- Hardcover: 464 pages
- Publisher: Viking Adult; 1st edition (February 2, 2006)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 067003472X
- ISBN-13: 978-0670034727
- Product Dimensions: 6.3 x 1.5 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
- Average Customer Review: 309 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #402,438 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon 1st Edition
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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)
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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 advicewhich 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 worlds population needs no explanation: why there is this powerful force called religion. It is possible, of course, that the worlds 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 memesideas 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 alland 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 faithfuland 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 thatthats what I am, and thats 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 memessome 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. Youd 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.
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Dennett asks, but does not definitively answer the question of whether religion is a harmful, useful or neutral parasite. He begins an examination of this question using the tools of natural history, specifically examining how religion evolved from the time that language could be used to express folk religion until the present day using the tools of natural science, specifically the theory of evolution. Instead of genetic means, he indicates that the best method of transmission of religion is through meme's or thoughts which are learned from generation to generation and have an existence and evolution on their own. As expected from a philosopher, he calls for further research and more questions, rather than giving answers.
While not a believer in religion or any god, he does treat the topic with respect and does put in a plug for love as his highest value (without personifying it as a deity) (253). I think Jesus of Nazareth and and Paul of Tarsus would agree with him on the preeminence of love and would likely favorably compare his personal practice of this value with many religionists who prevert the word of God for their own personal ambition and authoritarianism.
Before taking this book back up, I read Gary Wills tome What Paul Meant. It is interesting to compare and contrast their viewpoints and values. If I had a show, I would love to put them together on the same radio program. It would be a fascinating discussion.
Dennett's argument (which is based mostly on evolutionary and cognitive psychology) about how religions developed is thorough, clear, and interesting. However, there was one factor in the success of religion that I think he overlooked: ostracism. Almost all religions practice some form of ostracism. For example, Catholic excommunication, Amish shunning, and Jehovah's witnesses' defellowship - just to pick a few from Christianity. Moreover, nearly all religions threaten that people will be excluded from the preferable alternative in the afterlife if they don't follow their rules. Ostracism is an amazingly powerful force because it strongly threatens basic human needs for belonging, interaction, and companionship (see Kip Williams's "Ostracism: the power of silence" for a scientific exploration of this concept).
Dennett raises some fascinating questions about religion that could be tested scientifically - that is, tested against systematically and objectively collected evidence. For example, we sometimes hear stories of people addicted to drugs turning their life around after converting to Christianity, or to Islam, or to Buddhism, or via psychological therapies. Dennett asks the question: Is one religion better than another at curing drug addiction, and are religions better at this than psychological therapies? It's the kind of question I had never thought to ask of religion, but it seems to be a good one. This inspired me to ask: does the bowed praying position of some religions differentially affect joint flexibility as compared with the kneeling praying position of other religions? The answer to Dennett's question and mine is: we don't know. And, I agree with Dennett that, because religion is so influential in society, we should find out the answers to these and other questions.
One point to note for first-time readers of Dennett's work is that he does draw quite heavily on his knowledge of consciousness and philosophical/psychological discussions about conscious will and free will. For people who are unfamiliar with these academic discussions some of the arguments in this book will be difficult to follow.
Finally, there are four substantial appendices in "Breaking the Spell". I think these could be safely ignored by readers who are familiar with the concepts they cover (e.g., memes) but may be of interest to people without a background in these areas.
As to immoral behaviors, those who claim to interpret the will of God should not be exempt from scrutiny or from legal consequences. Chapter 10 is an especially good statement of Dennett's case.