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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [Hardcover]

Daniel C. Dennett
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)

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Book Description

2 Mar 2006 Allen Lane Science
"Breaking the Spell" is Daniel Dennett's most innovative and important work yet; it offers a profound challenge to society and a compelling new history of belief. Few forces in the world are as potent as religion: it comforts people in their suffering and inspires them to both magnificent and terrible deeds. In this provocative and timely book, Dennett seeks to uncover the origins of this power, and discusses why and how different faiths have commanded allegiance and shaped so many lives. He does not contest these beliefs. Rather, he argues passionately for the need to understand this multifaceted phenomenon, and he offers a truly original and comprehensive explanation for religion. What was the psychological and cultural soil in which it first took root? How did it evolve? Is it the product of blind evolutionary instinct or of rational choice? Dennett shows how these ideas could have spread from individual superstitions, via shamanism and the early wild' strains of religion to today's institutionalized systems. Dennett's extraordinary achievement is to weave such a richly detailed narrative, to imagine it so vividly, and to argue for it so forcefully. He brings religion into the realm of real public debate and, in so doing, he breaks the spell.

Product details

  • Hardcover: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Allen Lane; First Edition edition (2 Mar 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0713997893
  • ISBN-13: 978-0713997897
  • Product Dimensions: 23.8 x 15.8 x 4.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (43 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 279,423 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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About the Author

Daniel Dennett is one of the most original and provocative thinkers in the world. A brilliant polemicist and philosopher, he is famous for challenging unexamined orthodoxies. His books include Brainstorms, Brainchildren, Elbow Room, Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves. He lives in North Andover, Massachusetts.

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First Sentence
You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
169 of 173 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent and compelling 10 Jan 2007
By Jason Mills VINE VOICE
US philosopher Daniel Dennett and his British pal, biologist Richard Dawkins, each offer a new book on religion, and it's worth reviewing them together.

Dawkins' "The God Delusion" is a powerful tirade against the excesses of religion, packed with examples both disturbing and hilarious. He argues that even 'moderate' religion cripples the mind, and vigorously unpicks the many claims for its truth and worth. His project is to show the wavering believer that blind faith, far from being a virtue, is an absurd and damaging waste of intellect, and calls for its abandonment in favour of an enlightened and healthy atheism: come on in, the water's fine!

Dennett's "Breaking The Spell: Religion As A Natural Phenomenon" takes a more measured and rigorous approach. Dennett (though an atheist) seeks not so much to attack religion as to explain it, and to do so without recourse to gods. The spell he wishes to break is the taboo that surrounds the debate, preventing the many and contradictory tenets of religion from being seriously examined.

Though Dawkins' heartfelt call is eloquent and impassioned, some readers may still find his sometimes abrasive tone sufficient excuse to dismiss his thesis. Dennett's book, however, rarely strays from the courteous and builds a careful and cogent argument that is potentially more persuasive - even unassailable. It's an elegant and fascinating read, and it's perhaps a shame that it won't have the same high-profile as Dawkins' fireworks.
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219 of 226 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shining Bright Lights 8 July 2006
By Andrew
Having only read the hardcover edition, I'm going to stick my neck out and assume that when Breaking the Spell is released as a paperback Daniel Dennett won't be backtracking much on a topic which evidently concerns him a great deal. Rightly so, since it increasingly seems that we have replaced a cold war based on political difference with one that has its foundation in the most personal beliefs of ordinary people the world over. Whether we cherish one divine source or another, or instead celebrate an entirely natural evolution of mankind, we need to understand each other better in order to coexist peacefully, as we should.

Dennett makes the point that in any society where freedoms of thought, speech and faith are prized above all else, freedom of enquiry should be the natural extension. Yet the default position amongst the world's various faithful on the subject of religious investigation is almost invariably one of affronted refusal. His concern is that ignorance not only leads us towards potentially dangerous misunderstanding, but that it can also blind us to the finer qualities of the things we love.

Dennett is a committed atheist, but this does not make him an enemy of the religious. His arguments and analysis are fair and the book's purpose valuable: to illuminate the situation for all concerned (which means everyone) and to suggest possible ways to move forward. He does not offer solutions, but paves the way for the first steps toward greater understanding and does so with his typical clarity, depth and good humour. A very good book.
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107 of 113 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A fun, often light-hearted journey 13 Jan 2007
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I had never read Dennett's work before so this was a new experience for me; I had previously assumed he was a cheap knock-off of Dawkins. I was pleasantly surprised. Dennett's book is very similar to Dawkins's God Delusion, but without the argument against God's existence, and more focused on asking questions than proselytising.

