Will Dan Dennett Debate?

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Will Dan Dennett Debate?

Dan Dennett is disappointed that theists in general, and theologians in particular, don’t take science seriously. They are more interested in immunization strategies. They retreat into faith assertions, deny (or don’t understand) evolution, and show little interest in philosophical arguments.  Presumably Dan will be making some of these claims when he speaks at Scripps, one of the Claremont Colleges, on February 16th.

In the spirit of empirical feedback, it would be great to put some of these claims to the test. So I suggest that Dan join me in a brief, one-hour debate on some of these themes while he’s here on campus. Albrecht Auditorium is available, and Claremont Graduate University is ready to make special arrangements for live online streaming of the discussion, so that it can be available to everyone.

There’s a little history behind this call, which you can find here and here. When we were both at the big Darwin Festival at the University of Cambridge in early July 2009, Dan came to listen to my paper on Darwin and theology. Afterwards he publicly expressed his disappointment that such a topic would be on the agenda at the Darwin Fest. Later in the same session I invited Dan to enter into a public discussion with me on some of the broader philosophical and theological questions raised by biology today, even listing some of the topics where (in my view) productive discussion is possible. Dan chose not to enter into that debate. But he did post a blog on Richard Dawkins’ website a few days later, complaining about the session and claiming that “neither speaker had anything to offer.”

Since the debate that Dan calls for is one that I’m eager to join him in, shouldn’t we take a few minutes when he’s on campus here in Claremont to let it happen?

To make this invitation to dialogue more warm and friendly, Iet me close with a personal invitation to Dan:


Yi Shen Ma

February 5, 2010at 10:22 pm

I really hope Dennett would join you in this important discussion. Seems to me that these so called New Atheists are only willing to dialogue with fundamentalists. When the opportunity emerges for a serious and genuine dialogue, they resort to rhetoric and hide behind their dismissive attitude. What happened on Dawkin’s website after the Darwin Festival is just one more of such incidents. I hope he will take this opportunity to prove himself otherwise.

drew tatusko

February 6, 2010at 12:06 am

i would like to see this, not too see dr. dennett “lose” as much as to see if there is any understanding of religion evident other than the strawmen the so-called horsemen regurgitate from tired late 19th century fodder. would not mind seeing david bentley hart and terry eagleton debate in similar forums.

John King

February 6, 2010at 9:08 am

“Dan Dennett is disappointed that theists in general, and theologians in particular, don’t take science seriously. They are more interested in immunization strategies.”

I have two reactions to this observation.

1. In far too many instances, the observation is true. I recently read a blog of a theologian that seemed very interested in the relationship between science and theology. His attitude was very positive toward a dialogue between the two. However, after some more reading of his material, I become somewhat disturbed. I think that part of taking science seriously is trying to first understand the content and conclusions of science before we begin reacting to science. The blogger was making observations about “chance” and “randomness”. However, his comments made it seem to me that he knew little about mathematics and statistics. How one can start a discussion about “chance” and not understand basic concepts developed in the science of statistics is beyond me. My conclusion is that “taking science seriously” has to start with “understanding the content and conclusions of science.” Not an easy task, but anything that you take seriously is never easy.

2. From the little that I have read of Dr. Clayton, I do believe that he takes science seriously and discussions with scientists are something to be encouraged. However, for that discussion to have a chance to produce a benefit, I think that there need to be the proper attitude on both sides. I think that attitude needs to be one of “openness and generousity” toward the other person’s point of view. I do not know Mr. Bennett, but th information in this blog leads me to believe that a conversation or debate with mr. Bennett would be a waste of time.

Philip Clayton

February 6, 2010at 9:53 am

John, think of it this way: in our culture today, there aren’t even meetings; there isn’t even talk between religious scholars and the science-based opponents of religion. When there’s a meeting and some talk, there can be dialogue. Then, eventually, you work toward civil dialogue, open dialogue, and informed dialogue. We have a long way to go.

— Philip

Mystical Seeker

February 6, 2010at 2:09 pm

I think the earlier comment that “when the opportunity emerges for a serious and genuine dialogue, they resort to rhetoric and hide behind their dismissive attitude” sums up the problem. The New Atheists stereotype the religious views of science as if all religion were fundamentalist, and then when confronted with progressive counterexamples that contradict their stereotypes they are forced into a dismissive posture, suggesting either that such counterexamples don’t really count or complaining that sophisticated theologies are not dogmatic enough to be taken seriously. The “New Atheists” are little more than schoolyard bullies who would rather attack than engage in serious dialogue.

