Dan Dennett on the BBC today

I was asleep during the first airing of this HARDtalk show at 8:05 GMT today, but you can hear it rebroadcast on the BBC World Service, here, at 19:05 GMT. That’s 20:05 London time, I think, as British clocks went an hour forward last night to British Summer Time. In the US it will be at 15:05 EST, or 3:05 PM.

It’s also archived, so you can listen any time at the link for one week.

The BBC’s blurb:

Stephen Sackur speaks to Daniel Dennett, a philosopher who applies Darwinian evolutionary theory not just to species, but to ideas and religious beliefs. Dennett believes religion has outlived its usefulness, hampers rational thought and damages our species. Along with Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens, Dennett is seen as a founding father of the new atheism. But do humans want to live in a world where atheism rules and religion is dead?

If this is a correct characterization of what Dan will say, then he doesn’t think that religion is a net good in the modern world, although some on this site have claimed otherwise.

h/t: SGM


  1. gbjames
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:52 am | Permalink

    I think he is pretty clear that religion is NOT a net good although some good has been done in religious contexts. At least that is how I remember “Breaking the Spell”.

  2. Douglas Struthers
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:55 am | Permalink

    Let’s hope he uses the opportunity to take ‘New Atheism’ to the next level with the ‘Bright’ meme!

    • muuh-gnu
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:22 am | Permalink

      I doubt that this “Bright” thing will catch on. It sounds too artificial and too exerted, and doesnt touch anybody’s nerve. Everybody knows that it is just a code word to avoid calling oneself an atheist, and nobody identifies himself with a shallow code word which transports no additional message whatsoever. I would even prefer calling myself a pastafarian to being a “bright”. It is dead on arrival.

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:04 am | Permalink

        It is an allusion to the Enlightenment. What other kind of additional message do we need?

        Admittedly 500 year of history isn’t as deep as we can go, but it seems hard to graft on anything from the Greeks. “Atomists” would have the wrong connotation of physicalism. (“Athe-omists” seems strained.)

        Personally I find it clever and suiting. But it doesn’t seem to catch on, more’s the pity.

        • Douglas Struthers
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

          Patience. We only need folks like Jerry to adopt the Bright meme and we will have lift off. And then we can start getting some ‘New’ thinking.

          • Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:37 pm | Permalink

            Well, since folks like Dawkins and Dennett had already voiced their support (and with all due respect to our host), I’m not sure Jerry’s adoption of the meme (and, btw, Jerry has little truck with memes, iirc) will really light the touch paper now.

            I’m afraid “the Brights” is a damp squib.

            Rephrasing my question from an earlier thread, why do you think otherwise? What is it about the Brights that gnu atheism lacks? Why could the Brights be uniquely successful?


            • Douglas Struthers
              Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:29 am | Permalink

              The only thing ‘new’about the New Atheists’ ideas is the Bright meme.

              • Posted April 2, 2013 at 12:43 am | Permalink

                Well, that’s just wrong on multiple counts.

                For one thing, the Brights movement is not an atheist movement. (See #6.)


      • Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:26 am | Permalink

        It reeks of arrogance…better left to die.

        • Dawn Oz
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

          I agree that ‘Brights’ sounds elitist, and we want all to feel invited to identify and join. I usually say to people, “I’m a happy atheist – ‘no hell below us, and above us only skies’.” Perhaps we appear as does Grumpy Cat, and we need to be more like the French one (both have sold out BTW). Yes, we fight nonsense, and we also have fun.

          I really like the add which says, ‘Atheism, a personal relationship with reality’. It invites people into an experience, not just a construct. For those of us who are construct junkies, that’s fine, however most folks don’t think that way.

      • Douglas Struthers
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

        Listening to the Dennett interview. The Bright meme is alive. I don’t see that it can fail. What is the alternative?

        • Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:38 pm | Permalink



          • infiniteimprobabilit
            Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:50 pm | Permalink


        • Dawn Oz
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:04 pm | Permalink

          I think ‘a personal experience with reality’, is superb. I will listen to Dennett on my BBC app.

          • Dawn Oz
            Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

            Or ‘reality rocks’ – we could brainstorm….me, I lerve reality.

  3. Jon Bagge
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:05 am | Permalink

    It’s on iPlayer for those in the UK. The blurb is essentially Sackur’s introduction and the first question.
    I quite enjoyed it, although it’s a bit short to get the nuance of Dennett’s often subtle arguments. I’m afraid people who have never listened to him before might not get very much from it.

