Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Hardcover – 2 Mar. 2006
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'A moving, immersive and nuanced portrait of a tight-knit social world, its people and its values.'
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- ISBN-10 : 0713997893
- Hardcover : 464 pages
- Dimensions : 15.7 x 4.1 x 24.1 cm
- ISBN-13 : 978-0713997897
- Publisher : Allen Lane; First Edition (2 Mar. 2006)
- Language: : English
- Best Sellers Rank: 983,301 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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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.
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.
The approach is a slightly irritating and an odd mixture of academic, discursive, and occasionally colloquial styles(lots of asides in brackets finishing with an exclamation mark!). Dennett does sometimes go off on a tangent and you may find yourself flicking ahead to see when the book will get interesting again.
However, if you can get past the ideosyncratic writing there are lots of very interesting ideas and original ways of looking at religion and spirituality.
If you enjoyed Richard Dawkins, then this is a new perspective on some of his ideas. It isn't as easy to follow but it is worth exploring.