Blake Huggins

February 6, 2010at 2:15 pm

I’m with Drew. I would love to see a nuanced debate (or is dialogue the better word?) that does not revolve around the tired old positivist arguments bequeathed to us from modernity. It seems to me that there is now room in both disciplines — science and theology — for such an event to happen. Unfortunately, though, these so-called “New” atheists seem reluctant to cross the threshold. I hope Dan rises to the challenge here. It will be interesting to see what happens.


February 6, 2010at 2:26 pm

It would be great if you could somehow get Dennett to agree to this, but I’m not sure he (and others in his camp) are interested in engaging in an honest dialogue on the intersection of theology and science. If he does agree to participate, prepare yourself for a series of smug one-liners that would make Bruce Willis proud, rather than a contemplative exchange that actually scratched the fairy tale, Santa Claus and Spaghetti Monster surface.

I think I posted something like this before on this site, but you have to remember that Dennett, Dawkins et al have all the answers. When they are pressed into areas beyond their knowledge base, they plead ignorance – e.g. “how can ‘what we see’ be considered ‘all there is’ given what little we know about quantum physics?” typical yields something like, “I’m not a physicist”. In the meantime, science is forging ahead generating some fascinating information that continues to turn dust-collecting theories on their head. The days of selfish genes and classical physics explaining all of biology are in the rearview for most scientists today. For some reason, Dennett and Dawkins are holding their ground, but they look more and more outdated as time goes on. When an alternative or more informed theory bounces too close to them, like the grumpy old neighbor, they will throw a fit yelling, “get your theory off my yard!”. Perhaps Dennett’s upcoming stint at the Sante Fe Institute will expand his worldview, but I’m not holding my breath.

I will of course, stay tuned and hope that you can convince Dennett to engage in some deeper questions, but people with the answers are just not that interested in the questions.

John L

February 7, 2010at 12:01 am

I will see Dan next week at TED and encourage him to join you in debate. I am sympathetic to the atheist position, for if anything it strives for purity in its objectivity. Atheists properly point out religion’s exclusionary, isolationist, institutional hierarchies that breed an us-and-them mentality. But (surprisingly) I see this same kind of intolerance and exclusionary posture from many in the atheist camps. The whole affair is pitiful.

Camile Puglia writing in Salon recently said this, “… I was recently flicking my car radio dial and heard an affected British voice tinkling out on NPR. I assumed it was some fussy, gossipy opera expert fresh from London. To my astonishment, it was Richard Dawkins, the thrice-married emperor of contemporary atheists. I had never heard him speak, so it was a revelation. On science, Dawkins was spot on—lively and nimble. But on religion, his voice went “Psycho” weird (yes, Alfred Hitchcock)—as if he was channeling some old woman with whom he was in love-hate combat. I have no idea what ancient private dramas bubble beneath the surface there. As an atheist who respects and studies religion, I believe it is fair to ask what drives obsessive denigrators of religion. Neither extreme rationalism nor elite cynicism are adequate substitutes for faith, which fulfills a basic human need—which is why religion will continue to thrive in our war-torn world.”

Physicist, astronomer, and atheist Marcelo Gleiser (Dartmouth) weighed in on the war between science and religion. He warns fellow scientists that they are becoming “as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.”

Gleiser admits that science cannot adequately address essential human qualities such as hope, and love. He concludes, “It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality… either science will teach us humility and respect for life or we will exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply trying to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.”

Philip Clayton

February 7, 2010at 11:33 am

Great quotes, John. People will not agree on questions of ultimacy: what may I hope for the future? Is there a God? No data, evidence, or philosophical arguments available to us now will compel humanity to one specific answer.

But imagine what progress it would be if theists and atheists were willing to look at the data together, valuing it and trying to understand it. And imagine what difference it would make it we could acknowledge where there are strongly supported theories, where the data leave room for intelligent discussion of alternatives, and where questions become more or less “purely philosophical.”

Like a ladder of questions, good science naturally raises questions at the boundaries of what we know. But imagine what it would look like if the discussants were able to recognize and acknowledge the levels of certainly and humility appropriate to each different topic they address.

Do you think Dan Dennett and I — two philosophers, one atheist and one theist — could have a discussion that met this (high) standard?

— Philip Clayton

Emily L

February 8, 2010at 11:21 am

I admit I’m coming to this whole discussion very late. I study English, not theology (except that I’m a medievalist, and so the two coincide a lot). But I read through this discussion and the comments and the Dawkings blog and all of its comments. I was disturbed (though unfortunately not surprised) at the type of hostility directed toward religion. There was a lot of “what are those idiots saying now?” And “ha ha! you showed them!” and one depicted Dennett and his “one of the Four Horsemen” line as something a la an action flick with Dennet as the hero emerging to “kick ass.”

