Freethought NOW!

My friend Daniel C. Dennett in Memoriam

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Photo of Daniel C. Dennett and Dan Barker at the FFRF 2008 convention. Dennett is holding the emperor has no clothes award which is a golden statue of an emperor with no clothes
Photo of Daniel C. Dennett and Dan Barker at the FFRF 2008 convention by Brent Nicastro

The death of philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who died at age 82 on April 19, is a deep loss, not just to the freethinking community, but to the world. Here at the Freedom From Religion Foundation, we feel like we have lost a member of the family.

Dan, who was professor emeritus at Tufts University, and had directed its Center for Cognitive Studies, did not believe in the transcendent. But his ideas and work truly transcend. The words of this humble yet world-renowned philosopher rose above differences in religion, politics and philosophy to touch all lives with clarity, reason and wit. The title of his memoir, I’ve Been Thinking, perfectly portrays a life of profitable pondering.

The title of perhaps his most famous book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon — which earned him a place as one of the “four horsemen” of the so-called “New Atheism” — also describes how Dennett’s words have helped break the spells of complacency of thought and irrationality, challenging us to think, and think some more.

He was more than just a great philosopher who produced a treasure trove of very readable books. (My favorites are Consciousness Explained, Elbow Room, and From Bacteria to Bach and Back.) He was the kind of philosopher whom others wrote books about.

He was a giant in his field, but generously lent his name and academic celebrity to the cause of freethought. A longtime FFRF member, Dan Dennett even signed up as a Lifetime Member and long ago agreed to serve as one of our distinguished honorary directors. He spoke at three national conventions, and was a very deserving recipient of FFRF’s Emperor Has No Clothes Award in 2008, reserved for public figures who make known their dissent from religion. Dennett wrote an influential “coming out as an atheist” piece for The New York Times in 2003, back in the day when it was still rare and brave for an eminent person to “come out of the closet” like that.

But he was more than that. He was a good friend.

Dan obliged us on many occasions to appear on our radio and TV shows. As recently as Nov. 2, 2023, Dennett joined us on “Freethought Matters,” FFRF’s TV show, to talk about his new memoir. That show was recorded remotely, but he joined us in our studio at Freethought Hall in Madison, Wis., in a 2019 TV interview, which was a thrill. (During one of these interviews, we learned that his father was the first CIA agent to be killed in the line of duty.)

I was privileged to work with Dan to co-found (with Richard Dawkins) The Clergy Project, an organization that helps ministers, priests and rabbis who no longer believe in the supernatural transition to a life of integrity. Dennett’s book, Caught in the Pulpit: Leaving Belief Behind (with Linda La Scola), showed his passion for assisting preachers who want to escape hypocrisy and dishonesty. He took such a caring interest in the plight of the many ministers who find themselves “caught in the pulpit” after rethinking religion.

He enjoyed creating some cognitive dissonance. Once, after he had been quite sick, he told us that every time someone would tell him they’d been praying for him, he would reply, “I forgive you.” While ever-genial, he did not shy away from controversy. The New York Times headlined its obituary, “Daniel C., Dennett, widely read and fiercely debated philosopher.” The obituary quoted him saying, “There’s simply no polite way to tell people they’ve dedicated their lives to an illusion.” He also charged into the free will debate, rejecting it, but, like me, considering it a necessary illusion: “We couldn’t live the way we do without it.”

He was born March 28, 1942, and told us about spending some of his childhood in Beirut, where his father was a covert intelligence agent. The last time we spoke with him, he was enjoying his semi-retirement in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, with his wife, Susan Bell Dennett, as well as receiving visits from children and grandchildren. We were pleased to (remotely) meet and interview his sister, Charlotte Dennett, a lawyer and journalist, who wrote about The Crash of Flight 3804 that killed their father, and also spoke about her book Follow the Pipeline on missionaries and big oil. Our deepest sympathies are now with his family.

Dan and I discovered that we both loved anagrams. With the same first name, I reminded him that “DANIEL is a man with a DENIAL of the man who was NAILED to the cross.” He laughed, and then told me about a game he invented called “Frigate Bird” that uses Scrabble tiles without the board. (Like the frigate birds who swoop in and rob other birds, you can snatch an opponent’s word by adding one or more of your letters to create a new word.)

Dan graciously wrote the foreword for my 2015 book, Life Driven Purpose, which he recorded in his own voice for the audiobook. In it, he said:

“Yes, you can learn to ride a bike, and yes, you can become a good and meaningful person without bothering yourself with all the dark confusions and contradictions imposed on you by your heritage of irrationality and obfuscation.”

Dan ended that foreword by saying, “a very good person can get along fine without religion, inspiring others, accomplishing great works, and having a lot of fun in the bargain.” Yes. In all of our interactions with such a kind and brilliant man, we indeed saw that he was having the time of his life, as a freethinker, with a lot of fun in the bargain. Truly, a life well lived — and well thought.

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3 Responses

  1. I am currently reading Daniel Dennett’s “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. I would fill with wonder at his awesome brain and cognitive abilities. I have long harboured a hope that I would one day meet Mr. Dennett at a FFRF convention to just relish at being in the same company at the same time. Alas! I am truly devastated that he has died and that the world has lost a magnificent voice of sanity. His memory and his wisdom live on.

    Peggy Smith
    Halifax, NS

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