Friday, January 25, 2013

Book Review: "Good Without God"

Good Without God , by Greg M. Epstein (2007), was the Humanist Book Club selection for our inaugural meeting in July. There could hardly be a more appropriate choice for a first meeting than this primer on Humanism. Epstein's book gives Humanism a concise but comprehensive treatment, but is given to moments of intellectual vacuity. Epstein's simplifications might be forgiven in light of his conscious effort to write in a way that is accessible to the uninitiated.

Epstein describes Humanism in the Introduction. So far so good.
Humanism rejects dependence on faith, the supernatural, divine texts, resurrection, reincarnation, or anything else for which we have no evidence. To put it another way, Humanists believe in life before death. 
More formally, the American Humanist Association defines Humanism as a progressive lifestance that, without supernaturalism, affirms our ability and responsibility to lead ethical lives of personal fulfillment, aspiring to the greater good of humanity. 
Also in the Introduction, Epstein entertains the question of whether Humanism is a faith. Unfortunately, he does so in a way that glosses over the differences between optimism of the will and optimism of the intellect. He seems to suggest that faith in humanity is a willful delusion. There is a difference between acting as if you believe in a favorable outcome and acting because you believe. If we do nothing, we are assured a negative outcome. Humanity is its own best hope because we're all we have.
Faith in God means believing absolutely in something with no proof whatsoever. Faith in humanity means believing absolutely in something with a huge amount of proof to the contrary. 
Epstein gives a nod to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens in the Introduction, only to pick a postmodernist fight with an science, reason and the New Atheism. This is a tiresome straw-man argument. There is no danger of being too rational or scientific. Rationality is as organic to humanity as emotion, instinct, and intuition. Anyone governed by pure rationality is a psychopath. Saying "don't be a psychopath" is a superfluous warning. As for science, it is just a more rigorous variant of the informal hypothesis-testing we do unconsciously as we experience and learn about the world.
But atheism goes astray when it adopts a certain posture, one best captured by a cover story in Wired magazine in November 2006: "The New Atheism: No Heaven. No Hell. Just Science." 

The mention of three of the four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is curious for its omission of Dennett, who directly confronts the problem of postmodernist relativism.

In the first chapter, Epstein returns to the question of Humanism as faith. His discussion could have benefited from finessing the difference between faith in a truth claim and faith in a principle.  Moreover, his wordplay is suggestive of the obscurantism that he later repudiates. He executes a successful course correction by declaring his commitment to reason.
Call Humanism a faith if you like--we should have no particular allergy to that word--but recognize that it is a faith in our ability to live well based on conclusions and convictions reached by empirical testing and free, unfettered rational inquiry. In other words, we question everything, including our own questions, and we search for as many ways as we can to confirm or deny our intuitions. We have no holy books meant to be taken at face value or blindly obeyed. We are open to revising any conclusion we have made if new evidence appears to contradict it. (p. 10)

Epstein denounces mockery of religion. Whenever accommodationists call for civility, I have to wonder whether they understand the difference between deriding irrational beliefs and debasing irrational people. Do they understand that the only reason blasphemy is shocking is that religion has enjoyed a protected status and that shielding untenable beliefs from criticism is the reason such ideas persist? Does he understand that the collateral damage of hurt feelings is the price we pay as a society for freedom of expression and that freedom of expression is the only way to insure that the best ideas prevail?
The point is not to mock religion, but simply to drive home that we have high standards when it comes to deciding whether a story is true or not. (p. 11)

