Should We Punish The Religious More Harshly?

Philosopher Daniel Dennett does a Q&A column at the Washington Post. He was asked, “Is there widespread media bias against Christianity?”. Here are his answers, interspersed with my comments.

There is no media bias against Christianity. If it appears to some people that there is, it is probably because after decades of hyper-diplomacy and a generally accepted mutual understanding that religion was not to be criticized, we have finally begun breaking through that taboo and are beginning to see candid discussions of the varieties of religious folly in American life. Activities that would be condemned by all if they were not cloaked in the protective mantle of religion are beginning to be subjected to proper scrutiny.

Not so. Criticism of Islam is verboten in most of the press, mostly because of fear. You rarely hear anything negative about Jewish religious practices. Nor Scientological ones. There’s nothing but good press for the new-agey morphs of Eastern religions. And don’t forget our newest faith, mentioned below.

Some people are adept at finding bias where it doesn’t exist, but the major media does tend to portray Christians ungenerously. This may be because you criticize what you know, mixed with a dash of juvenile overreaction to the mores of our elders.

That metaphor is apt. Dennett is among those who look back from the Enlightenment and label the time before as “humanity’s infancy.” That may be so, but he forgets we pass from childhood to rebellious adolescence.

…We need to change the prevailing assumptions in the same way that public opinion has been reversed on drunk driving. When I was young, drunk drivers tended to be excused because, after all, they were drunk! Today, happily, we hold them doubly culpable for any misdeeds they commit while under the influence.

I look forward to the day when violence done under the influence of religious passion is considered more dishonorable, more shameful, than crimes of avarice, and is punished accordingly, and religious leaders who incite such acts are regarded with the same contempt that we reserve for bartenders who send dangerously disabled people out onto the highways.

A guy tossing back a few and then driving knows what he is doing. He knows, that is, that his freely chosen behavior is likely to injure or kill others. There is clear malice aforethought—and recklessness. His punishment is harsh because of those reasons.

A Muslim strapping explosive to his genitals to kill (mostly) non-Muslims also has malice aforethought. His goal is not just murder but terror. And his (pre-Holderian) punishment is severe because of those reasons.

Murderous acts already face stricter retribution than do non-violent crimes. It would be stupid to apply a religious test in criminal sentencing.

I also look forward to the day when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution must answer to the charge of dishonesty. Telling pious lies to trusting children is a form of abuse, plain and simple. If quacks and bunko artists can be convicted of fraud for selling worthless cures, why not clergy for making their living off unsupported claims of miracle cures and the efficacy of prayer?

Forbidding citizens because they are pastors from dissenting from “the consensus” on global warming? Dennett, old boy, you have lost your mind. Or you have been born again as a Green.

And so what if some Christians are wrong about evolution? Most men in the street couldn’t describe a neutrino. Should citizens pay a fine for being unable to calculate the indefinite integral exp(x) dx? All sorts of people are all sorts of wrong about all sorts of matters of fact. This ignorance is mostly harmless.

Dennett is right that we should tar and feather sanctimonious snake oil salesman when we find them. But he’s wildly wrong about the usefulness of prayer, fellowship, and faith.

And then he throws out the child abuse bomb. Them’s fightin’ words. Or ignorance masking as intellect. Who, Mr. Dennett, gets to decide what is true and what false? Only those with a PhD from an approved university?

Dennett calls himself a philosopher but makes a fundamental error (that’s two days in a row, folks). He should know that since there is no (acceptable to him) proof of God’s existence, then there can be no proof of His non-existence.

His decision of non-existence is not proof. He cannot decide for others which answer is true and which false. And his belief should not become the basis of child abuse laws and punishment.

The double standard that exempts religious activities from almost all standards of accountability should be dismantled once and for all. I don’t see bankers or stockbrokers wringing their hands because the media is biased against them…Religious leaders and apologists should accept that since their institutions are so influential in American life, we have the right to hold their every move up to the light. If they detect that the media are giving them a harder time today than in the past, that is because the bias that protected religion from scrutiny is beginning to dissolve. High time

The bankers are wringing their hands. How did Dennett miss that?

Religion has no special status except in matters related to its practices. But this is the same status given to Masons and the Shriners. What they do behind closed doors is their own business. Unless that business overlaps mine or is criminal, which is rarely, rarely.

