- 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 (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars See all reviews (300 customer reviews)
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #524,092 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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Top Customer Reviews
Dear J & J,
Friday night, I decided to slowly read through a book on "religion as a natural phenomenon. As long as I have been in religious circles, no one has attempted to explain to me or even discuss where this idea of religion originated. However, not all religions are the same in regards to intent. Dr. Dennett wrote that sharks and dolphins may have similar attributes and can swim in the same waters, however, as often observed, the shark’s intent is definitely not the same as a dolphin.
In his book “Breaking the Spell” by Daniel C. Dennett wrote “Religious cults (or pseudo religions) and political fanatics are not the only casters of evil spells today. Think of the people who are addicted to drugs, or gambling, or alcohol, or child pornography.” Dr. Dennett also states that religion in America is not the same as religions in other countries.
It seems that religion is important to most of our family members and many Americans. Just look at all the televangelists begging for money and getting it. I might suggest that all of us step back and look at the idea of what is religion in the first place. I suggest not waiting until you are lying in bed sick or lying in bed dying before you attempt to understand this idea of religion. Just because it has been handed down to us through traditions does not make it correct in the first place.
In fact, Jesus practiced a lesson similar to Socrates; as a teacher, he never put someone down because a student does not agree. Thomas is known as doubting Thomas and Jesus never put him down; I prefer to call Thomas a skeptic. In my experience, healthy skepticism might have kept me from participating in a pseudo religion for thirteen years. In my view, healthy skepticism is another way of saying "intellectual honesty." One thing I know for sure is that nothing in life to a human is certain, nothing. None of us really knows anything for sure.
This book is well worth the read for true believers and skeptics.
Good luck to you all.
Steven L. H.
Daniel Dennett is an intellectual, not a showman. The title ‘Breaking the Spell’ refers to the idea of pulling back the curtain on religion and exposing it as a myth and he compares it to the realization that Santa Claus isn’t real. The entire first chapter is devoted to the question of whether it is ethically responsible to study religion in a scientific manner and the chapter is long and not the least bit riveting. Dennett is so long winded that I frequently find myself zoning out. He circles the block over and over just to get to his destination when he could have just stated his point and moved on. As an example of how unconnected it sometimes feels like Dennett is he defended the ‘Bright’ movement, a movement I found to be ludicrous and embarrassing. Unsurprisingly I never really hear anyone using the term “bright” anymore.
There is a lot of good ideas in the book that I’m sure contemplative atheists will find themselves agreeing with. His book contains intellectual ammunition that atheists can use to defend their own beliefs or punch holes in the beliefs of religionists. He also remains casual enough not to immediately chase away anyone sitting on the fence. I just wish the book had been more engrossing and less dry and dusty.
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