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the complete review - non-fiction / religion
Breaking the Spell
Daniel C. Dennett
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- Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
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B+ : interesting discussion of interesting issues
See our review for fuller assessment.
From the Reviews:
- "Despite my worry that Dennett is too hopeful that religious readers will be open to his arguments, I found Breaking the Spell thoughtful, informed and probing. It is surprisingly cautious: Dennett is sensitive to the limits on what we currently know and is mainly concerned to develop a research agenda. In discussing specific hypotheses about specific religions, he is not at all dogmatic. I doubt, though, that the book will reach the audience he wants." - Kim Sterelny, American Scientist
- "Breaking the Spell is a slightly unsteady, slightly patronising investigation into the evolutionary origins of religion." - Alexander Masters, Daily Telegraph
- "(H)is elegant, sharp-minded essay on the need to study religion in a dispassionate way (in other words, just as anything else should be studied) (.....) Mr Dennett's main argument, which is that religious belief -- especially in the United States -- is often sheltered from the cut and thrust of intellectual argument and scientific scrutiny, and it should not be." - The Economist
- "So, after the preliminary pep-talk to the choir, he gives a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon: apparently this programme comes as a tremendous shock to those Americans who have never heard of Hume, William James, or even Terry Pratchett. This is followed by an excellent and clear summary of the state of some new-ish scientific research into the psychology of religious belief." - Andrew Brown, The Guardian
- "To some ears this may sound like overweening scientism, a vain belief in science as a superior form of religion. But the impression left by Dennett's strategic compromise between sentiment and inquiry is closer to managerial politics than any grand vision of enlightenment. His studiedly open set of options resembles one of those consultation exercises that local authorities like to conduct, whose wording offers clues to which policy the authority has already decided to pursue." - Marek Kohn, The Independent
- "Dennett's diligent and reasonable enquiry may not, sadly, have much effect on the unreasonable." - Sholto Byrnes, Independent on Sunday
- "(E)arnest, impassioned, but finally confused (.....) The problem with Breaking the Spell is not this frank hostility to religion. (...) (W)hat dooms his book, not just in literary but in logical terms, is his complete failure to recognize the existential demand of religion. (...) At the heart of organized religion, whether one accepts or rejects it, is the truth that metaphysical experience is part of human life. Any adequate account of religion must start from this phenomenological fact. Because Mr. Dennett ignores it, treating religion instead as at best a pastime for dimwits, at worst a holding cell for fanatics, he never really encounters the thing he believes he is writing about." - Adam Kirsch, The New York Sun
- "For a sorry instance of present-day scientism, it would be hard to improve on Daniel C. Dennett's book. Breaking the Spell is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions. (...) Breaking the Spell is a fairy tale told by evolutionary biology. There is no scientific foundation for its scientistic narrative. (...) What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken." - Leon Wieseltier, The New York Times Book Review
- "Writing for a general audience, Dennett insists that he wants to engage religious readers in a rational discussion, not turn them away. Breaking the Spell ranges widely, perhaps too widely." - H.Allen Orr, The New Yorker
- "If some parts of the book are frustrating, others are rich and rewarding (though different readers may experience some disagreement as to which parts are which). In the end it feels more like a promissory note than a conclusive statement, and several of Denett's comments suggest that it is intended as such. If, ultimately, there is no doubt that Breaking the Spell is the product of an extremely bright mind, it nonetheless remains difficult to refrain from wishing that it was just a bit more super than it manages to be." - Troy Jollimore, San Francisco Chronicle
- "Although, like many evangelical preachers, he repeatedly seems to claim to be open to the sincerely held views of others, many readers will feel patronised." - Lewis Wolpert, Sunday Telegraph
- "The most striking gap in Breaking the Spell is its lack of humanistic commentary from anthropology, aesthetics, and confessional literature. (...) Breaking the Spell is an insidious book; not because it breaks taboos by asking uncomfortable questions of religion, nor because its author is an ardent atheist, but because it is written by a brilliant philosopher who betrays his academic standards by proceeding from emotive, ill-informed prejudice." - John Cornwell, Sunday Times
- "The result is a magnificently generous book, compulsively readable, wise, humorous and studded with illuminating asides." - Richard Holloway, The Times
- "Breaking the Spell , however, not only differs in tone from Dennett's earlier work in being amicable and almost meek, but is also largely bereft of critical analysis. (...) In the end, its 400-page analysis yields little more than platitudes." - Jerry A. Coyne, Times Literary Supplement
Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers.
Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.
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The complete review's Review:
Daniel Dennett tries to present Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (as the subtitle has it) in this book.
One of his central arguments is that the existence of religion (and the belief in god(s)) can be explained by (Darwinian) evolutionary theory, a meme that's really caught (and held) on.
Dennett's approach is emphatically scientific, as he considers religion as a 'natural phenomenon' and not as the divinely inspired super-natural institution that is so widely held to be beyond scientific inquiry.
Much of the book is, in fact, devoted to merely justifying the approach, as Dennett worries that his audience may find it inappropriate, irrelevant, or even dangerous.
(Dennett's first words are the warning that he is: "an American author, and this book is addressed in the first place to American readers" -- readers who apparently require special care and handling on the subject (something many of those who read drafts of the book apparently complained about).)
No question: religion is a touchy subject, and the idea of reason- and fact-based discussion of religious matters rubs many, many people the wrong way.
The recent international outrage and mass-protests over some cartoons irreverently depicting the undepictable Muslim prophet (though also fueled for purely political reasons) are yet another reminder of how out of sorts folks can get about religious matters, even when these might strike non-believers as objectively silly (as getting upset about drawings arguably does).
Insults to nation, family, or favoured soccer team can also lead to extreme (over-)reactions, but there's little that's as likely to rally the masses as good old irreverence and blasphemy -- despite the fact that you'd figure that most religions' all-mighty deity (or deities) would be above such petty mortal grievances or insults.
(Widespread American opposition to the teaching of fundamentally incontrovertible science (specifically evolution), and lobbying for the inclusion of scientifically useless alternative religious-based stories (such as 'creationism' and/or so-called 'intelligent design') is another far too popular example of folks wanting faith to trump reason even where reason is obviously superior (at least on the day-to-day, terrestrial level).)
Dennett treads very carefully, trying to consider all the reasons why it might be inappropriate or unwise to consider religion scientifically.
Among them is the one that gives the book its title, the looking behind the scenes and taking apart the magician's tricks to understand how they are done that arguably spoils all the fun.
Surprisingly, he actually takes that concern fairly seriously, as if there were real arguments that it might be sensible to leave religion behind the veil of irrationality and accept it simply as god-given and not ours to question (the main argument being that if it is a good spell, i.e. yields results that clearly benefit individuals and humanity as a whole, what the hell ?).
Obviously -- and perhaps wisely --, many people don't want to consider the foundations of their religions too closely -- the rickety premises, the transformations many religions have undergone, and the promises they make generally don't stand up well (or, arguably, at all) to closer (scientific) scrutiny.
As you knew he would, Dennett opts for breaking the spell -- though one wonders how many come to the book thinking that's a bad idea and are won over by his explanation for why he goes and does it.
Still, even the presentation of the arguments against his approach, and his litany of counter-arguments is of some interest.
So: religion as a natural phenomenon.
It seems fairly obvious, but Dennett goes through it nicely step by step.
Evolution can explains why many things develop as they do, and there's a decent case to be made (as Dennett does) for religion (as we know it) having the success it has had and continues to have in humankind, a meme that has attached itself and conferred (at least) the occasional benefit that's helped keep its hosts going.
But one of the things Dennett wants to explore is whether it's a good thing that we have religion -- or whether it's just benign, or possibly even bad.
Scientific testing, he suggests, is one way of doing that.
He even admits that it looks like religious belief offers some benefits: there seems to be evidence that believers live happier or even longer lives, for example.
And there may be social benefits --- greater altruism among believers, benefiting the rest of society.
Dennett isn't entirely convinced of much of this -- he notes that some of these effects can also be explained in other ways, and that some anecdotal evidence or beliefs simply aren't true (most notably and emphatically that religious believers are somehow more moral than non-believers).
But he's willing to consider the evidence -- and just wishes there were more of it: actual scientific studies that consider cause and effect, cost and benefit.
(He amusingly wonders whether religions would accept the results and: "drop the advertising" if it turned out religion was no better for, for example, well-being than the alternatives.)
