Daniel Dennett - Belief in Belief

On belief in unbelief
and unbelief in belief

In his book Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett promulgates belief of “belief in belief’ in which he believes—believe me.

The basic concept behind “belief in belief’ is that beyond, for example, “belief in God” there is “belief in belief’ which is a position which considers “religious” beliefs to be essential for a healthy society and so attempts to protect such beliefs from philosophic, logical, scientific or criticisms of any sort.

Basically, the point is that what is believed is no longer as relevant as that someone would believe in something, anything, that equates to some form of transcendence. As long as you believe in something which purports to offer guidance and solace—that is good enough. Yet, belief in belief is not good enough for Daniel Dennett who, for example:
rules out deism, the view that God acts through natural laws, and incidentally Charles Darwin's credo for much of his later life.
“If what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you're an atheist in my book,” writes Dennett.
“If, for reasons of loyalty to tradition, diplomacy, or self-protective camouflage (very important today, especially for politicians), you want to deny what you are, that's your business, but don't kid yourself.”[1]

On this much I can agree, as did the ex-atheist C. S. Lewis decades prior as he referred to Life-Force philosophy, Creative Evolution, or Emergent Evolution:

One reason why many people find Creative Evolution so attractive is that it gives one much of the emotional comfort of believing in God and none of the less pleasant consequences.
When you are feeling fit and the sun is shining and you do not want to believe that the whole universe is a mere mechanical dance of atoms, it is nice to be able to think of this great mysterious Force rolling on through the centuries and carrying you on its crest.
If, on the other hand, you want to do something rather shabby, the Life-Force, being only a blind force, with no morals and no mind, will never interfere with you like that troublesome God we learned about when we were children.
The Life-Force is a sort of tame God. You can switch it on when you want, but it will not bother you.
All the thrills of religion and none of the cost.
Is the Life-Force the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?[2]

Based on his concept of belief in belief one would have to conclude that Daniel Dennett seems unaware of religious polemics—by religious and unreligious people—throughout the millennia, or the Bible’s praise of honest skepticism (Acts 17:11 for example).

In any regard, Daniel Dennett has become one of the leading voices (as one of the discredited quadripartite New Atheists) of a movement of atheists who hold to belief in unbelief and unbelief in belief.

It would certainly be as fallacious as Dennett’s claim to lack of polemics in religious matter to assert that atheists, even the most militant activist sorts, do not accept and engage upon polemics regarding atheism. Yet, their belief in unbelief and unbelief in belief comes through in their shock at the fact that they have to bother responding, that they actually have to bother defending a conclusion as obvious as atheism.

This is part of the reason that their talks and books are so heavy on emotion and so light on well, anything else. They are quick to condemn, quick to assert arguments from personal preference, arguments from outrage, arguments to ridicule, arguments to embarrassment, etc. Yet, slow to provide premises that go beyond that which they personally prefer in general and slow to go anywhere beyond well-within-the-box-atheist-group-think-talking-points.

Consider mere examples from Sam Harris:
Sam Harris writes that “atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society,” they find religious claims “to be ridiculous.” Religious people possess “encyclopedic ignorance.”[3] He looks forward to the day when raising one’s children according to ones religious faith will “be broadly recognized as the ludicrous obscenity that it is.”[4] He makes reference to “scary religious imbeciles”[5] and no, this was not in reference to extremist terrorists, for example, but to Intelligent Design theorists.
His ultimate goal is expressed in his looking forward to a time when “making religious certitude look stupid will be exploited, and we’ll start laughing at people who believe…We’ll laugh at them in a way that will be synonymous with excluding them from our halls of power.”[6]
And then he wonders why people are concerned that he wrote, “some propositions are so dangerous that it may even be ethical to kill people for believing them”[7]—capital punishment for thought crime.
Such sentiments could be multiplied ad infinitum - ad nauseam.

Belief in unbelief is often expressed in terms of considering atheism to be the default position. However, it is not. Rather, supernaturalism is the default position. Until such time as absolute materialism can and does account for all natural phenomena—from consciousness, to life in general, not to mention the whole universe and everything in it—supernaturalism can account for these phenomena (at the philosophic level of what, and perhaps why but not the scientific level of how—a level which is not at all advantageous to materialism). This is because, let us say partly scientifically and partly philosophically, materialism cannot account for said phenomena while supernaturalism can (hint of how this is so are found in the parsed essay On the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorns, et al.).

Belief in unbelief, when it is considered the default position, is held to via “faith”-like adherence (here I am employing the fallacious atheist redefinition of faith as “belief without evidence” as opposed to the biblical definition of faith as trust aka: the conclusion of a syllogism). That is to say that this position asserts that there is nothing that is not, both epistemically and ontologically, accounted for under absolute materialism.
The assertion is that everything has a purely materialistic explanation and even if we do not know what the explanation is; some day—thy materialism come—it will be explained thusly. And even if it is not explained materialistically this view demands that one restrict their thinking and simply believe by “faith” that the explanation is materialistic—this is anti-freethought. Meanwhile, it may be of import to note; the theist can consider material explanations, ever mounting material causes for material effects, by noting that yes indeed; God created the material realm wherein there functions a system of material causes and material effects.

