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173 of 177 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent and compelling
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...
Published on 10 Jan 2007 by Jason Mills

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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Broke the spell for me....
I've been a Daniel Dennett fan ever since The Mind's Eye, a mind-opening book he co-authored/edited with Douglas Hofstadter. In similar vein, I was enthralled by Kinds of Minds; and Darwin's Dangerous Idea showed just how extensive and versatile a thinker Dennett is.

So I was surprised to be disappointed by Breaking the Spell. Maybe it's because I'm older and...
Published on 17 Aug 2008 by Dr. James Austin


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173 of 177 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intelligent and compelling, 10 Jan 2007
By 
Jason Mills "jason10801" (Accrington, UK) - See all my reviews
(VINE VOICE)    (REAL NAME)   
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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221 of 228 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Shining Bright Lights, 8 July 2006
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Paperback)
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
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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. I'd put it a bit above Dawkins in how much it expects of its readers; Dawkins tends to dumb things down a little further. There are nuggets of insights and unanswered Big Questions there for any reader, and the depth of research behind it shows. I liked the meme-focused perspective, which had its novel parts and some well-reasoned arguments and classifications of ideas.

This will be a classic in the field and bound to inspire deeper inquiries. It would make a great text for a college course. To see a surprisingly different book in the same area, with a less kind approach and a more direct application to modern society and it's woes, try Sam Harris's The End of Faith.
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288 of 308 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dennett's Dangerous Idea, 15 Mar 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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. He acknowledges the pervasive place of religion in human society. He asks how that came to be and thoroughly examines the various elements that comprise the makeup of a religion. Beginning with the concept of invisible "agency" as the explanation for unusual or unexpected phenomena, ideas about these agents became memes passed through and accepted by society. "Memes", a concept popularized by Richard Dawkins, are the mental equivalent of biological genes. Memes are ideas that replicate and expand through a population. In the case of religion, Dennett suggests, answers to the mysterious might be offered by society's older and wiser members. When such elders died, their transformation into agents themselves. It was almost inevitable, then, that human-like deities arose to be consulted and advise society on courses of action and behaviour.
Once established, and with such powerful agencies underlying them, religions mounted a defensive barrier against inquiry. This "wall" which ranges in firmness from mild disapproval to vigorous hostility, has prevented science from posing rational questions about religion's tenets. Dennett counters that religion should not be excluded from the range of topics that can be investigated. Language research has demonstrated that something seemingly too amorphous to clarify meaningfully can reveal a wide spectrum of human endeavours. He sets out a number of areas to investigate, such as the distinction between belief in a god and the "belief in belief". The latter is part of the glue of social cohesion and common purpose. Can we learn how that works? Dennett's earlier work on "intentional objects" is invoked to discuss how gods are perceived by believers. What will the deity do in a given circumstance? What must the believer do to condition response? These are all plausible questions for enquiry and Dennett seeks to have them pursued.
His final chapter is an outline of research paths that could be followed to investigate religion. He proposes a theory, which all readers are asked to challenge. He presents many commonly-held practices that are taken for granted, asking for explanations of why they exist and reconsideration of their value or impact. Should children receive religious instruction before they understand the issues? Is it "mental child abuse?". Should the practice be banned or is there another option? For this and other questions, evidence must be compiled and presented, along with countervailing theories, if they can be formulated. The only thing unacceptable is finding the quest itself unacceptable. Religion, Dennett notes, is too important to be beyond inquiry.
This book is rich with questions we should be asking ourselves, if we aren't already. Review them in this excellent call for explanations for an overlooked subject. Dennett knows that enquiry alone will not destroy religion. If it should, then religion's thrall on humanity was false to begin with. Dennett notes that if enquiry results in clarification and honesty, religion would emerge in a healthier condition. Whichever you wish or hope to achieve by investigating religion, it's clear the task must be undertaken. There are endless opportunities for research careers in the topics he lists for further exploration. Read this and find out where you might help take up the challenge. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Philosophy at its best, 6 April 2008
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Paperback)
How to break the spell? Dennett knows: don't pretend you have answers and instead ask good questions. Lots of them in sincere response to lots of supposed answers that don't seem like satisfying answers.

