable in this distinction?

… Another point of Dennett-interpretation…is it possible that both of us are making an error in running together his comments about cages with his comments about zoos? I.e. that he has in mind two kinds of incarceration, roughly incarceration to protect the public (putting in cages) and incarceration for the protective custody of those members of a species that cannot survive in the wild (putting in zoos)?”

On this issue, I offer the following three replies:

a) Though I do care about getting the interpretation of Dennett right, my main goal in “Self Defense” was to make a case for the conclusion that I didn't deliberately misrepresent him. In other words, I aimed to show that my interpretation was reasonable, even if not accurate. It's this fact that's most important to me, since I don’t think I need the “cultural zoo” point anymore to support my claim about Dennett's “lack of interest” in mutual respect. After all, in "Shame on Rea" he endorses Dawkins's “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked” comment; and, again, I have trouble seeing in what sense Dennett could be genuinely interested in respecting traditional Christian belief when he's willing to declare that anyone (religious or otherwise) who disagrees with Darwinian evolutionary theory is ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked.

b) The more I think about Dennett's remarks, the more I find them puzzling. Here's what I think I see most clearly in his quoted passages: Religions are in various ways analogous to elephants, grizzlies, and lions. Elephants are benign, but they are endangered by human progress. Grizzlies are dangerous, but we can peacefully co-exist with them living even rather close to where we dwell. Lions are dangerous and, for our safety, need to be caged (at least when they’re within reach of us). Same, in each case, with some religions. What's not explicit is Dennett's answer to the question whether creationists are more like elephants, grizzlies, or lions. If they're like elephants, then “they must evolve or go extinct”; but preserving them in a zoo is better than their extinction, Dennet says; thus, one naturally infers that he’d say they ought to be put in a zoo. But here, as Brennan notes, the sort of “incarceration” advocated isn't hostile but friendly—it’s an effort to preserve the species. But I don't get the impression that elephants are (in Dennett's mind) the right analog for creationists. Misinforming a child is a terrible thing, he says; and his attitude throughout seems to be that creationism is dangerous. So the right analogy (I think) must be either the grizzly or the lion analogy. Does Dennett think that he can peacefully co-exist with creationists? I don't see how he could, given the things he says. The reason is that many Christians (though certainly not all) think that a literal understanding of Genesis 1 is critically important to Christianity, and they think that teaching the critically important features of Christianity to others (including their kids) is important. Dennett thinks that doing this amounts to “deliberately misinforming people about the natural world” and that it's a terrible thing that's not to be tolerated. Thus, it seems very natural to conclude that his view is that, so long as this sort of Christianity has not gone extinct, it ought to be caged. Of course, it's possible that Dennett just doesn't understand that the literal interpretation of Genesis is of critical importance to a lot of Christians. Perhaps he really thinks that these brands of Christianity might evolve out of their creationism (or out of the view that important matters of doctrine ought to be taught to children). But it’s hard to imagine one with Dennett’s obvious awareness of the religious landscape actually believing these things. But it’s a serious misunderstanding of a large swath of American evangelicalism to take seriously the idea that belief in the infallibility of scripture is readily separated from their religious views. Thus, I have favored the conclusion that, in the end, Dennett thinks that creationism ought to be caged.

c) I did say this to Dennett in an email about our exchange:

“But perhaps I'm wrong about what views you're willing to respect. If I am, then I'd be glad to know and I'd also be very glad to make a note of it somehow in the reply that I've posted. Six-day creationists and theistic evolutionists would, I think, be quite gratified to hear that your disrespect extends only to various developments of those positions (such as those put forth by Henry Morris & co.) rather than to the positions themselves. On the other hand, if I have you right about your total disrespect for these positions, then I suppose I need a bit more help understanding how exactly I've misrepresented you.”

Since I'm far from being the only one who has taken Dennett’s remarks in Darwin's Dangerous Idea in the way that I did, I figured that making this offer might result in genuine progress in his ongoing "conversation" with religious believers. So far, however, though he's responded to several other messages of mine, he hasn't responded to this invitation. But the invitation is still open.

On The Abuse of Religion: Some have expressed concern (or outrage) that my remarks above seem to lend aid and comfort to politicians (in particular, the Bush administration) who (they say) abuse religion in promoting their agendas. On this view, my response to Dennett actually managed to contribute to rather than criticize religious bigotry. Here again, two replies:

a) First, I’m not really sure exactly what Dennett or his supporters take to be the specific abuses of religion by the Bush administration. I don't agree with nearly all that the Bush administration has done; and I don't approve of some of the public justifications they’ve given for various acts of theirs. I'm also inclined to be offended when politicians profess religious faith in an effort to pander to their constituents. But I just don't know whether the things that offend me about Bush are the same as the things that offend Dennett and his supporters—especially since politically active “brights” are often offended by things that I find perfectly reasonable and appropriate. I also don't have settled views on what constitutes “abuse” of religion. When Clinton publicly called in spiritual advisors in the wake of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, was that an abuse of religion? It offended me (because I thought it insincere). But I just don't know that I have good grounds for calling it abuse. For that reason, I couldn't very well express my agreement with Dennett's political point.

