Book Review

Breaking the Spell, Religion as A Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C Dennett

One of the books I read in January is Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, by Daniel C. Dennett (Viking, 2006). Dennett does research into the evolution of social phenomena, such as religion. I was not at all surprised by his overarching theme that our very distant ancestors created beliefs for a number of reasons, most to do with explaining what they perceived as reality and feared and hoped for. As societies evolved, the simpler “memes” of those beliefs were expanded and organized into religions. All religious “facts” such as gods and demons and angels and devils and afterlives are human inventions. All religious promises for a life after life are unfounded. OK. Cool. That was all summed up by the time I got to page 27, so why did I slog through 312 additional pages to read what I had already known, intellectually (but still doubt, intuitively). Because the book is quite insightful and entertaining, even though it is verbose. I am verbose, so I sympathized.

There were some nuggets in this book that I made note of and will share with you. As I already mentioned, on page 27 the scope of the book is being summed up in this statement, which I thought was a promise for the remainder of the book:

It was a promise not really kept except by arguments that showed that the concept of God is so diffuse and diverse in the world's religions that it is a rather meaningless.

But the language used suggests that the claimant is providing a testimony based on personal revelation or experience that has convinced them, that is real (=sufficient) proof for them. Way back in one of the appendices, on page 364, Dennett mentions a “scientific sin,” which is a cute idea, but the context is the need to convert and convince, which relies on “testimony” rather than more scientific approaches such as reading and interpreting.

Testimony is a basis for faith and conversion that involves the “personal respect and trust” the person receiving the testimony has in the testifier. I did not realize that this is the power in the phenomenon of personal testimony in both religions and twelve-step programs (the latter are not addressed by Bennett except by several weak inferences).

In religions, people you respect and like assure you of their faith having a basis in their own, real, personal experience. In twelve-step programs, the common bond is an addiction the active hope is for recovery, and the testimonies are of recovery experiences and successes that are true and credible for the moment (the objective is to be in recovery, not to be cured once for all).  To the extent the person is liked and/or respected, that message is accepted. And the twelfth step (practiced as soon as the addict is able to start bearing his or her own testimony to their nascent recovery) is to share your own recovery, to testify to it, to those just seeking help with their own addiction. It is powerful. It works. And it works both in the religious and the recovery program spheres.

Religions focus on a diffusely-defined God.  Diffuse when you compare different God concepts which can range from a super-man to a nebulous ground of being—Dennett does a nice job exploring this territory.   One thing Dennett fails to discuss, directly (he hints at it indirectly), is that a believer in a certain strain of religion will have a defined God concept and will consider all these other concepts to be false and discount them.  No believer ever says that he or she can't trust their religion's concept of God because there are other religions with other concepts.

Recovery programs also focus on God, or a "Higher Power." But they are sensible and sensitive enough to not try to define God for the participants as a religion would do. Some programs speak of “the God of your understanding,” or “the higher power of your own understanding.” Even this wide-open wording offends some who are convinced there is no God, no external higher power, who may then be counseled to accept the presence of recovering persons and their testimonies as their (perhaps temporary, is a common hint) “higher power.” Recovery programs are careful to stipulate that they are fellowships, not religions. Dennett mentions the use of the words “Higher Power” to distance oneself from anthropomorphic God concepts on page 206.

In Dennett's book, page 217 cites an Alcoholics Anonymous saying “Fake it until you make it.” This reminded me of advice from a Mormon leader, David O. McKay, to young missionaries which basically suggested that they conceive of themselves as ideal missionaries, and then put into action the Irish saying “What'er thou art, act well thy part.” And part of acting out your part is to testify, testify, testify. It works, but it could, if practiced insincerely, violate the idea I subscribe to that you find your center, learn who you really are, and scrupulously act in accordance with who you feel you are.  Putting on a mask of someone else's expectations is acting.  Masks may work for a time, but they are not healthy in the long run.

These are somewhat extraneous thoughts I had while reading Dennett. Let me step though some other interesting pieces in this rather large book:

Page 133 delighted me by calling Julian Jaynes' 1976 book The Origins of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind “brilliant but quirky and unreliable.” Dennett pulls some solid insights out of Jaynes' book, a book I panned on this website (click here to go there). Jaynes was looking at a physical change in the brain to explain the rise of divination in decision-making, and Dennett says the more likely explanation is that someone tried it, liked it, and others imitated it and liked the results as well and do it caught on. No brain reconstruction needed.

