Apologist Alycia Wood shares her personal reflections on Professor Daniel Dennett (1942-2024) following his death in April

We met at the Oxford Union in 2013. He was one of many notables that came through that year including Patrick Stewart, PSY, Katherine Jenkins and Bradley Whitford. 

Daniel, or Professor Dennett as I called him, was speaking on his upcoming book with Linda LaScola Caught in the Pulpit. In it, he and Linda share stories of clergy who don’t actually believe in the religion they teach about, but the cost of leaving the pulpit is too high. Walking away and being honest with their views meant a loss of income, friendships, the sense of belonging to a community and, of course, experiencing disappointment from others for your decision to leave. Consequently, they choose to keep quiet about their lack of belief and show up, dutifully, every Sunday. Obviously, releasing a book full of deconversion stories like this gives a sense of validation to any atheist, and so the pride he felt sharing these stories was evident. 

Before the event, I ran into him. I introduced myself to him and he politely responded. He asked me what I was studying, and I jokingly said to him: “Well, YOU actually! I’m studying Christian apologetics.” Slightly caught off guard, as what are the odds of running into an apologist, he smiled back, responding with something like: “Oh, really?!” and we both shared a mutual chuckle in that moment. 

I proceeded to run across him twice, stateside, in the months following. Once at Boston airport, another at the Harvard Faculty Club. It was then upon my request that, if he was open, I’d love to stay in touch. He gladly gave me his email.


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First meeting

Our first meeting was extremely cordial. Unlike what many may assume, our conversations over the years were kind and respectful. That first time I came with a series of questions, and he replied to all of them, thoughtfully and honestly. He shared with me his frustrations with “good” Christians who don’t stand up to the “bad” Christians. He was bothered by “fanatical Christians” who advocate for the Religious Right and Creationism but fight against gay marriage and women’s rights. 

He had listened to a few Christian apologists’ arguments but didn’t find any of them convincing. The biggest issue he had with the apologists is that they seemed to display intellectual dishonestly. I asked him if he could get a microphone, what is the one thing he would say to all Christians? He replied that they don’t respond rationally, so there’s no point in trying to convey anything to them. 

He inquired if I’d read his book with Linda LaScola, and when I told him I hadn’t, he immediately jumped on Amazon and ordered me the Kindle version! I thanked him and told him I would read it and let him know my thoughts. After reading the book, we met again. 

Second meeting

I shared with him my feedback, which he was very excited to hear. I told him I found the book quite interesting and didn’t doubt the validity of the stories shared. I’m convinced, to this day, that there are people of all kinds of religions who doubt their beliefs but are scared of the ramifications of making that public and so keep quiet. But there was a common component amongst the clergy in the book that was never addressed. 

In my feedback to Professor Dennett, I stated: “I understand that these various clergy missed the community, income and prestige that came with their respective religious positions when they left. However, what struck me while reading this is that in the list of things they missed when going from religious to non-religious, no one said that they missed the God(s) of their belief. That strikes me as odd. You’d think that the loss of that divine friend or saviour would be a major point of grief for most if not all the clergy.” 

He thought about that and replied that he had never noticed that and would look into it. 


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Common ground

Contrary to much public perception, we had certain things in common when it came to our appreciation of religion. For example, we both appreciated the community aspect that a church brings, and we were both lovers of gospel music. He encouraged me to keep growing this mind of mine as it was a good one and I always was amazed with how kind he was. 

Don’t get me wrong. Early on, I told him he could be honest and direct with me about his qualms with religion, and he definitely didn’t hold back! But he never made it personal. Our conversations over the years weren’t massive “conversion” experiences for either of us (I never pledged my life to the philosophies of atheism, and he never bowed his knee to a crucified saviour), but rather listening to the other side even if we disagreed. He never chastised me for being a Christian, although he found the whole religion thing a joke. And every time I reached out to have another chat, he always responded. 

The last time I reached out was January of this year, but this was the first time ever that he didn’t respond. I reached out again, but still nothing. Upon the announcement of his death, I wondered if perhaps his lack of response was because his health was failing. If so, I fully understand. My regret is that I should have emailed him earlier. 

I’ve often heard Christians criticise various members of the New Atheism movement, I know I have as well. But Professor Dennett, for me, was off limits when it came to criticism. In fact, I was quick to jump to his defence if I heard anyone speak negatively of him. It’s easy to criticize an author of a book or video who shares views that seem ludicrous and absurd, but it’s another thing when you know them personally. I had long ago decided that if I was around, he wasn’t going to be mocked. 

He once told me I was courageous to come and talk with him and to listen to his “subversive and strong views”. He then added that, while he doesn’t want to say it, whether I stay in apologetics or leave, it doesn’t matter because he thinks highly of me.

Thank you, Professor Dennett. I will always wish we had had one more conversation. One more time to toss our views around. But it matters not. I will always think highly of you. 


Alycia Wood has been an apologist for over ten years and speaks on a range of topics both religious and cultural from a Christian perspective. She is currently working with Apologetics, Inc. You can find more at apologetics.org.