daniel dennett breaking the spell

scotsman, 8 april 2006

Why are most people in the world religious? And how can we shake them out of their delusion? Those are the two questions at the heart of Daniel Dennett's book. The questions are closely linked. As an atheist, Dennett wants to rid the world of religion. By subjecting religion to the scrutiny of science he hopes to work out how.

For Dennett, one of the world's foremost philosophers and a great proselytiser for science, religion must be seen as a natural phenomenon. By 'natural' Dennett means two things. First, that it is not supernatural, and so not beyond the scrutiny of science and reason. But natural to Dennett also means something else - that religion can, and should, be understood in evolutionary terms.

The origin of religion, Dennett suggests, lies in the evolved human tendency to attribute beliefs, desires and intentions to 'anything complicated that moves'. This is an argument that has been developed in recent years by two evolutionary anthropologists, Scott Atran and Pascal Bowyer, upon whose work Dennett draws heavily. As social animals, humans are evolved to be acutely sensitive to the intentions of others, so much so that we are prone to attribute minds to inanimate objects and to assume that intentions lie behind many unintentioned events. Early humans conjured up the idea of spirits and gods to account for events that might otherwise seem uncaused, such as rainfall or the changing of the seasons. These ancestral religions developed into more sophisticated and elaborated descendents over time, 'as people became more and more reflective about both their practices and their reactions'. Religious ideas, Dennett argues, are not beneficial to humans but are parasitical on our evolved human nature.

Much of the controversy about the book has centred on Dennett's atheism and his attempt to deconstruct religion with the tools of science. In fact his frank disbelief is refreshing, even if his condescension towards believers ('I wonder if any believers in the End Times will have the intellectual honesty and courage to read this book through') can often be trying. And his project of putting religion under rational scrutiny is surely to be welcomed in an age in which faith seems to shape so much of people's responses to political and social issues. The real problem is that Dennett's explanation of religion is less than convincing. It may be true that humans possess certain psychological dispositions that open them to religious ideas. But uncovering such traits is not the same as explaining the origins, let alone the contemporary attractions, of religion.

What people seek in religion is often not obvious, and is often shaped by historical and social context. In the pre-scientific world, for instance, belief in supernatural deities often provided a rational means of understanding the unpredictability of the world. Indeed the concept of God as creating a lawful universe played an important role in the development of science, one of the reasons that many of the pioneers of the Scientific Revolution were deeply devout men.

But in a world in which science has shown itself to be spectacularly successful in understanding nature, religion necessarily means something very different. What drives Christian fundamentalists to embrace Creationism today is not the same as what drove many nineteenth century Christians to decry Darwin. People often embrace religion today for reasons that, paradoxically, have little to do with God. Why, for instance, has radical Islam increasingly found a hold in Muslim communities over the past 20 years? For reasons that have little to do with either religion or evolution. A sense of perceived victimhood, the failure of secular political movements, a desire to salvage a sense of identity, a yearning to rediscover strong values – these are the kinds of issues that have moulded the new Islamic radicalism. It has been said that to understand Islamic terrorism we would be better off reading Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent than the Qu'ran.

What is missing from Breaking the Spell is any sense of religion as a social or historical, as opposed to a purely natural, phenomenon. Dennett dismisses as unscientific the long and rich history of scholarship into the social roots of religion. The result is a seriously distorted analysis and a curiously arid book. There is no sense here of any engagement with religion as it is actually lived or experienced, rather than as Dennett would like to imagine it in theory. 'Do some research!' Dennett exhorts believers. It's good advice for philosophers too.