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More investigation than Polemic
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.