Churches Can No Longer Hide the Truth: Daniel Dennett on the New Transparency

May 6, 2015

By Andrew Aghapour

If Daniel Dennett is anything, he is a champion of the facts. The prominent philosopher of science is an advocate for hard-nosed empiricism, and as a leading New Atheist he calls for naturalistic explanations of religion. Dennett is also the co-author (along with Linda LaScola) of the recently expanded and updated Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Faith Behind, which documents the stories of preachers and rabbis who themselves came to see…the facts.

Caught in the Pulpit is a close cousin to The Clergy Project, an outreach effort to “current and former religious professionals who no longer hold supernatural beliefs”—many of whom must closet their newfound skepticism to preserve their careers and communities.

For Dennett, closeted atheist clergy are not simply tragic figures, they are harbingers of great things to come. Peppered amongst Caught in the Pulpit’s character vignettes are mini-essays in which Dennett predicts a sea change in religious doctrine and practice. Our digital information age, he argues, is ushering in a “new world of universal transparency” where religious institutions can no longer hide the truth. To survive in an age of transparency, religions will need to come to terms with the facts.

Dennett spoke recently with The Cubit about institutional transparency, the parallels between religious and atheistic fundamentalism, and the future of religion.

You describe non-believing clergy as “canaries in a coal mine.” Why does this group hold such significance for understanding the future of religion?

I think that we are now entering a really disruptive age in the history of human civilization, thanks to the new transparency brought about by social media and the internet. It used to be a lot easier to keep secrets than it is now.

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12 comments on “Churches Can No Longer Hide the Truth: Daniel Dennett on the New Transparency

  • Of course, transparency works two ways. There’s always the possibility that people, looking at the reality of church communities through the New Transparency rather than having to rely on headline descriptions, will like what they see.

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  • The interview mentions several benefits provided by church communities. Dennett even hopes these benefits will continue after people have learned the truth claims made by their religions may be false.

    Are you intentionally avoiding dealing with what is actually claimed to be affected by this “new transparency”?

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  • Logically, the clergy should be the first to fall. They are supposed read the bible cover to cover. They are supposed to be aware of the latest bible scholarship. In contrast, lay people know only a handful of bible verses, know nothing of the scholarship that disproves them, and could care less. For them it is a family tradition and a “feelin’ in ma haaart”

    Clergyman is a easy occupation. You have to MC a hour once a week. You have to act as accountant if you can’t fob the work off. You oversee maintenance of the church, but you don’t have to do any of the repair work yourself. Occasionally, people come and talk to you. You listen. You give pat advice. You need no psychological training. No one will sue no matter how bad your malpractice.

    There are likely some people lured purely by the money from televangelism, or slackness of being a minister, even if they don’t believe a word of it. Their pitch is so revolting, I am tempted to say their victims deserve to be fleeced.

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  • Nobody (who is capable of adult comprehension and ability to comprehend basic scientific methodologies) will ever think that the Bible is anything more than a cobbled together heap of shite that has nothing of any substance (within it’s 4th century CE dogma) to teach even a slug in the 21st century!

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  • 6
    Rolo_Tomassi says:

    I think religion is too insidious for a short term trend toward a sort of ash heap of history moment. It will probably be with us for centuries, if not millennia, in a very real and influential form.

    I view religion as an evolutionary side effect of human consciousness. Not a political, cultural, or social problem that can be solved with enough education and enlightenment. There are biological reasons for religion that will take a long time to evolve beyond. I’m talking about structural changes in our brains. True evolutionary spans of time. While it is true that humans are capable of suppressing instinct, it is a battle that doesn’t end in a generation or two.

    I don’t mean to sound cynical or pessimistic about it, but I don’t think religion will crumble under the weight of enough wealth and education. Yes, it will be diluted and even eliminated among select groups that have no psychological need of it, but religion in America today is far more influential today than it was 75, or even 200 years ago. And as I wright this, our most potent enemy abroad is marching under the banner of fanatical religion. We are talking about the most ubiquitous method of social control ever concocted by primates, a little transparency isn’t going to put much of a dent in that. After all, what effective evidence can you provide to a person who doesn’t value evidence?

    Add to that the fact that keeping some people in church is actually extremely beneficial for the small group of people with the most wealth. Of which, ironically, a very large percentage are atheist or agnostic (closeted or not). Deferring the quest for equality and social justice into the afterlife is hugely beneficial for those at the top of the pecking order.

    I suppose the best thing atheists can do is have kids. If the frontal lobes that can effectively conduct divergent reasoning pass their genes on, well, maybe things will speed up a bit.

    “Religion is excellent stuff for keeping common people quiet. Religion is what keeps the poor from murdering the rich.”
    ― Napoléon Bonaparte

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  • I think you’re tone is too harsh.

    Whenever I come across such statements, albeit I fundamentally agree with them, I find the way they’re couched jarring.

    The thing I like about Dennett is the way he empathises with those afflicted by religious beliefs; they’ve got enough problems as it is, without having to put up with uncouth outbursts.

    Apart from anything else, when they’ve decided to “come out” they need to be allowed sufficient time and space to lose face with dignity.

    Giving them a metaphorical slap in the chops isn’t very endearing.

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  • You “get” people. While we need to expose and question myths, we need to acknowledge people’s need for lies, sweet little lies, and myths, and work intelligently around that. (BTW: Like you, I understand the temptation to use – eg. – the word “shite”! that Holts used: “Heaven” knows it’s often appropriate! But it usually doesn’t help. We all need to read the research that shows logic doesn’t change minds, but empathy and engagement can).

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  • Perhaps you’re correct in admonishing the abrupt delivery of my POV. However, it’s this pussy-footing round the obvious delusions that has led religion to have the (how-dare-you) bubble surrounding it – that I just burst with the terse delivery of my logically (fact-based) directed barb!
    How dare you attack people’s religious delusions ! – All I do is attack them in the same way I would a person who claimed that Arthur Conan Doyle’s finest protagonist was a factual historical person (without a shred of evidence, other than the brilliance of Doyle’s literary descriptions).

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  • I so agree with Peter. logic and rationality alone would take centuries to work the change . Human psychology needs to be taken into account . Ears and minds shut down when a person is seen to be insulting or disrespectful. That’s why we have to tread gently and sensitively where religious sensibilities are concerned (example -not abusing religious symbols) . Even though its so painful for us not to shout “shite” when we see shite.

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  • It seems it is a whole lot more hazardous to be a Catholic priest in China, where there is a somewhat different approach to that adopted by the Vatican!!
    China executes teacher for rape and abuse of 26 children

    Li Jishun was convicted of having “raped or sexually abused” 26 girls aged from 4 to 11, the official Xinhua news agency said.

    The abuse took place in 2011 and 2012, when he was a teacher at a primary school, it added.

    Li was put to death on Thursday by a court in Tianshui, in the north-western province of Gansu, Xinhua said, adding that he was handed the heaviest punishment possible because of the harm caused to the children and the “extremely negative social impact” of the case.

    “He took advantage of those who were both childish and timid and committed his acts in dormitories or classrooms,” Xinhua added.

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