Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett

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I am more than a bit disappointed with Breaking the Spell (my first Dennett apart from an essay or two). I found myself plodding through the book, at times wondering if I should bother to finish it. I persevered, but it never seemed to find its feet. He is “preaching to the converted”, in a general sense, but I don’t think my reaction was just down to that.

It is tediously wordy. Dennett takes a long time to deal with some of the “obstructions” to the main philosophical investigation, for which he asks the reader’s forbearance, or suggests they jump ahead to where the meat is. I believe it would have been more engaging to take a top-down approach, pose the big questions and then take tangents to clarify any supporting details.

But I think the biggest problem with the book is that Dennett never quite focuses on what its main thesis actually is. I have seen reviewers say the spell he is referring to is a taboo against scientific investigation of religion, but I got the impression that the central questions of the book were whether God exists (i.e. the spell is religious belief itself), whether religion is required for moral behaviour, or whether religion is a net benefit or hindrance.

Then again, one might imagine that a book’s subtitle should indicate its purpose, in this case, “Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”. That topic was addressed to some degree by the earlier chapters, which were supposedly clearing the obstructions to the main investigation, so anyone who took the advice to skip would miss them. These included (relatively centrally, I think) the idea of religion as a meme that takes control of its host, and whose reproduction, like all memes, is independent of its validity or net value to the host (though not necessarily parasitic either). In order to do justice to the subtitle, these issues should have been dealt with much more deeply. Memetics was largely relegated to an appendix, “The New Replicators”, already published elsewhere.

As well as falling between these three main concerns (the scientific taboo against studying religion, religion as natural phenomenon and religion’s moral status), it also falls between the two stylistic positions of loose polemic and lay scientific education. It is clearly intended for a lay readership, but its arguments were not discussed with enough examples to give the uninitiated a proper understanding, in my view, and referring to other studies and texts doesn’t make up for that lack.

The text suffers from what appears a strenuous attempt to be pleasant to the religious, at which he eventually fails. In the early chapters, I found refreshing what appeared to be Dennett’s genuine equanimity and respect for difference, but his distaste and frustration seems to be boiling under the surface and seems to turn gradually to using the smug hostility of the intellectual crusader. He even reports that he has made a list of passages he predicts will be taken out of context by his detractors, and that he will keep them secret, to reveal when the time comes. These difficulties could be forgiven, perhaps, as a symptom of the entrenched debate in the United States, but Dennett would have done well to write separate books, one even tempered, about religion as a natural phenomenon, the other as an indulgent rant at the ignorance and immorality of the majority of his fellow citizens.

In the first he could have put something else – more archaeology, more psychology, more evolutionary biology, more neurology. He could have addressed those pertinent issues if he hadn’t wasted so many pages rambling on about what he was going to say later and how important it all was, and how nice he was going to be about it, and why he shouldn’t care if he’s nice or not, and whether his critics would read it if he dared them to, and what they were going to say if they did.

It’s not that he doesn’t write anything at all to help people consider religion from a naturalist perspective, it’s just that one has to hack through all the padding and repetition to find it. On the question of whether God is the source of morality, it’s hard to remember anything he has to say, but one thing stood out to me for its psychological immaturity: that he considers it immoral for someone to believe things they hear without giving them due consideration.

We cannot find the answers to questions that we will only be capable of finding tomorrow, and, as someone who has written about the problem of free will, I would expect Dennett to understand that. I was religious most of my life, and I gave my religious views a great deal of deep consideration – that is what eventually led me to discard them. Before that dawning, I had different axioms and weighed decisions differently. My arrival at a religious conclusion was partly due to misconstruing the stupid judgements of scientific people, not least that I saw them incessantly equating all religious philosophy with crass simplifications, in Dennett’s case, the Christianity of Bible-Belt America.

I think there is a bit of a gem hiding in here, which it would have been well for Dennett to spell out – I am struggling to express it, but it seems to be a vital principle in this subject – something like this: the value of an explanation is not only not evidence of its validity, but should actually caution us to suspect its falsehood. He seems to hint at this, giving examples of pertinent analogues such as the peacock’s tail, parasites’ control of hosts and various human cultural adaptations, but I don’t think he abstracts the principle clearly. It is rather like the genetic evolutionary principle that the value of a feature of an organism does not imply purpose, but rather, adaptive contingency.

It is this missed opportunity that is perhaps most disappointing, to state clearly the evolutionary principles that can be applied to cultural phenomena, and then follow the logical corollaries to weigh up religion. One might imagine that he is exercising scientific restraint and avoiding conjecture, whilst reviewing current hypotheses, but conjectural ideas appear to inform the text throughout anyway.

Instead of coming away with a scientific understanding of how religion might arise as a natural phenomenon, I got a lot of self-referential waffle, a bit of anti-religious ranting and a bit of a reading list. Instead of penetrating thinking, I found vague hints that it might have arisen by memetic evolution (if such exists), group evolution (which many doubt the existence of) or some other method, which I may or may not find in some of the references.

