Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Daniel Dennett, Black Knight

Usually when I take my son to the orthodontist the waiting around time is kept to a bare minimum. I've never seen a Soviet factory plan deployed so well in an American medical establishment. It reminds one of the stories one used to hear of the assembly-line laser eye surgeries done in Moscow not too long ago: dozens of kids having their braces adjusted on dozens of chairs all at the same time in the same room, while parents literally stand around in the waiting room because there are so many people there that all of the chairs are taken; but you don't mind because you're only going to be there for ten minutes.

Yesterday was different. What was noted as a "20 minute appointment" on the appointment card turned into a 60 minute appointment, so I was very lucky that I had taken with me the January issue of First Things, which had just arrived at my house the previous day. As usual it was chock-a-block with good reading material, including, believe it or not, the correspondence section, which was filled with letters of both praise and blame for Joseph Bottom's fine essay in the October issue, "When the Swallows Come Back to Capistrano." What really caught my attention, though, and what kept me happily reading right up until the moment Michael appeared at my side saying "Mmdlbgoo," which is teenage mumbledy-speak for "Come on, dad, let's go," was the roller-coaster ride through rhetoric that was David Hart's critique of Daniel Dennett's recent book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.

In a way, reviewing a book like Dennett's is rather like shooting fish in a barrel. Why on earth someone in Dennett's position would be willing to embarrass himself with such a book is beyond me, though when one considers such examples of animus against religion as his and that of Richard Dawkins and the other scientistic fundamentalists out there one begins get the impression that what one is hearing is nothing so much as playground smack talk anyway, so pretty much anything goes I suppose. But as many competent reviewers, including other atheists, have pointed out, the alleged "arguments" in books such as Breaking the Spell and The God Delusion are clearly more like screeds than anything else, and they have so little intellectual or scholarly content that it is very difficult to find anything interesting to say about them, either pro or con, in any kind of professional setting. Instead, one finds reviews of them in such venues as The New Republic, the Times Literary Supplement, or now First Things, because the only people who care about these books are the ones who enjoy tearing them to pieces and those zealots who already agree with what's in them, and few folks in either group are going to be folks who take any kind of professional interest in these books.

Fortunately for me, David Hart falls in the former category rather than the latter. I would not want to be on the wrong side of his reviewing pen, but as it is I am extremely glad to have been able to relish the job he did on Dennett. It's too bad that Dennett will never even understand how badly he has been savaged, even if he does bother to read the review. I doubt that he will read it, actually. If he comes to have any knowledge of it at all it will be because one of his toadies will tell him about it, perhaps summarize it for him, and if he bothers to write a response it will be manifest that he did not read it himself. One comes to know such things about folks like Dennett, since one often has the occasion, in the course of one's professional work, to read letters that Dennett has written on behalf of other persons with whose work one actually is familiar; it becomes clear upon reading such letters that Dennett is not familiar with the works he discusses other than in the most cursory sense. In the case of religion, Dennett is clearly writing about something about which he has only the most superficial knowledge, and that makes reviewing his work a little easier and, perhaps in this case, a little more fun.

Hart is a frequent contributor to First Things, and one can only hope that his contributions continue. He is a fine writer, and his use of language is spectacular. Indeed, one almost gets the impression that his piece is a little over the top: there's a certain sense in which it becomes very clear fairly early on that Dennett is out of his league, and that we are witnessing something of an unfair fight, sort of like watching a guy in a wheelchair taking on LeBron James in a one-on-one game. Dennett could actually use something like a wheelchair, because against Hart he's more like the Black Knight in Monty Python's Holy Grail movie--you remember the one, the guy who gets both arms and legs cut off by King Arthur, only to "stand" his ground shouting "Come on, give me your best shot! Come back and fight!" as Arthur goes on his way.

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