Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett on the similarities between God and Santa Claus (a bright provocation…)

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“Few forces in the world are as potent, as influential, as religion. As we struggle to resolve the terrible economical and social inequities that currently disfigure our planet, and minimize the violence and degradation we see, we have to recognize that if we have a blind spot about religion our efforts will almost certainly fail, and may make matters much worse… If we don’t subject religion to such scrutiny now, and work out together whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants.

Religion plays its most important role in supporting morality, many think, by giving people an unbeatable reason to do good: the promise of an infinite reward in heaven, and (depending on tastes) the threat of an infinite punishment in hell if they don’t. Without the divine carrot and stick, goes this reasoning, people would loll about aimlessly or indulge their basest desires, break their promises, cheat on their spouses, neglect their duties, and so on. There are two well-known problems with this reasoning: (1) it doesn’t seem to be true, which is good news, since (2) it is such a demeaning view of human nature.

Everybody already knows the evidence for the countervailing hypothesis that the belief in a reward in heaven can sometimes motivate acts of monstruous evil. (…) This can be seen as an infantile concept of God in the first place, pandering to immaturity instead of encouraging genuine moral commitment. As Mitchell Silver notes, the God who rewards goodness in heaven beats a striking resemblance to the hero of the popular song ‘Santa Claus Is Coming To Town’…”

DANIEL DENNETT
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
(Pgs. 38-39 & 279-280)
Available at the Toronto Public Library.

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