He begins to redeem himself when he aptly points out the irrelevance of the question. "Do you believe in God?" With the concept of God defined so broadly, the more pertinent question is "What do you believe about God?" Epstein answers on behalf of Humanism.
Here is the Humanist answer: we (the nonreligious, atheists, Humanists, etc.) believe that God is the most important literary character human beings have ever created. (p. 13)
Epstein turns to modern religious reformers who have infused religion with humanistic principles. He begins with Paul Tillich, who redefined faith as "the state of being ultimately concerned." Here, Epstein reclaims the Humanist repudiation of obscurantism.
Tillich's is a popular, influential, and widely respected approach to theology, yet he makes the difference between an atheist and a Christian into nothing more than a slippery semantic game. (p. 15)
Also noteworthy is Epstein's treatment of John Dewey.
Essentially Dewey proposed a formal, lightly refined version of Spinoza's theology. God was not in the universe, but the positive forces in the universe as far as humans were concerned. Dewey was not exactly a pantheist, but rather called himself a "Reconstructionist"--one who reconstructs the definition of the word God in order to refer to natural human values instead of a supernatural deity. (p. 17)
Mordechai Kaplan, who founded Reconstructionist Judaism was influenced by Dewey. Epstein also observes that Oprah's God of personal empowerment is indistinguishable from a Reconstructionist god. Of of this is to say that Humanism's only quarrel with obscurantists is their obscurantism.
If you believe in Spinoza's god, Dewey's god, Tillich's god, or Oprah's god, we Humanists are your allies and friends. But we believe that calling what you believe in "God" is at best utterly irrelevant to whether you're a good person, and at worst it can confuse and distract others and even you from what is really important. (p. 17)
As Epstein dedicates his book to Sherwin Wine, it would seem an omission not to mention him in a review. Epstein mentions six form of atheism that vary along the dimension of theistic probability but result in de facto atheism, living as if there is no god.
There are different kinds of atheism. The first is "ontological" atheism, a firm denial that there is any creator or manager of the universe. There is "ethical" atheism, a firm conviction that, even if there is a creator/manager of the world, he does not run things in accordance with the human moral agenda, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. There is "existential" atheism, a nervy assertion that even if there is a God, he has no authority to be the boss of my life. There is "agnostic" atheism, a cautious denial that claims that God's existence can be neither proved nor disproved; this type of atheist ends up with behavior no different from that of the ontological atheist. There is "ignostic" atheism, another cautious denial, which claims that the word "God" is so confusing that it is meaningless; this belief, again, translates into the same behavior as the ontological atheist. There is "pragmatic" atheism, which regards God as irrelevant to ethical and successful living, and which views all discussions about God as a waste of time. (p. 18)
From the God question, Epstein transitions to the implications on a Humanist lifestance. He begins with the evolution of cooperation.
From a detached, coldly scientific standpoint, measuring only whose genes get passed on, the lives of our siblings, not to mention our children, mean almost as much to us as our own lives. But it would be a sad world if the passing on of family genes was only reason to be good to one another. (p. 22)
There is something vaguely postmodernist about Epstein's association of science with cold detachment. At this juncture, Epstein turns to walking the reader through the evolution of cooperation via direct reciprocity (tit for tat), indirect reciprocity (paying it forward) and the evolutionary advantage of group selection.
As Darwin said in The Descent of Man, there is no doubt that "a tribe including many members who...were always ready to give aid to each other and sacrifice themselves for the common good would be victorious over most other tribes; and this would be natural selection. (p. 24)
Epstein anticipates the usual objection to social Darwinism--asserting that Humanism disavows it--and transitions to hypotheses about how religion became ubiquitous if not adaptive in its own right. He explains that religion may have been a byproduct of some other adaptive features.
 When you take a good scientific look at the human mind, God is not a gene, but a spandrel. A spandrel is the triangular negative space created between two archways when they are positioned side by side, often elegantly decorated in churches and other imposing architectural structures. Evolutionary scientists Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin first pointed out that this term, and the idea of a spandrel in general, can explain something critical about our God-beliefs: that they are by-products, not adaptations. (p. 26)
Although these hypotheses fall within the scope of evolutionary psychology and present methodological challenges to empirical testing, they are valuable in that they offer a counter argument against the assumption that religion is adaptive and therefore good. Epstein explains that causal reasoning is responsible for our tendency to assign purpose to unexplained events. Theory of mind, in turn, accounts for our ability to ascribe motives to real or imagined actors. It is also our source of empathy. Taken together, causal reasoning and theory of mind form a spandrel of faith.
Well, belief in God is also a by-product of two of the most important architectural features of our minds: archways of our brains that produce the spandrel of faith--what cognitive scientists call "causal reasoning" and "theory of mind." (p. 26)
Having explained the ubiquity of religion without affirming its utility, Epstein employs Plato's dialogue Euthyphro (380 BCE) to drive home the point that goodness is independent of any gods.
In the dialogue, Socrates reminds his friend Euthyphro that a crucial question is not simply whether we can know if one or another particular action is good, but on what basis we determine whether any action is good. Euthyphro answers: "Piety, then, is that which is dear to the gods, and impiety is that which is not dear to them. 
But Socrates responds: "Is that which the gods love good because they love it or because it is good?" (p. 32)
After a discussion of Thomas Nagel's ethics--that radical selfishness leads to unhappiness--Epstein turns to a morality based on needs and contracts. He then walks the reader through the emergence of humanism from the Lokayata and Carvaca, to the contributions of Jefferson, Darwin, Marx, Nietzche and Freud, before rendering another concise definition of Humanism.
Humanism is an acknowledgement that a meaningful life is a moral life, and a moral life is a meaningful life. (p. 63)

