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698 of 743 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating how many of these reviews reinforce Dan's thesis
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...
Published on February 22, 2006 by G. M. Arnold

versus
113 of 124 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dennett Not My First Choice
Okay, I confess I like Anglo-American philosophy, even if I am an existentialist to boot. I also confess that Dennett is not one of my favorite Anglo-American philosophers, and this is still another example of why. I thought "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" a tour d'force, while his "Consciousness Explained," "Elbow Room," and "Freedom Evolves" intolerable. If you like what I...
Published on April 27, 2006 by D. S. Heersink


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698 of 743 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating how many of these reviews reinforce Dan's thesis, February 22, 2006
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G. M. Arnold (San Jose, CA, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
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 geoffarnold.com, 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
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
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.

Dennett speculates that a critical point in the history of human culture was when we became stewards responsible for cultivating and protecting our own beliefs. Once the power of nurturing and protecting belief had been established, this could have become the basis of self-perpetuating industries, including but not limited to religious institutions.

The idea that units of culture can somehow be responsible for their own survival and reproduction may seem bizarre and at first, but Dennett's version is entirely plausible and consistent with current theories of gene-culture co-evolution. Aspects of human culture may have helped exploit human group behavior, which in turn helped shape the course of human evolution. This idea can potentially make sense of a lot of otherwise scattered social psychology data.

Dennett surveys several different variations on this co-evolutionary and cultural evolutionary theme, and in the end leaves a question mark on the idea of whether religious cultural elements tend to be "mutualists" with their human hosts, or "parasites" exploiting us for their own advantage. The latter idea is strongly implied by the popular metaphor of the "Virus of the Mind" favored by other theorists favorable to the concept Richard Dawkins called the "meme." Dennett is careful to leave the question open, rather than begging it as many other authors have done.

Dennett notably does not assume that such cultural units exploit us to our detriment, he just wants us to take the notion seriously of religion being a natural phenomenon and ask the resulting question of who benefits from its features.

This is a superbly accessible book because Dennett does not assume any foreknowledge of the voluminous literature he summarizes and explains so well and is very clear in his arguments. This book is less dense and scholarly than the bulk of Dennetts' previous work, but is as closely reasoned and well researched as any of it.

I'm pessimistic that Dennett's rhetorical goal will succeed. He seems to want to persuade more academics to take a naturalistic biological study of religion more seriously. I think this may be a long shot, in part because I suspect Dennett's speculation is very close to the truth: we have become zealous stewards and protectors of our most important beliefs, and they help establish our identity. We are legitimately concerned with protecting the wizard. Whether he is what he seems to be or not, he is still doing the job, and for many of us that is more important than knowing what is behind the curtain.

There is also a lingering problem that Dennett clearly recognizes but seems unable to get around, the fact that questioning religious beliefs seems intrinsically disrespectful to believers. In Dennett's terms, this is part of the protective mechanism for belief, but knowing that doesn't make it any less of an obstacle. Even some other well known scientists have bristled a bit at Dennett's treatment of religious belief in published reviews.

The fact that so many people seem honestly surprised that the "Darwin Fish" might be deeply hurtful to many Christians, or that the term "Brights" should seem to be so grossly arrogant rather than just being good clever marketing, seems to reveal a blind spot for the psychology of religion even among such good thinkers as Dennett.

In spite of the difficult obstacles faced, I think the kinds of questions this book asks and the sorts of explanations it emphasizes represent a new stage in scientific study of human culture, and I can only hope it will be taken up by courageous academics willing to pierce the veils of mystery and carefully draw back that curtain.

This book gathers up some of the best thinking in past scientific theories of religion and points the way boldly forward. Let's hope someone has the guts to follow it to knowledge.
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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
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
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.
(3) This agent knows strategic information and can use it for or against you.

Fun to read and not as dense as his acclaimed "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Dennett has addressed this book to the believer, who knows in his heart he is on the right path. "If you are one of these, here is what I hope will be a sobering reflection: have you considered that you are perhaps being irresponsible?...If it [religion] is fundamentally benign, as many of its devotees insist, it should emerge just fine; suspicions will be put to rest and we can then concentrate on the few peripheral pathologies that religions, like every other natural phenomemon, fall prey to."

Dennett clearly thinks God is made in man's image, as opposed to man's being a product of God's creation. In his view, the costs and benefits of religion need to be assayed with the scrupulous objectivity of science, and he outlines a plan to do just that.

