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Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C. Dennett
Viking Press, February 2, 2006
448 pages, hardcover

Review by Jim Walker

In this courageous book Daniel C. Dennett explores the heretical idea of actually studying religion by using scientific methods. When Dennett writes about religion as a natural phenomenon, he does not mean it in the sense of a god center in the brain or a genetic basis for religion (Dennett does not accept the god genes hypothesis), but rather that religion consists of human activities (rituals, beliefs, objects of worship, etc.), that live in nature and thus allows us to investigate its origins, the reasons for its existence, and the dangers and benefits they may possess. Dennett sees that religion evolves through cultural transmission (memes), not biological evolution. Unfortunately there has long existed a taboo on even questioning religion, much less investigating it. This taboo represents the spell that Dennett wants to break.

Although most freethinkers will, no doubt, agree with Dennett's premises, I suspect that most theists will balk at the very idea. Nevertheless, Dennett lays down the gauntlet and provides a challenge to, not only the religionists, but also the academics who have hidden behind this unspeakable veil because they don't want to offend anyone's religious sensibilities. Will they take the challenge? I doubt it, but then the very fact that they might refuse will say something about their claims. Does religion really work to improve morality? Do religious people actually behave better in society than non-religious people? Then provide the evidence, Dennett demands. If religion really does work, science could greatly benefit its spread. But Dennett suspects that religionists don't want to investigate because they already know that religion doesn't work.

In a world where technological development outstrips the understanding of religion, we had better start understanding the dangers that can result from the beliefs of religious extremists. Who better to control these dangerous fanatics than the members of religions themselves? If no one can control them or understand the reasons behind their actions, then how in the world can we defend against religious people who have the technological capacity to build a nuclear bomb or a biological agent? As Dennett puts it: "Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum: a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight." Why limit the fight against terrorism with military force alone? Doesn't it appear obvious that learning about the very thing that causes terrorism might give us the tools to prevent terrorism?

Although Dennett puts religion as the aim of the study, I hope someday he writes a book about belief as the primary aim (perhaps with the title: "Breaking the Spell: Belief as a Natural Phenomenon"). Religion, after all, depends on belief and not the other way around. No beliefs, no religion, no problem. Even most scientists have beliefs and faiths and I would submit the very same questions that Dennett asks about religion to scientists (and to philosophers, politicians, and ideologues). After all, haven't we seen dangerous belief memes from communists, new-agers, or even the beliefs of those that profess worship of science-as-religion? Perhaps Dennett never thought about studying beliefs and faith because he, admittedly, harbors them himself.

Dennett does write about beliefs, but only in terms of religious beliefs in his chapter, "Belief in Belief." A belief in a belief describes, essentially, Korzybski's idea of 'confusion of higher order of abstractions.' According to Korzybski, "Second order effects, such as belief in belief, makes fanaticism." (see Science and Sanity, 1933, p. 440). Apparently philosophers have just begun to get around to discussing what Korzybski wrote about in the 1930s. Interestingly, Dennett makes the observation that one can have a belief in a belief in god and yet remain an atheist!

Dennett submits the proposition that there remains "a big difference between religious faith and scientific faith." No doubt, but how big a difference and do scientists really require faith at all?  Faith, does not depend on any evidence whatsoever and you can have a person who harbors a dangerous belief without religion at all. One day we may see a scientist who has faith that his parallel-universe machine (powered by a thermonuclear bomb) will save our dying planet by thrusting us into a better parallel universe. Who knows?

I claim that science doesn't require faith at all and anyone who  relies on faith does not practice science, and if any scientist says so, then I submit the very same inquiry to scientists that Dennett proposes for religionists. Provide the evidence, I demand! I submit that not only does science not require faith, but that science does not even need believers! Science does, however, need thinkers. One can think about, talk about, write about, observe, experiment, hypothesize, theorize, imagine, guess, or make predictions, and come up with something knowable, workable and useful, all without beliefs. Faith and belief should never become confused within a definition of science.