Having dedicated attention to western liberalizing influences, Epstein turns to Buddhism  He relates his personal experience as a westerner drawn to the "exotic" religion. He was ultimately deterred by Buddhism's emphasis on detachment.
For Humanists, it is good to desire, and it is good to care. The questions are; what do you desire, and what do you care for? Humanism's message is no more or less than: be passionate about things that are worth being passionate about. (p. 80)
Epstein further describes Humanism in terms of dignity. To this end, he returns to Sherwin Wine.
He defined it by describing its four qualities: "The first is high self awareness, a heightened sense of personal identity and individual reality. The second is the willingness to assume responsibility for one's own life and to avoid surrendering that responsibility to any other person or institution. The third is a refusal to find one's identity in any possession. The fourth is the sense that one's behavior is worthy of imitation by others." 
Along with these four characteristics come three moral obligations for the person who values them: First, "I have a moral obligation to strive for greater mastery and control over my own life." Second. "I have a moral obligation to be reliable and trustworthy." And third, "I have a moral obligation to be generous." (p. 90)
In an intimately self-conscious confession, Epstein reveals his trepidation and purpose in writing this book.
Suddenly, once I realized that the purpose of this book was less to advance my own career and more to help others to advance their lives and address their fears, my own fear of failure began to melt away into insignificance. (p. 102)
Having connected his purpose to helping others find dignity, Epstein returns to Sherwin Wine on the subject.
The dignity of mutual concern and connection and of self-fulfillment through service to humanity's highest ideals is more than enough reason to be good without God. (p. 103)
Having declared himself on the side of helping others to live with dignity, Epstein summarizes the argument for tolerance of religion by atheists in terms that evoke a similar mutuality.
If the emotion I cultivate is hate, or indifference, or bitterness, then that's what I will become, and it doesn't matter if my so-called enemies have earned the scorn, because now I have given over to it. (p. 156)
As an antitheist, I am inclined to see religion as deserving of all the scorn that comes its way, but I avoid absolutes such as "you can't go too far." When you become toxic to yourself, you have probably discovered a good place to draw the line. Given the prevalence of religious belief, antitheism could become self-destructive if not tempered with pragmatism. The best guidelines I have discovered for coexistence with the religious comes from Daniel Dennett's view of religion as a "worthy alternative" rather than a "sacred cow."

As might be expected, Epstein's call to tolerate the religious leads into a justification of atheist inclusion in interfaith work accompanied by concrete suggestions. From there, Epstein transitions to Humanism's religious roots.
Regardless, for better or worse or both, modern organized Humanism began, in the minds of its founders, as nothing more or less than a religion without a God. (p. 169)
Epstein attributes the founding of religious humanism to John Dietrich, and its popularization to Curtis Reese and John Potter. He then discusses the importance of religious identity and community, as well as the sense of transcendence that believers experience.
As the neuroscientist Andrew Newberg explains, regular ritual participation creates "resonance patterns" in the brain, making mystical experiences that shut off the "self" more likely, by confusing the parts of the brain that track our physical boundaries and map the space around us. And when it isn't shutting off the self, religious worship can help people focus on difficult problems. In a moment of crisis, the act of kneeling, lowering the head and whispering Dear God, I need you" may seem helpful only insofar as it provides a relationship to the deity or divine intervention. But it actually provides an opportunity to collect oneself and marshal internal resources that might otherwise go unnoticed or untapped. (p. 180) 
As a Humanist alternative to prayer, Epstein recommends a technique from Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy, developed by Humanist psychologist Albert Ellis. The technique is known as an "ABC" (Adversity-Belief-Consequences). The good that religion does, however, is arguably to alleviate the symptoms of the very ailment it incubates.
The central idea behind [REBT-ABC] is that our emotions and behaviors are profoundly connected to our thoughts, so by changing your thinking, you may be able to positively affect your future thoughts and actions. (p. 181)

Epstein ends with a look forward, offers suggestions for organizing Humanist communities. His comparison of organized secularism to herding cats points to the resistance of Humanists to the mindless elements of organized religion. In presenting the objections as impressionistic, he dismisses them. When Atheism+ supporters characterized Humanism as "churchy," I found the characterization lacking in precision--too impressionistic to be constructive. On the other hand, there may be something behind the impression that trained Humanist leaders are too priestly, especially if they take too much umbrage when the cats don't flock like sheep.

