The U of C discussion on religion with Reza Aslan and Dan Dennett

In January I attended a four-person discussion on the “place of faith in our changing world”, featuring Reza Aslan, Dan Dennett, religious ethicist William Schweiker, and moderator David Nirenberg, interim chair of our Divinity School. To me it was frustrating, as speaker after speaker (except for Dan) mouthed Deepities about religion without once laying out what they themselves believed. It is indeed relevant, in a discussion like this, to lay out what you consider to be faith (nobody did that), and how you distinguish “good faith” from “bad faith” (to me, of course, all forms of belief without evidence are bad). No, it turned out to be a big love-fest, verging on apophatic theology.

Now the University of Chicago Magazine has published a short article on the debate, emphasizing the harmony between the speakers. Yes, there was a harmony, but, as I wrote in my piece, it was because none of the believers dared say what they themselves believed, much less essayed any criticism of religion. Dan had a few “words” with the odious Aslan, but nobody wanted to argue with Dan. And for good reason: they were all interested in showing the good stuff about faith, and how all religions are harmonious and wonderful, and wanted to stay away from any notion that religion poisons anything. Had they crossed Dan, he would have made mincemeat of them.

Here’s the article (click on the screenshot) with a few quotes, which I’ve indented:

. . . the speakers focused on something more tangible: the function, meaning, and future of faith. What is religion to us? [JAC: by “us”, the speakers didn’t mean “me”, as they studiously avoided discussing their own beliefs].

Organized by the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge, the panel was composed of best-selling author and religious scholar Reza Aslan, atheist philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, and theologian William Schweiker, the Edward L. Ryerson Distinguished Service Professor of Theological Ethics and an ordained Methodist minister. In terms of sympathy or antipathy for religion, it was two against one: Aslan and Schweiker are believers; Dennett’s preferred analogy for religion is a virus.

As I reported, I found the discussion frustrating, and it shows in the article where I’m quoted below. Note, however, how Aslan and Schweiker deny any belief in the supernatural, although I’d like to see Aslan utter that at the Great Mosque in Mecca, or Schweiker mock the supernatural to his congregation (he’s an ordained Methodist minister). It all supports Maarten Boudry’s supposition that privileged academics like these are out of touch with what the average believer really thinks, and so speak of faith in polite and rarified terms. In reality, religion is causing all kinds of problems in this world (look at what’s happening with abortion right now, for instance), but you wouldn’t know that if you listened to the three speakers aside from Dennett.

From the article:

By the discussion’s end, there had been perhaps more agreement than one might have expected. All panelists took the position that private religious beliefs should be given no special weight in public discourse. “If your faith has certain precepts that you think are deeply important morally, your obligation is not to play the faith card but to explain [them] in terms that everybody else can understand,” Dennett said in an impassioned moment. “And the fact that it’s written in your holy scripture doesn’t count for anything at all.” Aslan and Schweiker quickly agreed.

All panelists were also happy to view religion as a part of history and culture, subject to the folly and myopia of any human endeavor. Indeed, the core of Schweiker’s philosophy, as he laid it out in response to an audience question, is that human thinking is “mediated through cultural and linguistic forms that develop through time. Our knowledge is always, therefore, deeply historical, deeply fallible, and deeply humane.” [JAC: note the Deepity here!]

None of the panelists seemed concerned that a neurological perspective might challenge human freedom. Are we the true authors of our actions? What if our “choices” are just the result of the ironclad laws of physics and chemistry operating within our brains? Dennett has worked to resolve this issue in print, taking a middle-road philosophical position called compatibilism. Aslan sounded more cavalier: “Actions and thoughts are directly caused by neural activity—and so what?”

So what?? So what? Because if there’s no free will, then the underpinnings of all Abrahamic religions, including Aslan’s own Islam, are destroyed. Go to Mecca, Dr. Aslan, and tell your coreligionists that. See if you survive.

It continues, mentioning my own frustrated question, which is accurate here because they recorded the discussion. (Apparently the recording is not available, nor does there appear to be a video.)

During the question period, ecology and evolution professor emeritus Jerry Coyne remarked on the high level of agreement among the speakers—enabled by their avoidance of specific doctrinal issues—calling the event a “secular love fest.” Coyne, an atheist activist, asked the two believers on stage, “Do you even care whether God exists or whether there’s an immortal soul?”

“Of course I care,” Aslan said. “But I also recognize that both of those statements are utterly, ridiculously unprovable.” Schweiker responded that faith, to him, is primarily a practical matter. “It may entail speculative and metaphysical beliefs, but I think most folks are religious because they’re concerned with how to orient their lives in certain ways.”

This is how academics talk about belief when they’re around other academics.


  1. Murali
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

    ‘But I also recognize that both of those statements are utterly, ridiculously unprovable.’

    Before trying to prove anything, do they give concreted meanings to these words? Grammatically correct nonsense is the main issue that these people have to confront.