It is written as a first foray into the study of religion from a biological and scientific (evolutionary, especially) viewpoint-- how and why have religions evolved? I enjoyed the inquisitive approach- he mainly provides lists and explanations of what kinds of questions researchers in this field should be asking, although he does provide some potential answers to these, even if he does not seem wedded to them (a good thing).

Moreover, I didn't see the writing as sour or venomous in any way; it is far kinder in tone than Dawkins's work. I suppose a strongly religious (or anti-intellectual) person would find it to be sour and venomous, as they would any such book regardless of the presence/absence of kid gloves in its handling. In fact, I was almost caught off guard by the often playful, even jolly approach. He clearly is enjoying thinking about the approach he outlines and VERY carefully laying out the logic (in proper philosopher's role) behind his arguments and queries. Quite elegant and smooth overall.

It is unlikely to change anyone's views unless they're teetering on the brink (and many are...) but Dennett knows that. People that will find this interesting are those that want to know more (especially something refreshingly new; not just the tired old atheism vs. theism fisticuffs) about religion and its relationship with science and reason. It's an easy read but intellectuals will also find it quite stimulating nonetheless.
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289 of 309 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dennett's Dangerous Idea 15 Mar 2006
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
Can religion be subject to scientific scrutiny? In this remarkable study, Dennett proposes that not only can religion studied be methodically, but that it should be. His suggestion will be stupefying to some, as he readily admits. Is your mind open to the notion that the vast repository of human values could be carefully examined? Then this book will provide many new paths for you to explore. He openly appeals to a wide audience, starting with his fellow countrymen. Dennett's ability to present complex issues, including those of social importance, in a clear and almost intimate manner should grant this book the wide readership he seeks.
The beginning chapter, "Opening Pandora's Box", reminds us that what was long considered inexplicable or mysterious can be revealed. He anticipates the criticism that "spiritual" things or "faith" aren't qualities that submit to analysis. The task, he acknowledges, is immense, but can be accomplished. Certain elements must be agreed upon, such as the definition of "religion". What we call religion, Dennett, contends, ought to exclude "spiritualism", fanatic devotion to secular items such as ethnic groups or idolizing sports figures. On the other hand religion is a dynamic and variable concept and tight demarcation is neither possible or desirable. Religion, then, is a social system incorporating supernatural agents that can reward or punish. Writers preceding him, such as Robert Atran, Pascal Boyer and Walter Burkert are acknowledged as good starting points. Dennett cites them often as contributors to his thinking. His distant, but highly influential, mentor is William James.
Although Dennett's atheism is well known, this book is anything but a call for the abolition of religion. Quite the reverse.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
4.0 out of 5 stars Stimulating read
I can recommend this book, it is fascinating, interesting, stimulating...

Excellent also on the subject: Michael Parenti: God and his demons
Published 4 months ago by marc goris
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful
Well researched and thought provoking. Fair and balanced with just a little wry criticism of religion. Worth taking the time to read carefully. Excellent bibliography.
Published 6 months ago by AndLiz
4.0 out of 5 stars An interesting in depth analysis of why people adopt religious...
The book explains how we acquired an instinctive tendency to adopt a communal belief system due to evolutionary shaping of our mental attributes, and how this instinct normally has... Read more
Published 6 months ago by Sunflowers
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting read by a modern American philosopher.
This author covers many controversial views in an easy to follow and understandable way. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about why people need... Read more
Published 6 months ago by handyman
4.0 out of 5 stars Questions, questions, questions....
An excellent book in which the author calls for religion to submit itself to scientific scrutiny. Some very big ideas brilliantly explained. Read more
Published 15 months ago by Biro
4.0 out of 5 stars Interesting but hard work
The ideas in this book are interesting.
It's not an easy or fun book to read, which is a shame.
Wish it had been written in a more accessible style.
Published 20 months ago by Mr. R. Shaw
5.0 out of 5 stars Philosophise This...
Dan Dennett, along with his excellent lectures and debates on YouTube - is probably the greatest living philosopher and essential listening, viewing and watching for anybody who... Read more
Published on 1 Aug 2012 by despo
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliant!
This is an academic masterpiece, brilliantly presented and without much of the emotion associated with works by Richard Dawkins and others. Read more
Published on 11 Feb 2012 by C. I. Fullerton
2.0 out of 5 stars Too lengthy
At its best, this book is terrific. The author manages to hit some great heights with this book, but it's just too long.
About twice as long as it needs to be, actually. Read more
Published on 3 Feb 2012 by Rustychain
5.0 out of 5 stars Freedom from the tyranny of religious ignorance
I love the title 'Breaking the spell'. You can go to church all your life and only hear one side of the story; excuses for the absurdities in the Bible or trying to pick out a few... Read more
Published on 6 Nov 2011 by A.
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