Friday 20 March 2009

Daniel Dennett: A Darwinian Perspective on Religion (Lecture at Conway Hall)

I attended this lecture put on by he British Humanist Association at Conway Hall last night and just had to write a few quick words about it.

I shan’t attempt to review the lecture in full by going through all the points covered, partly because I wasn’t taking notes, but mainly because it was filmed and you’re much better off watching the film than my diluted transcripts and spoilers.

Apparently the video will be posted on the British Humanist Association web site. Link here. However, it wasn’t up last time I checked, but may well be by the time you read this.

Richard Dawkins introduced Daniel Dennett and gave him a great and worthy build up, including the inevitable comment on the physical similarities between Dennett and Darwin.

Dennett mused on the origins of language and applied Darwinian principles of evolution to show how words are naturally coined and enter the language, in much the same way as genes in a species. By comparing a linguistic family tree to a biological tree it can be seen how the present day languages and species are but a small subset of all that has ever been with successful genes and words mutating and spreading down the branches.

The same principles are then applied to show how superstitions, rumours and folklore memes can take a hold until such a time, as the successful ones are able to acquire stewards to shepherd them, propagate them further and equip them with the attributes for survival.

Religions may well have formed a necessary part in our evolutionary past much like Dumbo’s magic feather or “Nurse Crops” that are planted amongst the hay to control weeds and provide support until such a time as the main crop can rise above and stand on it’s own.

The time has now come for the Magic feather to be thrown away, the nurse crops may have given us a good start, but now they just hinder, and Dennett urges us to throw away the religious crutch.

At the top of the lecture, Dennett listed 5 possible ways in which things could play out, from a regression to religions dominance to a complete disregard of religion. One questioner asked what Dennett thought was the most likely scenario. Dennett opted for a middle ground where religions retain their pageantry and ceremony but the creed withers and becomes irrelevant. And maybe that would be a satisfactory outcome.

Dennett lecture was packed full of original and brilliant thought, perfectly understandable and irrefutable. It was a real treat for the mind, please keep checking back at the BHA website or YouTube when it comes online.

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