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May 5, 2012

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Book Review)


“Let’s play real intellectual tennis: this book is my serve, and I welcome serious returns – with the net of reason always up.” – Daniel C. Dennett

Breaking the Spell, by Professor Dennett, takes the reader on a ride, journeying through the evolutionary processes of the memes carried by the transitions of tradition and folklore, to organized religion and fanaticism. He has nothing but inexorable fervour in attempting to discover how world religions came about through natural processes. The spell he attempts to break is the unjustified and supposedly untrumpable defence-mechanism of the so-called sanctity which religion has in the face of examination, no matter how small. How does he do this? By asking a lot of questions, and then trying to answer them, always staying humble, and never claiming facts where none have been affirmed. He is a scientific philosopher through and through, but makes his writings easily accessible to the layman.

He is not nearly as polemical and derisive as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens, but that is because his concentration is on a specific investigation that requires zero distractions or digressions. He takes us step by step, as calmly and rationally as can be.  It is in chapter 10, and in some parts of 11 (the final chapter), though, where he brings out the big guns of a bright (as he calls himself) that has had just about enough. Throughout the book, he is often witty and knows how to intrigue a reader, always remaining fair and loveable. He is very swift and talented with his pen, and this only adds on to the excitement of the already-monumental work he is both building on (by David Hume and William James, for example), while demanding it be a path that be continued by others and posterity for the benefit, safety, peace, progress and future of the human race. He sees no issue more important in our ever technologically advancing and conflicted world than the problem of religion, and I cannot say that I blame him.  As he insists several times throughout the book, without this controversial, possibly dangerous but necessary feat, policy-making regarding religious matters will always be done blindly, and what we know of the psychology of religious faith will always be in an utterly stagnant and impoverished state.

“We must have faith in our open society, in knowledge, in continuing pressure to make the world a better place for people to live, and we must recognize that people need to see their lives as having meaning. The thirst for a quest, a goal, a meaning, is unquenchable, and if we don’t provide benign or at least non-malignant avenues, we will always face toxic religions” (Dennett, p. 334).

One thing that really stood out for me in all of the book, when I read it back in the summer of ’08, is a matter he addresses in Chapter Seven that never even occurred to me, I don’t know why. That is, the theory of each religious group as having a “membrane” to be protected. That if a religion does not cause conflict between parties and people, then it quickly dies (or remains a minuscule cult), as it cannot give its members purpose in fighting for it against its nemeses or other rivaling religions, e.g., Catholics and Protestants. The matter of how religions give people purpose then, is one that has many diverging branches and possibilities for future examination. And a major part of the book is his urging for it to finally be made possible for physicists, chemists and biologists to come together with social scientists, anthropologists and historians once and for all, instead of (as I see it) themselves finding petty purpose in spreading the meme that each of these two diverse, infinitely viable lands, should be kept completely separate, minding their own business. Enough of this frivolous conflict of egos, says Dennett! They should in fact walk hand in hand, supporting each other in this enormously important endeavour. A bridge between them must be built and made to stand forever, so he strongly hopes.

One of my favourite parts of the book is his exploration of what people are actually worshipping when they pray, preach, or do anything else for their god, for it appears to be the mere worship of an intentional object, since the idea of God and what he/she/it actually is varies (at times drastically) from theist to theist; even theists of the same sect and creed, who interpret their holy book and the stories and commands within differently. What should be taken literally, and what should be taken symbolically or metaphorically? Why does God do the things he does? How can he be both loving and wrathful? Is there an actual theistic, realistic, rational and logical solution to the problem of evil? Looking back at The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, which I had read a year before this, but which came out after Breaking the Spell, it appears that it is the perfect continuation of this masterpiece, because it adds on to many of the important issues Dennett brings into the spotlight. Not to mention that a door has been opened by him here for the envelope to be pushed even further (as with the effect of the Enlightenment in the 17th and 18th centuries on the iconoclastic writings of the 19th), making Dawkins’s and Hitchens’s delightful mockery and diatribes inevitable and welcome. One thing is made clear for certain by the end of it, though: from now on – nothing can conscionably be left off the intellectual, philosophical and scientific table of vigorous scrutiny and examination.

I actually like The God Delusion a lot more, but I recommend reading this first, as it seems to lead into it. Dennett is much heavier on the theories. He even examines folk music, shamanism, hypnosis, group ritualism and the effects of language on a great part of it. His exposition of linguistics is actually quite fascinating and enlightening, as a matter of fact, especially in comparing us to animals, since they don’t have language (at least not like we do). He’s a brilliant man.

“If you have to hoodwink – or blindfold – your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct” (Dennett, p. 328).

And an Amen to that!!

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