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March 08, 2006

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.

Wieseltier and other critics complain that Dennett refuses to engage seriously with religion.

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.

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» Lindsey Beyerstein on Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" from
"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 r... [Read More]

» Lindsay Beyerstein reviews Dennett's Breaking the Spell from 3quarksdaily
From Majikthise: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 [Read More]

» Testing belief from Lance Mannion
At Majikthise, Lindsay Beyerstein comes to the defense of Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Lindsay says that Dennett's book is being misrepresented by critics who are afraid of what they think he's up to,... [Read More]

» More on Dennett's Book from If-Then Knots ---------------------->
Here is Dennett's response to Weisltier. Here is an account of the dust-up between Michael Ruse and Dennett, which is linked on Dembski's blog. The ID-creationists are gloating over there about the fact that two Darwinists are having a disagreement. [Read More]

Comments

religions are the biological equivalent of masturbation

Is this from the book or did you come up with it, Lindsay? It's pretty good.

Lately PZ Myers has been converting me to his idea that religiousity pretty much inherently involves magical thinking, and thus is at best useless and at worst dangerous. Yet it's also pretty much of a textbook example of the concept of a "meme", a self-perpetuating, self-defending complex of concepts with a large capacity for taking over large portions of the "ideosphere."

Thus religious belief defends itself vigorously when any of its main lines of defense are attacked, or are perceived to be under attack. The battle against evolution has raged endlessly for years, and shows no signs of abating; Dennet will sound to (some) religious partisans as if he's opening up another line of attack ("religion as biological neurosis"), so he can expect the same fury for this as for anything about Darwin. Perhaps even more so, given that Darwin has massive evidentiary support.

JimBOB: "Religion as biological neurosis"...you couldn't come up with a better phrase for MY perception of religion.

Lindsay: Thanks for another valuable review. I have yet to read the book except for exerpts such as Amazon will provide. I was thinking the book subjects the tendency to think in religious modes to scientific scrutiny rather than examining the validity of any of the myths or other thoughts that are held in those modes.

Isn't Dennett giving us a deeper look at the old "wired for god" thesis?

Yet it's also pretty much of a textbook example of the concept of a "meme", a self-perpetuating, self-defending complex of concepts with a large capacity for taking over large portions of the "ideosphere."

I don't think most concepts of "meme" require either a complex of concepts or the ability to take over large portions of the "ideosphere." Not that there's a "textbook definition" anyay, but I doubt they'd require either of those.

Well done, Lindsay! Very good job of explaining Dennett's book as well as why the Wieseltier review missed the point completely. Bravo.

oh dear Lindsay, I want to shout back something at every other paragraph here. Again, thanks for putting so much meat in this review.
Linking to this or that thing I ever wrote about the matter in half a dozen places here really only tells me that I oughta go out and get the book...this whole topic is clearly a burr under my blanket.
But, in particular, "Why? Because believers insist that they worship as they do because they have some kind of access to the divine." This describes a symptom of confusing knowledge with feeling to an extreme that, to us outsiders, approaches pathology.

I agree so heartily with all that you report of Dennett's argument that I hate to point out that one has to be a bit more discriminating than to drag all Wahabism into the terrorist category [unless my source is a total PR snow job.]

"Everyone agrees that most religions can be studied as natural phenomena."

I had a conversation with a rather pushy theology student who was studying to become a minister. I was trying to explain why I don't think that religious people should study religion.

Over the course of the conversation, I asked him what his goal was when he studied christianity. He talked a bit about getting closer to god. I then asked him what his goal was when he studied islam. He talked a bit about learning how people in the middle east and people who believe in islam think, and the things they practice.

I pointed out that his technique presupposed an awful lot. He was studying islam as a sociological effect, and he was studying christianity as a divine doctrine. I explained that I thought that this prevented him from making fair comparisons between the two, as he had been doing earlier in the conversation.

He didn't quite seem to understand my point.

How about a "hack" against anxiety, which by fostering alertness to the perils of strange wilds may have been more adaptive in our species' early history than it became later, after we settled down to pushing the plow up and back and worrying about the weather?

I pointed out that his technique presupposed an awful lot. He was studying islam as a sociological effect, and he was studying christianity as a divine doctrine.

No shit. Because he considers one to be a set of practices based on misconception, and one to be based on a true story about an omnipotent being that expects things from him. It seems like once you make that leap of faith, his position is perfectly sensible. The error is in step one, not in anything you pointed out.

Religion has been scietifically studied for years, by archaeology, and anthropology. After all, what is the study of ancient Egyptian "mythology" but the study of ancient Egyptian religion? Likewise, anthropologists have been studying the spiritual beliefs of indigenous people for decades. The only reason that people are getting antsy now is because Dennett is proposing the scientific study of the main monolithic montheistic religions; Islam and Christianity.

In fact, we don't know whether religion makes people happier, healthier, more trustworthy, or anything else.

