on 25 February 2007
Explaining religion from the natural and psychosocial history of mankind is a hanging question ever since Hume assumed in 1757 that common religious ideas might bei closer to sick men's dreams and the boisterous ideas of apes in the shape of men than to any serious rational statement. Since then various concepts have been presented. In 1927 Freud asked in "The Future of an Illusion" what it might be that gets religious teachings an effectiveness independent of rational acceptance. In short his answer was: wishful thinking and fulfilling wishes via roundabout. These old thoughts in the tradition of the Enlightenment stay with us telling part of the truth. The philosophical status of all these explanatory efforts (and of counterefforts to undermine them) was analyzed thoroughly and unsurpassed by Mackie in "The Miracle of Theism" in 1982. From Darwin onwards often costly and wasteful, or seemingly wasteful, religious rituals and cults caught the eye of evolutionary biologists - today more than ever. Daniel Dennett sums up their ideas (see especially p. 82 - 92) and that alone is worth reading the book and can spare you quite a load of others (if you accept losses in detail). A lot of all that is plausible though speculative to a lamentable degree. Nobody really knows which significance we should ascribe to the various pieces in the puzzle of explanation. But Dennett uses this discussion to undermine religious thinking and religious claims of indispensability in a corteous and gentle manner which nevertheless gets more and more insisting as the book continues. He questions religious education and places his hope on children taught independent thinking who might then in reverse lead their parents to abandon obsolete religious world views. Thus our culture might develop in a positive way. Let's hope Dennett will be right. He himself does a good deal to bring it about.
Make no mistakes; this is a scholarly, philosophical tome by a serious-minded and dedicated philosopher who does have a high-horse but he is not on it.
The title and opening chapter title tend to give away a great deal about the thinking though; "... the Spell" and "Opening Pandora's Box". Spells tend to suggest the irrational under another's control and all the evils of the world released from "Pandora's Box" - Pandora, the "all-gifted" - suggests a mind-set. However, do not let this detract from his considered thinking.
His first section, divided into three, then sub-divided into fives, examines the nature of religion, its relationship (if any) to science and various linked ideas to the idea of religion as a natural phenomenon but also asking the question "Cui bono"?
The second section, divided into eight then sub-divided into up to eight, looks at religion's early and modern days, the organisation of religion and ends with "Does God Exist?" The best until last?
Section three is divided into three sections, sub-divided into fours, beginning with "The Buyer's Guide to Religions" and ending with "Now What do We Do?" after a short section on Richard Dawkin's "memes" theory (also explored extensively by Susan Blackmore).
The appendices are thirty pages long, notes twenty-three and the bibliography fourteen. This is not an irrational diatribe by an evangelising fundamentalist with a badge stating the agenda, although he does have one and his position is very clear, particularly to anyone who is familiar with his writing. It is a series of inter-connected ideas outlining why he believes what he does and tackling some of the major issues in this arena, e.g. does science have anything to say to or about religion (and "vice versa"?).
For reasons I cannot remember but probably more to do with the book's arrival than a deliberate choice of holiday reading, I found myself carrying it around the Acropolis into the temple of Athena Parthenos,the Erechtheum and Parthenon; anyone who has climbed the Athenean Acropolis in the Greek summer will know it is a struggle not for the faint-hearted. Carrying this heavy tome in an already heavy camera bag made it even more of an adventure. However, on arriving at an even keel, it made fascinating, restful reading in the coffee shop, Dennett and a cooling drink in front, the temples behind.
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.
on 25 March 2009
This is a really thorough, mature and well reasoned book. It's academically solid, but eminently accessible to anyone who isn't irredeemably irrational. I read it through twice and enjoyed it more the second time - it's rich in facts, anecdotes and though-provoking ideas.
Since it's an extended argument in favour of a scientific approach to religion, some scientific literacy is probably helpful (but not essential) when reading it. Although Dennett targets religion specifically, you will probably finish the book convinced that nothing whatsover should be off-limits to science. I did anyway.
He does go to extreme lengths to accommodate religious sensibilities and avoid giving offence. Initially this might seem overdone, and too apologetic; but it also has the effect of foreclosing many avenues of opposition to his argument.
It's also a great book if you want to follow up any of the ideas - there are several hundred references and detailed notes; and I've used quite a few of them to further my own reading.
