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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [Kindle Edition]

Daniel C. Dennett
3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (257 customer reviews)

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Book Description

For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why—and how—it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Daniel C. Dennett charts religion’s evolution from “wild” folk belief to “domesticated” dogma. Not an antireligious screed but an unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy, Breaking the Spell will be read and debated by believers and skeptics alike.

Editorial Reviews

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.

From Scientific American

If nowhere else, the dead live on in our brain cells, not just as memories but as programs— computerlike models compiled over the years capturing how the dearly departed behaved when they were alive. These simulations can be remarkably faithful. In even the craziest dreams the people we know may remain eerily in character, acting as we would expect them to in the real world. Even after the simulation outlasts the simulated, we continue to sense the strong presence of a living being. Sitting beside a gravestone, we might speak and think for a moment that we hear a reply. In the 21st century, cybernetic metaphors provide a rational grip on what prehistoric people had every reason to think of as ghosts, voices of the dead. And that may have been the beginning of religion. If the deceased was a father or a village elder, it would have been natural to ask for advice—which way to go to find water or the best trails for a hunt. If the answers were not forthcoming, the guiding spirits could be summoned by a shaman. Drop a bundle of sticks onto the ground or heat a clay pot until it cracks: the patterns form a map, a communication from the other side. These random walks the gods prescribed may indeed have formed a sensible strategy. The shamans would gain in stature, the rituals would become liturgies, and centuries later people would fill mosques, cathedrals and synagogues, not really knowing how they got there. With speculations like these, scientists try to understand what for most of the world’s population needs no explanation: why there is this powerful force called religion. It is possible, of course, that the world’s faiths are triangulating in on the one true God. But if you forgo that leap, other possibilities arise: Does banding together in groups and acting out certain behaviors confer a reproductive advantage, spreading genes favorable to belief? Or are the seeds of religion more likely to be found among the memes—ideas so powerful that they leap from mind to mind? In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, has embarked on another of his seemingly impossible quests. His provocatively titled book Consciousness Explained made a persuasive effort to do just that. More recently, in Freedom Evolves, he took on free will from a Darwinian perspective. This time he may have assumed the hardest task of all—and not just because of the subject matter. Dennett hopes that this book will be read not just by atheists and agnostics but by the religiously faithful—and that they will come to see the wisdom of analyzing their deepest beliefs scientifically, weeding out the harmful from the good. The spell he hopes to break, he suggests, is not religious belief itself but the conviction that its details are off-limits to scientific inquiry, taboo. "I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the tack I am taking here," he writes. "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 am trying to do." This warning comes at the end of a long, two-chapter overture in which Dennett defends the idea that religion is a fit subject for scrutiny. The question is how many of the faithful will follow him that far. For those who do not need to be persuaded, the main draw here is a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. Drawing on thinkers such as Pascal Boyer (whose own book is called Religion Explained) and giving their work his own spin, Dennett speculates how a primitive belief in ghosts might have given rise to wind spirits and rain gods, wood nymphs and leprechauns. The world is a scary place. What else to blame for the unexpected than humanlike beings lurking behind the scenes? The result would be a cacophony of superstitions— memes vying with memes—some more likely to proliferate than others. In a world where agriculture was drawing people to aggregate in larger and larger settlements, it would be beneficial to believe you had been commanded by a stern god to honor and protect your neighbors, those who share your beliefs instead of your DNA. Casting this god as a father figure also seems like a natural. Parents have a genetic stake in giving their children advice that improves their odds for survival. You’d have less reason to put your trust in a Flying Spaghetti Monster. At first this winnowing of ghost stories would be unconscious, but as language and self-awareness developed, some ideas would be groomed and domesticated. Folk religion would develop into organized religion, Dennett suggests, somewhat the way folk music bloomed into the music of today. The metaphor is hard to resist. "Every minister in every faith is like a jazz musician," he writes, "keeping traditions alive by playing the beloved standards the way they are supposed to be played, but also incessantly gauging and deciding, slowing the pace or speeding up, deleting or adding another phrase to a prayer, mixing familiarity and novelty in just the right proportions to grab the minds and hearts of the listeners in attendance." Like biological parasites, memes are not necessarily dependent on the welfare of their hosts. One of the most powerful fixations, and one that may have Dennett flummoxed, is that it is sacrilegious to question your own beliefs and an insult for anyone else to try. "What a fine protective screen this virus provides," he observes, "permitting it to shed the antibodies of skepticism effortlessly!" Asides like this seem aimed more at fellow skeptics than at the true believers Dennett hopes to unconvert. A better tack might be for him to start his own religion. Meanwhile his usual readers can deepen their understanding with another of his penetrating books.

George Johnson, a 2005 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion, is author of Fire in the Mind: Science, Faith, and the Search for Order and six other books.

Product Details

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews
698 of 743 people found the following review helpful
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Reading these reviews, it's fascinating how many people attack Dennett for things that aren't in this book.

- "Science can explain everything". But the book isn't about everything: it's about psychology and sociology, which are sciences.

- "Dennett's an atheist". Well, yes, but he acknowledges that religion is pervasive; the book is about trying to understand why people act and think the way they do, not to change what they believe. (Unless you think that to understand religious belief is to destroy it - but you'd better be able to justify that.)

- "Dennett doesn't understand philosophy". A silly accusation to make of a distinguished professor of philosophy. Yes, Dennett dismisses traditional phil.of.relig. for this debate, but that's because it has nothing to say about the phenomenon of belief.

