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

This book is tedious.  It’s tedious if you’re a theist who has considered the point of view that religion is only an evolutionary phenomenon.  It’s probably even more tedious if you’re an atheist who has already concluded that religion is a “spell” that needs to be broken.

Dennett undertakes to analyze religion from a scientistic perspective, and ends up concluding that the spell must be broken, and religion understood as a meme that has taken root in the evolution of ideas, though false.  It’s a long slog, with digressions upon digressions, and meandering courses to get to any kind of conclusion.  Would that the book itself were as concise as its title.

The book assumes its conclusion from the first word, so it doesn’t actually prove anything.  Here are some points to note, however.

Dennett employs the notion that evolution applies not just to biological features of animals, but also to ideas.  Thus, ideas survive through Darwinian natural selection.  This is a dubious proposition at best.  Memes are funny when passed around among college students for a joke.  They’re not funny when seriously considered as a vehicle for transmission of some ideas at the expense of others.  The idea of truth is fully and finally jettisoned, in this treatment.  But that’s in keeping with Dennett’s determinism generally.

Dennett gives little credence to the proposition that someone might believe in God because God is.  Despite the volume of words, Dennett only takes a glancing pass at the central question of whether God or gods as seen by various religions actually exist.  Perhaps he thinks he’s adequately covered the subject in his other books.

In this one, he mostly addresses “belief in belief,” which he sometimes uses to mean the same thing as simply “belief,” and sometimes uses to mean advancing a religious tradition even though its doctrine is known to be false.  He’s right to scorn those who engage in fraudulent religious practice.  He’s wrong, however, to suppose that there is a substantial number of churchgoers who go through the motions knowing full well that there is no God behind it all.  Dennett seems to think it unlikely that anyone could seriously believe there’s a God, therefore those who engage in religious activity must believe only in the activity, not the God for whom the activity is ostensibly undertaken.

We read that Dennett founds a group (a movement?) called “Brights,” comprised of those who reject what they consider to be superstition about the existence of the supernatural.  One feels vicarious embarrassment for this appellation, and we’ll say no more about it here.

Look elsewhere to try to understand reductionist materialism.

(See, Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel Dennett (Viking Penguin 2006))


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