Worse still, we don't know whether any set of beliefs has these effects. I tend to doubt it, personally.

To me, religion's always been sort of a red herring. I think the real issue is individual and tribalist greed and aggression. Someone eager to defend religion will often point to Gandhi or Martin Luther King, Jr., while someone eager to attack it will often point to the Crusades. But behind both these arguments is an assumption that religion creates certain personality types, rather than attracting them...that Gandhi without religion would've been violent, or that Cardinal Guzman without religion would've been a man of peace. I don't think that's the case, and what bugs me about the study of "religion as a natural phenomenon" - or what's bugged me in some instances of it, I should say - is that I think it sometimes exaggerates the distance between the religious personality and the "normal" personality.

Magical thinking seems to me to be just a subset of a more general irrational thinking. And if religious views are masturbatory, they're not that much more masturbatory than, say, traditional romantic views of art or music as somehow "eternal." Or any other comforting idealist notion that a person might cling to without evidence, or in defiance of evidence. We seem to be wired less for God, than for irrational or unjustifiable belief.

As far as "positive" consequences of religion, a really big one is claimed by Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs, and Steel. I don't know whether his thesis is supported by extensive research or not, but it's an interesting claim:

Diamond claims that prior to the development of organized religion, there was no moral prohibition against killing other human beings outside of one's own band or tribe. The main goal of organized religion was to enlarge the perimeter of fellowship beyond one's own tribe. Nations only became possible with this indoctrination provided by religion.

Of course, the downside is that people became more willing to kill and die for the abstraction of "my nation", as well.

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?

Maybe religion tends to make people more compassionate towards their co-religionists, and less compassionate towards the heretics and infidels.

I must say, I want to read this book now.

David Sloan Wilson has an elegant answer to the religion: good or bad? question. Religion benefits the believers to the detriment of the non-believers.

Scientific Nietzscheans? Count me in, even if I'm being simplistic and mildly self-serving to call this work by that name. I've always thought I get as good a buzz from a Radiohead concert as a born again cultist gets out of a good sermon, and as far as I know no wars have ever been started in Thom Yorke's name.

Overgeneralize much?

Folks, given the range of religions and religious beliefs, from, oh, voodoo to t'ien t'ai buddhism, Quaker theism, and the whole Omega Point thing, don't you this this is a little naive?

Lately PZ Myers has been converting me to his idea that religiousity pretty much inherently involves magical thinking, and thus is at best useless and at worst dangerous.

Buddhism, especially in some of the Mahayana groups and in historical Buddhism from near the time of the Buddha, pretty explicitly eschews "magical thinking" and concentrades on learned skills for achieving calm.

Religious thinking in 12 step programs seems to have beneficial effects.

Maybe religion tends to make people more compassionate towards their co-religionists, and less compassionate towards the heretics and infidels.

Imperial Rome? Real live hard-core Calvinism? Or conversely, Buddhism, which is pretty general about being compassionate to everyone?

Well I believe in God, and I _love_ Dennett, at least what little I know about him. I am also curious to read what he's written. The world is screaming for a clear-headed scientist, without cranky biases that would cause him or her to thumb the scales, to scrutinize religion (sorry Lindsay, I know it made you mad when I said that about Dawkins, but I still think he's a false Dennett). I say scrutinize religion as closely as you can, with every measure you can. We need as many level heads on the matter as we can get.


Magic thinking is certainly something people are prone to, especially when confronted with frightening things we can't control. I know it is possible that religion evolved to face the fear of death, or the mystery of the sun's disappearance each day or the vagaries of weather.

believers insist that they worship as they do because they have some kind of access to the divine." This describes a symptom of confusing knowledge with feeling to an extreme that, to us outsiders, approaches pathology.

This is the question: is mysticism, or intuition, complete nonsense? Or can it be valid? The answer might seem obvious, but many people find intuition valid ("my child is in trouble. I don't know how I know. I just know."). I'm still convinced the idea of intuition will be proved or disproved one day, to the satisfaction of the scientist.

to drag all Wahabism into the terrorist category

One historian I read, I think it was Bernard Lewis (I know, he's a neocon guru, but he has encyclopedic knowledge of the Middle East), mentioned that the Wahhabists, like some puritanical Christians or born-agains, evolved as a counter to Muslim mystics like, for instance, the Sufis, who had a subjective experience of God. When you see born-agains or Wahhabis insisting on by-the-book interpretations of religion, you're seeing someone who doesn't have that inner experience of God, who wants to point to ink and paper instead. Unfortunately, the paper is often vague and self-contradictory, so their position is untenable, at least if they insist the Book is infallible. Any religious experience other than mysticism is just repeating someone else's story; and mysticism and intuition may be only magic thinking. It comes down to measuring the possibility of telepathy.

Hi Lindsay, We've been talking about this subject at home recently, and Hal stated that he thinks that the religious impulse is just a left-over bit of herding behaviour that's come down through genetic inheritance. Vat U tink, eh?