And I particularly liked the bit about accordionists. It's really true :-)
on 3 February 2012
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. He quotes endlessly from other authors, often the same ones over & over.
I'm left thinking "If they can come up with such great one-liners, maybe I should be reading their works"!
Too long, too windy, too long to build up to the punch line.
With a better editor it could have been a terrific, shorter, book.
As it is? 2 stars from me.
on 19 March 2008
Why is Religion here? Is it ever going to go away? This book isn't about answering these complicated questions, but more about why we should ask these questions and how we could go about getting reliable answers.
Dennet's view is that we could examine Religion empiraclly and scientifically. By having some reliable data we would then understand the paradigm more and approach reliable answers to these questions. Religious people should not have a fear about this as if they wish to understand their Religion they should be prepared to examine it. We should then present all findings and not hide anything.
I felt that this honest and objective approach was Dennet's political correct and sensitive way of saying we must really look at Religion more critically. He is certainly not as caustic as Dawkins or Hitchens
and an approach of critizing something that people hold sacred with sensitivity is to be welcomed.
That said, I found that Dennet spent too long making some of his points. Sometimes, I felt he would take 5 pages to make a point that could have been made in half a page. This was either because Dennet was trying to convey to the reader he was being as objective as possible or it was because he needs to hire himself a good editor. Probably a bit of both.
I am not sure if Dennet pushed the buttons in this book. Who is it meant to appeal to? Most atheists I am sure will have already questioned Religion. Intelligent Religious people who don't like to be offended but who are open minded about their beliefs might like it - but how many of them are there? What about someone doing some sociology research and needs some ideas? Perhaps.
I didn't get much of it anyway. A book that described results of some of the studies and experiments Dennet's suggest would certainly be very interesting. But I was kind of hoping this book would be that, not simply saying what we could do and why we should do it. That to me is too obvious.
I also found the writing style too cumbersome. I think Dennet is a far better speaker than writer.
on 5 December 2008
From the start of the first chapter, where you meet the ant who is laboriously climbing up the blade of grass over and over again, you know that this is going to be a rewarding book to read. You will have to read the book yourself to find out what possible benefit this strange behaviour could have for the ant.
This book doesn't just re-work the old, familiar territory. We are over two thirds of the way through before Dennett gives some cursory consideration to the question 'Does God Exist?' This book has an original slant which makes it particularly worth reading. It doesn't just rehash the old arguments for and against the existence of God.
On reading this book, there were two messages which came across for me. One was for the need for good quality research to be done on religion. The other (which will be required if the first is going to happen!) is that religion be opened up to rational enquiry and open and honest debate.
It is difficult to know exactly what is going to offend the sensibilities of the religiously inclined but I don't feel this book can be described (accurately) as a polemic. This is a thoughtful and thought provoking book which deserves to be read by theists and atheists alike.
on 18 February 2011
This is a great book that objectively examines religion (all religions equally), and religious thought, and seeks to burst their bubble. And through a combination of logic, anecdote and well considered argument, Dennett succeeds.
The best way that I can think to describe this book is 'an American version of the God Delusion without the polemics,' but it is also more than that because it also tries to explain the origins of religious thought, rather than merely shooting it down.
It's definitely worth a read for atheists, or religious people who are questioning their faith.
Professor Dennett is a philosopher and an expert on consciousness who writes from the perspective of a Darwinian. He is an atheist and calls himself a "bright," an unfortunate coinage from the redoubtable Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. I say unfortunate because those who do not identify themselves similarly might feel that they should be thought of as--shall we say--less than bright. Such self-designating and flattering terminology, however agreeable to those using it, only serves to isolate them from others--but perhaps that is the point.
Putting that aside, I also need to put aside another of Dennett's mostly irrelevant preoccupations in this otherwise carefully considered and nearly exhaustive examination of religion, namely that of the power of memes. Coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), a meme is, on the one hand, a fancy word for "idea" and the results of ideas, and on the other hand, a kind of cultural gene or virus that replicates itself through the activities of living things, especially humans. Here's the way Dennett expresses it: "The idea of memes promises...to unify under a single perspective such diverse cultural phenomena as deliberate, foresighted scientific and cultural inventions (memetic engineering), such authorless productions as folklore, and even such unwittingly redesigned phenomena as languages and social customs themselves." (p. 355)
In other words, Dennett believes the term "meme" can be extremely useful by helping us to understand cultural evolution. And, yes, religion can be seen as a meme. However I think his purpose in this book would have been better served if he had narrowed his focus and concentrated exclusively on religion as a natural phenomenon.
