Tom Gilson

“Maverick Philosopher: Dennett on the Deformation of the God Concept”

From Bill Vallicella:

One of the striking features of Daniel C. Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking 2006) is that Dennett seems bent on having a straw man to attack. This is illustrated by his talk of the “deformation” of the concept of God: “I can think of no other concept that has undergone so dramatic a deformation.” (206) He speaks of “the migration of the concept of God in the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) away from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts.” (205)

Why speak of deformation rather than of reformation, transformation, or refinement? Dennett’s view is that the “original monotheists” thought of God as a being one could literally listen to, and literally sit beside. (206) If so, the “original monotheists” thought of God as a physical being: “The Old Testament Jehovah, or Yahweh, was quite definitely a super-man (a He, not a She) who could take sides in battles, and be both jealous and wrathful.” (206, emphasis in original).

[Link: Maverick Philosopher: Dennett on the Deformation of the God Concept]

Vallicella has insightful things to say about this. I would add that Dennett’s view of God in history is refuted very early in the Bible: the first ten words of Genesis.

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6 thoughts on ““Maverick Philosopher: Dennett on the Deformation of the God Concept”

  1. It may be reasonable to take issue with Dennett’s choice of words, although if you read the whole book you’ll see that “deformation” vs. ““reformation” is a very trivial point. But to assert that

    “the first ten words of Genesis”

    refutes Dennett’s view is breathtakingly naive. A refutation requires a logical and well-substantiated argument, not merely a pious wave at a piece of text.

    A good treatment of the development of the concept of the divine among Middle Eastern peoples, and the way in which this process can be seen in Biblical and other texts, is the new book by Robert Wright, “The Evolution of God” . I disagree with a number of Wright’s ideas, especially his attempt to extract a transcendent teleology from a crude selection of historical social patterns, but on the broad historical process he is absolutely convincing.

  2. Thank you, Scott.

    Geoff, at least you didn’t say “breathtakingly inane.” 🙂 (I trust you know what that refers to.)

    I’m between meetings this morning, and I’ll have more to say in response when I have time later.

  3. Okay, back from the second meeting. Geoff, thank you for stopping by.

    I have done “good treatments” of many subjects, and I know what they involve. You can use the Lijit search field (above right) to look up my series with Tom Clark, for example, or the one on Mary Midgley’s ethical theory. There are some topics, though, that interest me just enough (or for which I have only enough time that day) to link to them without comment. I did one of those just yesterday. Sometimes I drop just a quick comment on a link, as I did here.

    The purpose in those cases may be to make a note of something interesting that someone else has said, and add just another word or so to it. Or it might be to it to encourage others to think about something themselves, rather than writing out everything I think about it.

    None of that is unusual in blogging. It’s the way a lot of bloggers work.

    In that light, for you to say that referencing the first ten words of Genesis is “a pious wave at a piece of text” is breathtakingly ungracious. What does “pious” mean to you? Coming from the atheist side of debates, it usually connotes something rather bland and unthinking (mindlessly religious), so I would suggest that what you wrote here is also rather breathtakingly condescending.

    Here’s an exercise I would suggest to you. First, try not to assume that I’m so breathtakingly naive. Second, consider the possibility of thinking through—for yourself, that is—what I was referring to in that brief sentence. Take up the challenge that’s represented there. Look at Dennett’s theory on the changing nature of monotheism over time. Look at the first ten words of Genesis. (You might want to take them as a kind of synecdoche representing the first several chapters of Genesis, for that is how I intended it.) Take note that these are ancient writings of the Hebrews. See how well these ancient writings of the Hebrews correspond to the way Dennett said the ancients regarded God.

    I’m not going to present the argument. I have enough trust in my readers to believe they can figure it out without further help from me. That includes you, Geoff.

  4. a hint…

    Dennett: The original God concept was himself physical and anthropomorphic.

    Genesis: The original God concept created everything physical, including humans. God was prior to anything physical and anthropomorphic.

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