I couldn't agree more.
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115 of 123 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Dennett's Dangerous Idea, February 16, 2006
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
Can religion be subject to scientific scrutiny? In this remarkable study, Dennett proposes that not only can be religion studied 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. 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]
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490 of 544 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars That Rarity: A New and Important Idea, February 7, 2006
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
Dennett's take on religion will seem polemical to some, but it's very nearly the opposite. Rather, it posits that Religion, as a sub-realm of anthropology, can be viewed as a natural phenomenon -- rather like language, custom, emotion, espression, etc. -- and as such should not be off-limits to the methods of science. He takes issue with Gould's "magisteria", in which Science illuminates the inert and Religion the 'transcendent' (or whatever it's supposed to do that Science cannot). In some sense, his analysis is very much in line with the evolutionary psychology movement, wherein the Mind is viewed as the product of evolution and human activity a product of the Mind. It's a materialist view, but, as Dennett painstakingly shows, It Works for an enormous variety of phenomena; why, of all artifacts and actions, should human religious practice be shrouded from the light of scientific inquiry?

The central thesis of Dennett's book is *not* some warmed-over pastiche about how religion improves our fitness -- a point he makes with pinpoint clarity and that many commentators on evolution (and his book specifically) managed to miss. In a recent talk, he asked the simple question "how does the common cold improve our fitness?" The answer is simple: it doesn't. Rather, for IT to survive, it needs a fresh set of susceptible hosts; all that matters is that it increases its *own* fitness and reproductive success. We are a vessel for its transmission, and that is all we are, from its perspective.

"Dennett's Dangerous Idea" suggests that religion, suitably defined (and this is a difficult issue to which much of the book is devoted) spreads not because it makes us stronger, faster or more cohesive -- its track record on the last is clearly mixed -- but because it hijacks us for its own propagation. This idea is subtle, akin to Dawkins' memes. Dennett backs it up in spades, and you'll simply have to read the book to take in his bravura performance. Which you should. It's terrific: sprawling yet closely argued, entertaining, brimming with 'the telling detail' and writerly vim.
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113 of 124 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Dennett Not My First Choice, April 27, 2006
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
Okay, I confess I like Anglo-American philosophy, even if I am an existentialist to boot. I also confess that Dennett is not one of my favorite Anglo-American philosophers, and this is still another example of why. I thought "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" a tour d'force, while his "Consciousness Explained," "Elbow Room," and "Freedom Evolves" intolerable. If you like what I haven't, then this book may work for you.

I've read over four dozen books on theodicy, natural religion, Christian theology, and other books purporting to examine religion under a microscope. Only two books have ultimately worked: George Smith's "Atheism" and Pacal Boyer's "Religion Explained." I highly recommend both books, as different as they are.

Boyer's book approaches religion from an anthropological perspective, drawing heavily from evolutionary theory. I think Dennett is trying to replicate the success of Boyer's work, without Boyer's concision and narration. Like many Anglo-American philosophers, who pride themselves on brevity and conciseness, few hit their mark. Dennett is one who circumlocutes to extremis, with the revelation, as if needed, that religion can be both useful from an evolutionary perspective, but dreadful when in the hands of ideologues. If this is "news," go at once to Boyer's book. Dennett definitely brings out religion's capacity for malfeasance, but given Islamic and Christian fundamentalism, is anyone still surprised?

Many authors have sought to draw out evolutionary reasons why religion, the Myth of myths, continues to function in modern society. Kwame Appiah in his "Cosmopolitanism" brings it out in Ghana culture, insisting no one decry "their" superstitions, anymore than we decry our own. At some point, we have to insist that if one wants to live by his/her own superstition, then fine, do it, but leave the rest of us alone. Whatever Myth gets you through the day is your business, just don't impose it on the rest of us. The phenomenology of fundamentalism is that it cannot resist being out of power, so it surreptiously enters through the back door. We've seen what it has done to the Middle East, aren't we smart enough to see it on our own frontiers?

That's the raison d'etre of Dennett's work. If any of this is new, then by all means read the newest kid on the block. But Boyer (acclaimed by E. O. Wilson) has already done the heavy work; his explanation of religion from an evolutionary perspective is top notch, without much confusion in explication.

Put the same subject in the hands of an analytic philosopher like Dennett, and yes, the same message comes through, but not the same reasons, much less the same clarity. It's not that Dennett misses the boat, it's that others have already tread the waters and have analyzed the matter extensively. If you can't get enough religion-bashing, then add this to your list. But if you already know religion can be bad for us, why bother?
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Open discussion is warranted, July 28, 2006
This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
This is an excellent up-to-date (2006) overview of current thinking concerning the evolutionary origin of `religion'.

