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.
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."
Mr. Dennett understands, too, that iconoclasm, with its lack of deference, can also give offense. But not even he could have imagined the response to the now notorious Danish cartoons that have so offended Muslims around the world, leading to riots, death and destruction. It was as if the problem of religious belief in the modern world had been highlighted in garish colors. If Mr. Dennett's attack is a premeditated spur to debate, the Muslim riots shock with their primordial force. Together, they leave us with a tough set of intertwining questions: Can religion — with its absolute and sweeping assertions — make any claim on a society whose doctrines require it to defer, in part, to all, even to blasphemers? Can religion be as dramatically shunted aside as Mr. Dennett desires? If not, what sort of accommodation is needed?
This is interesting in that it provides a window into the mind of a modern secularist. He fears religion in all its forms because he rightly surmises that belief dominates and ultimately controls reason (because it sets the parameters of reason). Unfortunately, Mr. Rothstein does not differentiate between beliefs: between "true and false". He assumes that he is free from this kind of a priori control himself and so can be an impartial and rational observer of the irrational.
Allow me to contend for the moment that all mind requires parameters in which to think. Those who call themselves atheists still adhere to the dominant parameters of "religious" thought, i.e. that the observable world is rational and conforms to rules that can be comprehended by the mind, and that these rules are ultimately dependable. These are at bottom "religious" assumptions, whether one admits the existance of God (the rule maker) or not.
Islam is entirely contrary to this and that is why the challenge Islam poses for the modern world is so great. The Muslim God is capricious and undependable. Science could no more arise under Islam than Muhammad could fly to the moon, or the moon fly to him as the story goes. Allah has more in common with ancient, bloodthirsty tribal dieties than with our modern conception of a universal loving father. This is the crux of the conflict and no amount of quasi-historical "we've been through this in the west before, nothing to worry about" ala Mr. Rothstein, is going to change that.