Breaking the Spell: Review
Daniel Dennett's new book Breaking the Spell has been systematically misrepresented by its critics. Frankly, I think a lot of them are getting hung up on the title. Breaking the Spell is not an attempt to discredit religion by subjecting it to scientific scrutiny. The "spell" Dennett wants to break is the taboo against the scientific study of religion. There is widespread concern that understanding religion as a natural phenomenon will undermine religious faith. Dennett agrees that disenchantment is an empirical possibility, but Breaking the Spell doesn't appeal to naturalistic explanations to refute or discredit religion.
What if it became widely accepted that religions are the biological equivalent of masturbation--"hacks" that we have learned to perform on our own bodies to achieve feelings of transcendence on demand? Or, what if cognitive scientists convinced the public that world religions are informational parasites that have evolved to evade our epistemological "immune systems" and hijack us to disseminate them? It's possible that these ideas might put some people off religion, whether or not they constitute good reasons to abandon faith.
It's a widely-held article of meta-faith that religion is a force good in the world, irrespective of its truth or falsity. Dennett calls this stance "belief in belief." Believers in belief insist that religiosity has robust real-world benefits that are, at least in theory, observable by all. They claim that religiosity makes people happier, better behaved, and so on. If religion is so good and science might tarnish religion, then maybe it's irresponsible to probe too deeply. Even atheists might be prefer to leave well enough alone. Who are we to put our curiosity above the well-being of other people, even if we suspect that they are self-deluded? Some people worry that without religion there is no basis for morality. Some more cynical observers are concerned that the average person will see no reason to be moral without religion, even if there are sound non-religious arguments for ethical behavior.
Dennett argues that these worries are premature. The platitudes about the positive dividends of religion are themselves untested. In fact, we don't know whether religion makes people happier, healthier, more trustworthy, or anything else. There has been some epidemiological research on the effects of church membership on health, for example, but not nearly enough to draw firm conclusions one way or the other. Besides which, there are endless counterexamples that highlight the harms and dangers of religion. Religion inspires compassion in some and terrorism in others. The fact is, we don't know the ratio of medical missionaries to suicide bombers. What's the ratio of great works of art created to libraries burned in the name of religion? How many people feel that they are entitled to sin because they are going to be forgiven? How many people are tortured by fear of hellfire vs. consoled by the promise of salvation?
So, those who think we should be deferential to religion for the greater good find themselves in an awkward position: Their deference presupposes untested assumptions about the beneficial effects of religion. In order to find out whether religion is actually a force for good, we have to study it.
Dennett also takes on social scientists and scholars in the humanities who endorse secular religious studies but deny that science could ever explain anything about religion. Science could potentially contribute a great deal to our understanding of the origins and development of religion. For example, a great deal of work has already been done on the psychology and physiology of transcendent experience. We already know quite a lot about how religious rituals can induce altered states of consciousness. Psychologists and anthropologists have a long tradition of cooperation in these inquiries. If we want to understand what's really going on when people speak in tongues, for example, we need to know a lot about the social and biological context of the phenomenon. Dennett discusses the example of fire walking--which anthropologists might be tempted to interpret as a triumph of sheer will or self-hypnonsis, but which physicists know to be a mundane exploitation of the principles of heat conduction.
Everyone agrees that most religions can be studied as natural phenomena. Since 9/11 there has been an upsurge of interest in Islam. We are curious about the intersection of religion, culture, history, and politics that gives rise to radical Islamic terrorism. It's not good enough to say that (some Wahabists believe) that Allah commands them to commit acts of terrorism. We want real explanations.
Likewise, most people are comfortable treating the rites of the ancient Egyptians or the mythology of Native American tribes as natural phenomena--i.e., as beliefs and practices that can be studied empirically by anyone, not just by those who have a prior commitment to the metaphysics of these creeds.
However, for some reason, many religious people get extremely defensive when their own beliefs are subjected to scientific scrutiny. This resistance is built into the dogmas of many religions. It's no surprise that religions that endure over time have incorporated doctrinal provisions to preempt certain forms of questioning. Many religions teach that it is a sin or a character flaw to doubt key articles of faith. This general attitude is widespread even among people who aren't personally religious but who nevertheless believe in belief. As Dennett observes, it's not difficult to see how these anti-questioning rules help perpetuate religions.
In the New York Times Book Review Leon Wieseltier accuses Dennett of missing the point. The point, in Wiesletier's estimation, is whether the arguments for religion are any good. Even if we are biologically predisposed to believe in gods, that doesn't mean that there aren't also good reasons to be religious. Agreed. However, Wieseltier is attacking a straw man when he accuses Dennett of trying to debunk religion with science.
In fact, Dennett is very careful to distinguish between reasons and mere causes. If you want Denettian debunking, read Darwin's Dangerous Idea in which Dennett argues that natural selection has rendered the argument from design obsolete.
In fact, Breaking the Spell does touch on theology. As Dennett points out, the the standard arguments for the existence of god aren't even close to arguments for religion, let alone for any particular religion. If they work at all, they establish the existence of a creator. However, nothing much follows from this result. Even if there is a creator, it doesn't follow that we ought to worship it, or expect it to care about us. The fact is that religious partisans don't have good transcendental arguments for the details that define their creeds. If you're not hung up on the details, you can be a deist and happily embrace naturalistic explanations for religion and everything else. It's only when you want intellectual credibility for special pleading that naturalistic explanations begin to seem threatening.
If Dennett's religious critics were serious about engagement, they'd stop attacking straw men and get to the substance of the dispute. We all agree ex ante that naturalistic explanations for religion don't disprove the existence of God or negate whatever good arguments there may be for believing. As far as I know, none of Dennett's high profile critics see a conflict between their faith and modern science. In fact, many rightfully get uptight when they think they're being lumped in with superstitious rubes who think the earth was literally created in seven days.
Once you get beyond the platitudes about compatibilism, naturalistic explanations for religion tend to make the faithful uncomfortable. Why? Because believers insist that they worship as they do because they have some kind of access to the divine. The main problem is that there are a lot of incompatible religions out there. If religious partisans want to engage Dennett, they need to start talking specifics:"Why I have good reason to believe that God talks to me, but not to all those other people who insist that God tells them the exact opposite of what He tells me..." The fact is that religious partisans don't have compelling reasons to believe that God talks to them and no one else. That's where faith comes in. Invoking faith is an admission that you've run out of reasons that would convince someone who doesn't already agree with you. For all we know, there might be a true religious faith, but that doesn't mean that the people who embrace it do so for good reasons.
Breaking the Spell is an accessible introduction to the latest scientific research on religion. However, it's important recognize that the primary focus of the book is not to advance a specific empirical theory, but rather to defend the the scientific study of religion against those who would discount these inquiries out of hand.