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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

Linda, I link the herding/teamwork/in-group reward hypotheses.

Believers do claim that they have access to the divine in some capacity, though not necessarily through direct mystical experience. There are a limited number of ways to do that:a) Miracles, b) Mystical experience, c) Ascribing divine access to someone else That someone could be Moses on Mt. Sinai, Mohammed receiving the Koran, the Pope speaking ex Cathedra or the local guru, depending on your orientation. Alternatively, believers can appeal to ontological arguments or to the argument from design--but these don't establish anything important about the details of their religion. Even if you believe St. Anselm or the Argument from Design, all you're claiming is that there is (or was) a creator. Everything else in your religion from morality to liturgy to church potluck schedules has to be justified on some other grounds.

"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..."
----------

Good grief, we haven't make any progress since the 4th century BC!

Plato blurb that argument in Euthyphro. I thought by now we would already arguing about the ethics of quantum teleportation and time travel instead of keep noodling this soggy old thing. We are so doomed. Why bother. two millenias from now, I bet we will still noodling this same old question. ... ehrrr... now THIS is what I call pathological. Somebody somwhere on the other side of galaxy is laughing at us.

------
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plato

http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/euthyfro.html

Euthyphro By Plato
Written 380 B.C.E

Soc. Then, my friend, I remark with surprise that you have not answered the question which I asked. For I certainly did not ask you to tell me what action is both pious and impious: but now it would seem that what is loved by the gods is also hated by them. And therefore, Euthyphro, in thus chastising your father you may very likely be doing what is agreeable to Zeus but disagreeable to Cronos or Uranus, and what is acceptable to Hephaestus but unacceptable to Here, and there may be other gods who have similar differences of opinion.

I for one propose this:

-with all our modern knowledge of marketing, sociology, analytical philosophy, law cases ...

there should be a systematic information database on religion as "organisation"

The idiology, the propagation and maintenance of its idiology, information control, wealth generation/distribution/..etc.

If the CIA can analyize a third world country, find weak point and design a coup. Or a terrorist organizations, or whatever other form of organisations...

religious organisation should be a child play to analyze, penetrate and create a condition whereby it implode upon itself.

Obviously there are more than enough 'apologist' material on the net, but they are highly chaotic and nobody ever attempts to organize them.


Surely there are some bored comparative religion grad students or social philosophy geeks who just bored out of their mind and want to start designing this project. Is somebody can create operating system via internet colaboration, it's about time the destructive force of religion be controled once and for all.

Like I say, the next dry drunk chimp climbs on top of that chair, it'll be global thermonuclear and planet size war.

Sounds like theism and atheism serve the universal human desire for self-satisfaction. How enlightening.

Fine let's take miracles. There is no scientific reason to rule out miracles. Only if we had comprehensive knowledge of causality could we do that, and we don't. Analytic philosophy tried to bridge the gap between causality and reason through logic (replacing Hume's psychologism) but failed. So the scientists' commitment to reason seems to fail by its own standard, reason, if there is no reasonable reason to be reasonable. The critics of religion like Dennett might be a little more moderate if they realized that.

White, I'm not sure I understand your point. Alleged miracles are the easiest religious claims to test scientifically. If someone says they can heal by the laying on of hands, or predict the future, or walk through walls, then we can test that. We don't have to worry about whether miracles are impossible a priori. I have my doubts about whether the concept really makes sense when you submit it to scrutiny, but I'm prepared to acknowledge that miracles are possible in some sense. I just don't see any evidence that they happen.

What exactly would a general, non-instance-specific concept of "miracle" be?

whitecitycrime-

In addition, once one admits that there is such a thing as inductive logic, your conundrum goes away.

Fine let's take miracles. There is no scientific reason to rule out miracles.

Posted by: whitecitycrimes | March 09, 2006 at 12:08 PM

yeah, it's call scientific experimentation. If your miracle says you can levitate, all science has to do is throw you out from tall building and see if you levitate.

(hey speaking of, how about leprosy? we cure that didn't we? ...oh my gawd. we have MIRACLE...

what you gonna do if somebody start building 'walk on water' belt?)

Altho' that water to cabernet sauvignon trick is pretty neat party trick I must admit.

miracle my foot. Osama said the twin tower collapsing was a miracle too.

What if some degree of accuracy in our understanding of the universe reveals that enlightened existance can not be worthwhile? It is not an impossibility. It would explain the dearth of interstellar tourism for one thing. Anybody smart enough to make the trip long ago figured it (or anything else) was not worth the bother.

That is a possible argument for magical thinking, though it also relies on the premise that happy ignorance is preferable to fatal enlightenment.

"Sounds like theism and atheism serve the universal human desire for self-satisfaction. How enlightening."

So do warm socks, football and oral sex. What human inventions don't serve the universal human desire for self-satisfaction?

The scientist observes certain regularities but cannot rule out the violation of those regularities, ie miracles. This is standard philosophy 101 Hume. The same principle is applied to a man coming back from the dead after three days. The critique of miracles consists entirely of ridicule but never of demonstration, which is the criteria the scientist chose. The believer is not moved one inch by the observation of regularities in nature.

The critique of miracles consists entirely of ridicule but never of demonstration

What do you mean? Fraudulent faith healers are debunked all the time.