Dennett is correct in being so concerned with convincing believers of the validity of his scientific approach to weighing the worth of religion -- and is surely too optimistic about being able to convince them: the majority of believers (and those susceptible to religious-believing) can't do what could be considered an objective cost-benefit analysis or weighing of the evidence.
The costs (especially to others) can always be balanced out with yet more illusory benefits.
The glory of heaven is hard to compete with, and if worse comes to worse, pillaging, raping, and killing (to name only some of the most extreme options) can be excused, one way or another, as mundane sacrifices that don't amount to much when you consider the bigger picture.
Hilariously, he's all for letting people make informed choices about religious beliefs -- with the emphasis on informed:
Let the honest religions thrive because their members are getting what they want, as informed choosers.
But religion has almost never been about choice: faith tends to be the product of childhood indoctrination, which neither parents nor religious leaders are likely to give up without an incredible fight.
Even later, adult conversions or religious re-births tend to occur within extremely narrow confines, restricted to the very familiar -- or the acceptably 'different'.
(Not surprisingly: needless to say, it is socially much easier to blend in if you embrace an already well-established local strain of religion (even a minority one), rather than choose one that is perhaps superior but entirely different from local practise.)
The number of people who truly shop around for the best religion for themselves is surely almost negligible.
Dennett's argument that we should test to see whether religion is worthwhile is perfectly sensible -- and yet almost unbelievably naïve.
He suggests (and, as a firm non-believer, presumably leans strongly this way anyway) that the obvious answer will be an overwhelming no.
Indeed, Dennett wants to test religion scientifically because he knows it can't stand up to it.
But the one thing believers can -- and desperately do -- hold onto is that trump card that is their god
The main -- indeed, arguably the only -- thing religions have going for them is that absolutism that is founded on what can be described as non-sense, a god-approved certainty that is essentially untestable (at least not to scientific satisfaction).
We are expected to take the word of god(s) without any satisfactory evidence as to its provenance, heed (generally unquestioningly) the interpretations of essentially self-appointed gate-keepers (popes, priests, imams, rabbis, etc.) who can't seem to keep the story absolutely straight across the centuries much less the millennia (conveniently adapting, for the most part, to changing times).
And, funnily enough, god(s) never seem to really care one way or another what individuals or societies, etc. are up to, his/her/its/their wrath only targeting those who obviously have strayed in the form of occasionally setting loose aggrieved followers on them, a strikingly inefficient, ineffective, and often self-destructive method.
(Other wraths -- from plagues to natural disasters -- have proven to be remarkably all-embracing, not differentiating between true and devout believers and heathens.)
Naturally, religions generally have a story to explain this for the most part hands-off godly attitude and approach as well.
Religions do change: as Dennett notes, the big trio of contemporary monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) are relatively new to the humankind-scene, and most of us are, in fact, atheists in regard to almost all the gods there have been before -- no one really pays much attention to the once-popular Olympians any longer, for example.
(Oddly, too, no one discusses the possibility that we may have mistakenly thrown out the wrong gods, that these might have been the true ones and that we'd all be better off praying to Zeus or making sacrifices to the Aztec gods -- surely ideas also worth putting to the test .....)
Indeed, religion does adapt to a changing world (with certain fundamentalist exceptions), a form of acknowledging that things might not be quite so absolute after all, and that the obvious (scientific) truths around us can't be completely ignored, even by religions.
Breaking the Spell is fairly well-presented, the chapters slowly building up Dennett's arguments (with a brief summing-up at the end of each chapter, along with a short preview of the next step).
Dennett offers a wealth of examples and possible counter-arguments, and his explanation of the evolution of religion is certainly interesting.
Yet what amounts to his ultimate big question -- is the sham that is religion worthwhile ? -- doesn't seem particularly helpful: believers will surely continue to simply refuse to see religion as a sham (even though he uncovers quite a few of its tricks along the way), while non-believers are likely to have thought religion wasn't worth holding onto even before they read this.
An interesting and worthwhile look at religion, offering quite a few useful perspectives and questions -- but probably not a book that will change many minds (or beliefs).
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Breaking the Spell:
Daniel C. Dennett:
Other books of interest under review:
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About the Author:
Daniel C. Dennett teaches at Tufts University.
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© 2006-2010 the complete review
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