And it is that, and Dennett makes a convincing case for scientists to respect something so natural to humans. What he doesn't do is make the case for an end to religion. What he wants is for those in our various religions to have the courage to openly examine their beliefs, tenets and practices and the effect they have on society as a whole. The question, is religion a good or a bad thing? is asked throughout the book, both explicitly and implicitly; however for the life of me I am not sure what Dennett's answer was!--although I can guess. At any rate, its clear that he believes if such an examination were conducted there would be fewer true believers in the world and less pain and suffering.
But religion is not going to go away because religion and humans are as intermixed as the yoke and white of a scrambled egg. For most people a religion is like a thought in your mind. You cannot long be without one. Dennett doesn't care for this idea, I suspect, since he declares that his beliefs do not constitute a religion. A "religion" is a way of life. Tracing the derivation in Webster's International Dictionary (the venerable and highly respected Second Edition) one has to wade through several hundred words before arriving at "8b Acceptance and devotion to such an ideal as a standard for one's own life." For the most part Dennett is using earlier, more exclusive definitions. Of course some people do not have a religion since they live willy-nilly, from one impulse to the next without much foresight or appreciation for past events. But such people are in the minority; indeed they are, in a sense, children.
Dennett calls the reader's attention to the evils and dangers of religion at length while at the same time giving religion its due as a sometime force for good in this world. But much of the good that religion does is seen by Dennett as the result of something like a placebo effect, and would benefit humankind regardless of the "truth" of the religion. He acknowledges studies that show that "regular churchgoers live longer, are less likely to have heart attacks, and so forth...," but adds that many of us "haven't stopped to consider how independent [these results]...are from whether or not any religious beliefs are true." (p. 272) Yes, it would be better--and such a day may come--when our religious beliefs are more in line with reality than they are today, taken as most of them are from the primitive science and psychology of long ago.
Religion also has utility, Dennett allows, because it strengthens people psychologically in some circumstances by giving them resolution and confidence, regardless of the fact that their confidence is based on nothing real. (p. 178) Sometimes any plan or belief--even one that is clearly wrong--is better than no plan or belief. Religion may also help people by creating or strengthening "bonds of trust that permit groups of individuals to act together much more effectively." (p. 178)
Dennett does not add at this point, but very well might have, that the cohesiveness of the tribe under the spell of a charismatic leader of the endemic religion strengthens the tribe in warfare. Indeed my contention is that this is the major reason that those of us living today have a built-in propensity to believe without evidence, because those that didn't died out because they were defeated by tribes that got their warriors to die for the cause in the name of their God. Dennett doesn't explore this path--although he does mention it--probably because he finds "group selection" troublesome.
I wish I had the space to go into more of the many interesting points that Dennett makes or to quibble with some of his conclusions. The book is fascinating and--even though Dennett, as usual, is intent on leaving nothing out--it is readable and lively, more so than some of his other books.
on 17 November 2010
In Breaking the Spell Dan Dennett takes the time to set out the scope of his inquiry and to tackle questions in the right order. It feels like a genuine investigation rather than a mere polemic, and while there's nothing inherently wrong with either approach, this one brings a calm precision to the table. The courteous tone is apparent from the very first question, of whether or not it's wise to subject religious belief to scientific scrutiny, given the possibility that this might break someone's spell. What do we endanger if the spell is broken? Is it worth it? With over 300 more pages filled with 'something', Dennett's answer is obvious before it arrives, but for a book of this nature, it's a good starting point.
Compared to his atheist cohorts (in particular, his fellow horsemen Hitchens, Harris and Dawkins), Dennett is less interested in attacking religion than in understanding what we can learn about this curious phenomenon, in particular from its origins and development. Objections are pre-empted and answered calmly and persuasively. Statements are qualified and clarified to a degree that might even infuriate some readers. Bringing with him a wealth of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research, he is never afraid to point out where more research is needed, even if this means holding back from winning an argument. Don't, however, dismiss Dennett's book as an apology; it should be welcomed as a rigorous and respectful contribution to the debate.