Friday, July 17, 2009

Dennett gets it wrong again

I think Nietzsche would make short work of this, from Daniel Dennett, in the Guardian:
I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong. That is, we no more need to preserve the myth of God in order to preserve a just and stable society than we needed to cling to the Gold Standard to keep our currency sound. It was a useful crutch, but we've outgrown it. Denmark, according to a recent study, is the sanest, healthiest, happiest, most crime-free nation in the world, and by and large the Danes simply ignore the God issue. We should certainly hope that those who believe in belief are wrong, because belief is waning fast, and the props are beginning to buckle.
And why can't we translate that first sentence:
I am confident that those who believe in belief are wrong.
I believe that those who believe in belief are wrong?
That would better capture the internally inconsistent nature of many of the New Atheists' arguments.

Dennett here is articulating the argument (which most of the atheist existentialists, like Nietzsche, have seen through for a long time) that the denial of the existence of God has no implications for one's belief in morality. He argues that because things are not rotten in Denmark, that the values people are practicing there must not be based on the belief in the Christian God.

Well, for one thing, where did the Danish get the values they do practice in the first place? If you are operating in a historical vacuum like Dennett, you don't notice that they came from the Christian culture that informed the history of that country. Furthermore, just because things are fine now, when the Danish are living off of their Christian cultural capital, doesn't mean things won't change when that cultural capital is used up.

To say that because non-Christians practice Christian values means they're not Christian values makes no more sense than saying that Christians practicing non-Christian values (which has also been true quite frequently over history) means that non-Christian values are Christian values.

Once again a New Atheist has shown why practicing philosophy without a license can be dangerous.


TomH said...

What do you mean, he doesn't have a license? More like philosophical malpractice.

Art said...

""Well, for one thing, where did the Danish get the values they do practice in the first place? If you are operating in a historical vacuum like Dennett, you don't notice that they came from the Christian culture that informed the history of that country."

Let's change a couple of words to see where Martin's reasoning takes us:

Well, for one thing, where did the Germans (in the 1930's and 1940's) get the values they practiced in the first place? If you are operating in a historical vacuum like (well, no need to name names), you don't notice that they came from the Christian culture that informed the history of that country.

Yeah, that's about right.

TomH said...

Art, don't you think that Nietzsche and Haeckel had more to do with forming the Nazi ideology (actually it began forming in Germany prior to the 30s) than did the Christian subculture?

Have you read Weikart's book? You can find the review at

Tomh said...

Martin, didn't the French Revolution show what happens when the cultural values of Christianity are rejected/eliminated? The FR leaders went so far as to change the length of the week so as to remove a connection to the biblical definition of "week."

Lee said...

Don't leave out Wagner. As much as I love Wagner's music, which is what he is remembered for today, he spent his entire career shilling a concept he called the Gesamtkunstwerke -- sort of "all of the arts in one." Wagner's operas were intended (by Wagner) to be not mere vehicles for music performance, but visual arts, epic poetry, and philosophy. (Nietsche adored Wagner, and was smitten by his second wife, Cosima, daughter of Franz Liszt).

Problem was, the philosophy was a particularly nasty strain of late 19th-century European nationalism. It was not enough to revere the Teutonic; you had to hold it was better than all the rest. The plot of Der Ring des Nibelungen practically screams this throughout the course of four stultifyingly long operas.

Jews, of course, are depicted allegorically as stunted, hateful little dwarves.

Wager almost literally had progeny which pressed these views and took them to their logical conclusions. Houston Stewart Chamberlain (Wagner's son in law) wrote many books on the glory of German nationalism and racism, and was an inspiration to Hitler.

There is not much Christianity in either Wagner, Nietsche, Chamberlain, or Hitler. The Teutonic ideal was much more pagan than Christian.

I understand that a lot of German clerics made an uneasy but shameful peace with Hitler -- I don't know the details, and if it's true, then it's simply awful. But before blaming the Nazis on Jesus, Art, I think there is plenty in the way of non-Christian cultural influences to wade through and evaluate first.

Art said...

So, TomH and Lee, are you trying to say that Martin's reasoning is a bit suspect?

Martin Cothran said...


So the weird conglomeration of mystical Aryanism, Norse mythology, and Nietzsheanism--oh, and let's not forget Darwinism--that made up Naziism came from Christianity?

Maybe you could explain that for us.

Art said...

Martin, "the Christian culture that informed the history" of Germany was the root of "mystical Aryanism, Norse mythology, and Nietzsheanism" in the same way that "the Christian culture that informed the history" of Demnark was the font of the secular values of the modern Danish state.

My original comment was more a reaction to yet another of Martin's poorly-constructed trains of thought. But the reactions to my comment are interesting, because they try to defend Martin's poor logic. Moreover, these responses warrant the reminder that the link between Naziism and Christianity is much more tangible and deadly than the other causes being bandied about here. Because the very heart of the matter is the fact that anti-Semitism and Christianity are joined at the hips. One is not possible without the other, and this inevitability shaped Europe for more than a millenium. All of the other supposed links and causes that gave us 20th century Germany are minuscule compared with the massive influence that centuries of Christian rule and practice in Europe had.