    • rickflick
      Posted May 8, 2019 at 7:02 pm | Permalink

      Also, even if those beliefs are unprovable, beliefs have consequences (Sam Harris).

    • Sastra
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 8:08 am | Permalink

      This type of theist seldom never gives concrete definitions: they give abstract definitions. That way “God” doesn’t have to play by the rules of ordinary understanding. It’s on the higher level of abstraction.

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

        Someone should write a ‘Sophisticated Dictionary’, to be written in the deeply transcendently meaning-y way that the Sophisticated Theologians write.


        “- Aardvark; definition – the infinitely grounded sense of it-ness constituting an immanent instantiation of God’s ‘kingdom on earth’. Has four legs(? check this) and a kind of wobbly nose. Furry. Eats raisins(?).

        – Banana; definition – an infinitely en-fruited instantiation of god’s love, shaped to symbolise the frailty of mortal life. Always yellow(? check this), part of the fruit family, evolved* from apples.

        *under the guidance of god

        – Bat; definition – an infinitely exalted form symbolising the infinite duality of the grounded infinite things and stuff. Can fly! Scary sometimes. Batman based on it. Evolved* sometime in the past, from strange, magnificent ancient ducks. Its ‘DNA’ is shaped like a circle going round and round – how do you explain _that?_

        *under the guidance of god.

        – Bra; definition – an infinitely en-bosomed grounding of Christ’s…etc. etc.”

        See? It’d be a sure-fire bestseller. I’m very willing to write it and just lie about the authorship so long as I get given food and shelter.

        • rickflick
          Posted May 9, 2019 at 1:26 pm | Permalink

          If I accept your offer, do you do windows? We have an infinite number of instantiations and they’re all dirty with nose prints of cats.

  2. Filippo
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    “By the discussion’s end, there had been perhaps more agreement than one might have expected.”

    “Perhaps.” “Might.” Who is “one” here?

    I see this reportorial locution (trope, conceit?) too often, including in the NY Times. How is such a locution a statement and reporting of fact? How can the reporter possibly know what anyone, other than the reporter her-/himself, ought to “expect”?

  3. Randall Schenck
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    These guys act like their religion could be written in full on the back of a post card. What the heck is that big book for anyway.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

      DJTJ just got a subpoena slapped on his ass by the Republican chairman of the Senate intel committee.

      Those strange rumblings you hear may be hell freezing over.

      • Randall Schenck
        Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:35 pm | Permalink

        Hey, things are heating up. We also have the AG in contempt at that hearing today. I think if they can get hold of the more recent taxes on this guy it may be all over. What did Pelosi say – he is self-impeaching.

        • Ken Kukec
          Posted May 8, 2019 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

          I’m sure his lawyer is advising Junior (as any sane lawyer would) to assert his Fifth Amendment privilege against self-incrimination. But daddy Trump sure had some nasty things to say during his campaign against Hillary about how only the guilty take five.

          • Heather Hastie
            Posted May 8, 2019 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

            If he’s forced to testify, I wonder how long it will be before Kimberly Guilfoyle (Fox News host, former prosecutor, and ex-wife of several well-known men) leaves him? She won’t want him anymore if he’s a common felon.

            • rickflick
              Posted May 8, 2019 at 9:28 pm | Permalink

              Aren’t conjugal visits worth a million a pop?

  4. peepuk
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I like how Yuval Harari describes religion:

    When a thousand people believe some made-up story for one month, that’s fake news. When a billion people believe it for a thousand years, that’s a religion, and we are admonished not to call it fake news in order not to hurt the feelings of the faithful (or incur their wrath).

    • Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

      I’m surprised that Harari said that; I thought he was soft on religion.

      • norm walsh
        Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

        Jerry, he’s definitely not soft on religion> I’ve read two off his latest books and took an online course from him. He doesn’t shout it but he’s with us.

    • Posted May 8, 2019 at 10:50 pm | Permalink

      Author of Sapiens?


      • norm walsh
        Posted May 8, 2019 at 11:10 pm | Permalink

        Yep.A wonderful book.

  5. Ken Kukec
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Had they crossed Dan, he would have made mincemeat of them.

    I dunno; I kinda like mincemeat. Reza Aslan is more of a moldering entrail plucked from the offal bin.

  6. Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:32 pm | Permalink

    Schweiker’s comment toward a practical is on line with what is spoken from the United Methodist pulpits these days. All practical ideas and thoughts about toward life orientation. My Jewish friends tell me that is what they hear from the rabbis during the services now. Talks in current events. Not to far from what S. said. His comments reflect what is taught in theology schools such S Emory now.

    • Posted May 8, 2019 at 4:48 pm | Permalink

      such as Emory now.

      Ernest Harben

  7. rickflick
    Posted May 8, 2019 at 7:08 pm | Permalink

    “…most folks are religious because they’re concerned with how to orient their lives in certain ways.”