I suspect that Dennett hasn't thought much about the difference between the meaning of belief and faith, or fact and theory, and how his language of these ideas mix with his scientific explanations. This causes confusion (at least I felt confused). It comes from just this kind of puzzling language that allows religionists to proclaim science as a religion too. (I know this because I get letters from Christians that say so, and they use quotes from scientists to back up their claim). I also suspect that when Dennett speaks about scientific faith he really means belief (but I don't know). Moreover, he seems to confuse theory with hypothesis. I say this because of a couple of statements he made defending evolution theory where he says, "these will all get sorted out, and some of the theories will prove not just theories but facts" (p. 309), and, "A century ago, it was just a theory that powered fixed-wing flight was possible; now it is fact" (p. 310). Just a theory? And since when do theories become facts? Incidentally, powered fixed-wing flight existed as a fact long before the Wright Brothers flew and before anyone understood the theory of flight (Alphonse Penaud's rubber-band powered model airplanes in the 1870s, for example, and lets not forget about the birds). Facts live independently from theory. Theories, explain facts. We still have a theory of flight, a theory of gravity, and a theory of natural selection. All these theories rely on facts. Stephen Jay Gould provides a clear meaning of theory:

Well, evolution is a theory. It is also a fact. And facts and theories are different things, not rungs in a hierarchy of increasing certainty. Facts are the world's data. Theories are structures of ideas that explain and interpret facts. Facts do no go away while scientists debate rival theories for explaining them.

-Stephen Jay Gould, Hens's Teeth and Horse's Toes, "Evolution as Fact and Theory"

Dennett does get the idea right when he writes, "The proposition that God exists is not even a theory.... That assertion is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds-- or billions-- of quite different possible theories..." Yes, the God proposition does not describe a theory, but rather an untold number of hypotheses.

In spite of these confusions of semantics, Dennett goes on to make one of the most beautiful analogies I have ever read about the perceived imperfections of science:

"Through a microscope, the cutting edge of a beautifully sharpened ax looks like the Rocky Mountains, all jagged and irregular, but it is the dull heft of the steel behind the edge that gives the ax its power. Similarly, the cutting edge of science seen up close looks ragged and chaotic, a bunch of big egos engaging in shouting matches, their judgement distorted by jealousy, ambition, and greed, but behind them, agreed upon by all the disputants, is the massive routine weight of accumulated results, the facts that give science its power." [See Appendix B]

Yes! And beliefs fuel those egos and shouting matches! A few hundred years ago science appeared even more jagged and irregular when scientists used religious beliefs along with their explanations (early scientists believed in creationism, that god powered gravity, etc.). Surely science can become even sharper once scientists learn how to disown beliefs entirely.

Religion too, can become sharper, but then that posses an interesting question. Science can thrive without beliefs and faith, but can religion?

In the end Dennett calls for a central policy of education for the people of the world so they can make informed choices about their lives. This may seem obvious but many religions around the world put up great resistance to education about religion. Dennett also observes that ignorant people have nothing to feel ashamed about, but people who willfully pass it on, should bear the blame. I couldn't agree more.

A few quotes from the book:

[P]robably more people have died in the valiant attempt to protect sacred places and texts than in the attempt to protect food stores or their own children and homes.

Those who are religious and believe religions to be the best hope of humankind cannot reasonably expect those of us who are skeptical to refrain from expressing our doubts if they themselves are unwilling to put their convictions under the microscope.

The spell that I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.

I might mean that religion is natural as opposed to supernatural, that it is a human phenomenon composed of events, organisms, objects, structures, patterns, and the like that all obey the laws of physics or biology, and hence do not involve miracles. And that is what I mean.

One of the surprising discoveries of modern psychology is how easy it is to be ignorant of your own ignorance.

Researchers tend to be either respectful, deferential, diplomatic, tentative-- or hostile, invasive, and contemptuous. It is just about impossible to be neutral in your approach to religion, because many people view neutrality in itself as hostile.

[S]ince we know from the outset that many people think such research violates a taboo, or at least meddles impertinently in matters best left private, it is not so surprising that few good researchers, in any discipline, want to touch the topic. I myself certainly felt that way until recently.