In the comments there was little attempt to actually engage. It was mostly name calling and reaffirming that people who disagree with them are “ignorant” and “idiots.”

I fail to see how this helps anyone understand anything. I am interested in how my faith and science interact, and what it means to apply rational thought and knowledge to my religion. I also am interested in what it means to apply faith to science.

I guess it pans out to be like politics for me. I’d love to see real, earnest debate about important things, and I get excited at the prospect of that. But it ends up being about partisanship, ego, and name calling.

I don’t see the same kind of name calling here, which makes me happy. I’m sure that sort of Christian (or simply religious) bad behavior exists, just not here.

Anyway, I appreciate this debate and am interested in what is going on with this. The original post and all of the comments have given me a lot to think about.


February 8, 2010at 1:25 pm


Thanks for your comments. I think it’s safe to say that many of us are coming to the table from diverse viewpoints. I’m greatly appreciative of people like John L, who consistently help me forge my own thoughts on a topic like this even though we might have wildly different perspectives on faith, etc.

I’ve tried to navigate the websites of Dawkins and PZ Meyers but as you noted, it can remind you of looking at the BBS message boards of a sports team. A lot of “rah rah” and “kick ass” with little substance. I also find many of the people who post there to have an appallingly inadequate scientific foundation (as a scientist studying the human genome myself). Science is in perpetual motion – people write books and papers that take a snapshot, but some people are under the impression that we’re at some magical stopping point where you declare science “the winner” (of what, I’m not sure). That said, I suppose there needs to be a virtual arena where people can throw their tantrums – whether creationists or disciples of Dawkins.

I stumbled upon Clayton’s stuff while reading a Marcus Borg book (can’t recall which one). There are lots of great books on this stuff and some incredibly smart people are contributing to the discussion – Stuart Kauffman, Philip Clayton, Marcus Borg, Paul Davies just to name a few. To really dig in and keep me up at night, I’ll watch a few episodes of Closer To Truth (http://www.closertotruth.com).

Philip Clayton

February 9, 2010at 10:36 am


I’m with Matt on this one. Let’s choose dialogue over politics and keep speaking up whenever rhetoric replaces discussion. Thanks to the net, the voices of ordinary people count more now than they once did. Let’s keep holding BOTH sides to higher standards until some leaders emerge who are able to carry on the deep dialogue between science and faith at the level and with the sophistication that it deserves.

— Philip

John King

February 10, 2010at 1:55 pm


The questions regarding science, faith, and the relationship of God to us and reality as we perceive it can be quite daunting. However, over the years the writers that have been most helpful to me are as follows:

Rodney Holder
John Polkinghorne
Ernan McMullin
Graeme Finlay
Colin Russell
Alister McGrath
Robert White
John Bryant
Michael Poole
John Houghton
Denis Alexander
Roger Trigg
R J Berry
Ernest Lucas
Ian Barbour

John King

February 11, 2010at 6:39 pm

Below is an example of a scientist that seems to be open to dialogue with theology/religion.

Kenneth T. Miller, Ph.D., a Christian and evolutionist, is professor of biology in the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University, in Providence, RI. His research delves into problems of structure and function in biological membranes using a variety of techniques associated with electron microscopy. One of his principal interests is the public understanding of evolution. He has written a number of articles defending the scientific integrity of evolution, answering challenges such as that posed by intelligent design, and has publicly debated anti-evolutionists. He has written a series of high school and college textbooks with Joseph S. Levine, calledBiology, the most recent of which is known as the “Dragonfly” book (Pearson Prentice Hall, 2002); he also wrote Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (HarperCollins, 1999). Miller was interviewed at the AIBS Symposium “Evolutionary Science and Society: Educating a New Generation” at the 2004 NABT convention.

Jacob Baker

February 12, 2010at 10:03 pm

It’s official: Dennett has agreed to debate Dr. Clayton on Tues. Feb. 16 2-3 pm in Albrecht Auditorium at CGU. I’m sure Dr. Clayton will post on this soon. Let the games begin!


February 16, 2010at 12:50 am

I am not sure that Clayton and Dennett even agree on what science is since Clayton seems to want to imbue science with unwarranted theological meanings or to make theology do work that it was never meant to do. Clayton needs to brush up on Gilbert Ryle, Wittgenstein (or, if these names are to passe, Mark Johnston, or John Cottingham) before misrepresenting the theological enterprise.

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