Almost-live report: Daniel Dennett at the Cambridge Darwin-and-faith bash

Daniel Dennett is attending the Darwin celebration at Cambridge University, and sent us this report from the two symposia on faith and religion — symposia that were, as I reported earlier, sponsored by The John Templeton Foundation.  On to Dan’s report, which he kindly gave permission to post:


I am attending and participating in the big Cambridge University Darwin Week bash, and I noticed that one of the two concurrent sessions the first day was on evolution and theology, and was ‘supported by the Templeton Foundation’ (though the list of Festival Donors and Sponsors does not include any mention of Templeton). I dragged myself away from a promising session on speciation, and attended. Good thing I did. It was wonderfully awful. We heard about the Big Questions, a phrase used often, and it was opined that the new atheists naively endorse the proposition that “There are no meaningful questions that science cannot answer.” Richard Dawkins’ wonderful sentence about how nasty the God of the  Old Testament is was read with relish by Philip Clayton, Professor at Claremont School of Theology in California, and the point apparently was to illustrate just how philistine these atheists were—though I noticed that he didn’t say he disagreed with Richard’s evaluation of Yahweh. We were left to surmise, I guess, that it was tacky of Richard to draw attention to these embarrassing blemishes in an otherwise august tradition worthy of tremendous respect.  The larger point was the complaint that the atheists have a “dismissive attitude toward the Big Questions” and Dawkins, in particular, didn’t consult theologians. (H. Allen Orr, they were singing your song.) Clayton astonished me by listing God’s attributes: according to his handsomely naturalistic theology, God is not omnipotent,  not even supernatural, and . . . . in short Clayton is an atheist who won’t admit it.

The second talk was by J. Wentzel van Huyssteen, a Professor of  Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary, and it was an instance of  “theological anthropology,” full of earnest gobbledygook about embodied minds and larded with evolutionary tidbits drawn from Frans de Waal, Steven Mithen and others.  In the discussion period I couldn’t stand it any more and challenged the speakers: “I’m Dan Dennett, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, and we are forever being told that we should do our homework and consult with the best theologians. I’ve heard two of you talk now, and you keep saying this is an interdisciplinary effort—evolutionary theology—but I am still waiting to be told what theology has to contribute to the effort. You’ve clearly adjusted your theology considerably in the wake of Darwin, which I applaud, but what traffic, if any, goes in the other direction? Is there something I’m missing? What questions does theology ask or answer that aren’t already being dealt with by science or secular philosophy? What can you clarify for this interdisciplinary project?” (Words to that effect)  Neither speaker had anything to offer, but van Huyssteen  blathered on for a bit without, however,  offering any instances of theological wisdom that every scientist interested in the Big Questions should have in his kit.

But I learned a new word: “kenotic” as in kenotic theology. It comes from the Greek word kenosis meaning ‘self-emptying.’ Honest to God. This new kenotic theology is all the rage in some quarters, one gathers, and it is “more deeply Christian for being more adapted to Darwinism.” (I’m not making this up.) I said that I was glad to learn this new word and had to say that I was tempted by the idea that kenotic theology indeed lived up to its name.

At the coffee break, some folks told me my question had redeemed the session for them, but I would guess I irritated others with my persistent request for something of substance to chew on.

After the second set of two talks, which I was obliged to listen to since the moderator promised more responses to my “challenge” and I had to stay around to hear them out, there was another half hour of discussion. I did my duty: I listened attentively, I asked questions, and the theologians were embarrassingly short on answers, though one recommended David Chalmers on panpsychism—a philosopher, not a theologian, and second, nobody, not even Chalmers, takes panpsychism seriously, to the best of my knowledge. Do theologians?

The third speaker was Dr. Denis Alexander of Cambridge University, and he had some interesting historical scholarship on the varying positions on progress and purpose offered by thinkers from Erasmus Darwin–who had surmised that all life began from a single “living filament” (nice guess!)–through Darwin and Spencer and the Huxleys and on to Gould and Dawkins (and me).  Particularly useful was a late quote from Gould’s last book (p468 if you want to run it down) in which he allowed, contrary to his long-held line on contingency, that evolution did exhibit “directional properties” that could not be ignored.  The conclusion of Alexander’s talk was that it is nowadays a little “more plausible that it isn’t necessarily the case that the evolutionary process doesn’t have a larger purpose.”  That is certainly a circumspect and modest conclusion.