Dennett first asks the question as to why `religion' has traditionally been granted a special exemption from scientific investigation-a kind of taboo. "Up to now there has been a largely unexamined mutual agreement that scientists and other researchers will leave religion alone...I intend to disrupt this assumption". He contends that there is much to be gained from a thorough examination of its evolutionary origins, and its ultimate role and place in the modern world. Readers may be surprised at what science is finding with regard to the nature and origin of religion.

Dennett essentially contends that religion is a social phenomenon that has evolved with both benefits and costs, and a deeper understanding of both of these will provide better and more informed input to social policy.

Dennett's definition of religion is thus: "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought" p9. This definition, however, is by no means satisfying to everyone.

He gives some recent theories as to the evolutionary origin/purpose(s) of religion (p82):

-Sweet tooth theories-a kind of drug (e.g. Karl Marx's `opiate of the masses') that triggers receptors within the brain (a `whatis centre'), similar to our evolved sweet tooth. What `religion' `satisfies' may not even be related to the original function of whatever receptor(s) involved may have evolved for. The idea of `god' may be "the latest and most intense confection that triggers the `whatsis' centre in so many people".

-Symbiont theories: these involve memes (ideas) competing within our brains and within the larger community of ideas by spreading themselves using whatever means best promotes their replication, (e.g. white lies, exaggerated self-esteem etc), rather than by what is necessarily true. The memes may be mutualists-proliferating by enhancing human fitness, just as bacteria in our gut do; or parasites-deleterious replicators that are hard to get rid of and which have evolved complex defences, often exploiting pre-existing human characteristics to enhance their replication. (e.g. an evolved gullibility in children-p130 "once the information highway is established between parent and child by genetic evolution, it is ready to be used or abused ...by any memes that have features that benefit from the biases built into the highway"). Certain religious memes may `hijack' an evolved capacity for romantic love (p256). Another interesting biological parallel is that "a relatively benign or harmless symbiont may mutate under some conditions into something virulent and even deadly" (p85), which can also happen to religious movements.

-`Sexual selection' theories are another possibility-females may have selected religious males due to perceived benefits, e.g. enhanced family life.

-`Pearl theory' is another angle-the brain responds to `irritations', like a pearl within an oyster, and constructs complex social phenomenon for no other reason than what is purely biochemical.

Still other theories are alluded to: e.g. religion evolved to improve co-operation within groups, or HADD-religion as a hyperactive detection device which developed from a hyperactive suspicion of predators/agent/intent into the `god/ultimate cause' concept.

Importantly, Dennett notes that what we call `religion' may well be an amalgam of any number of the above theories.

A common evolutionary analysis of any biological adaptation is, who pays for it? Who pays for religion? Dennett gives 3 possibilities: 1) everybody does-as a more secure society develops; 2) religion is a kind of pyramid scheme, which thrives on the ill-informed and largely benefits those at the top; and 3) whole societies benefit-as a form of group selection over other groups.

How `folk religion' turns into `organized religion' is dealt with in detail. There is also a brief economic analysis of religion (p183), perhaps best understood as simply just another business.

One aspect of religion is highlighted-its tendency to routinely disregard other ideas/cultures (incidentally, not just confined to `religion'). Dawkins p230-"the meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry". I think there is more here, perhaps an evolutionary mindset evolved (irrespective of memes) to disregard ALL alternatives in certain contexts-e.g. in war- involving a focused survival mindset/cause etc, but which unfortunately can be triggered outside of `war' contexts, and therefore commonly interferes with rational social policy. It may just be that we should discourage the tendency in any culture to that predisposition which departs from social responsibility in order to achieve social objectives through mindset/ideology.

The question as to whether `religion' makes us more moral, (Chapter 10), is a traditionally difficult question, but in any case Dennett gives examples where religious beliefs are far from moral (p278).

The biologist Ernst Mayr was of the opinion that there is nothing within evolutionary theory to select for the natural acceptance of strangers, and Dennett does mention that within Judaism, Christianity and Islam, apostasy (non belief/non-believers) has traditionally been regarded as a capital offense, however "Islam stands alone in its inability to renounce this barbaric doctrine convincingly". (Possibly, but it may be that the other 2 accidentally renounced it through accidents of geography- their history is no better than Islam).

