25 December 2014

Dennett addresses fundamentalists of all stripes

Perhaps not the most Christmasy message I could come up with, but I just finished Daniel Dennett's now over 20 year old book, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and I was struck by this really quite eloquent quote, the second half of which is actually addressed to fundamentalists of whatever kind:

“We should not expect … respect to be satisfactory to those who wholeheartedly embody the memes we honor with our attentive — but not worshipful — scholarship. On the contrary, many of them will view anything other than enthusiastic conversion to their own views as a threat, even an intolerable threat. We must not underestimate the suffering such confrontations cause. To watch, to have to participate in, the contraction or evaporation of beloved features of one’s heritage is a pain only our species can experience, and surely few pains could be more terrible. But we have no reasonable alternative, and those whose vision dictates that they cannot peacefully coexist with the rest of us we will have to quarantine as best we can, minimizing the pain and damage, trying always to leave open a path to that may come to seem acceptable.

“If you want to teach your children that they are the tools of God, you had better not teach them that they are God’s rifles, or we will have to stand firmly opposed to you: your doctrine has no glory, no special rights, no intrinsic and inalienable merit. If you insist on teaching your children falsehoods — that the Earth is flat, that ‘Man’ is not the product of evolution by natural selection — then you must expect, at the very least, that those of us who have freedom of speech will feel free to describe your teachings as the spreading of falsehoods, and will attempt to demonstrate this to your children at our earliest opportunity. Our future well-being — the well-being of all of us on this planet — depends on the education of our descendants.”
This, I think, is the crux of the matter. Traditional beliefs, cultural institutions, societal traditionswhatever —are not valueless, and must be afforded the respect we afford any human being and his or her legitimacy as such. But where they interfere with the ability of others to have their own self-determination, and to live in a society where some reasonable consensus of the common good is seen as the pilot for policy, well then, they simply must give way.

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