The Corner

Re: Peter’s Reader

Derb: I don’t think anyone is disputing that religion and reason are different things. Daniel Dennett, according to the review, argues that religious beliefs evolved because they served certain purposes. He argues further that when those of us who are believers understand the evolutionary origins of our beliefs we will see that our beliefs aren’t really justified; they’re things we believe because we’re hard-wired to believe them. Once we recognize that we have a bias built into us, we can factor it out and stop believing.

Wieseltier raises a number of objections to this project. One is that Dennett’s account of the evolutionary origins of religious belief is speculative. Another, which Peter Robinson and his reader have stressed, is that Dennett can’t really discredit religious belief in this fashion. Even if we knew that our religious beliefs served evolutionary purposes regardless of their truth, it wouldn’t follow that they aren’t true. That would have to be demonstrated, and Dennett, again according to the review, eschews any interest in doing that. He doesn’t want to get in to the reasons that believers give for holding their beliefs. But if those reasons are good reasons, then Dennett’s story about the origins of the beliefs doesn’t touch their truth and can’t give anyone a good reason to stop holding them. So far, I take it, you agree with Peter and disagree with Dennett: I believe you have said a few times that you think he is wrong to try to use evolution to debunk belief in God.

The possibility that we’re hard-wired to attribute intentionality to things that don’t have it–such as computers, or the universe–is an implication of the larger possibility that our thinking has evolved in ways that correspond imperfectly to the truth. Just as we don’t give up on trying to reason as well as we can on that account, we shouldn’t give up on trying to figure out, as best we can, the truth or falsity of religious beliefs. That’s what Peter’s reader said, and what he said Wieseltier said. That’s Peter’s view too. I don’t think any of them is “reifying” reason in some foolish way.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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