    • Harbo
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      Hard Talk
      free on iTunes, in Australia (?elsewhere)

      Mr Sackur kept stating mr Dennet’s “view” even after being corrected, and mr Dennet was very tolerant.
      If you didn’t have a foot in either camp, who would you describe as “strident”?

  4. darrelle
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    “. . . then he (Dennett) doesn’t think that religion is a net good in the modern world, although some on this site have claimed otherwise.”

    I probably shouldn’t be surprised, but I am. I’ve never heard or read anything from Dan Dennett that made me think he considered religion a net good in the modern world. Quite the contrary in fact.

  5. Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:03 am | Permalink

    Since Dennett has been talking about the negativity of religion, for the past decade or so and about replacing it, e.g. http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=m5tGpMcFF7U#! it’s a fair bet that he’s not that fond of it.

  6. Sastra
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:34 am | Permalink

    But do humans want to live in a world where atheism rules and religion is dead?

    What the hell kind of a question is this? I mean, what sort of narcissistic intellectual baby thinks whether or not God exists depends on what kind of world they “want” to live in?

    If there is no God then there has never ever BEEN any God and apparently the world has been worth living in up to now. Nothing significant would change: life and love and learning and joy and freedom and all the other human values are still human values. Saying “atheism rules” is simply another way of saying that the majority of the people voluntarily accept reality over their wishes — and then make choices from there. It doesn’t mean that everyone will be ground under the boots of rampaging atheist overlords sticking swords through Bibles. Though gosh, sure does sound like it, doesn’t it?

    The implicit message in such questions is that human beings are innately evil with no redeeming good qualities whatsoever, psychopaths who will always choose to create unnecessary harm unless someone either discovers or invents an authority to say that this is wrong and will be punished. It’s superficial and childish.

    I hope Dennett kicked butt in this interview.

    • darrelle
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:17 am | Permalink

      “What the hell kind of a question is this? I mean, what sort of narcissistic intellectual baby thinks whether or not God exists depends on what kind of world they “want” to live in?”

      I am shocked. Where’s my fainting couch?

      Actually that was great fun to read.

      You have to admit though that “what kind of world they want to live in” is exactly what informs many people’s beliefs, especially spiritual/religious beliefs. And especially liberal christian beliefs. Why else do they interpret the bible so benignly when it so clearly is anything but benign? Because that is not the way they want the world to be.

      That right there is a big mystery to me. How do liberal christians reconcile their modern liberal, gentle, god loves all, no one goes to hell beliefs with the brutal and bloody real history of their religion? Especially when there are still plenty of extant remnants of that brutal and bloody christianity around to see first hand.

      But yeah, it is infantile and something the human race really needs to outgrow.

      • david
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

        “Big mystery”? Seriously?

        You have no trouble accepting that people did evil things in the past, but can’t understand why so many moderns would be hypocrites. Where’s the mystery?

        • darrelle
          Posted April 1, 2013 at 12:54 pm | Permalink

          Well, I was hoping that that phrase would be recognized in this context as a figure of speech expressing disappointment in so many of my fellow human beings. Or something like that. But, yeah, I should have known better. I’ll try to be less idiomatic.

      • infiniteimprobabilit
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:05 pm | Permalink

        “How do liberal christians reconcile their modern liberal, gentle, god loves all, no one goes to hell beliefs with the brutal and bloody real history of their religion?”

        Simple. Dollar auction (or whatever the applicable meme is). That is, they were raised in Christianity or were drawn into it by the bright cheerful joyous aspects it claims to possess, and they’ve invested so much in it that they’d rather try and improve it than ditch the whole thing and start again. Thereby (insofar as they have any influence on it) improving the nature of their faith and so making it more attractive to other liberal-minded or well-meaning people.

        Not an unreasonable stance to take. Democratic government could be said to have an equally bloody history (French Revolution? Russian Revolution? American Civil War?) That doesn’t discredit democracy, just means that the bad or subversive elements need to be controlled.

        I’d have no problems with religion (as an institution of private belief) if it abandoned all pretence of imposing outdated ‘morals’ on peoples’ lives (I’m referring to sexuality, abortion, euthanasia here).

        • darrelle
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 5:50 am | Permalink

          No, it doesn’t discredit religion as a way of providing certain things for its adherents. It does however discredit the claim that the god of christianity is a just and loving god. Or, given that their current version of religion bears little resemblance to what the bible prescribes, or to much of the actual history of their religion, it leaves no good reason to suppose that any of it is true. Like god, resurrection, an afterlife.

