Daniel Dennett in Venice ruffles some priestly feathers


I had the fortune of meeting Daniel Dennett in Venice at the Future of Science conference on last Saturday. The theme of the conference this year was Evolution, and after the first day being dedicated to the evolution of the Universe, and the second to that of Life, the last day was the evolution of the Mind. Dennett was speaking in the afternoon, on the need of analysing and studying religion as a natural phenomenon. This is expressed in detail in his new book, “Breaking the Spell”, which is clear in his provocation: we cannot sustain the special position that religion has occupied, where as soon as anybody in a discussion mentioned the magical word “faith”, there was no way to go further, and rationally progress the argument. It is actually sad that something like this should be provocative. Especially in the US however the public discussion about science is very much embroildered in religious thought. Isn’t it time that science took its revenge, and put religion on its examination table? The Venice conference also saw priests attending, and actually chairing the afternoon session of the third day. I have been told that the round table that Dennett participated in on the second day got some of them upset, which must be good: the security of a dogmatic position must be perturbated in order to better study the subject in its own dynamics. After Dennett’s speech, which was similar to the one he also gave at TED, there was a question from the audience which must be fairly common: “What exactly is the benefit that humans gain, as they participate in an evolved religion?” Dennett impassionedly responded that “there is no reason why there should be an a priori benefit to humans, as the evolutionary pressure is on the meme’s of religion themselves, and they are the ones that gain value.” The individual or the group participating in religion can actually lose out as the parasitic meme complex takes advantage of it.

I was lucky enough to spend some time with Dennett both before, and after his talk, as we discussed issues connected to the themes he covering. It was a very stimulating encounter!