Esptein seems to take it personally that his efforts are politely dismissed instead of accepting the responsibility of selling his vision to a population predisposed to reject it. What is missing is the acknowledgement that the predisposition is born of laudable qualities. It's a self-serving logic that blames an ungrateful constituency. To be fair, building Humanist community is arguably a worthwhile endeavor. I personally enjoy my local Humanist community. The challenge is to make a forceful case for a meaningful personal investment without the expectation of universal appeal.
For too long, organized secularism has been an oxymoron, like herding cats. People who believed in a more humane, Humanistic world mostly wrote off the possibility of gathering their peers together so that together they could actually have some influence. Weekly meetings were too dogmatic. Trained leaders were too priestly. Dedicated meeting spaces were too churchy. (p. 217) 
Good Without God is a wealth of information about Humanism and an excellent primer. It is not a primer on atheism, as the reader who has read the Four Horsemen will have an advantage. Epstein is at his best when compiling and synthesizing information objectively. While reading his book, I sometimes found myself shaking my head and thinking that he had missed the point somehow. As an antitheist, I found Epstein's most compelling point to be that disdain for religion can be toxic for the atheist. While insincere reverence for religion is still a form of submission, taking the high road does not necessarily concede the point. A concession to our higher selves is just that. Finding a way to coexist with the religious may be a lifelong struggle, but who wants to live an examined life?

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review: "The Demon-Haunted World"

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Carl Sagan 1995) was the Humanist Book Club selection for August 2012. Carl Sagan was a physicist and beloved science populizer. His book is a passionate case for the awe of understanding over the mystery of ignorance. Early on Sagan invokes Hippocrates of Cos, author of the Hippocratic Oath, to make the case.
Hippocrates wrote: "Men think epilepsy divine, merely because they don't understand it. But if they called everything divine that they don't understand, why, there would be no end of divine things." Instead of acknowledging that in many areas we are ignorant, we have tended to say things like the Universe is permeated with the ineffable.

Sagan's book is a bulwark against credulity. It challenges the axiom that ignorance is bliss. Sagan cites a counterargument from Edmund Way Teale's (1950) book, Circle of the Seasons.
It is morally as bad not to care whether a thing is true or not, so long as it makes you feel good, as it is not to care about how you got your money as long as you have got it.

Making the case in his own words, Sagan provides the following popular quote from the book.
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

One of the dominant themes in the book is the delineation between science and pseudoscience. Sagan explains the importance of this distinction as follows.
If we resolutely refuse to acknowledge where we are liable to to fall into error, then we can confidently expect that error--even serious error, profound mistakes--will be our companion forever. But if we are capable of a little courageous self-assessment, whatever rueful reflections they may engender, our chances improve enormously.

Sagan extols the virtues of the scientific method in a way that seems to anticipate the objections of postmodernists who would claim that science is doctrinaire and that all truth is relative.
The method of science, as stodgy and grumpy as it may seem, is far more important than the findings of science.
The self-correcting mechanism of science is, of course, its advantage over pseudoscience and superstition, as Sagan indicates below.
When we are self-indulgent and uncritical, when we confuse hopes and facts, we slide into pseudoscience and superstition.

Where postmodernists tend to take the provisional nature of scientific claim as support for relativism, Sagan explain scientific progress in terms of incremental approximations of the truth. He illustrates using the distinction between Newtonian mechanics and Einstein's theory of General Relativity, and then contrasts science with religion.
This is one of the reasons that the organized religions do not inspire me with confidence. Which leaders of the major faiths acknowledge that their beliefs might be incomplete or erroneous and establish institutes to uncover possible doctrinal deficiencies?