It is true that Dennett says he has not supplied answers to these questions, but he is obviously trying to answer them, and he doesn’t make it clear which questions he has answered and which he hasn’t, or how solid the evidence is for any of them. There is an odd exception, the theory of evolution through natural selection, which he states categorically is as certain as water is H2O. This is an unfortunate choice; like evolution, water is more complicated than the label or headline.

Has the book been thought-provoking, at least? Well, yes. It’s puzzled me a great deal, but mostly at a remove from the content. Perhaps there is a scientific taboo around studying religion, but if so, perhaps it would be better to analyse that political problem and address those in a position to change it.

Scientists may not be writing texts en masse about how their work challenges religion, but it’s because they’re busy doing neuroscience, psychology and archaeology, etc., and the implications of that work for religious belief generally find appreciation in their audience according to predisposition.

Besides, do we need to study religion as a specific subset of cultural beliefs, and are we not studying beliefs generally? Is it buying into the mystique to study religion scientifically? I wonder, is religion a special instance of the set of philosophical positions humans hold? Would Dennett be comfortable with investigation of physicalist science as a natural phenomenon, and what of the clear evidence that it has evolutionary benefit and is exploding memetically through the world? How do we know when to doubt something because it is self-propagating? How do we differentiate valuable adaptations from costly signals; indeed, aren’t the latter a strange example of the former? How do we tell awakenings from spells, or useful spells from harmful ones, or ones we still need from ones it’s time we woke up from?

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3 Responses to Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett

  1. Yakaru says:

    Interesting take on this. Personally I found it a difficult book to evaluate critically because Dennett reminds me very much of a philosophy professor I once had. I found that guy rather sad and dissatisfied with his life, and turning ot the intellect for satisfaction rather than dealing with his sadness and disappointment. I suspect the same of Dennett, but don’t want to project that on him, at the expense of devaluing his work.

    But I do find that he blithers on a bit and at times talks quite condescendingly to his audience. I’d like to see a bit more emphasis on emotional maturity and personal development in the atheist movement.

    What I got from the book was a point alluded, namely the use of evolution as an analogy for the way religions develop. They change over time according to various changing needs. The religion we see today as Christianity has changed enormously since St Paul. Some of those changes were deliberate, but there’s also a process of “natural selection” by which some ideas are rejected by time, and others get passed on.

    In New Age ideas I see this happening very quickly. Marketability is the great selector there, and eventually want grows up is a slick system that is smarter than many of the grinning slimeballs who utilise it.

    I think this is the main point of Dennett’s book, even though he maybe fails to spell it out clearly (or briefly) enough — that once one sees how religions grow and change, it undermines the idea that they are of inspired or of divine origin. It’s just clunky old cultural transmission all the way down.

    But that would also weaken the effect of the book on those relgious people who aren’t especially attached to divine origins etc, and just do religion because it feels nice or they feel it is part of their identity.

    I also think well educated (and maybe somewhat shallow) folk tend to underestimate how difficult is for many people to think about deep issues of ones own consciousness without getting scared or going crazy. For many people, I think, questions like “who the hell am I?” and “I’m going to die” are really threatening and tricky questions. Intellectuals can all too easily say “Oh that’s easy – we evolved and when we die that’s it”,and then skip off onto the next interesting topic.

    Sorry for babbling in this scatter gun fashion!

    To be honest, I almost recommended someone to read this book this afternoon, but you r review makes me realize I’ll need to take another look at it.

  2. lettersquash says:

    Hi yakaru, thanks for your great insights. I didn’t think you babbled in a scatter-gun fashion at all. I’m sure there are quite a lot of positive ideas in Breaking the Spell that I didn’t acknowledge.

    I’d also like to see more emotional maturity and personal development in the atheist movement. On the other hand, it’s all relative. The condescention and outbursts of frustration are in response to quite monumental ignorance and hostility from fundamentalist religions, newage spiritual consumerism and – probably widely underestimated – a whole zoo of viral infections of the conspiracy-theory kind. Swathes of the internet seem to be indulging in “Chinese whispers”, where youtube videos are seriously cited as “evidence” (e.g. that the world is run by shape-shifting aliens, HIV doesn’t cause AIDS, or End Times is a-comin’).

    And Dennett’s point about the blind selective pressure that shapes such cultural features is extremely important, as you articulate above. One of the attrocious consequences of capitalism and free expression is the disinformation industry, the ostensibly well-researched, authoritatively-presented “documentaries” on “scientific mysteries” (alien hobgoblins cobbled together with superglue, Mayan predictions of disaster, big pharma hoaxes, you name it). An anti-authoritarian approach to knowledge leaves us unable to judge who is enlightening us and who is repeating some shit they just heard in their dope-fuelled paranoia.

    Hopefully this will be a baptism of fire, and out of it will come wide appreciation of the relatively traceable, shared, open-source authority of peer-reviewed evidence. Or maybe not. Maybe the memes will take over, enslaving genetically-modified human flesh for its manipulable response to irrelevant carrots and sticks and dubious ability to recognise patterns in large noisy data sets. Maybe they already have.

  3. Pingback: Humanity Waking Up: origins of religion | lettersquash

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