Higher Learning: April 2007 Archives

Sufficient Distance

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David of CLS reports on two speakers the University of Illinois hosted last week: Fr. Charles Curran and Daniel Dennett. A gruesomer twosome I can scarcely imagine. Was Peter Singer all booked up? That would have been quite a trifecta!

Speaking of Dennett, Orthodox writer David B. Hart had some fun with Dennett's latest book in the January First Things.

A taste:

The catalogue of complaints that might be brought against Breaking the Spell is large, though no doubt many of them are trivial. The most irksome of the book’s defects are Dennett’s gratingly precious rhetorical tactics, such as his inept and transparent attempt, on the book’s first page, to make his American readers feel like credulous provincials for not having adopted the European’s lofty disdain for religion. Or his use of the term brights to designate atheists and secularists of his stripe (which reminds one of nothing so much as the sort of names packs of popular teenage girls dream up for themselves in high school, but which also-in its favor-is so resplendently asinine a habit of speech that it has the enchanting effect of suggesting precisely the opposite of what Dennett intends).

There are also the embarrassing moments of self-delusion, as when Dennett, the merry "Darwinian fundamentalist," claims that atheists-unlike persons of faith-welcome the ceaseless objective examination of their convictions, or that philosophers are as a rule open to all ideas (which accords with no sane person’s experience of either class of individuals). And then there is his silly tendency to feign mental decrepitude when it serves his purposes, as when he pretends that the concept of God possesses too many variations for him to keep track of, or as when he acts scandalized by the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like apophatic and ontic. And there are the historical errors, such as his ludicrous assertion that the early Christians regarded apostasy as a capital offense.

The prose is rebarbative, moreover, and the book is unpleasantly shapeless: It labors to begin and then tediously meanders to an inconclusive conclusion. There is, as well, the utter tone-deafness evident in Dennett’s attempts to describe how persons of faith speak or think, or what they have been taught, or how they react to challenges to their convictions. He even invents an antagonist for himself whom he christens Professor Faith, a sort of ventriloquist’s doll that he compels to utter the sort of insipid bromides he imagines typical of the believer’s native idiom.

And that's before he gets to the Dennett's actual arguments.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Higher Learning category from April 2007.

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