On the importance of rationality, Sagan cites Kenneth V. Lanning, Supervisory Special Agent at the Behavioral Science Instruction and Research Unit of the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia who wrote the following in the October 1989 issue of The Police Chief.
Christianity may be good and Satanism evil. Under the Constitution, however, both are neutral. This is an important, but difficult, concept for many law enforcement officers to accept. They are paid to uphold the penal code, not the Ten Commandments ... The fact is that far more crime and child abuse has been committed by zealots in the name of God, Jesus and Mohammed than has ever been committed in the name of Satan. Many people don't like that statement, but few can argue with it.

Sagan's book is primarily about the dangers of credulity as it is about the wonder of discovery. The following quote sums it up well.
Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless value they may have for inspiring us or in exciting our sense of wonder.

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is an exquisite book that makes the case for science and scientific thinking in Sagan's own unmistakable voice. His treatment of pseudoscience is comprehensive and well worth the effort. I can't recommend this book highly enough.

Friday, January 18, 2013

Book Review: "Breaking the Spell"

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett (2006), was the Humanist Book Club selection for January 2013. In it, Dennett issues a challenge to nonbelievers to examine religion as a natural phenomenon, and a separate challenge to the religious to be open to scrutiny. The challenge the religious can be expected to raise a few hackles, but Dennett issues it knowing full well that the religious cannot refuse without betraying an underlying insecurity about their faith.

Dennett observes that religion is ubiquitous and consistent with human nature, but it doesn't not follow that religion is good.
We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains. (p. 3)
Like religions, parasites care nothing for the well being of their hosts. Dennett observes that lancet flukes have learned to manipulate their hosts in order to propagate. The comparison, while provocative, aptly illustrates the perils of the naturalistic fallacy so often invoked by religious apologists.
The comparison of the Word of God to a lancet fluke is unsettling, but the idea of comparing an idea to a living thing is not new. (p. 5)

Early on, Dennett describes the essential characteristics of religion.
The core phenomenon of religion, I am proposing, invokes gods who are effective agents in real time, who play a central role in the way the participants think about what they ought to do. (p. 11)
Dennett appeals to compassion for believers, comparing them to addicts in need of help.
Religious cults and political fanatics are not the only casters of spells today. Think of the people who are addicted to drugs, or gambling, or alcohol, or child pornography. They need all the help they can get and I doubt if anybody is inclined to throw a protective mantle around these entranced ones and admonish, "Shhhh! Don't break the spell." (p. 13)
He makes believers an offer they can't refuse. If they are so certain that they have unassailable truth on their side, then they have no reason to shield their faith from scrutiny.
Those who are religious and believe religion to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope. (p. 17)

The spell that Dennett proposes to break is not the spell of religion itself, but the taboo against criticism of religion. He acknowledges, however, that breaking this spell leaves religion vulnerable to losing its influence. This is what non-believers know and believers are afraid to admit. Checkmate.
The first spell--the taboo--and the second spell--religion itself--are bound together in a curious embrace. (p. 17)
In light of two millenia already devoted to the topic, Dennett sets aside the question of God's existence in favor of an establishing the human origins of religion.
I decided some time ago that diminishing returns had set in on the arguments about God's existence, and I doubt that any breakthroughs are in the offing, from either side. (p. 27)

Dennett offers a concrete justification for his endeavor that does not rely on analogies to parasites or addiction.
I, for one, fear that if we don't subject religion to such scrutiny now, and work out together whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants. (p. 39)
He softens the justification with a more favorable comparison of religion to music.
I recognize that many people feel about religion the way I feel about music. They may be right. Let's find out. That is, let's subject religion to the same sort of inquiry that we have done with tobacco and alcohol and, for that matter, music. (p. 42)
To discredit the old adage that too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing, Dennett argues that ignorance is not bliss.
In spite of all the warnings over the centuries, I have been unable to come up with a case of some valuable phenomenon that has actually been destroyed, or even seriously damaged, by scientific inquiry. (p. 45)
On the topic of ignorance, Dennett blames religion for the alarming fact that only about a quarter of the population of the United States understands evolution as scientifically uncontroversial.
They have been carefully and patiently rebutted by conscientious scientists who have taken the trouble to penetrate their smoke screens of propaganda and expose their shoddy arguments and their apparently deliberate misrepresentations and evasions. (p. 61)

