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VINE VOICEon 10 January 2007
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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on 2 October 2007
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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VINE VOICEon 10 January 2007
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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on 28 February 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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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.
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on 25 January 2017
There is here, it seems to me, a question of motes and beams. Prof. Dennett has been moved to take time out from his researches to write this book from civic duty: religion provides a motive to kill and Prof. Dennett feels bound to play his part in drawing the poison. Yet, on the face of it, more killing is done by secular states, and in particular secular states in the enlightened West, than by the Islamist terrorists Prof. Dennnett refers to repeatedly. Should he not take time out to draw the poison from secular democracy? I have given the book four stars rather than the five plus I would normally give Prof. Dennett (to whom we all owe a debt of gratitude for his work) for a reason he adverts to in his preface: as a reader from outside the US I find the pussy-footing saps the will to continue. There has to be a better way for outsiders to learn about the religious sensitivities of Americans.
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on 8 July 2006
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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on 17 August 2008
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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on 13 January 2007
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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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.
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