    I think there is merit to that view. Religious people I know tend to enjoy the ritual or the guidance, but find the magical aspect just something you have to live with to be a part of the community. Of course there are those to whom the supernatural and the dogma are the most salient.

    • Sastra
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 8:01 am | Permalink

      I think there’s a practical test for whether most folks are religious because they’re concerned with how to orient their lives in certain ways: get them to split the two.

      “If it’s true that God does not exist and religions are false, would you personally still want to live the kind of life you think is best today?”

      Affirmative means they’re humanist with a focus on how to live; negative or any kind of meltdown means they’re religious because religion matters more than how they orient their life.

      • rickflick
        Posted May 9, 2019 at 10:15 am | Permalink

        Sounds like a fair test. I await the opportunity to apply it.

    • ThyroidPlanet
      Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:18 am | Permalink

      Said Aslan, “I also recognize that both of those statements are utterly, ridiculously unprovable.”

  8. Roo
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:13 am | Permalink

    I actually didn’t interpret the article as Aslan or Schweiker denying any kind of belief in the supernatural. Skirting, maybe, but not denying.

    I think when Aslan said that the existence of a soul is unprovable, he meant it as in “And so there’s no use in talking about it at a debate”, not “If it’s not provable I don’t believe in it.” Or when Schweiker says that faith is a practical matter, I suspect he means that more in the manner of the Pope, who has made similar statements about how religion should focus on this world, here and now (at least as I recall, can’t find the quote) and not the esoteric (I actually disagree somewhat, I think people tend to err in the direction of becoming a bit too new agey if they focus too much on the contemplative, but can err towards tyrannical behavior when too focused on applying religious principles to others and daily life, so I think if one must err in one direction the former is generally preferable. Monks in caves don’t generally want to fight you over their beliefs, even if they are less active in the community. But I may be misremembering / mischaracterizing that quote.) This could just be my interpretation, but I think in more religious circles, that is a delineation between those who focus a great deal on mysticism and the other worldly vs. those who see faith largely as a pragmatic guide for living life. A guide written by God, yes, but still focused on day-to-day issues. I haven’t seen the whole talk so I’m not sure, but that was my impression.

  9. David Evans
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 4:38 am | Permalink

    “Go to Mecca, Dr. Aslan, and tell your coreligionists that. See if you survive.”

    He might. There is a strong tradition of predestination in Islam.

  10. Saul Sorrell-Till
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Always good to see Terminator Ceiling Cat lasering in on the casuistry and calling it out. It takes a certain gutsiness to stand up and pierce the cosy bubble of back-patting(Dan Dennett aside) when the majority of the audience probably don’t want to hear it.
    It’d be good to see Jerry do some more religious debates himself, if he ever wanted to. I understand the whole adversarial format just isn’t to everyone’s taste but I do remember a debate with a so-fisty-kated theologian from a while back where Jerry absolutely marmalised the guy.

  11. Posted May 9, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    In many schools of Islam, free will is, in fact, denied, from what I remember. Certainly the material world in many is subject to a complete occasionalism- this is where the “god willing” is from.

  12. phoffman56
    Posted May 9, 2019 at 6:25 pm | Permalink

    ‘ Schweiker’s philosophy…. is that human thinking is “mediated through cultural and linguistic forms that develop through time. Our knowledge is always, therefore, … deeply fallible,….” ‘

    Utter ignorance of scientific truth! Totally naive nonsense at this point of human ascent—see Bronowski’s ‘Ascent of Man’.

    Above quoted is part of a deepity, as Jerry says, but the word ‘deeply’ there is worse–simply completely false. The non-absolute-truth of physical scientific truth is quite well understood at this point, despite the nonsense from theologians (and many philosophers–not just followers of post-structuralist idiocies, also the Wittgentsteinian witless).

    e.g.: Maxwell’s equations are true to a very well-defined accuracy in very wide and clear domains. That’s an example of what ‘true’ has to mean. They need correction by quantum electrodynamics outside those domains, itself true in any thoughtful sense of the word as briefly described above; that is, quantum electrodynamics in all likelihood itself will have a restricted domain of validity a century from now, the size of the domain a function of the level of approximation asked for.

    It’s time any so-called university which does not get rid of its imaginary disciplines in the religio-theological directions is put in the same category with Jerry Falwell’s commercial faux-educational institution.

    Daniel Dennett shouldn’t waste his time with these people.

    • Posted May 10, 2019 at 11:28 am | Permalink

      Cf. Asimov on the “relativity of wrong” and Bunge’s work on partial truth, which was motivated in part to critique subjectivism.

  13. ThyroidPlanet
    Posted May 10, 2019 at 5:11 pm | Permalink

    I think it would have been interesting to ask Aslan how he would prove he is a Muslim.

  14. Steve Lawrence
    Posted May 11, 2019 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    It’s not surprising that panel got along well because the point is 1) we’re tolerant, and 2) any religion will do; religion is beneficial. It promotes good. Exceptions arise when religion is intolerant and fanatical (which we’re not).

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