What Dennett wants is to strip away people’s freedom in making religious choices. He and I probably agree on truth or falsity of most religious claims (except for THE question), but where Dennett wants to remove people’s freedom, I would keep it.


Thanks, as always, to Arts & Letter Daily, where Dennett’s column was originally linked.


  1. Mariner

    It’s sad that the vast, vast majority of “philosophers” nowadays would be called “sophists” by all other ages.

  2. Chuckles

    “I also look forward to the day when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution must answer to the charge of dishonesty.”

    And I look forward to similar courtesies being extended to seemingly self-opinionated and prescriptive journalistic philosophers

  3. Briggs


    I don’t fault Dennett for being prescriptive. I am being prescriptive. The difference is that I my medicine, while it doesn’t taste as good, is better for you.

  4. “I also look forward to the day when pastors who abuse the authority of their pulpits by misinforming their congregations about science, about public health, about global warming, about evolution must answer to the charge of dishonesty.”

    Nice. How about politicians, scientists, public school teachers, journalists, etc.? Even if a pastor is wrong about anything, if he/she truly believes it, can they really be considered dishonest?

    Isn’t this just yet another person annoyed that people have beliefs that can’t be empirically proven?

  5. “He should know that since there is no (acceptable to him) proof of God’s existence, then there can be no proof of His non-existence.”

    I don’t see how that logically follows. There’s no proof of the Loch Ness Monster’s existence, but proof of Nessie’s non-existence is trivial in theory given the definition of the beast: drain the lake, discard everything that looks like a fish, and see if what’s left is big enough and strange enough to qualify.

    There’s no proof of the existence of Santa Claus, but it’s easy to look at the sum of the characteristics ascribed to him and find enough contradictions between those characteristics and what we observe of the real world to dismiss the possibility as absurd. (eg, supersonic invisible flying reindeer that don’t produce a sonic boom)

    The “God” hypothesis is a lot closer to Santa than Nessie, so the nonexistence proof has to rest on incoherence and internal constistency more than exhaustive search. You can’t disprove *every* entity somebody somewhere might call “God”, but you can certainly disprove a good many of them. The details of doing so would depend on the exact definition of God being used.

    (The *inverse* of your statement would be true – acceptable proof of God’s existence and acceptable proof of God’s nonexistence are mutually incompatible; if you have one you probably can’t have the other. For appropriate values of “acceptable”.)

  6. mathman

    Just who gets to sit in judgment here?
    Shall those who secretly modified the reported temperature records be given higher regard because they acted in accordance with the highest political correctness?
    Shall those who refuse to accurately quote Muslim mullahs (religious leaders in that faith) who call for death to the infidel (persons not following Islam) be provided censorship rights?
    Shall those who question the fact that the Earth is the center of the Universe and does not move be burned at the stake? Oops, that one has already shifted on us.
    As for evolution, now: will the person can posit the specific mechanism (on the molecular level) which modifies DNA to provide a new capability please step forth? Speaking in terms of statistics, random doesn’t work, when both branches of the DNA have to be changed, become dominant, and therefore hereditable.
    No one questions the existence of mutations that do harm. A boatload of them have already been identified.
    But how long has it been since a new bone evolved?
    Shall persons exercising their so-called religious freedom by blowing themselves (and anyone near them) up not have it reported that they conferred with Muslim mullahs before taking action?
    I guess I expect too much common sense.

  7. John

    I’m not a Christian, but I agree there is a bias against Christianity compared to other religions. I suspect it’s because Christianity remains the dominant religion in the Western world. Other religions are seen as minority views.

    In a process I call “minoritism”, some minority views are subject to special protection and move beyond criticism. Views which contradict or simply contrast the minority views can and must be ridiculed or suppressed in order to demonstrate the protection being afforded to the minority.

    To Dennett’s other note, there is no reason why religiously-inspired violence should be seen as worse than any other form (of course, it’s also no better).

  8. 49erDweet

    Another “learned” self-important intellectual who can’t see the irony in expressing his own belief that selected beliefs of others are false. Belief is such a small word. Why do so many brainiacs not comprehend it also applies to most of what they think they know? Is it ego? Or malice?

    Our local church is not wealthy. If the property were suddenly to be taxed we would only be able to pay that cost by eliminating or severely restricting the charities we now fund to support a number of needy in our community. I’m wondering? Is it because we do provide no strings “unregulated support” [by the government] for others that has Dennett’s shorts in a bunch? Or am I just being paranoid?

