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on 18 August 2011
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.
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on 10 January 2011
On balance this book rewards the effort ~ but it really is an effort.

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.
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on 8 April 2017
Very good
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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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HALL OF FAMEon 16 February 2006
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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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.
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on 18 October 2006
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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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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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.
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on 19 April 2014
I can recommend this book, it is fascinating, interesting, stimulating...

Excellent also on the subject: Michael Parenti: God and his demons
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