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29 of 33 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Broke the spell for me...., 17 Aug. 2008
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Paperback)
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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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 7 Mar 2009 22:15:15 GMT
Interesting quote you unearth here. Personally I think he means "covered".

Posted on 7 Aug 2010 21:39:55 BDT
Last edited by the author on 31 Aug 2010 19:08:15 BDT
Max Walach says:
"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"
I think you forget that Dennett is writing for a very specific audience (as he says in his preface). It isn't meant to be a tome; it is aimed at the American reader who may have religious beliefs and may therefore be less malleable to a hardcore inquiry - Dennett takes a longer and softer approach. Had it been aimed at academics (those like yourself) I imagine he would not have tread so softly (and he also wouldn't have excised the more esoteric stuff and put in appendices at the back).

In reply to an earlier post on 28 Aug 2010 10:44:14 BDT
Savitaa says:
Thanks Max. I don't think I need to read this book.

In reply to an earlier post on 31 Aug 2010 19:03:18 BDT
Last edited by the author on 31 Aug 2010 19:10:51 BDT
Max Walach says:
In saying [above] that the book "is aimed at the average American reader" I was mistaken. What Dennett actually says in the preface (I have now checked this) is that it is aimed at the American reader (not the `average' American reader). I have edited that mistake out now. The book does get quite technical, and uses a fair amount of esoteric nomenclature (a dictionary is an excellent companion when reading this book - it was for me anyhow). It is actually a very clever thesis, laced with research and study - I suspect it is not suitable for the `average' American reader at all! I may have misled you with the above comments. I sincerely hope I haven't put you off what is a truly excellent book! It is thoroughly - THOROUGHLY - informative. I learnt a great deal from it.

In reply to an earlier post on 30 Oct 2010 17:04:04 BDT
Jonathan
I think the word UNCOVERED is (deliberately) ambiguous within the context. An object on a table that is covered is Invisible and so not discussed. A subject that is COVERED in a tabled discussion is Visibly discussed.
I think the author wants us to look at the double meanings and decide for ourselves -- as with his entire thesis.

Posted on 11 Apr 2013 00:19:02 BDT
Mr. M. Stagg says:
What a waste of paper typing digits and pixels.
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