Dennett turns to evolution to address the argument that if religion was once adaptive it must, therefore,  always remain so.
Every bargain in nature has its rationale, free-floating unless it happens to be designed by human bargainers, the only rationale-representers yet to have evolved on the planet. But a rationale can become obsolete. (p. 63)
 He then speaks to the need to investigate the evolutionary costs and benefits of religion.
Whatever else religion is as a human phenomenon, it is a hugely costly endeavor, and evolutionary biology shows that nothing so costly just happens. (p. 69)
I had already been convinced by other authors that religion was deserving of rigorous scrutiny. Dennett's unique contribution is to suggest research agendas for various areas of inquiry.
What constitutes the heath and pathology of religious phenomena? These questions can be addressed by anthropology, sociology, psychology, psychology, history, and any other variety of cultural studies that you like, but it is simply inexcusable for researchers in these fields to let disciplinary jealousy or fear of "scientific imperialism" create an ideological iron curtain that could conceal important underlying constraints and opportunities from them. (p. 72)

Dennett advances the hypothesis of Hyperactive Agency Detection as an explanation for why religion is ubiquitous and might have been adaptive.
The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency whenever anything puzzles or frightens us. (p. 123)
Given that an adaptive feature can become obsolete, Dennett turns from the origins of religion to its perseverance.
When curiosity stubs its toe on an unexpected event, something has to give: "what everybody knows" has a counterexample, and either the doubt blossoms into a discovery, which leads to the abandonment or extinction of a dubious bit of local lore, or the dubious item secures itself with an ad hoc repair of one sort or another, or it allies itself with the other items that have in one way or another put themselves out of the reach of gnawing skepticism. (p. 163)

The discussion of religious tenacity turns to the need to inculcate cooperation among genetically diverse people in inequitable societies. The cost of this internal solidarity is xenophobia. Of course, the longevity of religion cannot be fully understood without the inevitable discussion of obscurantism.
The fog of mystery has descended conveniently over all the anthropomorphic features that have not been abandoned outright. (p. 206)
Besides social pressure and obscurantism, reverence for tradition keeps some non-believers from abandoning their religious affiliations.
Recognizing that the very idea of commanding someone to believe something is incoherent on its face, an invitation to insincerity or self-deception, many Jewish congregations reject the demand for orthodoxy, right belief, and settle for orthopraxy, right behavior. (p. 223)
On the other hand, some believers take so much pride in the strength of their faith that they are willing to embrace the most outrageous claims.
For a truly awesome and mind-teasing proposition, there is nothing that beats a paradox eagerly avowed. (p. 229)
Any discussion of the religious perseverance must naturally include belief in belief.
The very widespread (but far from universal) opinion is that religion is the bulwark of morality and meaning. Without religion we would fall into anarchy and chaos, in a world in which "anything goes." (p. 245)

Defense of religion sometimes comes from surprising quarters. Even non-believing scholars can be conscripted.
In fact, one of the few serious differences between the natural sciences and the humanities is that all too many thinkers in the humanities have decided that the postmodernists are right: it's all just stories, and all truth is relative. (p. 262)
The problem with postmodern relativism is that is doesn't admit to progress that results when reasonable scrutiny is applied to truth claims.
This is my reason for wanting people to understand and accept evolutionary theory. I believe that their salvation may depend on it! How so? By opening their eyes to pandemics, degradation of the environment, and loss of biodiversity, and by informing them about some of the foibles of human nature. (p. 268)

Dennett likens religion to an attractive nuisance, like a swimming pool that lures children to death by drowning. The point of this comparison is that religious moderates have a moral obligation to expose the dangers of fundamentalism just as homeowners have a moral obligation to anticipate and prevent accidental drownings on their property.

Dennett's point about religion being a "worthy alternative" rather than a "sacred cow" (p. 300) was the idea that most resonated with me from this book. As a humanist concerned with social and economic justice, I am open to alliances with interfaith groups, but not to extolling faith as a virtue. Atheists engaged in interfaith activism will have to confront this dilemma. The problem is that the word "interfaith" communicates a faith-in-faith message and a gratuitous marginalization of atheists.

Dennett is perhaps the most persuasive of the Four Horsemen because he is not easily dismissed on the grounds of stridency. Dennett carefully avoids straw-man arguments, as a good philosopher should. He even prefaces his more pointed indictments of religion with a preemptive apology of sorts. These passages read like a friend about to tell you an uncomfortable truth about yourself. Breaking the Spell is well worth a read.