Belief in unbelief is also one of the consoling delusion aspect of atheism. Atheism consists of various consoling delusions which atheists generally seem to accept as psychological band-aids placed upon their reasons (or excuses) for rejecting God. They seem to think that something, or someone, does not exist because they do not believe it. They rejects God’s ethos, His prescription of certain actions and condemnation of others, and thus, they console themselves by thinking that they are absolutely autonomous and lack ultimate accountability.

Unbelief in belief is generally peppered, if not saturated with, confusion and misunderstandings of every sort. For example, responding to the question of whether “all faith claims are in some sense equivalent” Christopher Hitchens stated, “they're all equally rotten, false, dishonest, corrupt, humourless and dangerous.”
In this regard, note the words of C. S. Lewis, one time atheist and later Christian scholar, who wrote:

If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake.
If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest ones, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race has always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view.[8]

That is to say that the unbelief believers paint with a broom and generically generalize anything which they consider in any way supernatural or superstitious into the same category: every “religion,” theology, ritual, etc.

Consider this criticism of Daniel Dennett:

like other evangelists of unbelief, he views the world through the conceptual grid of western monotheism. His view of religion itself proves this; he defines it as a social system "whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". This may be commonplace as a perception of religion, but it is also highly parochial…[and] not found in most of the world's religions…
it is a mistake to assume that belief is the core of religion. This may seem self-evident to many philosophers, but in fact belief is not very important in most religions. Even within Christianity there are traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, in which it has never been central. For the majority of humankind, religion has always been about practice rather than belief. In fixating on the belief-content of religion, Dennett emulates Christianity at its most rationalistic and dogmatic….
Dennett mocks those who say that life without faith has no meaning as "believers in belief". Yet he displays a zealous faith in unbelief that is far more inimical to doubt, and there is more scepticism in a single line of the [Blaise Pascal’s] Pensees than in the whole of Dennett's leaden tome.
Breaking the Spell approaches its subject with a relentless, simple-minded cleverness that precludes anything like profundity, and much of it seems designed to demonstrate the author's intellectual ingenuity rather than to advance the reader's understanding…
When Dennett delivers on the promise of the book - a naturalistic explanation of religion - the result is embarrassingly naïve.[9]

Even Sam Harris, the Buddhist/mystic/atheist who does not like the term “Buddhist,” “mystic” or “atheist,” whose pursuit of Buddhist atheist mysticism is not approved of by other New Atheist, such as Richard Dawkins, promulgates just that: a strictly materialistic form of meditation (which is actually more in keeping with Buddhism’s atheistic roots).
Unbelief in belief even leads some atheists to prefer an answer which only leaves one asking more questions than to an answer which is philosophically more fulfilling. Such is that case with those who, for example, prefer to appeal to aliens as being the creators of our universe and or life. This does not answer the question of how they came about but merely pushed the question of origins further back in time. Meanwhile, a supernatural/theistic creator who is, as is logically and scientifically viable, outside/beyond time, space and matter is rejected (again, see On the Flying Spaghetti Monster, the Invisible Pink Unicorns, et al.). Anything to maintain unbelief in belief.

Let us end with some food for thought, some makings of a brain storming session:

Generally when atheists ask for evidence of God’s existence they do not seem to consider upon which premise the request such evidence.
They generally do not define what they mean by “evidence.”
When they do they are merely expressing their own theological views and demanding that we adhere to them—dogmatheistically.
If they specify “scientific” and or “empirical” evidence they do not seem to consider that science/empiricism are a narrow fields which deals with a narrow bandwidth, as it where, of reality and thus, functions within parameters.
Moreover, since there is no scientific/empirical evidence supporting the request for scientific evidence the request is self defeating.
Do we look for wet evidence of a dry object? Do we look for physical evidence of something/someone who is not non-physical.
Such as, and others, are the ways of those who hold to belief in unbelief and unbelief in belief.

[1] Judith Shulevitz, “The Belief Trap - The evolutionary explanation of religion gets stuck,” Slate, March 8, 2006
[2] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, Chapter 4: “What Lies Behind the Law”

[3] Sam Harris, The First Ten Pages
[4] Sam Harris, Science Must Destroy Religion
[5] Sam Harris, The Politics of Ignorance
[6] Blair Golson, Sam Harris: The Truthdig Interview
[7] Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2004), pp. 52-53
[8] C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity, (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1960), p. 29
[9] John Gray, “Atheists Are Irrational Too,” New Statesman, 20 March 2006


  1. Well written! Another masterfully done critique!

  2. They seem to think that something, or someone, does not exist because they do not believe it.

    Bigfoot might exist.
    Or not.
    I don't think that he does.
    Yet that does not mean that Bigfoot does not exist.
    Same goes for aliens and tooth-fairies.