b) I don't think it's quite fair to suggest that in making the remarks against Dennett that I did I was culpably giving aid and comfort to abusers of religion. The reason is that there are a lot of political issues to which Dennett's article is relevant: the alleged abuses of religion by Bush among them, but also many other debates about the place of religion in public life. Dennett's piece gives “aid and comfort” to a wide variety of agendas, some of which he agrees with and others of which he doesn’t. Likewise, some of the agendas to which my piece will give aid and comfort (e.g., the insidious agenda of donning the mantle of religion simply for political gain) are agendas to which I don't intend to contribute. But I don't think that it follows from this that I ought to refrain from speaking out against what Dennett has said in his various writings on religion. Many of the religious believers I know who have read Dennett's piece (as well as a number of atheists and agnostics) have found that article to be offensive. They’re offended not because they all think that what he says about Bush is right, but because what Dennett says there has implications beyond mere condemnation of the Bush administration.

On Respect: Some have pointed out to me that the purpose of Dennett’s article isn’t to call for some sort of generic mutual respect and tolerance, but rather to call for a particular kind of respect—i.e., a sort of public respect that will prevent atheists and agnostics from being deprived of their rights and privileges as a result of their religious views. Some have pointed out that the whole point of the ‘bright’ movement is that the term ‘atheist’ is often used as a term of condemnation. (By way of contrast, the term ‘theist’ typically is not so used.) For this reason, these critics say, I miss the mark when I say that Dennett isn’t “interested in respect”. Of course he’s not interested in according a general sort of intellectual respect to creationism; but (so the claim goes) he is interested in according to them the sort of respect for which he asks—namely, respect enough to ensure that their rights are protected. Thus, the criticism concludes, there’s no absurdity in Dennett’s calling for respect on the one hand and denigrating religion with comments like Dawkins’s “ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked” comment. I find this interesting. In the academy, atheism and agnosticism are generally taken to be the majority positions; and few seem to use the words ‘atheist’ or ‘agnostic’ as insults. I've not really noticed it much in politics either; but that’s probably because I'm not an atheist or an agnostic, and so I am not sensitive to it.

The objector is right that ‘theist’ isn't a term of insult; but note that ‘fundamentalist’ is, and it's applied rather indiscriminately (by politicians as well as “public intellectuals” like Dennett and Dawkins) to just about anyone who takes the Bible to be the inspired and infallible word of God, regardless of how nuanced or philosophically developed their view happens to be. Like atheists, “fundamentalists” (or “evangelicals”, as many of them prefer to be called, though the name has wider application as well) are generally worried (I think with good cause) about their rights being undermined too. And one big contributor to the concern is the (apparent) continued effort on the part of people like Dennett and Dawkins to paint all evangelical brands of Christianity (again, no matter how nuanced) as ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked. Witness, for example, this note from an attorney which I received shortly after the exchange was posted:

As a Christian homeschooler who is teaching his children that the Bible is true, I deeply appreciate your response to [Dennett]. I am frankly terrified by the rising tide of opinion like his which would prevent me from teaching my children the truth (as I believe it).

The worry many Christians have is that once evangelicalism is widely perceived as ignorant, stupid, insane, or wicked, it won't be long before it is marginalized, its concerns and agendas no longer taken seriously, and its adherents prevented from teaching the doctrines they believe. Dennett asks: “Would you vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for public office who was a bright? Would you support a nominee for the Supreme Court who was a bright? Do you think brights should be allowed to be high school teachers? Or chiefs of police?” I ask Dennett: “Would you vote for an otherwise qualified candidate for public office who was an evangelical? Would you support a nominee for the Supreme Court who was an evangelical? Do you think evangelicals should be allowed to be high school teachers? Or chiefs of police?” Maybe his answer is “yes” in every case (just as my answer to his questions is, in every case, “yes”). If so, then I have indeed misunderstood some of what he has said. But even so, just as the rhetoric of some politicians threatens to encourage some people to negative answers to these questions, so too the rhetoric of Dennett and Dawkins threatens to encourage people to give negative answers to the parallel questions about evangelicals. I don’t presume that the answers to any of these questions (either Dennett’s or the parallels) ought to be affirmative. There are difficult issues here, and my views are far from settled. But I think that it’s reasonable to complain about Dennett seeming to take it for granted that the answers to his rhetorical questions ought to be affirmative while at the same time saying things that seem to suggest that the answers to the parallel questions ought to be negative.

File Date: 07.12.03

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