I must admit that the other insights he pulls from Jaynes were rather compelling, such as his insight that the idea of random events is a recent one and in earlier times all events were seen as deliberately caused by some external, unexplained agency and therefore having "meaning." "Explaining" such events would lead to beliefs that could congeal into proto-religions and solidify into religious belief systems. Makes sense.

On page 181 Dennett takes on the rather romantic Gaia concept which makes the Earth's biosphere into a super-organism maintaining itself to sustain life within it. I always liked the idea myself, but Dennett says it lacks scientific rigor. OK, I know that but I still like it as a notion that makes me feel comfortable and taken care of by a 'higher power' of sorts. Have I ever felt it to be true in a scientific sense? No, I just like it as a paradigm because it suggests we ought to be cooperating with Gaia and controlling ourselves in terms of numbers and behaviors to keep the Earth habitable for as many of its resident life forms as possible (with the possible exception of some vermin and germs and viruses).

Page 218 has Dennett swearing allegiance to the correctness of the famous Einstein equation e=mc2. He admits he does not understand it, but trusts the physicists to know what it means and does not mean. I just found this interesting because that equation does not mean what most of us thinks it means. Nobel Laureate Frank Wilczek says (pages 21-22 of his book The Lightness of Being, Mass, Ether and the Unification of Forces ( Basic Books, 2008)

. . . E=mc2 really applies only to isolated bodies at rest. It's a pity that this equation, the equation of physics that is best known to the general public, is actually a little cheesy. In general, when you have moving bodies, or interacting bodies, energy and mass aren't proportional, E=mc2 simply doesn't apply.

This validates Dennett's point: we can recite the equation, say what each part is, but still misunderstand and misapply it. Let's leave its real application to those who know the subject.

In the pages that follow, Dennett spends much energy arguing for this to be the correct approach to the minutia of science: trust the experts, but for this NOT to be the correct approach to religious claims. Why not? Because in science there are those who understand the phenomena being described by the equations, and the limitations on those equations, and the basis for them in observations. In religion, there is no basis or understanding in the experts. In fact, the religious experts claim that God is fundamentally incomprehensible and religious propositions are "systematically elusive."  

I found this to be a bit simplistic regarding religious "truth."  Some who testify to those truths claim to have received revelations and other experiences that suffice as proof.  Not scientifically credible, but credible to that human mind.  In other words what Dennett says may be true but it is not particularly useful in terms of changing any minds regarding the credibility of their beliefs and its basis.

We already mentioned faith in the testimony of a respected and trusted religious figure as being problematic in terms of providing sound evidence from a scientific perspective, and that such testimonies are very effective in cementing belief in others. But what about faith in the inerrancy of a religious text? Dennett sort of attacks this idea on page 298 where he suggests that inerrancy is a claim made by those who are so- called experts (priests, clerics, pastors, imams, etc.) who interpret texts for lay people, and it is a shroud they use to stop questioning of their own interpretations and edicts. It is a claim often used by religious radicals and extremists in commanding “outrageous demands and acts.” There is more to it, of course.  Read the book for yourself.

On pages 60-62 Dennett takes on the inerrancy folks who use the Bible to disprove evolution, and his defense here is that others, who are also believers, do not have a problem with evolution as the way creation happened and continues. That couldn't possibly be an effective argument with inerrantists.  Most inerrantists believe that they are the only ones interpreting scripture correctly. Others who see things differently can be believers in their own minds and hearts, but they err in their beliefs and so are under Godly condemnation. For an example, click here.

On page 251 I thought it was astute of Dennett to note that the devotion of the believer to the religion that embodies that belief is a form of love,

. . . and more like romantic love than brotherly love or intellectual love.

It is surely no accident that the language of romantic love and the language of religious devotion are all but indistinguishable. . . .

This is a topic I have also devoted space to in this website (three links, but I could have given at least that many more).  But Dennett just makes the observation, and then goes on to say there is much to love in and about religion, and there are real and good religious accomplishments to be proud of and grateful for (see page 253). This page made me think of, in grateful terms, my own awakening and self-empowerment –liberation!-- through a deep and decades-long conversion to the Mormon faith (which I fell away from later, but that is a different story).

