Secular Society

champion of secularism and atheism

Celebrating the legacy of Daniel Dennett (1942 – 2024

This review of the life and work of Daniel Dennett was written for the Secular Society of South Africa by Barrie van Zyl.

Daniel Dennett, an American philosopher and cognitive scientist, well known for his support of atheism and secularism, died on 19 April 2024 at the age of 82. He remains one of the pre-eminent figures of reason, scepticism, and rationality within modern Western thought.

Dennett was categorised as one of the four individuals behind New Atheism known as the Four Horsemen of the Non-Apocalypse, which includes Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris. This nickname refers to the Four Horsemen of the apocalypse and draws attention to their role in advocating atheism, secularism, and rationality in the early 21st century.

Early Life and Education

Dennett was born on 28 March 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts, and was known for being an intellectual child. Growing up in a non-religious family, he was always challenged to think critically and find answers to various concerns. His upbringing was the basis for his subsequent academic and philosophical pursuits.

He earned his bachelor’s degree in philosophy at Harvard University in 1963. He furthered his education at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar researching the philosophy of mind, consciousness, and free will. Dennett spent his academic career at some of the most prestigious institutions known today, including the University of California and Tufts University as a professor of philosophy. He authored many works that were considered highly philosophical and provocative, which went against the grain of mainstream thinking.

Career and Contributions

Over his career, Dennett made some of the most significant contributions to the field, including his theory of consciousness described in the book “Consciousness Explained” published in 1991. In this pioneering work, he advanced a physicalist theory of consciousness, claiming that the phenomenon is an emergent feature of the brain and the evolutionary process. This view challenged the conventional dualist thinking of the mind and paved the way for more research in the field of cognitive science.

In his book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” (1995), Dennett further applied the naturalistic approach to the evolutionary process, examining the impact of Darwin’s theory of natural selection on various aspects of life, ethics, and purpose. He opined that the principles of evolution could be adopted to best explain the existence of a diversity of life on the face of the earth and the development of human culture and society.

Views on Secularism and Atheism

Dennett also had a strong interest in religion and various belief systems as part of his work. In his book “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon” published in 2005, the author explored the reasons and implications of religion as a natural occurrence. According to this view, religion is another part of the natural world that can be investigated and explained.

As a secularist and an atheist, Dennett argued for a vision of the world that is rational and based on empirical evidence (and the scientific process) rather than the supernatural or dogma. From this point of view, Dennett’s position was shaped by his naturalistic worldview, which tries to explain human affairs in terms of natural causes and processes.

In his critique of religion, Dennett claimed that religion, including the belief in supernatural beings, lacks evidential support and is detrimental to the growth of human freedom and reason. He supported a secular morality that focuses on the best interests of people, their feelings, and their capacity to care and not on revelatory religions’ commands and tenets.

Although some criticise Dennett and his beliefs, his opinions and work regarding secularism and atheism are welcomed by many scholars, as well as the public. Some have praised him for fighting for reason and critical thinking while others have accused him of being too materialistic or even of denying spirituality.

Legacy and Influence

Daniel Dennett was not only an academic but also an influential thinker in the contemporary world. He has significantly contributed to philosophy, cognitive science, intellectual thinking, and open debate around science and religion. Dennett’s ideas persist in influencing the discussion within these fields and encouraging the next generation of scholars to investigate topics of consciousness, morality, and behaviour.

Furthermore, Dennett has played an important role in the promotion of secularism and atheism, which led to the increased recognition and tolerance of the non-religious outlook on life. A dedicated campaigner against religious dogma, and a great advocate for reason and the scientific perspective, Dennett has been instrumental in the fight for rationality and humanity in today’s society.

Daniel Dennett’s life and work reflect the ideals of curiosity, reason, and tolerance. His contributions to philosophy, cognitive science, and secularism will surely remain relevant for many years to those seeking reason, empathy, and knowledge.


  • Dennett, Daniel C. “Consciousness Explained.” Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life.” Simon & Schuster, 1995.
  • Dennett, Daniel C. “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Penguin Books, 2006.