The fourth speaker was the Catholic Father Fraser Watt (of Cambridge University School of Divinity, and a big Templeton grantsman, as noted by the chair).  He introduced us to “evolutionary Christology.” Again, I’m not making this up. Evolution, it turns out, was planned by an intelligent God to create a species “capable of receiving the incarnation”—though this particular competence of our species might be, in Watts’ opinion, a “spandrel.” Jesus was “a spiritual mutation, ” and “the culmination of the evolutionary process,” marking a turning point in world history. A member of the audience cheekily asked if Father Watt was saying that Jesus’s parents were both normal human beings then? (I was going to press the point: perhaps Jesus’s madumnal genes from Mary were the product of natural selection but his padumnal genes were hand crafted by the Holy Spirit!—but Father Watt forestalled the inquiry by declaring that he had no knowledge or opinion about Jesus’ parentage—something that his Catholic colleagues will presumably not appreciate.)

Afterwards I was asked if I had enjoyed the session, and learned anything, and I allowed as how I had. I would not have dared use the phrase “evolutionary Christology” for fear of being condemned as a vicious caricaturist of worthy, sophisticated theologians, but now I had heard the term used numerous times, and would be quoting it in the future, as an example of the sort of wisdom that sophisticated theology has to offer to evolutionary biology.
I had an epiphany at the end of the session, but I kept it to myself: The Eucharist is actually a Recapitulation of the Eukaryotic Revolution. When Christians ingest the Body of Christ, without digesting it, but keep it whole (holistier-than-thou whole), they are re-enacting the miracle of endosymbiosis that paved the way for eventual multi-cellularity. And so, dearly beloved brethren, we can see that by keeping Christ intact in our bodies we are keeping His Power intact in our embodied Minds, or Souls, just the way the first Eukaryote was vouchsafed a double blessing of earthly competence that enabled its descendants to join forces in Higher Organizations. Evolutionary theology. . . . I think I get it! I can do it! It truly is intellectual tennis without a net.

There is another Templeton session on The Evolution of Religion, with Pascal Boyer, David Sloan Wilson, Michael Ruse and Harvey Whitehouse. Dr. Fraser Watt, our evolutionary Christologist, will be chairing the session. It will be interesting to see how docile these mammals are in the feeding trough.


The second Templeton-sponsored session (at the Cambridge Darwin Festival) was more presentable.  On the evolution of religion, it featured clear, fact-filled presentations by Pascal Boyer and Harvey Whitehouse, a typical David Sloan Wilson advertisement for his multi-level selection approach, and an even more typical meandering and personal harangue from Michael Ruse.  The session was chaired, urbanely and without any contentful intervention, by Fraser Watt, our evolutionary christologist. (I wonder: should “christology” be capitalized?   Ian McEwan asked me if there was, perhaps, a field of X-ray christology.  I’ve been having fun fantasizing about how that might revolutionize science and open up a path for the Crick and Watson of theology!)

I learned something at the session. Boyer presented a persuasive case that the “packaging” of the stew of separable and largely independent items as “religion” is itself ideology generated by the institutions, a sort of advertising that has the effect of turning religions into “brands” in competition. Whitehouse gave a fascinating short account of the Kivung cargo cult in a remote part of Papua New Guinea that he studied as an anthropologist, living with them for several years.  A problem: the Kivung cult has the curious belief that their gods (departed ancestors) will return, transformed into white men, and bearing high technology and plenty for all.  This does present a challenge for a lone white anthropologist coming to live with them for awhile, camera gear in hand, and wishing to be as unobtrusive as possible.

Wilson offered very interesting data from a new study by his group on a large cohort of American teenagers, half Pentecostals and half Episcopalians (in other words, maximally conservative and maximally liberal), finding that on many different scales of self-assessment, these young people are so different that they would look to a biologist like “different species.”

Ruse declared that while he is an atheist, he wishes that those wanting to explain religion wouldn’t start with the assumption that religious beliefs are false.  He doesn’t seem to appreciate the role of the null hypothesis or the presumption of innocence in trials.  We also learned tidbits about his life and his preference–as an atheist–for the Calvinist God.

Many thanks to Dan for the report, and for permission to make it public.


  1. Benjamin O'Doonell
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:11 am | Permalink

    Dan Dennett is such a mild a reasonable gentleman in person; but in print he can be *delightfully* bitchy. If the above relatively rough draft effort isn’t enough to convince you of his capacity for devastating scorn, I suggest you read his chapter of Gould in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – it makes Hitchens look like a Milquetoast.

  2. MadScientist
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:13 am | Permalink

    Oh that’s just too funny. I wish I could announce myself as a horseman of the apocalypse. I think Dennet deserves a Templeton prize for the Eucharist work. McEwan deserves one of his own for the X-Ray christography (or christology – whichever). I can imagine theologits (blah – typo – but ‘theologits’ looks good so I won’t correct it) christolizing substances in preparation for the X-Ray work.