David Sloan Wilson has an elegant answer to the religion: good or bad? question. Religion benefits the believers to the detriment of the non-believers.

I don't think that applies very well to religions like Christian Science that forbid medical treatment or immunizations. (To say nothing of those that forbid birth control or divorce.) And as negative as fundamentalism is for those of us who reject it, I'd argue that it ultimately has greater negative effects on believers, who are led by it to throw away educational opportunities and vote against their best interests. Plus, some of 'em are so morbidly obsessed with the Rapture (or what have you) that they find it hard to function day-to-day.

It is hard to evaluate the health studies, say, which find positive effects from being religious, because these often conflate being religious and belonging to a close-knit and supportive community. I've noticed that religious plays an important social role in the U.S., serving as a substitute for the village communities of Europe or the market square of towns, and I'd guess that many of the positive effects attributed to religion (in terms of psychological health, for example) have a lot to do with the impact of a supportive community.

I'm not sure if the book distinguishes between spiritual and ethical aspects of religion, but the latter are surely worth studying extensively, as most religions appear to decide that what is ethical is the system that maintains the social hierarchy as it was found when the religion was established, or the social hierarchy upheaval the new religion caused. Hence women are practically always told that they should be subservient and so on.

Hi Lindsay, We've been talking about this subject at home recently, and Hal stated that he thinks that the religious impulse is just a left-over bit of herding behaviour that's come down through genetic inheritance. Vat U tink, eh?

(I know, you asked Lindsay, not me--) surely, though, since animism and appeasement of nature spirits is such a big part of most primitive religion, mustn't fear of the forces of nature, and the attempt to master them, be closer to the answer? Especially since when we first started cultivating crops, we were frighteningly at the mercy of such forces? Ancient history is not my strong suit, but I thought that the most ancient religions we know of (viz. in Mesopotamia) surfaced only after we began cultivating crops in an orderly way, and forming pre-urban dwelling places (hence, long after the most primitive tribal herding instincts would have already been in place)?

I've been told by some that my manner is superior, so please don't take my post that way--just discussing.

Hello. Got here via Geoff's blog. I'm a seminarian at the Episcopalian seminary in Berkeley, CA, while dad is a strong atheist. We've had a few brief chats about this book, and your review seems to answer all the questions I'd wondered about it. Thank you. I might give it a read over the summer.

"Buddhism, especially in some of the Mahayana groups and in historical Buddhism from near the time of the Buddha, pretty explicitly eschews "magical thinking" and concentrades on learned skills for achieving calm."

Actually some scholars (eg Paul Mus) think the Buddha was advocating a return to pre-Upanishad magical thinking. He object to the vedic priests turning religion into an esoteric ritualistic exercise under their exclusive control, out of the hands of the individual practitioner.

An interesting theme of study would be how religions respond to science. Fundamentalism tries to impose superstitious thinking and resist science, whereas more often religion revises its dognmas to take science into account

There are many ways we construct our knowledge of the universe and science is only one of them. Most of our practical knowledge--agriculture, medicine, metallurgy and more--does not come from science but from what so many here disdain as 'magical thinking'. It is just another religious fundmentalism to think that science is the only, ultimate window to reality.

I have no religious bone to pick, but as scientists, the first think we learn is the vastness of our ignorance and the severe limitations of our current idea of what science is. Humility is in order.

I think there are plenty of believers who make no claims to access to the divine. In fact, that's why there are books (Bible, Koran), because there is no mystical direct experience of the divine. The absence of the divine is actually the most common experience. It's important for critics of religion to actually read the books they attack.

1984: I say scrutinize religion as closely as you can, with every measure you can. We need as many level heads on the matter as we can get.
A most admirable attitude. I wish it were more common. I am encouraged to encounter this because it may offer the possibility of dialogs that, while they might change no minds nor make any converts, would deepen understanding on both sides of the debate.

re the validity of "intuition": Yes, I expect, if we ever get good enough with fMRI and other tools to separate out the conscious from the unconscious activity in cognition, particularly where understandings and decisions arise into consciousness, we may find they are more orderly than is now suspected or draw upon wider datasets and memory resources than ordinary consciousness can juggle... but until that day, I have way too much evidence that some pretty self serving bullshit is also labled as "intuition".

Re by-the-book fundamentalism as a cover for absence of a more organic experience of god: I could buy that about the fundies and it fits with my perception of how fear-based their psychology is. But I know that more liberal sects of Judaism constantly refer back to Torah and Talmud as proof texts and anchors of faith even as they reinterpret extensively. "people of the book" label gets applied to a variety of religious practices where I think the point of strong adherence to use if not literal belief of the sacred texts has more to do with rooting identity than instructing belief. Such sects often treat the text quite metaphorically.

Bernard Lewis: I have the book but have not brought myself to read it. "What went wrong" is a title that telegraphs bias and it puts me off.

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