I've done this in a non-systematic way and I suspect you may have too but I have never seen it done so well as Dennett does in this book. In the chapter on "Morality and Religion", he even makes this approach explicit in a marvelous statement about what what he says some people have realized is "one of the best secrets of life: let your self go". By which he means, not into any kind of reckless behavior but with a "humble curiousity" in response to the "world's complexity". The paragraph in which he elaborates on that view is, for me, worth by itself reading the book for - but there is so much more insight in this book, it is really a treasure of showing you just how far someone can go if they adopt that attitude. Whether you or I can achieve Dennett's level of effective questioning I don't know but it certainly seems worth a try. In the following chapter "Now What Do We Do?", Dennett proposes alternative schooling for children that would not only address their real needs but also allow a questioning attitude that would challenge religious claims rather than waste student's time on any religious indoctrination.

There's a great deal more in this delightful book but hopefully the above alone will help you realize, as it has me, that Dennett represents cognitive studies at its best.
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19 of 21 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dennett's Dangerous Idea, 16 Feb 2006
By 
Stephen A. Haines (Ottawa, Ontario Canada) - See all my reviews
(HALL OF FAME REVIEWER)    (REAL NAME)   
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. He acknowledges the pervasive place of religion in human society. He asks how that came to be and thoroughly examines the various elements that comprise the makeup of a religion. Beginning with the concept of invisible "agency" as the explanation for unusual or unexpected phenomena, ideas about these agents became memes passed through and accepted by society. "Memes", a concept popularized by Richard Dawkins, are the mental equivalent of biological genes. Memes are ideas that replicate and expand through a population. In the case of religion, Dennett suggests, answers to the mysterious might be offered by society's older and wiser members. When such elders died, their transformation into agents themselves. It was almost inevitable, then, that human-like deities arose to be consulted and advise society on courses of action and behaviour.
Once established, and with such powerful agencies underlying them, religions mounted a defensive barrier against inquiry. This "wall" which ranges in firmness from mild disapproval to vigorous hostility, has prevented science from posing rational questions about religion's tenets. Dennett counters that religion should not be excluded from the range of topics that can be investigated. Language research has demonstrated that something seemingly too amorphous to clarify meaningfully can reveal a wide spectrum of human endeavours. He sets out a number of areas to investigate, such as the distinction between belief in a god and the "belief in belief". The latter is part of the glue of social cohesion and common purpose. Can we learn how that works? Dennett's earlier work on "intentional objects" is invoked to discuss how gods are perceived by believers. What will the deity do in a given circumstance? What must the believer do to condition response? These are all plausible questions for enquiry and Dennett seeks to have them pursued.
His final chapter is an outline of research paths that could be followed to investigate religion. He proposes a theory, which all readers are asked to challenge. He presents many commonly-held practices that are taken for granted, asking for explanations of why they exist and reconsideration of their value or impact. Should children receive religious instruction before they understand the issues? Is it "mental child abuse?". Should the practice be banned or is there another option? For this and other questions, evidence must be compiled and presented, along with countervailing theories, if they can be formulated. The only thing unacceptable is finding the quest itself unacceptable. Religion, Dennett notes, is too important to be beyond inquiry.
This book is rich with questions we should be asking ourselves, if we aren't already. Review them in this excellent call for explanations for an overlooked subject. Dennett knows that enquiry alone will not destroy religion. If it should, then religion's thrall on humanity was false to begin with. Dennett notes that if enquiry results in clarification and honesty, religion would emerge in a healthier condition. Whichever you wish or hope to achieve by investigating religion, it's clear the task must be undertaken. There are endless opportunities for research careers in the topics he lists for further exploration. Read this and find out where you might help take up the challenge.
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53 of 59 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Not aimed at atheists, 18 Oct 2006
By 
Andy Leppard (Doncaster, UK) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
Dennett writes about the need of religious adherents of any faith to confirm the claims made by their traditional insitutions using recognised empirical methods. He sketches his own starting points for a scientific approach to verifing claims made by theists about supernatual beliefs.

The concept of evolution is combined with Darwin's theory of natural selection to suggest possible reasons why humans behave in a religious manner and profess belief.

As an atheist, I didn't get as much out of this book as I would like, but I believe any open-minded theist will certainly gain a valuable insight into why an atheist such as Dennett is tackling sensitive issues such as organised religion and religious belief.
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25 of 28 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing read, 2 Oct 2007
By 
Dr. D. Fraser (Scotland) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Paperback)
This was the first of Dennett's books I've read, and will certainly be reading more. Having read Dawkins, Harris etc I didn't expect another author to have anything dramatically new to say. I was wrong. Dennett's book is somewhat akin to Dawkins's God Delusion, but without the overbearing focus on Gods existance.

It is a treatise on religion from a biological and scientific (evolutionary) stanpoint, questioning how and why religions evolved.

Dennett, though an atheist himself, seeks not to attack religion, rather to explain it. He shows a trully questioning approach - he provides lists and explanations of the kinds of questions we should be asking, providing some answers to these, and leaving others open to the reader.

