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Dennett at the Darwin Festival

I have just returned from the Darwin Festival, which is running this week in Cambridge as one of the main commemorative events of this Darwin bicentenary year. The quality has been mixed, to say the least, but nobody would deny that a major high spot was Dan Dennett’s brilliant talk on Wednesday morning. Dan drew delighted laughter and numerous bouts of applause as he gently mocked the Christian apologists who, for some reason, had been invited to speak. Probably the loudest applause was for his simile of the ‘Cheshire Cat’s grin’ for the way ‘sophisticated’ theologians retreat and retreat in the face of science until there is nothing left but the unctuously vacuous smile. More than ever, one is left wondering why ‘theology’ is regarded as a subject at all.

On the two previous days, Dan was in the audience during a pair of divided sessions, one on ‘Theology in Darwinian Context’ and the other on ‘The Evolution of Religion’. I didn’t go to those sessions, but I was glad to receive two letters from Dan (also circulated to a few other people, including Jerry Coyne and PZ Myers), giving his amusing impressions. I asked Dan’s permission to post them, and he gave it for the following slightly modified version:-


Dennett“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.

Added the next day:-

I don’t know if this is interesting enough to post, but in the interest of ‘balanced coverage’ it should probably be added to my posting on the first session.
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.”

HindeThat’s the end of Dan’s account. I should add that those two religious sessions were supported by the Templeton Foundation, with the result that the distinguished biologist Robert Hinde FRS withdrew from speaking. I circulated the story, to the same circle of people, in the following terms:-

“Robert Hinde is the elder statesman of the science of Ethology and one of the most respected figures in British biology. I just met him at the big Cambridge Darwin Festival. Robert had agreed to speak in one of the sessions on 'Religion and Science' but withdrew on learning that it was sponsored by the Templeton Foundation. He is now even more respected among British biologists.”




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