Religion scrutinized by famed philosohpy writer

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“Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”
By Daniel C. Dennet
Viking Press, 2006
389 pages
$29.95

There’s nothing new about God making headlines. But with recent news items such as the controversial Book of Judas, studies on the efficacy of prayer, the water-stain Mary in Texas, and of course everything that has ever happened in the Middle East, author Daniel C. Dennet couldn’t have asked for a better environment for the release of his latest book.

In “Breaking the Spell,” Dennet (“Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”) attempts to subject religion to vigorous intellectual analysis using tools from a variety of fields including philosophy, biology, evolutionary theory, sociology, linguistics, anthropology and psychology.

It’s a hefty undertaking. But then, Dennet touts a hefty vitae. He is a professor of philosophy, co-director of the Center for Cognitive Development at Tufts University, and author of almost a dozen other books.

His latest work, while an interesting read, can’t seem to find a comfortable footing. He starts the book by insisting that he is writing for a layman audience, and avows to avoid any ivory tower mumbo-jumbo that might turn off the masses. But in spite of this, he sometimes slips into esoteric mazes of academic elitism. (How many laymen are on usage terms with type and token?) Yet in other portions of the book, he dumbs things down to the point of condescension.

Still, if the reader can forgive Dennet’s arrogance, “Breaking the spell” is a satisfying read because of the ideas in it.

Dennet explores the possible reasons that religion may have emerged, starting with the examination of folk religions and the possible biological value for divination, ritualism, music and shamanism.

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He states in the book that he will undertake his investigation without resorting to reductionism (ie. “humans are religious because they have a religion gene”), and is remarkably successful at carrying out that aim. Instead he explores what conditions of human existence might account for the rise and maintenance of religion.

He points out that religion has compelled humans to die and kill, as well as surrender status, goods and procreation _” all things that defy the evolutionary instinct for survival. To explore this, Dennet uses evolutionary and social theory to discuss what benefit the human animal might derive from the expensive use of resources religions demand.

For example, faith healing sometimes works. Dennet argues that it is possible that humans engage in this practice because the emotion of hope can trigger our immune systems to fight harder against disease and infection.

Although Dennet is not overly ginger in his approach to this highly explosive subject, he maintains an admirable neutrality. He does not attack or berate any religion or believer of religions, and when pointing out the shortcomings of religious institutions, he casts dispersion equally. He likewise admits value equally.

If nothing else, the book is an excellent entry point into what appears to be a trendy topic of debate among intellectuals and academics. Dennet’s book is a party-sampler of hypotheses currently under discussion, providing the reader excellent resources should they choose to scrutinize one idea more closely. In fact, in some cases the appendixes and endnotes are more intriguing than the context Dennet creates for them.

One aspect of Dennet’s writing that can make the book tedious is his tendency to switch his audience. For parts of the book, he speaks almost exclusively to those of religious conviction who might find his ideas offensive; in others, his appeals are made to the average secular humanist; and in still others, he addresses his fellow academics. While the purpose of this style is undoubtedly to acknowledge the mixed audience he anticipates, he sometimes beats his horse well past death.

Overall, as a writer, Dennet lacks likableness and finesse. However, the subjects he tackles, and the ideas he introduces, should be intriguing enough to anyone genuinely interested in widening their perspective on humans’ relationship with religion. If you are one of those people, don’t buy “Breaking the Spell.” Check it out from the library instead.