Hume said that people shouldn't believe in miracles because the evidence for them was bound to be insufficient to support such an extraordinary hypothesis. Even if you are confronted with an even that seems miraculous, it's more likely that you just don't understand the laws of nature, or that you're being tricked, or that you're hallucinating, or whatever.

WCC,

There are no contentions that there ever was someone who rose from the dead after three days. If you believe there are, it is because your thoughts have been manipulated. If you read a book that has the line "...on the third day he rose again..." you are imaginig it. There is no ink in that part of the book, it is really blank. If someone tells you that it happened, you are simply misunderstanding the language. The words don't mean what you think they mean.

The paragraph above is of equal validity to miricles.

It is not that rationality can not rule out miricles. It is that miricles rule out all rationality. Therefore, making rational arguments for the possible existance of miricles is pointless.

The belief in Christianity is built on certain miracles, ie virgin birth, return from the dead. There is no reason to believe these did not occur. All attempts to do so assume the indemonstrable, that nature is always uniform.

Nicene Christianity may appear to be based on such beliefs, WCC, but the experience of the early church doesn't necessarily agree. Nor is there much to suggest that such a belief is agreement with the position that such things are literal, objective, historicial fact. Christianity has a rich, rich tradition of allegory and metaphor behind it. I wish we'd pay more attention to that.

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 transcendence on demand?

Far from undermining belief, I think this would be the best advertisement for religion yet. It sure makes religion seem more appealing to me. The only drawback I can see to this kind of religion is that I might not be able to resist the urge to attain transcendence on demand at inappropriate times--say at the office, when I'm supposed to be working.

this well written, elegantly reasoned reveiw sent me to the amazon page, it's on the way. thanks for a job well done.

greensmile, thank you for the kind word. I have to say that I'm a strange person, and not at all representative of the religious community, except maybe in California. I don't believe in miracles (as mentioned elsewhere, I don't think God ever breaks Its own rules; I believe that God, being omnipresent, could be said to possess all the power that is in fact possessed, but can't wish Itself out of existence, or do anything that contradicts demonstrated physical laws).

There is, as you say, much bullshit passed off as intuition. Also, though I feel that the mystical, subjective experience is the only true experience of God, that is also a completely indefensible one. All my hope, then, rests with our friends in the laboratory, proving or disproving telepathy, and thus, disproving or proving the possibility of these mystical experiences being anything more than masturbatory fantasies.

"What went wrong" is a title that telegraphs bias and it puts me off.

That book, unfortunately, is the _worst_ Bernard Lewis book. If you read it, it will only confirm your worst feelings about him. Give that one to your local library, and check out some of his other pieces. The Emergence of Modern Turkey was a great one, and Istanbul was a neat, short book (he seems to be at his best in Turkey). It seems that he falls into cranky bias when he gets to the 20th century, and does some superb work when you go back a century or two, or further.

"Sounds like theism and atheism serve the universal human desire for self-satisfaction. How enlightening."

So do warm socks, football and oral sex.

I think the poster meant "self-congratulation."

oral sex=self-satisfaction

So it looks like Njorl is about receiving, but not giving ;) (kidding)

The belief in Christianity is built on certain miracles, ie virgin birth, return from the dead. There is no reason to believe these did not occur. All attempts to do so assume the indemonstrable, that nature is always uniform.

Posted by: whitecitycrimes | March 09, 2006 at 02:48 PM

It's simpler to conclude that all those are just made up story. *shrug*. Voila, all explained, no miracle needed.

In case you haven't seen it, Richard Swinburne's reply to Dennett is much better than Wieseltier's.

whitecitycrimes

"There is no scientific reason to rule out miracles. Only if we had comprehensive knowledge of causality could we do that, and we don't."

"The believer is not moved one inch by the observation of regularities in nature."

Like hell the believer is not. If a believer were to see a pig fly, the believer would be just as astonished as any atheist, because like the atheist, a lifetime of observation has taught him that pigs never, ever, fly. You don’t need a thorough understanding of atomic forces, quantum physics, gravitation, aeronautics, etc. (causality) to know that no cloven-hoofed animal flies. The dead don’t get up and walk. You don’t need a comprehensive knowledge of cellular physiology to know that. Virgin women don’t give birth. Parthenogenesis does exist among a very few vertebrates (e.g. some whiptail lizards) but not among mammals. Doesn’t happen. Never has. Period. If one of the three-plus billion women on earth were to whelp an unfathered pup, PhDs would descend like locusts around the miracle child. You know that.

How many “miracles” have you witnessed? My guess is none. Don’t waste your time waiting for one. And if someone says they saw a miracle, get multiple lines of corroboration. Especially if the miracles occurred two millennia past.

"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?"

Hmmm... Puts a different spin on the phrase "self abuse".
I think I'll just stick with the the plain vanilla sin of Onan.

I don't know what Dennett could mean when he complains of a taboo against scrutiny of religion. The "concern" mentioned above--that it would undermine religious faith--sounds like an ad baculum argument. What is wrong with Dennett's approach, to my mind at least, is that it addresses religion as a matter of personal belief, while ignoring the place of religion in society as a whole.

There is, I suppose, a good reason for this "methodological individualism;" people in our society really are free to adhere to their own individual beliefs. But here Dennett mistakes a peculiarity of modern, specifically Western, religion for the determining factor of religion in general. Religion is an eminently historical phenomenon, and a "scientific" approach of the sort proposed by Dennett obscures both what a society structured by religion looks like, and to what extent we have departed from it.

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