Martin Cothran said...


Maybe you would care to tell us which specific beliefs and practices of Naziism derived from Christianity. And by 'derive' I don't mean which beliefs and practices were mangled and misinterpreted and labeled Christian by those who abused them.

I assume, after all, that you would reject the argument that Darwinism partly informed Naziism for that very reason: that it was an abuse of Darwin's theory, not a manifestation of it.

And while your at it, I would love to hear how Norse mythology derives from Christianity.

TomH said...

So, TomH and Lee, are you trying to say that Martin's reasoning is a bit suspect?

Sure, Dennett is a real philosopher; implying that he isn't is bogus, no matter how poorly Dennett does philosophy.

I don't see a problem with the rest of Martin's post. I think that it's likely true that the Danes are still living off of Christian cultural capital. (Ooh, my Compulsory Alliterative Disorder is showing.)

Martin Cothran said...

Well, TomH is right. I had plum fergot that Dennett was actually a real, registered, licensed philosopher. I don't know what made me think he wasn't...

TomH said...

Because the very heart of the matter is the fact that anti-Semitism and Christianity are joined at the hips.

Art, then you need to get busy building a time machine so that you can go back and tell the early church in Jerusalem, who were all Jews, that they should stop being anti-semitic.

You do bring up an interesting question about the roots of anti-semitism. Why was it so popular in slavic countries? Even under Stalin, the Soviet Union was anti-semitic.

The rise of anti-semitism in Germany can be attributed to the actions of Jewish socialists during WWI, when they led strikes that caused critical shortages in munitions that led to Germany's surrender.

Vienna, by contrast, was extremely hospitable to Jews, as is the U.S. currently, which is probably the "most Christian nation" currently.

There were also some historical contexts of muslim tolerance for Jews that were very friendly.

Spanish anti-semitism during the 15th century was brought about by many Jewish false conversions to Christianity which caused problems for the Church.

Anti-semitism in ancient Egypt influenced the Greeks and the rest of the West, including Rome. Let's not forget that pagan Rome attacked Jerusalem a couple of times and engaged in persecutions of the Jews at various times and in various contexts.

Then there's the Assyrians and Babylonians, who carried the Jews off into captivity.

So, please tell me how Christianity is joined at the hip to anti-semitism?

TomH said...


You're missing the point about Denmark. You see, once the country abandoned belief in God, they had this conference to decide their values and everybody voted on this list of values and committed to upholding them.

Oh wait. There wasn't any such conference.

Where in the world did they get their values from?

Art said...

It is most amusing to see an accusation that Daniel Dennett operates in a historical vacuum followed by rampant denial that Christianity was the prime influence in Europe for the better part of the last 2000 years and that Christianity was the motivating factor behind European anti-Semitism that has endured for the same period of time.

Just who is operating in a historical vacuum here?

TomH said...


You're missing something important here. Since Christianity and anti-semitism are joined at the hip, and since the U.S. is arguably the most Christian nation in the world, you must realize that there are death camps in the U.S. for Jews and that the only reason we can't find them is because of the Flying Spaghetti Monster. You need to wake up and face the fact that the U.S. is killing millions and millions of Jews.

You also need to understand that the Soviet Union wasn't really communist. It was Christian. The same with pagan Rome, which demolished Jerusalem twice. Rome was never pagan, but always Christian. Any assertion to the contrary is a lie by historians sent by the Flying Spaghetti Monster.

And the notion that the Catholic Church helped smuggle Jews out of Nazi-occupied Europe is just propaganda. Corrie ten Boom and her family, like Bonhoeffer and many other Protestants, weren't really involved in hiding Jews. The nazis weren't to blame--it was the Christians who murdered the Jews.

The historians are all lying.

Thomas M. Cothran said...

You could also point to the extreme lengths the Greek Orthodox Church went to in order to protect its Jewish population during WWII.

Actually Christianity does have some causal relations to anti-semitism, but the primary one is that people of the Jewish faith were allowed to loan to Christians at interest, while Christians were often prohibited from loaning to other Christians at interest. So, for obvious reasons, tensions developed.

Lee said...

There wasn't much else left for Jews to do. They weren't allowed to own land and they weren't allowed membership in the guilds. So they learned how to manage money, and that's a pretty good skill to have, if you have to pick one of the skills remaining.

There have been so many studies done to illustrate the time value of money and what it does to the human psyche. Sowell has a wonderful discussion in "Knowledge and Decisions" citing the rise of "cigarette capitalism" in WWII German POW camps -- a microcosm of the economy as a whole. Some POWs would smoke their entire allowance in a short time; others would conserve; and others would take advantage of the profligate ones and lend them cigarettes at interest. As Sowell explains, the lender was as hated and reviled as his services were in demand.

The overseas Chinese throughout Asia have faced many of the same problems faced by Jews. It seems that part of the human condition is envy towards those who know how to manage their finances.