Pages 266-267 have a nice discussion of some of the God-notions humans have entertained and believed in, and on page 267 Dennett cites William James as an authority for saying that the revelations claimed by people of faith may not have come from God, but could have come from natural causes, or even from Satan. I was surprised that Dennett didn't say something critical about that last idea, but he didn't. Not here.

Elsewhere (like on pages 192 and 206-207) he makes clear that Satan was invented to take responsibility for evil and tragedy away from God so that Divinity would be untarnished by realities that are unpleasant or painful.  In fact, page 207 is a real gem, essentially making fun of a notion that I have actually had used on me: the idea that if anyone questions the basis of your faith, that one is Satan in disguise, walk away! At one point in time I was a 'Satan in disguise' according to an adherent of another Christian religion whom I was trying to convince to change religions. His pastor declared me spiritually dead to my face and condemned me! I told him he did not have the authority to judge or condemn anyone. He was very angry, contorted a smile, turned, and walked away.  I admired his sincerity and passion, and thanked God this was not the Middle Ages when even the newly created Protestant religions, like the one involved here,  were dealing very harshly with their own heretics.

What really interested me about this book was its promise to address the issue of whether or not religion is necessary for morality. My own experience tells me no, whether in my former believing state or now, I am still the same person with the same motives and I act (pretty much) the same still. Dennett (page 279) makes a good case for seeing religion as a relatively unimportant indicator of morality by showing that declared religions in prison populations mimic religious distributions in society at large. Good work. Had not thought of that one myself. Dennett does point out (page 279) that unbelievers like himself, and me, are also represented in prison populations, so unbelief is also not an indicator of likely morality.

Chapter 10, from pages 278 through 307, was –to me—the best chapter in the book in terms of giving me thoughts heretofore not encountered by me. He goes into some detail on the phenomenon of religious zealots committing immoral acts in the name of their God, he debunks the notion that fear of punishment or lack of reward in an afterlife is a morally persuasive.

Although Chapter 10 is one I liked largely because it gave me new thoughts that were pretty much in line with my old thoughts, I was jarred by his conclusion at the very end that (page 307) “the presumed relation between spirituality and moral goodness is an illusion.”

Whoa! Where in the chapter was that discussed? Turns out that his idea of having spirituality is having an assumed belief in the reality of the immaterial soul. This is stated on page 306, but the idea that the soul is a human-made construct to explain something, and not real, is at the start of Chapter 4 (page 96). Dennett asks and answers a question on pages 306-307:

But what about that hunger for spirituality that so many of my informants think is the mainspring of religious allegiance? The good news is that people really do want to be good. Believers and brights [reviewer note: 'brights' is Dennett's pet term for intellectual unbelievers like himself, he thinks highly of himself, but he seemingly does not stop to think that by adopting that pet term for use on himself he is suggesting that those who do not agree with him are dullards] alike deplore the crass materialism (everyday sense) of popular culture and yearn not just to enjoy the beauty of genuine love but to bring that joy to others. It may often have been true in the past that for most people the only available road to that fulfillment involved a commitment to the supernatural, and more particularly to a specific institutional version of the supernatural, but today we can see that there is a bounty of alternative highways and footpaths to consider.

I had no problem with that statement. But when I got to the summary sentence suggesting spirituality and morality were not coupled, just a few lines later, I had already resubstituted my own internal idea of what is spiritual, not his strictly limited notion.  Dennett was simply using the word spirituality in a way that means the opposite of materialistic when it comes to a belief in a soul. He believes there is no such thing as a soul.  It is a construct residing in our thoughts, and all thoughts, including our ideas of who we are superficially and at depth, reside in the brain, thus they are housed in what is material, not in what is immaterial, or spiritual.

OK, so now I understand that summary sentence on page 307, it is simply saying that unbelievers can be as moral as believers. Both are human beings with the same human yearnings for goodness and beauty.  Both may also have darker yearnings.  OK.

The last Chapter of the Book, 11, explores what can be done to stop the madness occurring in the world in the name of religion. Research is something that is not surprisingly the prescription, since Dennett is an academic. But he does have other suggestions, all of which I found interesting, none of which I found practical, neither did he for that matter. The most serious suggestion was secular education that includes a detailed account of religions, their origins, beliefs, and good and bad deeds over time. This is to allow the newer generations to choose religious beliefs, if they wish to do so, with their eyes open rather than being indoctrinated into a specific religion from childhood forward. A practical suggestion? No, wishful thinking.