Another point raised is how come so many Americans disbelieve in evolution? (p60). Dennett states that the answer is simply "they have been solemnly told that the theory is false", but this may not be the end of it-some researchers consider the tendency to reject evolutionary thinking is itself an evolved predisposition-i.e., we haven't evolved to understand all that well the reasons for our own evolution, possibly because it conflicts with our evolved disposition towards certain social constructions-i.e. moral order, bureaucratic stability, and non-tolerance of significant minorities (`significant minorities' is how evolution often works).

Overall, Dennett's discussion is largely toward a memetic analysis, which I personally find frequently under-estimates the dual role of human predisposition in social expression.

Lots of brain food here. It is possible that the future of humanity lies in the ramifications of at least some of these ideas. Certainly, open discussion is warranted.
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42 of 45 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A challenge for self-examination, August 15, 2006
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This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
Ever since the poet John Keats expressed dismay at Newton's "unweaving the rainbow", people have been worried that the scientific examination of natural phenomena might somehow "ruin" that phenomena, that somehow the rainbow isn't as bright or beautiful if we know it is caused of millions of raindrops acting as prisms. Better to believe that it is a special God-created miracle, a symbol of God's covenant with Noah.

"Breaking the Spell" by Daniel C. Dennett is a deliberate attempt at subjecting religion to scientific evaluation. We all know that our own religion is, if not the only true religion, at least the best that God has revealed. It is the other guy's religion that needs fixing - or preferably replacing with our own. So Dennett, while admitting that such intense scrutiny may, in fact, "break the spell" we can no longer afford to let that possibility stop us from investigating.

Dennett's concern is that we are no longer a world of separate tribes and small nations where the most harm a religion can do is cause a congregation in Guyana to commit collective suicide or provide the rationale for a power-hungry dictator to commit genocide on a neighboring nation. We have always had religious fanatics willing to go to their death "defending the faith" and usually taking along a few of the faithless as well. No, we are now an interconnected world where those hoping for the "end days" have means at their disposal to hasten those days. And those of us who don't believe their interpretation of the Apocolypse just won't have a say in the matter any more.

Dennett's position is that any organized religion is a social organization that markets itself like any other business and that it should be analyzed as such - costs and benefits. Sure, there are those who may insist they have the "revealed truth" and don't care about such analyses but the rest of us do because what is a benefit to you may be a cost to me.

Typically, when such suggestions have been made, Dennett argues, religious people raise the cry that the only alternative to the black/white "we're right/you're wrong" dichotomy is moral relativism. Accepting moral relativism, which states that there is no absolute right and wrong, would allow everyone to have their own moral system and would be the end of civilization as we know it according to religionists.

Dennett refuses to accept such ideology, preferring instead to have a continuing dialogue on the merits (costs & benefits) of the differing beliefs rather than their inherent (revealed or assumed) truth. If we assume at the beginning that our moral values are RIGHT we get nowhere but if we assume that together we can FIND OUT what the best moral values are then we have a basis for discussion.

It takes a lot of stepping back from your own "things you JUST KNOW are SO" to be able to read "Breaking the Spell" but I challenge anyone to really claim it isn't a valuable exercise. If your religion is so weak that it can't stand some inspection and evaluation, it isn't much of a religion. And if your god can't field a few sincere questions, then you might as well join the Danish-flag-burning Muslims. Dennett wants you to know that questions will be asked and religions will be expected to defend themselves in the court of scientific evaluation.
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34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, March 20, 2006
By 
Hans Jostlein (Naperville. Illinois, USA) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
Prof. Dennett presents a riveting and precise logical analysis of religion as a natural phenomenon. He presents arguments why religion and its organizations have developed to where they are today. He discusses crucial questions such as "Who benefits ?" and "Does religion promote good behavior?"

This is not a fast reading book, but every page opens up new thoughts to consider.
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37 of 40 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Critical book for a critical time in history, November 13, 2006
By 
B. Dewhirst (Worcester, MA United States) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Hardcover)
Dennett is very gentle in laying out his case, but his conclusions are earth shattering.

This is certainly a more subtle, methodical work than the recent books by Harris and Dawkins. While I feel characterizations of those previously mentioned authors are overly critical, Dennett is subtle where they are emphatic.

The spell spoken of in the title is the taboo against investigating or criticizing religion.

A very understandable work... half-way between a textbook and a popular work of nonfiction, taking the best from each.
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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett (Hardcover - February 2, 2006)
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