... with Daniel Dennett is complex and would require more time that I have at my disposal just now to explain adequately. But I can offer an example. In a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education titled "Common-Sense Religion," Dennett delivers himself of the following:
... the Catholic movie star Mel Gibson ... was interviewed by Peter J. Boyer in a 2003 profile in The New Yorker. Boyer asked him if Protestants are denied eternal salvation.
"There is no salvation for those outside the Church," Gibson replied. "I believe it." He explained: "Put it this way. My wife is a saint. She's a much better person than I am. Honestly. She's, like, Episcopalian, Church of England. She prays, she believes in God, she knows Jesus, she believes in that stuff. And it's not fair if she doesn't make it, she's better than I am. But that is a pronouncement from the chair. I go with it."
Such remarks deeply embarrass two groups of Catholics: those who believe it but think it is best left unsaid, and those who don't believe it at all — no matter what "the chair" may pronounce. And which group of Catholics is larger, or more influential? That is utterly unknown and currently unknowable, a part of the unsavory miasma.
Which group of Catholics is larger is unknown? Not really. All informed Catholics know that Gibson's statement only demonstrates that while Gibson may be a first-rate actor and director, he is ignorant of his own church's teaching. Regarding the formula "extra ecclesiam nulla salus" -- "outside the church there is no salvation" -- the Catholic Encyclopedia (the old, pre-Vatican II one) says:
This saying has been the occasion of so many objections that some consideration of its meaning seems desirable. It certainly does not mean that none can be saved except those who are in visible communion with the Church. The Catholic Church has ever taught that nothing else is needed to obtain justification than an act of perfect charity and of contrition. Whoever, under the impulse of actual grace, elicits these acts receives immediately the gift of sanctifying grace, and is numbered among the children of God. Should he die in these dispositions, he will assuredly attain heaven.
Dennett doesn't know what he's talking about anymore than Gibson does. But he ought to. Which is one reason why he strikes me as a mere polemicist rather than a deep thinker.
Further evidence for this is provided by Adam Kirsch in the New York Sun: If Men Are From Mars, What's God.