          I would have problems with religion regardless, because the behavior of people who are committed to their religious beliefs can not help but be informed by those beliefs. And though individuals can go through life without causing others much trouble because of that, on a societal scale it has clearly been and still is a serious impediment. Yes there are other ideologies that cause the same kind of problems, but religion is a major one.

    • Thomas
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 4:33 pm | Permalink

      “I mean, what sort of narcissistic intellectual baby thinks whether or not God exists depends on what kind of world they “want” to live in?”

      Billions of people.

      Similarly, you believe in good and evil because you want to live in a world in which good and evil really exist. But you’ll have a hard time proving good and evil exist in any genuine scientific sense. Certainly you can’t prove that YOUR sense of good and evil are the correct ones.

      It’s ironic the degree to which new atheists go on about good and evil as though they’re REAL aspects of reality, as opposed to being largely arbitrary statements of what particular people happen to cherish and despise respectively.

  7. MAUCH
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:55 am | Permalink

    This is not about atheism ruling. Atheism is about the absence of religion. Are they asking whether we would be better off not having religion clouding rational thought? It would not be hard figuring what the answer to that question would be.

  8. @eightyc
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Well it goes without saying that to live your life according to a fantasy story as if it was true is never a good thing.

    It is even worse when you actually try to make others live according to that fantasy story.

  9. Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:22 am | Permalink

    “…But do humans want to live in a world where atheism rules and religion is dead?”

    That is a preeminently THOUGHTLESS question! The BBC blurbist who wrote it must be a devout postmodernist.

    The kind of world we humans might WANT to live in has no bearing — none, zero, zip, zilch, nada, squat — on the kind of world we ACTUALLY live in.

    Human history is rich with unequivocal examples of the good that human reason has wrought, and is utterly devoid of ANY unequivocal examples of ANYthing AT ALL that [alleged] God has wrought (and history has way too many excruciating examples of vast wanton suffering that BELIEF in God/gods has caused).

    A godless world is not a world in which “atheism rules,” it is a world in which REASON rules; even though human reason is fallible, history SHOUTS that rule by reason beats the snot outa rule by superstitious delusion.

    Or so it sure seems to me. As Robin Williams once quipped:

    “Reality — WHAT a CONCEPT!”

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 2:59 pm | Permalink

      Well this human does (mutatis mutandis: where atheism is the rule rather than the exception, and religion is history), and I find the suggestion that to do so is less than human to be very insulting. But what else is new?

  10. Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:25 am | Permalink

    Dan Dennett was OUTSTANDING in this interview – a pleasure to listen to.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:32 pm | Permalink

      It’s the first time I ever heard gentle even-tempered Dan Dennett get a little hot under the collar. The interviewer was quite hostile and a little below the usual BBC standard — in my humble opinion.

      • NWalsh
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 5:27 pm | Permalink

        I agree,the commentator was no devil’s advocate. He was firmly on the side of religion.

  11. JonLynnHarvey
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    Dennett has never said religion is a !*net*! good. He has stated that it is intermittently good, we should weed out toxic from benign religions, and that even in the case of benign religion, it has outgrown its usefulness.

  12. BillyJoe
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

    On QandA last night a bishop was asked if adulterers should be stoned to death as the bible says. He replied that the bible was written two thousand years ago and needs to be interpreted. In other words, of the bible says that adulterers should be stoned to death, we can interpret this to mean that adulterers should NOT be stoned to death. Seems to me this is not interpreting the bible, it is making it an irrelevant.

    • BillyJoe
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 1:42 pm | Permalink

      …sorry about the typos

    • Harbo
      Posted April 1, 2013 at 6:29 pm | Permalink

      Poor Josh alone in that pit of vipers.
      It was awful watching these “educated” people continuously saying that without god here is no morality/goodness…
      and the “reasonable bishop” saying the babble is just for interpretation
      and the “reasonable imam” saying that muslims decry and dissent what is done in their name “but no one listens”
      A C Grayling was on Q and A recently why did they not invite him back.

      Sorry jerry a bit of parochial Australian crud from the TV last night

      • kelskye
        Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

        AC Grayling was pretty useless on the panel he was on. Too much Aussie politics, not much that a British philosopher could get stuck into. Q&A has too many panelists at the best of times, and too often panelists who don’t recognise the value of being succinct.