Hopefully those of a religious disposition will be able to find this work more palatable than Dawkins's work. It is certainly less confrontational to their beliefs. An ardently and unquestioningly religious person would find it to be objectionable, no doubt, as they would any such questioning of the absoluteness of their beliefs regardless of the handling. Still, if ones faith is trully strong enough then surely one should be able to face and ackowledge the questioning of that without considering it blasphemous. In any case, a book is unlikely to ever change anyone's views unless unless their very week to start with, but Dennett knows that. People that will find this book most interesting are those that want to know more, especially something new, not just the same old atheism vs. theism squablle, about religion and its relationship with science.

The book is certainly an easy read at all levels. Perhaps slightly more demanding than Dawkins; though Dawkins does tend to dumb things down a little too much perhaps. There good insights thoughout, and the depth of research behind it is sound, and the writer does not pretend to have the answer to every question.

This is the worthwhile contribution to this field and a good companion to the related wors of Harris, Dawkins etc
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28 of 32 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Broke the spell for me...., 17 Aug 2008
By 
Dr. James Austin (Auckland, New Zealand) - See all my reviews
(REAL NAME)   
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Paperback)
I've been a Daniel Dennett fan ever since The Mind's Eye, a mind-opening book he co-authored/edited with Douglas Hofstadter. In similar vein, I was enthralled by Kinds of Minds; and Darwin's Dangerous Idea showed just how extensive and versatile a thinker Dennett is.

So I was surprised to be disappointed by Breaking the Spell. Maybe it's because I'm older and wiser, or maybe I was expecting this book to be something that it wasn't, but it just seemed to lack substance. The essential thesis of the book is that religious belief is no sacred cow, and should be open to the same level of scientific and philosophical investigation as any other sphere of human activity. This much could have been said in less than a page; and Dennett is engaging and entertaining in outlining his arguments; but there is little more substance to the book than this.

For a book subtitled "Religion as a natural phenomenon", and promising on the back blurb "a truly original - and comprehensive - explanation for faith", such an explanation was conspicuous by its absence. Perhaps this is an unfair criticism - this book concentrates more on asking questions than answering them - but Lewis Wolpert's 'Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast' would have fit the cover of this book much better.

Although Dennett is a prominent atheist, he speaks as the very soul of reason, with courtesy and respect for theists, and a dispassionate open-mindedness. To his credit, he avoids the scathe and scorn employed by Dawkins, Sam Harris and others. But here and there his agenda slips through, as in the following quote (p24 of the paperback edition):

"This puts MY sacred values to work: I want the resolution to the world's problems to be as democratic and just as possible, and both democracy and justice depend on getting on the table for all to see as much of the truth as possible, bearing in mind that sometimes the truth hurts, and hence should sometimes be left uncovered, out of love for those who would suffer were it revealed."

I read this sentence several times, wondering whether he meant 'covered' instead of 'uncovered'. I decided not, for two reasons: firstly, Dennett is generally very precise about his choice of words, and secondly he claims in his preface to have 'shared drafts of this book with many readers', some of whom would surely have queried this odd statement. This statement appears to say that democracy and justice are sacred enough that they should be imposed on others 'out of love', even when it hurts them - a view not too dissimilar from that of the Inquisition. (All right, sorry, that was harsh - but it is telling that nowhere does Dennett propose subjecting his own 'sacred values' to the same kind of investigation that he proposes for religion, even though there are those who would question the benefits that democracy has brought to the world.)

Don't get me wrong - I enjoyed this book, and I agree with most of what Dennett has to say; I recommend it to any reader interested in questions of faith, religion and philosophy. But if you're looking for a book that will provide a Darwinian deconstruction of faith, this is not it; and for all his courteous objectivity, it is clear what Dennett hopes the answer to his investigation will be. I'm still a Daniel Dennett fan, but this book broke the spell for me.
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184 of 214 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Probably Dennett's Opus Magnum!!!, 28 Feb 2006
While listening to Dennett’s interview by Jonathan Miller (The Atheists Tapes) I hoped one day he will keep his word and write the book on religion. And here it is, fantastic volume, touching the subject from so many important points of view… Frames developed by cognitive science, meme theory, evolution and similar disciplines are nicely integrated – and the synergistic effect is purely breathtaking. While many readers will enjoy different parts of the book, the chapter Belief on Belief is the most important from my perspective, as it explicates the meta-structure of the phenomenon and the self-enveloping and self-sealing protective dynamics of the religious belief. What a read!
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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (Paperback - 29 Mar 2007)
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