I, for one, fear that if we don't subject religion to such scrutiny now, and work out together whatever revisions and reforms are called for, we will pass on a legacy of ever more toxic forms of religion to our descendants.

History gives us many examples of large crowds of deluded people egging one another on down the primrose path to perdition. How can you be so sure you're not part of such a group? I for one am not in awe of your faith. I am appalled by  your arrogance, by your unreasonable certainty that you have all the answers. I wonder if any believers in the End Times will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through.

I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the task I am taking here. They will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that-- that's what I am, and that's exactly what I'm trying to do.

You don't get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.

According to a recent survey, only about a quarter of the population of the United States understands that evolution is about as well established as the fact that water is H2O.

[T]here was a time so long ago when only a small minority of Earth's inhabitants believed that it was round and that it traveled around the sun, so we know that majorities can be flat wrong.

Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum: a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight. We need to understand what makes religions work, so we can protect ourselves in an informed manner from the circumstances in which religions go haywire.

The boatbuilders and boat owners no more need to understand the reasons why their boats are symmetrical than the fruit-eating bear needs to understand his role in propagating wild apple tries when he defecates in the woods. Here we have the design of a human artifact-- culturally, not genetically transmitted-- without a human designer, without an author or inventor or even a knowing editor or critic.

The gradual transformations that turned Latin into French and Portuguese and other offspring languages were not intended, planned, foreseen, desired, commanded by anyone.

If (some) religions are culturally evolved parasites, we can expect them to be insidiously well designed to conceal their true nature from their hosts, since this is an adaptation would further their own spread.

Your body is composed of perhaps a hundred trillion cells, and nine out of ten of them are not human cells.

It is well known that the parent-offspring link is the major pathway of transmission of religion.

Marcel Gauchet begins his book on the political history of religion by noting, "As far as we know, religion has without exception existed at all times and in all places" (1997, P. 22), but this is a historian's pinched perspective, and simply isn't true. There as a time before religious beliefs and practices had occurred to anyone. There was a time, after all, before there were any believers on the planet, before there were any beliefs about anything.

Pulled by longing and pushed back by disgust, we are in turmoil when we confront the corpse of a loved one. Small wonder that this crisis should play so central a role in the birth of religions everywhere. As Boyer (2001, P. 203) stresses, something must be done with a corpse, and it has to be something that satisfies or allays competing innate urges of dictatorial power.

Much of our ancestors would have loved to predict the weather by figuring out what it wanted and what beliefs it harbored about them, it simply didn't work. It no doubt often seemed to work, however.

Good advice to a potential meme is: if you want lots of rehearsals (replications), try to look important!

Even if people are not, in general, capable of making good decisions on the information they have, it may seem to them that divination helps them think about their strategic predicaments, and this may provide the motivation to cling to the practice. For reasons they can't fathom, divination provides relief and makes them feel good-- rather like tobacco.

So we can be sure that would-be religious traditions what have no good ways of preserving their designs reliably over the centuries are doomed to oblivion.

A public ritual is a great way of preserving content with high fidelity...

Just as the Latin minds of ancient Rome gave way to French and Italian and Spanish minds, Christian minds today are quite unlike the minds of the earliest Christians. The major religions of today are as different from their ancestral versions as today's music is different from the music of ancient Greece and Rome.

The institutions and habits of human culture are just as bound by this principle, the second law of thermodynamics, as are the organisms, organs, and instincts of biology.

Sheep and other domesticated animals are, in fact, significantly more stupid than their wild relatives-- because they can be. Their brains are smaller (relative to body size and weight), and this is not just due to their having been bred for muscle mass (meat).

It is worth recalling that the Arabic world Islam means "submission." The idea that Muslims should put the proliferation of Islam ahead of their own interests is built right into the etymology of its name, and Islam is not alone.

They do not shrink from the idea that a meme has commandeered them and obtunded their reproductive instinct; they embrace it.

There are more than 1,500 separate religious "denominations" (Molten,1998), many of them very sizable-- 24 have more than 1 million members each.

The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect your investment.