      • Thomas
        Posted April 2, 2013 at 3:58 am | Permalink

        “It was awful watching these “educated” people continuously saying that without god here is no morality/goodness…”

        It’s not a ridiculous objection.
        Serious people on all sides of the debate acknowledge it. Nietzche, modern atheist ethicists such as Peter Singer, christian apologists, classical moral philosophers like sidgwick, atheist moral skeptics like mackie. They all acknowledge this question.

        It’s not ridiculous to ask whether morality could ever amount to anything in the absence of something like a deity. It’s a valid objection, and one that remains fundamentally unanswered.

        It’s a shame that many new atheists simply dismiss the objection with a wave of the hand, declaring thusly “well OF COURSE there’s such a thing as morality and goodness!”

        • whyevolutionistrue
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 7:57 am | Permalink

          This is close to trolling because the question of how one gets morality from secular considerations is not an “unanswered” objection, and you know it. In fact, the question of how one gets morality from Scripture without cherry-picking is unanswered, since the Bible mandates all kinds of horrible morality.

          Anyway, Thomas, since you’re clearly a theist, you won’t be allowed to continue posting until you detail for us the evidence for the god you believe in. (This is a common request I make of new posters who are religious.)

        • Sastra
          Posted April 2, 2013 at 8:10 am | Permalink

          Question for Thomas:

          When you express concern over “whether morality could ever amount to anything in the absence of something like a deity,” what do you mean? Do you mean:

          1.) We could never explain where our common conception of “right” and “wrong” came from absent a divine Lawgiver? (God as Explanation)

          2.) We could never determine what is right or wrong without an unquestionable Authority telling us? (God as Judge)

          3.) We would have no motivation to do good or avoid evil unless there are unavoidable appropriate consequences? (God as Enforcer)

          Those are not all the same objection. You could accept only one, any two, or all three. None of them work. But they fail for different reasons. I’m not sure where you’re coming from, so have to ask.

          We do not wave our hands. We dissect.

          And — given Jerry’s objection that you demonstrate God — I have a quick question:

          If God does not exist, would your morals now have no use or make no sense? Do they have no merits of their own to stand on, for how we live together in the world?

  13. kelskye
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 7:07 pm | Permalink

    What an irritating interview. Almost no information flow at all, rather it was 22 minutes of tone trolling. Disappointed.

    • Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

      I agree with that. Disappointing. He wanted to put Dennett on the defensive, no matter what. Seemed like the whole idea of the interview was to make Dennett sound like a guy caught stealing housewares..”What have you got to say for yourself!!! Look at all this stuff!!!”

  14. Posted April 1, 2013 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Mulling it over….

    The interviewer stated that Dennett wished to see a world where religion is “dead” and atheism “rules”.

    I would answer by saying that the interviewer was presenting a false contrast. Think about the 10,000 deaths (and more) attributed to the deadly London Fog of December 1952. In examining this actual event, one does not wish to see heatless cold homes, in order to prevent such deaths…one wishes to see home heating by other means, other than coal, to prevent smog deaths. And, like traffic jams, examining the event, household by household, it would be hard to point to coal-burning by a single household as the cause of the tragedy. The same with religion: individually, it may be OK, or good, or it may be bad. But in sum, the permission to act destructively in religion is given by the toleration of all religions as a facet of life that is somehow beneficial.

    An example of why religion persists is found in the episode of Hurricane Katrina. In spite of warnings well ahead of the storm, people stayed in their homes and died. Why? Because they saw others staying. What the mayor should have publically proclaimed, instead of “This is no drill”, is the following:
    “You, as an individual homeowner, or resident, may be an EMT, may be extremely well-prepared in a very safe structure, and want to care for very valuable property. But, you, the very prepared, are exactly the people who MUST LEAVE, because your example, if you stay, will cause many…many..unprepared people to copy your actions, and stay when they should evacuate.”

    This BBC talk citing scientists who feel value in religion exactly fit this Katrina scenario. Because some scientists hold onto religion, they give permission to others, for worse reasons, to hang on to their religion.

  15. Diane G.
    Posted April 1, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink


  16. gravelinspector-Aidan
    Posted April 2, 2013 at 2:45 am | Permalink

    I haven’t listened to the interview yet – it’s gone onto the noise box for this afternoon’s run.
    However there’s an archive of downloadable interviews from HardTalk (I’ve never liked iPlayer – indeed, the idea of streaming compared to download and play locally) available at http://www.bbc.co.uk/podcasts/series/ht/all
    I don’t know if this link works outside the UK. License fees, that sort of stuff.
    Lots of other interesting stuff there for the sound box.


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