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]