    What’s this nonsense about “… wishes that those wanting to explain religion wouldn’t start with the assumption that religious beliefs are false”? I never assumed that religious claims were false; I simply asked questions – very simple questions – and never received a substantive answer to a single one of those questions. Based on the absence of substantive answers and the multitude of conflicting and outright ridiculous claims of religion, I came to believe that the vast majority of religious claims are bogus. Some things make sense, such as “don’t run around killing your neighbors just for kicks”, but that’s hardly divinely inspired.

  3. newenglandbob
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 6:14 am | Permalink

    It is amazing how Daniel Dennett can pack information, humor and whimsy in a few hundred words reporting on these conference sessions. This is a true gem – delightful and laser sharp. Thanks Daniel Dennett and Jerry Coyne for this.

  4. ennui
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    All of the knowledge transfers between science and liberal theology go in the same direction, as the one constantly expands, and the other desperately clings to its coattails in a hilarious effort to retain the appearance of relevance. Who needs to accommodate whom now?

    Oh, right–if only we were subtle and deep enough to truly understand the big questions, and stopped being so mean and rational…

  5. Hempenstein
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Theology is the effort to explain the unknowable in terms of the not worth knowing. – HL Mencken, 1949

  6. Jeremy
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 7:48 am | Permalink

    Oh, the joy! I think the only thing that could redeem such a spectacle would be to be reading this as the farce plays out. Reminds me of the wonderful quote:

    “If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me.”
    (Alice Roosevelt Longworth)

  7. Wes
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    “Evolutionary christology”

    And after we’re done with that, it’s on to Plate tectonic UFOlogy, Quantum mechanical astrology, and Atomic Scientology.

    • Posted July 9, 2009 at 5:04 pm | Permalink

      “And after we’re done with that, it’s on to Plate tectonic UFOlogy, Quantum mechanical astrology, and Atomic Scientology.”

      Why not. The best lesson I got from my high-school years was from a teacher we then believed to be cynical, but not anymore: “In principio erat fric.”

      • Posted July 17, 2009 at 1:41 pm | Permalink

        “In the beginning was the money”?

        Couldn’t find a latin word “fric” – closest match was the french word which has the same double meaning as “dough”.

      • Alexander Hellemans
        Posted November 29, 2009 at 5:10 am | Permalink

        Yes, “fric” is argot for “dough”

  8. Posted July 9, 2009 at 8:37 am | Permalink

    I always thought the Templeton talk of “big questions” was a bit silly, since they never seem to talk about how to start answering them in any useful way but I did assume that they meant big questions: “Why is there enough regularity in the universe for science to work so well?” or “What’s it all about? I mean really about, man?”.

    Finding a way to make sense of a particular bit of Christian dogma in light of evolution? That’s a big question? It’s not even a medium sized question. At best it’s an afternoon’s worth of vaguely amusing mental masturbation.

  9. Decio
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 9:00 am | Permalink

    “….he wishes that those wanting to explain religion wouldn’t start with the assumption that religious beliefs are false.”

    This seems to indicate that we should not assume that the flying spaghetti monster may not be false, and actually exist. There are ideas, good and bad, brilliant and stupid, scientific and religious but all ideas (i feel) are false until they can be proven true (beyond a reasonable doubt) by evidence. Is this not the beauty of science, a means of finding the truth in the natural world without the need of supernatural assumptions.

  10. Posted July 9, 2009 at 9:52 am | Permalink

    Kenotic theology! Cool!

    So we can combine apophatic theology, which means everyone has to be quiet about it, and kenotic theology, which empties it all out – and there we are! Free!

    • newenglandbob
      Posted July 9, 2009 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Can there be one more step? Disappearing theology?

      • Dave X
        Posted July 10, 2009 at 9:29 am | Permalink

        There was, but is has already disappeared.

  11. Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    “Big Questions”?

    Oh, you mean like this?

    “All I want to know is;
    When do I get paid,
    and where can I get a beer?”
    Jimmy Carl Black, from Frank Zappa’s 200 Motels

    Seriously, from all I’ve seen, “Big Questions” means “unanswerable questions,” given the complete lack of meaningful answers (in the sense of being able to show that any particular answer is correct). So science is accused of being unable to answer unanswerable questions?

    Ho hum.

  12. Mike
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:36 am | Permalink

    It’s amazing how often you see militant atheists honestly seeming to expect science in a theology discussion. You don’t see the same incredulous statements from someone trying to find science in a liturature discussion, for example. It does appear pretty silly ya know.