  9. Briggs

    Glen Raphael,

    Thanks. However, proof of Nessie does imply there is no proof of Non-Nessie. Proof, don’t forget, is a strong word. It means to deduce without error.

    We know, given the evidence of biology etc., that there is high probability that Nessie doesn’t exist, and this implies low probability that he does exist. As long as the probability for existence (or non-existence) is not 1, then we have not proved existence (or non-existence).

    And the same with God. I have not yet seen a convincing argument which, from stated premises, deducing his existence. Nor have I seen any which deduced His non-existence. Technically, take the premises (evidence) you start with as E and the hypothesis of interest be G. The if we can’t get from E to G then we cannot get from E to not-G.

    I have seen plenty of arguments which, from certain premises, give high probability for His existence. Others, using still different premises, find low probability. Since either class cannot reach deductive proof, we have to rely on probability and, if you like, faith, to make our own decisions whether we believe or not.

    Dennett knows all this and has reached the conclusion that the probability that God exists is very low, so low that he feels comfortable deciding to act as if God does not exist. That is fine. But he cannot decide that that is the best decision for all people in all situations. That is absurd.

    As far as Santa goes, click on my main page and look to the links on the left. Look for Santa Math. He never uses supersonic reindeer.

  10. If Dennet was in a foxhole he might have a different point of view.

    Be that as it may, telling pious lies to children is NOT child abuse. Strapping shrapnel bombs to them and putting them on school buses is. Raping them is. Beating them is.

    Child abuse is real. Dennet does a disservice to the real effort to eliminate real child abuse.

  11. I am a banker and I can confirm we are wringing our hands over media bias given the heaping dollop of hysterical nonsense being flung at present over the economy. Anyone who thinks otherwise can disabuse themselves of that notion merely by reading The Wall Street Journal, especially the opinion columns.

    When may we expect Mr. Dennet to make his Mecca pilgrimage and avail the misinformed folks ont he hajj of his wisdom?

  12. What is p(non-Nessie)?

    The trouble with probabilities is the people who throw them around loosely don’t quite understand the error associated with them. Ask your insurance agent.

    Or your climatologist.

  13. john

    A man in such a position that a large number of others will accept anything he says as fact has a responsibility to restrict his public speaking to areas he actually knows, or preface the information as his opinion or ‘given the information i have’.

    If my mother tells her Sunday school children that creationism is crap and they must believe in evolution, although I wouldn’t dispute her position I would disapprove of it because the only reason she “knows” this is because my father told her as much.

    “Criticism of Islam is verboten in most of the press, mostly because of fear. You rarely hear anything negative about Jewish religious practices. Nor Scientological ones. There’s nothing but good press for the new-agey morphs of Eastern religions. And don’t forget our newest faith, mentioned below.”

    Modern Judaism in the US receives little criticism from Christians mainly because philosophically it’s simply not much different than Christianity outside of a few rituals. Any criticism of the old testiment aimed at Christianity sprays shrapnel on Judaism. Older or more traditional Jewish practice is slammed relentlessly worldwide. It’s taboo to do so in a few areas (or even illegal in germany?) but in general it is the most criticized religion in existence. Different sects of Judaism tend to be extremely critical of each other as well.

    You can scarcely go a day without seeing direct criticism of Islam. A muslim to the US public is a terrorist until proven innocent. One only needs to toss the word Muslim into a story and the full effect is automatic. As soon as you read the word you can almost hear everyone around you roll there eyes and say “those a-holes huh”. Within minutes the comments for the article will be closed because there will be thousands of posts saying little more than ‘kill all Muslim sand n- “. You would read more actual criticism of the religious practice if people in the US were not afraid they would become terrorists if they read anything about the practice.

    Every circle discussion of religion eventually brings up Scientology, quickly someone paraphrases LRH’s quote about if he wanted to make money he would just invent his own religion, everyone laughs and moves on. No need to criticize it further because every aspect of it is automatically dismissed without even knowing what those aspects are.

    Christianity is criticized heavily in the US for 1 reason. 85% of the population practices it and 95% of the population knows at least enough about it to form a bad criticism.

