Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon Paperback – Feb 6 2007
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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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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 an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
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. He acknowledges the pervasive place of religion in human society. He asks how that came to be and thoroughly examines the various elements that comprise the makeup of a religion. Beginning with the concept of invisible "agency" as the explanation for unusual or unexpected phenomena, ideas about these agents became memes passed through and accepted by society. "Memes", a concept popularized by Richard Dawkins, are the mental equivalent of biological genes. Memes are ideas that replicate and expand through a population. In the case of religion, Dennett suggests, answers to the mysterious might be offered by society's older and wiser members. When such elders died, their transformation into agents themselves. It was almost inevitable, then, that human-like deities arose to be consulted and advise society on courses of action and behaviour.
Once established, and with such powerful agencies underlying them, religions mounted a defensive barrier against inquiry. This "wall" which ranges in firmness from mild disapproval to vigorous hostility, has prevented science from posing rational questions about religion's tenets. Dennett counters that religion should not be excluded from the range of topics that can be investigated. Language research has demonstrated that something seemingly too amorphous to clarify meaningfully can reveal a wide spectrum of human endeavours. He sets out a number of areas to investigate, such as the distinction between belief in a god and the "belief in belief". The latter is part of the glue of social cohesion and common purpose. Can we learn how that works? Dennett's earlier work on "intentional objects" is invoked to discuss how gods are perceived by believers. What will the deity do in a given circumstance? What must the believer do to condition response? These are all plausible questions for enquiry and Dennett seeks to have them pursued.
His final chapter is an outline of research paths that could be followed to investigate religion. He proposes a theory, which all readers are asked to challenge. He presents many commonly-held practices that are taken for granted, asking for explanations of why they exist and reconsideration of their value or impact. Should children receive religious instruction before they understand the issues? Is it "mental child abuse?". Should the practice be banned or is there another option? For this and other questions, evidence must be compiled and presented, along with countervailing theories, if they can be formulated. The only thing unacceptable is finding the quest itself unacceptable. Religion, Dennett notes, is too important to be beyond inquiry.
This book is rich with questions we should be asking ourselves, if we aren't already. Review them in this excellent call for explanations for an overlooked subject. Dennett knows that enquiry alone will not destroy religion. If it should, then religion's thrall on humanity was false to begin with. Dennett notes that if enquiry results in clarification and honesty, religion would emerge in a healthier condition. Whichever you wish or hope to achieve by investigating religion, it's clear the task must be undertaken. There are endless opportunities for research careers in the topics he lists for further exploration. Read this and find out where you might help take up the challenge. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
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. Of course, realize that the rest of us will want rational arguments and evidence to be convinced; a request that is only fair considering what is at stake. (and if the reasons you have a truly good ones, every rational person shall join you soon.)
(2) Even if it is true that your God is the 'right one,' aren't you at all curious that so many people (billions!) have it wrong? Doesn't it make sense to study other religions, why other followers follow and why they are so sure they have it right. (If you truly do not care, then you have already removed yourself from a global dialogue.)
It is difficult to argue with one of Dennett's final suggestions: to increase awareness and education of all religions. Such an occurrence would allow for greater understanding of cultural practices, underlying factors in geopolitical situations, and might allow for useful inter-religious comparisons.
Breaking the Spell is a reasoned, patient and intelligent examination of (the ways of theorizing about) religion as a natural phenomenon. As the topic is extremely important and this is Dennett's most accessible work, I highly recommend you read it.
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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This is an incredible book that should replace the bible.Read more
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