    • Posted July 9, 2009 at 10:57 am | Permalink

      “You don’t see the same incredulous statements from someone trying to find science in a liturature discussion,”

      Wiki Darwinian literary studies.

    • Gingerbaker
      Posted July 9, 2009 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

      It’s amazing how often you see militant atheists honestly seeming to expect science in a theology discussion.


      The talks were, after all, titled “Theology in Darwinian Context” and “The Evolution of Religion” you moron.

    • Posted July 9, 2009 at 5:44 pm | Permalink

      Well, literature admits to be “fiction.’ Theologians don’t admit that theology is fiction. If it is not fiction, what is it? Fact? Facts are the stuff of science, and scientists have every right to question theology.

    • MadScientist
      Posted July 10, 2009 at 2:16 am | Permalink

      Who was expecting any science? What people would like to hear are things like:

      1. how can religion answer questions which science cannot

      2. how do you know that religion has got the answer right given its phenomenal (100%) failure rate on claims

  13. Posted July 9, 2009 at 11:04 am | Permalink

    If I’m a militant atheist I want a uniform, and a sword, and a Hummer.

  14. Sili
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    As a failed X-ray christologer, I’m amused (perhaps this explains why I still misspell “crystallography” with two aitches).

    I wonder if Bragg is our prophet? Or should it be Laue?

    It’s so much easier for atheism: “There is no god, and Dirac is his prophet.”

  15. Zep
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 1:19 pm | Permalink

    Didn’t Deep Thought already find the answer to the “Big Question”? I thought it was 42…

  16. Ken Pidcock
    Posted July 9, 2009 at 8:39 pm | Permalink

    I loved this. It’s such a clear exposition of where we stand in this insane “conversation.”

  17. Richard
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:49 am | Permalink

    Why always the Christian god and Christian theology? Why is this a foregone conclusion even though the majority of religious people don’t believe in it?

    Something calling itself “self-emptying theology” sounds more like something the Buddhists would have thought up first. Half these theologeans wonder into territories less Abrahamic and maybe more Brahmanistic at times with their more pantheist less omni-everything god. All the time clinging like mad to this central point about Christ. They say how “Christian” these other ideas are while condemning other people who have them as “unsaved”. The idea of what is “Christian” and not changes over time.

    And since when has “refusing to bow down to local religion’s authority” been called “militant”? Militant would be blowing up churches.

  18. sailor1031
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    “Ruse declared that while he is an atheist, he wishes that those wanting to explain religion wouldn’t start with the assumption that religious beliefs are false”
    Fair enough! which religious beliefs are not false? can we have a list, please?
    Ophelia: you can have the Hummer but don’t expect any theologians to get in there with you….

  19. Posted July 10, 2009 at 6:25 am | Permalink

    Dennett has more patience than I would have had. Good for him, I guess.

    As for evolutionary christology, isn’t that Teilhard de Chardin redux?

    • sailor1031
      Posted July 10, 2009 at 9:28 am | Permalink

      yes – evolutionary christology is de Chardin again. We are suppsed to respect him because he was a jesuit and they are smart, didn’t you know? I doubt if jesuits today actually believe in a deity more than some of the time.

  20. Dan
    Posted July 10, 2009 at 12:05 pm | Permalink

    Phil Clayton and Wentzel van Huyssteen have both posted responses …
    van Huysteen:

    • Michael Fugate
      Posted July 10, 2009 at 10:17 pm | Permalink

      Could two people have said any less than Clayton and van Huyssteen in response?

  21. Posted July 16, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    I went to the session on speciation. It was excellent.

8 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. […] Coyne has posted philosopher Daniel Dennett’s report on a session about evolution and religion from the Darwin […]

  2. […] Jerry Coyne comes this report, from Daniel Dennett, of a symposium on science and faith held at Cambridge. It sounds like his […]

  3. […] you are on the subject, check out the dispatches by Daniel Dennett who is attending the Darwin celebration at Cambridge University, and sent some  report from the […]

  4. […] a session on evolution and religion at the big Darwin Festival at Cambridge University and had some things to say about it. Now, philosopher and theologian Philip Clayton, who presented a paper at that session, has posted […]

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  7. […] Almost-live report: Daniel Dennett at the Cambridge Darwin-and-faith bash Why Evolution Is True Bah! My forthcoming post on theology would look prescient if it had come out last week. Now it’ll look like I’m plagiarising Dennett. Nonetheless it’s a good write up of the question “What does Theology bring to an interdisciplinary study?” […]

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