    ...since there is no scientific/empirical evidence supporting the request for scientific evidence for the existence of Bigfoot the request is self defeating.
    Do we look for wet evidence of a dry object? Do we look for physical evidence of something/someone who is not non-physical.

    If somebody makes the claim that Bigfoot exists then...they get to provide the evidence.
    If they choose to provide crappy evidence then...there's no good reason to believe in Bigfoot.
    Extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence.

  3. Scientific 'evidence' is a fleeting vapor.

    One day man evolved from apes, and the next, well, apes evolved from hominids. As the new 'evidence' is discovered, the entire worldview can change, and the previous worldview is thrown on the trash heap. However at the time, the atheist will die on the hill that science has built for them. And then they wonder why Christians laugh at their solid belief in something which will be pulled out from under their feet next week. It is like watching those that are on the diet of the week in the latest tabloid, the one that will finally work, this time.

    There is never a solid foundation in science, just opinions which are as changing as the fashion of the day. Evidence is what the atheist decides it is, at the time she/he makes the decision, and is always subject to re-evaluation at whim. Such is the belief structure of the non-believer.

  4. Evidence is what the atheist decides it is, at the time she/he makes the decision, and is always subject to re-evaluation at whim. Such is the belief structure of the non-believer.

    Which means.....?
    You don't have evidence for Bigfoot?

  5. Cedric, there IS indeed evidence.

    The credibility is suspect, but it is there.

    Now on the other hand, it might be that soon that those that hold to the materialistic/'scientific' worldview will be arguing that there is no evidence this week and next week calling everyone stupid for not holding the 'scientific' evidence that Bigfoot is not only the missing link, but the alien source for all life in the universe. Who knows, maybe it is the cause for the big bang too. It is just a 'scientific' discovery away.

    There is no foundation, nothing you can hang your hat on. In the end you are basing your worldview on the musings of 'science' priests, and echoing their dogmas, which change every time they open their mouths.

    Please, tell me something which is unchanging in the 'scientific' dogmas of your Atheism. Is there anything that some particle physics high priest cannot change with the foundation of a new quark? Is there any evolutionary discovery hidden in the ground that will destroy 'science's current theory?

    I submit that not only IS there, but you MUST stake your material atheism on it. You MUST say that we are holding to 'scientific' facts that are false, that the current edifice of 'science' is MUST come crashing to the ground in a ruin. You must say that the arguments you are making are based on false arguments and assumptions. You must agree that your argument is nothing but vapor, and thus the atheist is just full of hot air.

  6. The credibility is suspect, but it is there.

    If it's suspect then why give it money and political power?
    Why hook up with one god as opposed to another god if it's suspect?

    ...it might be that soon that those that hold to the materialistic/'scientific' worldview will be arguing that there is no evidence this week and next week...

    You've lost me. What are you talking about?
    Never mind.

    Look, it's really simple.
    Atheism has no dogma. There's no manual. No set of instructions. No ideology. No "worldview".

    Atheism is not believing in a god for the same reasons that you don't believe in Bigfoot or fairies or aliens.
    There's not much more to it that that.
    You don't have to like science or accept the theory of evolution or reject the idea of a soul etc. Those are all separate issues.

    As long as you don't accept the existence of a god because there doesn't seem to be any good reason to do so then...you're an atheist.

    The vast majority of people believe in their own particular gods simply because that's what they were taught to believe by their parents.
    It's not a coincidence that the Jewish god just so happens to be accepted by the children of Jews.
    How many Hindu parents end up raising Greek Orthodox children that you are aware of?

    Do you believe in Zeus?
    Well, that makes you an atheist with regards to Zeus.

  7. "Look, it's really simple.
    Atheism has no dogma. There's no manual. No set of instructions. No ideology. No "worldview"."
    [And apparently no continuity of thought beyond a 4-word paragraph.]

    Atheism has no dogma. Absolutely!... Except of course to state that atheists have the omniscience to know that no omniscient being exists.

    Ah, and taking guns to school to murder classmates isn't objectively wrong - since we ruled that out too with our omniscient powers.

    And that there are no absolutes - absolutely.

    Wait - still yet another one - that actively castigating religion is mandatory, especially Judeochristianity. ("The hilllls are aliiive - with the sound of Munich...")

    Oh, right, and that everything made itself from an explosion from nothing, on its own. Because we're dealing with reality here, not belief.

    The evolution thing fits secondarily in there somewhere - since claiming that no intelligence is needed to bioengineer complex organisms from (yes, you're favorite Cedric!) Campbell's Prebiotic with Stars - that's really not a philosophical primer (excuse) for the whole atheism thing. Really.

    Wow, from so simple a non-belief system, there sure are alot of fundamental theses that go along with it. (Or feces, take your pick.) Tag on a few more culturally inherited rules, and that awesome New Atheism (here to stay!) might have to compete with the Sangha of Buddhism.