- "Dennett's account of religion is about as reliable as a Nazi's account of Judaism". I don't understand: the definition he uses is remarkably mainstream, and owes a lot to William James.

The comon thread running through these critics is one of taboo: Dennett ought not to be investigating this stuff. Nobody offers an alternative theory, and in that respect the attacks feel a bit like Intelligent Design wedgies. The criticism is not of the idea, but the person. And (of course) nobody tries to justify the taboo.

As I wrote in the review on my blog at, the book has three sections:

- a careful definition and justification (over-cautious to an atheist like myself)

- a sample explanatory narrative, synthesizing much of the state of the art in this field, acknowledged to probably be mostly wrong, but comprehensively indicating the areas that future, better researched theories should address

- an optimistic but unconvincing plea for future dialogue.

Overall it is a solid step in the right direction.
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221 of 235 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The path forward for scientific study of religion March 21, 2006
Dan Dennett essentially plays Toto in "The Wizard of Oz," by peeling back the curtain on the well-meaning but tricky wizard to reveal the embarrasing secret of his power. The wizard exploits human nature in the attempt to help people, similarly to the doctor who knowingly uses placebo treatments when he feels they are the best option. Dennett doesn't assume by any means that we knowingly exploit each other through religion, he also explores the question of how features of human biology might be utilized by human culture through a historical process not specifically guided by human wiles.

The character that does the unmasking is undoubtedly unpopular, which is why it was given to Toto rather than to innocent Dorothy or other likeable humanoid characters. Any surprise that a liberal university professor, professional philosopher, and outspoken atheist should take on the unmasking role?

Neither the sort of academic qualifications Dennett holds nor the theme of piercing the protective veil which enshrines religious belief is anything entirely new in the literature analyzing religion. What is new is the improvement of the tools for accomplishing the task and the improvement of the sort of questions we can ask. Dennett deftly and accessibly reviews the primary themes from a wealth of psychological, anthropological, and biological literature and along the way offers his own interpretation of each theme and identifies the directions he thinks future research should take.

As a result, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers. Its primary goal is to pull back the curtain of mystery with which we have enshrined religious belief, not to suggest final answers to all of the serious questions raised.
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782 of 850 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Subject Religion to Scientific Scrutiny February 7, 2006
Religion is commonly believed to be a stablizing influence in any society - but is it really? "Why not subject it to scientific scrutiny?" asks Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. "Maybe it is just another bad habit." History has shown that science - despite wrong turns, egos, politics, jealousy, ambition - has a consistent record of being more correct than any other method of inquiry. Just ask anyone who bets their life on science every time they board a commercial airliner. Unique to religion, a theology's taboo against self-examination is brilliant. Guaranteed to cause controversy, Dennett addresses this issue and presents a plan.

Dennett surveys various theories of religion:

From Scott Atran - Religion is (1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agent(s) (3) who master peoples' existential anxieties, such as death and deception (4) leading to ritualistic and rhythmic co-ordination of 1, 2, and 3; such as communion. This tendency to invent a supernatural agency is an evolutionary by-product - which involves exaggerated use of everyday cognitive processes - to produce unreal worlds that easily attract attention, are readily memorable, and are subject to cultural transmission, selection, and survival. Add a few hopeful solutions to the problems involving the tragedies of life, and you get religion.

From Pascal Boyer - Every religion has these common features:
(1) A supernatural agent who takes a specific ontologic form (animal, tree, human, etc.)
(2) There is something memorably different about this agent (the animal talks, the tree records conversation, the human is born of a virgin) which is an ontologic violation.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Respectful, thought provoking discussion on religion, it's history and...
Dennett takes us on what amounts to a sort of rough draft, or outline of his hypothesis on how traditional folk religions first developed and then 'culturally evolved' into the... Read more
Published 8 days ago by J. Harvey
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Enjoyable read.
Published 9 days ago by lelia ann owston
1.0 out of 5 stars One Star
word puke.
Published 16 days ago by chris goritz
3.0 out of 5 stars An un-focused, rambling guide to a much needed exploration
On the surface this book looked tailor-made for me. It asked all of the questions I've personally asked about religion and the faith I was raised on and was excited to read... Read more
Published 1 month ago by Taylor M. Trask
4.0 out of 5 stars Four Stars
Good analysis of religion. Sometimes a little long winded like all those books to give them more volume.
Published 2 months ago by Wolfgang Groth
4.0 out of 5 stars Opening eyes ears and minds.
Dennett's soft tone hides his biting wit and his incredible intellect. Something I really liked about the book: at the end of each chapter he wrote a succinct overview of that... Read more
Published 2 months ago by Brian F.
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
it was a gift
Published 3 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars Five Stars
Excellent for my research as a writer. Jim-Dandy
Published 3 months ago by Jim Dandy
3.0 out of 5 stars One of the four horsemen (oops, now three)
I don't like Dennett's approach; I find it difficult to read.
Published 4 months ago by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars readable and good. Thanks
I received it on time. Well packaged. It's clean, readable and good. Thanks
Published 4 months ago by GERALD I AKATA
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Really? 16 dollars for the kindle book?
I agree. This kindle edition of this book is much too expensive.
Jan 2, 2011 by Logan Ellis |  See all 4 posts
Dennet interviewed by Dennis Prager
Prager is a knee-jerk anti-intellectual. If we depended on people like him we would still think the earth is the center of the universe. I was disappointed that Dennett got corraled into responding to hypotheticals that he should have left on the plate like the dead rodents they smell like.
Jun 14, 2007 by Ken Schramm |  See all 3 posts
Why can't I buy this for Kindle outside US? Be the first to reply
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