At the end Dennett suggest that belief in an unsubstantiated hence illusory end-time prophecy, whatever its source, is a danger to the world. There are deluded believers of several religious persuasions attempting to rise into politically powerful positions to make it so. They are seeking to be the right hand of God in meting out destruction upon the wicked to please God and/or prepare the world for his return.

The Radical Anabaptists in Muenster, Germany, were a great example of such a group. Their baptizing both Catholics and Lutherans into their radical belief system caused them to be exterminated by an army that saw the first real cooperation between Lutherans and Catholics, I believe. They took the Bible very literally, reinstated the Old Testament allowance of polygyny, and tried to implement all the death penalties listed in the Old Testament to purify their city so that Christ could return there as prophesied. We had some overt examples of this mindset during the Reagan years, Reagan mentioned Armageddon and the need to have strong nuclear defenses for that day.  I suspected this sort of thinking during the Bush (Jr) years, but it was not overt. Perhaps the one slip of the tongue from President Bush when he used the word "crusade"in referring to the "war on terror," which he described as a conflict between "good and evil," betrayed a strong religious undercurrent as part of his policy-making.  

Once when I was at a public meeting explaining why nuclear waste had to be disposed of for tens of thousands of years a gentle old man came up to me and softly asked: "Why do we have to make this expensive waste disposal business last 10,000 years when Christ is coming back soon?" My response was a simple one: “Should Christ's first duty on his return be to clean up our toxic messes?” The man was thoughtful for a moment, then smiled and said, “Of course not. And the Bible says we have to be good stewards of the Earth!” Perhaps at that moment a Christian environmentalist was created!

Dennett rightly points out that we cannot count on moderates in any of our world religions to control radicals within those religions. It is very dangerous to try. He mentions this again in this last chapter, but had already mentioned it several times before. He details the reasons why radicals cannot be controlled by moderates (it is the other way around usually) on page 300, citing Sam Harris' book The End of Faith on this point. [I didn't really like Harris' book, but that is another story.]

So, all in all, what did I get out of this book? Some old insights reconfirmed, some new insights, and several new English words like “brights” [I will never use that word].

But in the end, like after reading the Sam Harris books, I see no hope. I see a continuation of the same violent and inhumane circumstances we see today. Religions separate people by uniting them on a smaller scale.  Boundaries across which there is at least condescension, but across which there can also be, and often is, violence.  

Dennett's solution is to use education to “break the spell” of belief and all its attendant ills. To make this world requires getting religious leaders to back off some of their dearest-held assumptions that separate them from each other.  For the good of humanity. That is like asking them to abandon their religions as they know and love them. Will not happen. Not in my lifetime, or yours.

Does Dennett see hope? Maybe hope of funding so he can do more research and maybe, just maybe, at some point in the future his results will lead to a change in the way societies are managed.  Teaching tolerance alone is not the key to peace, Dennett said that on page 291. Tolerance can even work against internal peace in an individual when he or she bites their tongue to keep from offending a true believer.

Dennett does not discuss, unless I missed it, the phenomenon of Western countries allowing religions to break laws in the name of tolerance. Some of the laws are not as serious as others, of course. For example, the French fight over religious attire in public schools is a subtle attack on a way for a religion to maintain its boundaries.  Taking down those boundaries is a good thing in my opinion (and would be seen that way by Dennett also I'm sure). But the point is that nations have laws that guarantee its citizens certain rights and obligations. In some countries the clash has been over human rights laws, typically women' rights to self respect and self determination. Being of a different religious faith and culture does not mean you can set up enclaves of that culture that include violating national laws guaranteeing basic human rights.

Witness the continuing struggle between law enforcement and the Christian polygynous communities in Texas, Utah and other places. Dennett does make the point, and I did not take note of the page, that religions and cultures, if they abuse or limit the human potential of their own people, or portions of their own people, are not worth saving. Amen.

Go Back to 2010 Yearbook Page

Go Back to Book Reviews Page

Go to ThoughtsandPlaces.Org Home Page