    It is rather vogue to tout eastern philosophy in the US because it is easy. You says it’s about love, harmony etc and no one knows enough about it to interject. Get one Christian on a mission in a Buddhist discussion and it’s all mythology pagan nonsense. Lack of information is the best defense for all eastern religions, as the only Americans who know details of them wanted to learn rather than attack them. The other reason they are not targeted is because they haven’t been blowing each other up for 2000 years over ownership of 100 square miles of sand.

    Here’s a fun note. The self proclaimed champion of Christianity said that God destroyed Haiti because they worship the devil. Maybe that’s another reason Christianity takes a beating.

  14. john

    “As for evolution, now: will the person can posit the specific mechanism (on the molecular level) which modifies DNA to provide a new capability please step forth? Speaking in terms of statistics, random doesn’t work, when both branches of the DNA have to be changed, become dominant, and therefore hereditable.”

    The molecular mechanism for evolution is in every basic genetics text. Allele frequency in population genetics is at equilibrium per Hardy Weinberg. This equilibrium is disrupted by the rate of nucleotide mutation, positive selection, selective mating, population size limits or isolation, etc.

    It’s really easy to see in dogs for example, because selective mating is a huge part of the business. The american pitbull is a product of forced evolution through selective breeding. 100 or so years ago there were no american pitbulls. Large athletic terriers and dense muscled bull dogs were force mated for years and boom.

    A human example (other than the malaria/sickle cell example I used last time):
    Chances are your pinky has 2 tendons running up to the first knuckle. I know this because basically anyone more than 2 generations removed from a native american bloodline does. As this once isolated population becomes more and more integrated, the allele frequency for this trait is plumetting and in the strictest sense of the word, the native american hand evolves to gain an additional pinky tendon.

    Disease is a major force in evolution. Tree frogs who have a low frequency genetic immunity to a devastating disease (frog blight?) survive the plague, most of the susceptible population dies, the rare trait becomes more prevalent, populations of future generations of tree frogs are 80% immune to frog blight.

  15. 49erDweet

    Today’s litany: Lord, save us from the inane and assumptive conjectures of our “self-appointed champions”. We can withstand Dennett’s thrusts but Robertson’s back stabs ofttimes draw blood.

  16. J. Peden

    Until Dennett takes on “Climate Science” and “Progressivism” as Religions or not vs Science and Classical Liberalism as possible contrasts, he has no credibility with me on the question of the media criticizing “Religions”. But to tell the truth, I really don’t know what he’s talking about to begin with, because he’s all over the place, imo. It sounds to me more like he’s only flailing around concerning his own problems in dealing with life.

  17. DAV

    I suppose its easy to villify. Daniel Dennet’s conjectures on the process of thinking have an appealing quality. I always looked forward to his column in Scientific American way too far in the distant past before it became the Unscientific American. He has a delicious sense of humor; much of it stemming from his AI work which is a largely an extention of a line of thought experiments started by Feigenbaum and Minsky. A large part of it is captured in Goedel, Escher and Bach and The Mind’s I.

    Religion seems a blind spot sadly suffered by more than a few.

    Mike D.,

    I thought the lasting harm from child abuse was supposed to be psychological trauma. Wouldn’t it be safe to say that one who commits terrorism in the name of religion also was psychologically damaged — presumably in the course of religious instruction?

  18. DAV

    Just in case: the articles on SciAm were actually wriiten by Doug Hofstadter — I mistyped. GEB was based upon a lot of Dennet’s work. Dennet co-authored The Mind’s I.

  19. Doug M

    I get along fine with reformed atheists. I am married to one. But, the orthodox atheist makes my skin crawl. They are an unpleasant, humorless bunch. The reformed atheist believes there is no god. The orthodox atheist finds God offensive, and becomes offensive at any mention of god. For a long time, reformed atheism has been the dominant sect, but these aggressive, militant atheists are on the rise.

  20. Andrew

    Sounds like Dennet is running for dictator.

    Typical of the self righteous Zealot, the man has desire to be God Incarnate, to remake the world in his image!

    And why not? In Dennet’s view, there is no real God, so why shouldn’t someone step up, eh?

    The problem with Dennet is not that he doesn’t believe in God. It’s that he is a sociopath.

    Jeez, give a guy a Degree and he thinks he’s the Messiah!

  21. Danny Glover claimed the Haitian earthquake was due to Mother Earth getting back at us for Cophenhagen failing.

    Perhaps that’s another reason atheists take a beating.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *