On February 16th, 2010, before a standing-room-only crowd on the campus of Claremont Graduate University, Philip Clayton and Daniel Dennett debated issues in philosophy, religion, and science. The event was momentous for its awkward proceedings.

Clayton is a well known theist and Dennett an atheist, but the two thinkers did not merely decry each other’s positions for an hour. Rather, Clayton proposed that moderate theists such as him betray popular opinions about the war between religion and science because they agree with many of Dennett’s scientific, philosophical, and religious critiques. Given these agreements, atheists and moderate theists should be able to engage in rational philosophical discussion about their positions instead of angry polemics. Dennett agreed that such a result would be interesting.

The first half of the debate dealt with what counts as an acceptable explanation for natural phenomena like human intentions. Do we make free choices as it seems or do physical processes determine all we do? Both men espoused a position Clayton referred to as “broad naturalism.” This is the belief that many natural explanations, including those from human sciences, can be given for the different areas of inquiry in the world. So the creation of human cells is explained by chemistry and biology, but human agency is best explained in terms of genuinely free choices. Mutual assent to this position created the debate’s first odd moment because Clayton continually insisted Dennett affirms the “hegemony of the physical” in his explanations. This would mean Dennett is not a realist concerning the example of mental causation. Free choices only seem free. They are actually fully determined by physical processes scientists can investigate. However, Dennett and Clayton both claimed that human agency is a real phenomenon. Had Clayton misread or even not read Dennett’s work? Not likely.

The direction of Clayton’s explanations is upward toward more complex levels of reality while Dennett’s explanations always face toward their physical base. For Dennett, complex levels of reality are always dependent on proper physical functioning. For example, Dennett pointed out that when certain areas in the front of the brain are damaged humans do not make rational choices but behave more like broken machines. He thinks explaining how someone chose to perform an action is a nice ideal, but only makes sense if physical processes are properly functioning. Clayton, on the other hand, emphasizes the independence of complex levels of reality from agency all the way to religion. Once either appears in the world there is no way to reduce it to scientific explanations in terms of physical processes alone. Clayton is well-known for his defense of “emergence” theory, of which this talk of agency is an example. Freedom did not appear from nowhere. Certain biological combinations in the brain made it possible. However, once freedom emerged from that biological basis it became irreducible to its physical basis. The whole really is greater than the parts.
It is odd that Dennett would not discuss a possible misunderstanding of his work concerning the possible reduction of all phenomena to physical processes. But the fact that theologians like Clayton engage science indicates bringing theology into agreement, or at least away from conflict, with scientific knowledge is desirable. So it is more peculiar that Clayton emphasized points of difference when Dennett was willing to publically agree over the issue of freedom even if deeper differences may have been lurking. Differences can certainly lead to an illuminating discussion, but it is shocking that a popular atheist verbally agreed with a theist and the theist was the one insisting on language of disagreement. As a result, the important aspect of this debate could come from Dennett’s perspective. He had a calm discussion with a religious person whom he did not have to denounce after every sentence uttered.

Setting aside the possible disagreement over whether all phenomena can be reduced to science, the second half of the debate focused on religion and revealed that two different directions of explanation were present in the discussion. Clayton’s upward looking view leads him to at least attempt and give reasons for religious belief while Dennett’s constant consideration of physical bases stops his inquiry earlier than that. Those different directions of explanation then result in very different worldviews.

Philip Clayton accepts three dimensions to the religious quest that exist on a continuum: searching for altruistic community, philosophically questioning truth claims, and overall worldview. So religions foster a sense of community and cooperation and those communities should do their best to deliberate over whether their beliefs are true. But religious explanations are most interesting when those communal attachments and philosophical questions can be linked to an overall worldview and thus taken as religious accounts of reality. Since these dimensions are part of one epistemic continuum from natural science to philosophical questions and eventually religion, Dennett should at least consider whether Clayton has good reasons for religious belief and debate the matter. Clayton will not even accept dogmatic religious claims to know the nature of God because they betray his dimension of philosophically questioning truth claims and prevent rational discussion with non-believers. Dennett actually accepts such open-ended inquiry. He referred to philosophy as that done until it is known what the right questions are. In other words, exploring even when answers are not known is a good thing. He just sees no relation between this quest and theology.

The lack of connection with theology seems due to Dennett stopping at the level of altruistic communities in Clayton’s continuum. Dennett only disapproves of fundamentalist dogmatism leading to violence in the name of God. This makes him different than Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens who refuse to acknowledge liberal Christians as Christians (or that other non-theistic religions even matter) amidst their attacks on fundamentalists. Dennett, on the other hand, calls liberal Christians “benign” compared to their dangerous, in his view, conservative counterparts. Like a benign tumor their existence is unnatural but not harmful. Religion is a fine phenomenon if it fosters a cooperative moral society.
Believers may not enjoy being an unnecessary social function that just happens not to interfere with society. Still, it is remarkable that Dennett was open to discussing something besides fundamentalist religious groups. He explained that his own work has not addressed liberal Christians because they do not curtail the dangerous elements within their religion. They are like a nice restaurant covering up mafia activities. If Dennett praised the benign Christians instead of debating the fundamentalists, people would get hurt. Clayton clearly state this view is empirically false. He and other moderate theists join Dennett in criticizing extremist forms of theism and are proactive in fostering more moderate claims. For example, the science of evolution is being taught in many churches together with forms of theism that are compatible with it. Dennett’s expression of pleasant surprise over these facts is quite an achievement, given that he and other popular atheists have mostly engaged extremist and politically conservative forms of Christianity, largely ignoring the beliefs and practices of more moderate religious communities. Perhaps the stage has been set for further dialogue in the future.

Still, beyond admitting that altruistic communities are a good thing, Dennett questioned whether he and Clayton have real material to discuss. If the ultimate goal of Clayton’s quest remains a mystery beyond the reach of science and reason, Dennett believes their discussion becomes “intellectual tennis without a net.” Without a standard for measuring different positions, it seems unnecessary to spend great time and energy pursuing the hard questions of religious worldviews. What difference does God make?

In the end, this passing of two intellectual ships may be its own profound conclusion. Clayton interprets grappling with questions of ultimate importance and following where they lead as the heart of religious life. Secularists, Dennett says, also inquire into an ultimate reality … the universe and laws of nature … while living full moral lives and pursuing interesting questions about the universe. So Dennett does not need God. And since Clayton will not play the “faith card” to claim absolute truth and end the debate, Dennett interprets Clayton as a secular humanist who is trying to learn the most about reality and live as morally as possible. Is the internal logic of Clayton’s religious position and Dennett’s secularism really the same in the end? The theist views the atheist as pursuing a quest that is deeply religious, while the theist comes off as secular to the atheist. How odd.  But if Dennett is not right that secular humanists capture all that is meaningful in Clayton’s position, Paul Tillich might provide a useful mediating approach.

Tillich famously stated that every human has an ultimate concern … be it money, the entire natural universe, or God. Is that the real moral of this story? The religious person might be concerned with the ultimate ground of existence and try to understand it, while the secular person is content to view the universe otherwise. Still, agreeing to disagree may not be the final word. Given different ultimate concerns, Clayton would be right to insist on rational discussion regarding his movement through levels of questioning toward a religious worldview. Dennett would still be free to reject that view, but only after considering Clayton’s steps to get there. If Dennett still sees no reason to engage in metaphysical pondering where Clayton cannot help but try, a clear difference has emerged. Indeed, such grasping at the ungraspable may be the beauty and irony of the religiously committed person.

* Thanks to my friend and brilliant friend Ben Chicka for writing this up!