The stewardship of religious ideas creates a powerful phenomenon: belief in belief, which radically transforms the content of the underlying beliefs, making rational investigation of them difficult if not impossible.

People of all faiths have been taught that any such questioning is somehow insulting or demeaning to their faith, and must be an attempt to ridicule their views. What a fine protective screen this virus provides-- permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly!

Since everybody calls his or her version "God," there is something "we can all agree about"-- we all believe in God; we're not atheists! But of course it doesn't work that well. If Lucy believes that Rock (Hudson) is to die for, and Desi believes that Rock (music) is to die for, they really don't agree on anything, do they?

Belief in belief in God makes people reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that much of the traditional lor about God is no more worthy of belief than the lore about Santa Claus or Wonder Woman.

If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were still on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone "on their side," theists typically decline to do this.

I find that some people who consider themselves believers actually just believe in the concept of God.

It is entirely possible to be an atheist and believe in belief in God.

Their leaders [of organized religions] have come to realize that the robustness of the institution of religion doesn't depend on uniformity of belief at all; it depends on the uniformity of professing.

When it comes to  interpreting religious avowals of others, everybody is an outsider. Why? Because religious avowals concern matter that are beyond observation, beyond meaningful test, to the only thing anybody can go in is religious behavior, and, more specifically, the behavior of professing.

The belief that belief in God is so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of disconfirmation or serious criticism has led the devout to "save" their beliefs by making them incomprehensible even to themselves.

There are plenty of misguided Christians, for instance, who will contemplate with relish the prospect of demonstrating the depths of their commitment by raining abuse on me for daring to question the love they have for their Jesus. Before they act on their self-indulgent fantasies, I hope they will pause to consider that any such action would actually bring dishonor to their faith.

So what we may say to those who insist that only those who believe, only those with a deep appreciation of the sacred, are to be entrusted with the investigation of religious phenomena, is that they are simply wrong, about both facts and principles.

I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don't believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do.

We used to regard drunks as somewhat diminished in their responsibility for their actions-- they were too drunk to know what they were doing, after all-- but we now see them, and the bartenders who served them, as fully responsible. We need to spread the word that religious intoxication is no excuse either.

[I]f they themselves haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of this delegated authority over their own lives, then they are in fact taking a personally immoral stand.

There is only one way to respect the substance of any purported God-given moral edict: consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God that was pleased by displays of unreasoning love would be worthy of worship.

Those who maintain religions, and take steps to make them more attractive, must be held similarly responsible for the harms produced by some of those whom they attract and provide with a cloak of respectability.

[I]t is the unpleasant and even dangerous work of desanctifying the excesses in each tradition from the inside. Any religious person who is not actively and publicly involved in that effort is shirking a duty-- and the fact that you don't belong to a congregation or denomination that is offending doesn't excuse you: it is Christianity and Islam and Judaism and Hinduism (for example) that are attractive nuisances, not just their offshoot sects.

Until the priests and rabbis and imams and their flock explicitly condemn by name the dangerous individuals and congregations within their ranks, they are all complicit. I know many Christians who are privately sickened by many of the words and deeds done "in the name of Jesus" but expressions of dismay to close friends are not enough.

There is no reason at all why a disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul should make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth than somebody who believed in "the spirit."

After all, a good scientific materialist believes that mental health-- spiritual health, if you like-- is just physical, just as material, as "physical" health. A good scientific materialist can be just as concerned about whether there is plenty of justice, love, joy, beauty, political freedom, and, yes, even religious freedom as about whether there is plenty of food and clothing, for instance, since all of these are material benefits, and some are more important than others.

There is also the factual misconception to correct: plenty of "deeply spiritual" people-- and everybody knows this-- are cruel, arrogant, self-centered, and utterly unconcerned about the moral problems of the world. Indeed, one of the truly nauseating side effects of the common confusion of moral goodness with "spirituality" is that is permits untold numbers of people to slack off on the sacrifice and good works and hind behind their unutterably sacred (and impenetrable) mask of piety and moral depth.

There are many people who quite innocently and sincerely believe that if they are earnest in attending to their own personal "spiritual" needs, this amounts to living a morally good life. I know many activists, both religious and secular, who agree with me: these people are deluding themselves.

In what way exactly are they [contemplative monks] morally superior to people who devote their lives to improving their stamp collections or their gold swing? It seems to me that the best that can be said of them is that they manage to stay out of trouble, which is not nothing.

The proposition that God exists is not even a theory, as we saw in chapter 8. That assertion is so prodigiously ambiguous that it expresses, at best, an unorganized set of dozens or hundreds-- or billions-- of quite different possible theories, most of them disqualified as theories in any case, because they are systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation.

My task was to demonstrate that there was enough reason to question the tradition of faith so that you could not in good conscience turn your back on the available discoverable relevant facts.

My network of informants inevitably has its own bias, however, and I would like nothing better than for this book to provide a challenge-- a reasoned and evidence-rich scientific challenge-- from researcher with opposing viewpoints.

The hypothesis that there is a (genetically) heritable "spiritual sense" that boosts human genetic fitness is one of the less likely and less interesting of the evolutionary possibilities.

Some people will scoff at the very idea that a religious upbringing could be harmful to a child-- until they reflect on some of the most severe religious regimens to be found around the world, and recognize that in the United States we already prohibit religious practices that are widespread in other parts of the world.

If you have to hoodwink-- or blindfold-- your children to ensure that they confirm their faith with they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.

Part of my effort in this book is to get you to think and not just feel.

False advertising is false advertising, and if we start holding religious organizations accountable for their claims-- not by taking them to court but just by pointing out, often and in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that of course these claims are ludicrous-- perhaps we can slowly get the culture of credulity to evaporate.

So in the end, my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame.




1 Breaking Which Spell?

1  What's going on?
2  A working definition of religion
3  To break or not to break
4  Peering into the abyss
5  Religion as a natural phenomenon

2  Some Questions About Science

Can science study religion?
Should science study religion?
3  Might music be bad for you?
4  Would neglect be more benign?

3  Why Good Things Happen

1  Bringing out the best
Cui bono?
3  Asking what pays for religion
4  A Martian's list of theories


4  The Roots of Religion

1  The births of religions
2  The raw materials of religion
3  How Nature deals with the problem of other minds

5  Religion, the Early Days

1  Too many agents: competition for rehearsal space
2  Gods as interested parties
3  Getting the gods to speak to us
4  Shamans as hypnotists
5  Memory-engineering devices in oral cultures

6  The Evolution of Stewardship

1  The music of religion
2  Folk religion as practical know-how
3  Creeping reflection and the birth of secrecy in religion
4  The domestication of religions

7  The Invention of Team Spirit

1  A path paved with good intentions
2  The ant colony and the corporation
3  The growth market in religion
4  A God you can talk to

8  Belief in Belief

1  You better believe it
2  God as intentional object
3  The division of doxastic labor
4  The lowest common denominator?
5  Beliefs designed to be professed
6  Lessons from Lebanon: the strange cases of the Druze and Kim Philby
7  Does God exist?


9  Toward a Buyer's Guide to Religions

1  For the love of God
2  The academic smoke screen
3  Why does it matter what you believe?
4  What  can your religion do for you?

10  Morality and Religion

1  Does religion make us moral?
2  Is religion what gives meaning to your life?
3  What can we say about sacred values?
4  Bless my soul: spirituality and selfishness

11 Now What Do We Do?

1  Just a theory
2  Some avenues to explore: how can we home in on religious conviction?
3  What shall we tell the children?
4  Toxic memes
5  Patience and politics


A  The New Replicators

B  Some More Questions About Science

C  The Bellboy and the Lady Named Tuck

D  Kim Philby as a Real Case of Indeterminacy of Radical Interpretation



To obtain this book, click below:

Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Other books by Daniel C. Dennett:

Freedom Evolves (2003)

Brainchildren (1996)

Kinds of Minds (1996)

Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995)

Consciousness Explained (1991)

The Intentional Stance (1987)

Elbow Room (1984)

The Mind's I with Douglas Hofstadter (1981)

Brainstorms (1978)

Content and Consciousness (1969)

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