An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.If reason cannot work, is iconoclasm necessary? You could leave people to their lunacy, decide it's not lunacy, or persist with reason even where it is futile. Read how Rothstein tries to answer these questions and to connect them to the current cartoon craziness. I found his essay quite unsatisfying, despite the exciting beginning. Here are the last two paragraphs:
Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains." That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means "submission," and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett's view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.
Now that is iconoclasm — a wholehearted attempt to destroy a respected icon. "I believe that it is very important to break this spell," Mr. Dennett writes, as he tries to undermine the claims and authority of religious belief. Attacks on religion, of course, have been a staple of Western secular society since the Enlightenment, though often carried out with far less finesse (and far less emphasis on biology) than Mr. Dennett does; he refers to "the widespread presumption by social scientists that religion is some kind of lunacy."
What other possibilities [than iconoclasm] are there? At a recent conference at Columbia University, "Religion and Liberalism," organized by Andrew Delbanco and the American Studies Program, there were some fascinating attempts to try to imagine something other than iconoclasm in the relationship between secular politics and religion once eighth-century tactics are left behind. Speakers, including E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark Lilla, Alan Wolfe, Todd Gitlin, Mary Gordon, Susannah Heschel and Elisabeth Sifton, distanced themselves from the kind of attack on religion that Mr. Dennett proposes, while trying, too, to pry religion away from its contemporary association with conservative politics and fundamentalism. For some it seemed an attempt to "save" religion for liberalism, while still keeping a safe distance.Well, what did E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark Lilla, Alan Wolfe, Todd Gitlin, Mary Gordon, Susannah Heschel and Elisabeth Sifton come up with? I haven't a clue, other than that they don't like conservatives.
The issues, though, remain intractable and unrelenting. But it may be that the United States has already offered one kind of an answer, creating a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief.