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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Paperback – Feb 6 2007


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Books; 1 edition (Feb. 6 2007)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0143038338
  • ISBN-13: 978-0143038337
  • Product Dimensions: 14 x 2.5 x 21.6 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 386 g
  • Average Customer Review: 4.1 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #90,066 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

In his characteristically provocative fashion, Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, calls for a scientific, rational examination of religion that will lead us to understand what purpose religion serves in our culture. Much like E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Dennett explores religion as a cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection. Religion survives because it has some kind of beneficial role in human life, yet Dennett argues that it has also played a maleficent role. He elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens. Because Dennett offers a tentative proposal for exploring religion as a natural phenomenon, his book is sometimes plagued by generalizations that leave us wanting more ("Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future"). Although much of the ground he covers has already been well trod, he clearly throws down a gauntlet to religion. (Feb. 6)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

A century and a half after Darwin rattled religionists with his revolutionary theory of human origins, one of his disciples has intensified the challenge to faith by advancing an evolutionary account of religion itself. Weaving together research in anthropology, genetics, and psychology, Dennett argues that religion first emerged not as a divine gift but rather as a thoroughly natural adaptation for enhancing the reproductive success of the species. Even more provocatively, Dennett further argues that religion--like language--has subsequently evolved so as to ensure its own survival in the ceaseless winnowing of cultural mutations. The pious in most faiths will likely protest that this approach gives only the husk, not the spirit, of religion, but Dennett insists that his study will ultimately benefit society by exposing the myths that empower fanatical terrorists. Remarkably bold, Dennett's agenda includes plans for preventing overzealous parents from instilling their faith in their children and for deploying the technology of mass advertising to foster religious doubt. A book certain to spark heated controversy. Bryce Christensen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

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27 of 28 people found the following review helpful By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME on Feb. 16 2006
Format: Hardcover
Can religion be subject to scientific scrutiny? In this remarkable study, Dennett proposes that not only can religion studied be methodically, but that it should be. His suggestion will be stupefying to some, as he readily admits. Is your mind open to the notion that the vast repository of human values could be carefully examined? Then this book will provide many new paths for you to explore. He openly appeals to a wide audience, starting with his fellow countrymen. Dennett's ability to present complex issues, including those of social importance, in a clear and almost intimate manner should grant this book the wide readership he seeks.
The beginning chapter, "Opening Pandora's Box", reminds us that what was long considered inexplicable or mysterious can be revealed. He anticipates the criticism that "spiritual" things or "faith" aren't qualities that submit to analysis. The task, he acknowledges, is immense, but can be accomplished. Certain elements must be agreed upon, such as the definition of "religion". What we call religion, Dennett, contends, ought to exclude "spiritualism", fanatic devotion to secular items such as ethnic groups or idolizing sports figures. On the other hand religion is a dynamic and variable concept and tight demarcation is neither possible or desirable. Religion, then, is a social system incorporating supernatural agents that can reward or punish. Writers preceding him, such as Robert Atran, Pascal Boyer and Walter Burkert are acknowledged as good starting points. Dennett cites them often as contributors to his thinking. His distant, but highly influential, mentor is William James.
Although Dennett's atheism is well known, this book is anything but a call for the abolition of religion. Quite the reverse.
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26 of 27 people found the following review helpful By Darren BC McKee on March 12 2006
Format: Hardcover
It is relatively easy to take a firm stance and not care about subsequent social divisiveness, while much harder to attempt understanding of the complexity of an issue, what is known and unknown, and discuss one's viewpoint in a manner that allows for, and stimulates, further discussion among rational people. Thus, Dennett uses caution in his investigation and does not propose to have all the answers, but he suggests some useful ways of thinking about how to get them (if it possible). Dennett realizes that there are good spells and bad spells, and at this moment it is hard to tell which one religion might be. There are two main spells discussed: (a) the 'don't even think about questioning religion' spell and (b) the belief in religion itself. As it is unknown whether religion is good or bad, the first spell must be broken. As for maintaining or rejecting the second spell, that is what we should try to figure out.
Using his broad, yet deep, knowledge about philosophy and biology, Dennett describes how traits that are more likely to be possessed by religious people could have arisen in our evolutionary past, as well as other aspects of ritual, belief, belief in belief and morality without religion. Do not expect a fully developed theory, but do anticipate a fully developed analysis of what kinds of theories currently exist and what kinds of theories we would likely want to pursue.
As a way of engaging the religious, I found two of Dennett's arguments particularly cogent:
(1) If your God has personally told you how the world is and how we should act, please tell the rest of us because He has not done that (yet) to the rest of us.
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19 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Oliver TOP 500 REVIEWER on Nov. 28 2006
Format: Hardcover
If you're looking at this review, you've probably already read (or are considering reading) End of Faith by Sam Harris and/or The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins. All three books state the case for reason and against religious faith. Breaking the Spell, however, takes a much softer approach. Harris and Dawkins do not care who they offend. Dennett tries to be gentle and polite. One would think that is a better approach, but that is not how it works out.

Perhaps Dennett is too gentle, or perhaps this argument is one that has to be made forcefully or not at all. In the end, Dennett's book has no audience. The religious won't read it, and won't be convinced. Harris and Dawkins may simply offend most religious people, but they may also convince a few. Atheists like me will prefer Harris and Dawkins.

In the end, this is probably Dennett's worst book. That is not an insult. Dennett is a brilliant philosopher and a wonderful writer. Consciouness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea are two of the finest books ever written.
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By NeuroSplicer HALL OF FAMETOP 50 REVIEWER on Sept. 6 2007
Format: Hardcover
Whether many may disagree, Evolutionary theory is the best scientific approach we humans have devised so far in order to comprehend and explain our existence. I also have Dennet's older book, Consciousness Explained, which (although speculative in many points) was much more solidly built on scientific facts. This one, in most part, is not.

I strongly agree with putting religion to scrutiny - especially scientific one. (Fine chance to weed out all the New Age, astrology & crystals mumbo-jumbo claiming a scientific basis). However, the scientific approach cuts both ways: either one accepts its truths or not. Manipulating scientific facts and mixing them with speculations does not lead to solid conclusions.
FACT: since over 90% of humans follow some religion (Dennet fans please remember that there are more than 5 billion people besides North Americans) this can only mean that there is a survival or reproductive advantage in being religious. In other words, Evolution decided that it was advantageous for humans to be religious.

The proposition of memes (Dawkins, 1976) may be a useful tool in order to approach cultural phenomena as genetic traits.
FACT: although useful, memes never have been proven to be more than a useful abstraction - similar to Freud's id, ego and super-ego, very useful for psychoanalysis but can anyone please point to me the brain locus of the ego?
Nevertheless, Dennet builds almost his entire argumentative structure on this "ideas propagating even by harming their hosts, just like viruses" basis. Very weak under any light. Not to mention that he consciously seems to ignore the fact that they may benefit an equal (at least) number of people. Hence: the "Spell" may not necessarily be the negative thing he implies.
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