Dennett: Breaking the Spell

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Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York : Viking Penguin, 2006. 448 pages, with appendices, notes, bibliography, and index.

We know that Dennett has a reputation as a leading atheistic intellectual, but let's not presuppose that this volume of his is a direct attack on religion. Dennett is simply not the type to indulge in histrionics or polemic. However, you can guess from the beginning that he's not going to end the book with a sudden religious conversion experience.

Dennett's goal is to examine, analytically and relatively dispassionately, the question of whether religion might have a natural origin. Setting aside the usual notion that religion follows on from the revealed word of God (at least for those religions that have a God, or only one God, or revealed words), could there be a possibly explanation for the existence of religion as a natural phenomenon? Might the apparently common need that some people feel for a religion have an origin, say, in human evolution?

To elucidate the idea of religion as a natural phenomenon, we can compare religion to music, which had to arise somehow, presumably through evolution, because no one takes it to be a revealed art. In examining the evolutionary question, one can ask what is the cost of evolving religion, and the cost of maintaining it. Dennett feels that there must be some considerable benefit to the idea of religion, because the cost of maintaining it is high.

But isn't the hypothesis that the costs of religion outweigh the benefits even more ludicrous than the fantastic claim about music? I don't think so. Music may be what Marx said religion is: the opiate of the masses, keeping working people in tranquilized subjugation, but it may also be the rallying song of revolution, closing up the ranks and giving heart to all. On this point, music and religion have quite similar profiles. In other regards, music looks far less problematic than religion. Over the millennia, music has started a few riots, and charismatic musicians may have sexually abused a shocking number of susceptible young fans, and seduced many others to leave their families (and their wits) behind, but no crusades or jihads have been waged over differences in musical tradition, no pogroms have been instituted against the lovers of waltzes or ragas or tangos. Whole populations haven't been subjected to obligatory scale-playing or kept in penury in order to furnish concert halls with the finest acoustics and instruments. no musicians have had fatwas pronounced against them by musical organizations, not even accordionists. [p. 43]

Then, of course, there's the question of TRUTH. Many feel that religion provides for them what little in this world they can take to be absolute truth, which many feel is necessary if they are to feel moored in the universe. Some claim that scientific truth can substitute, but not everyone is comfortable with the contingent nature of scientific truth.

But what about all the controversies in science? New theories are trumpeted one week and discredited the next. When Nobel laureates disagree over a scientific claim, at least one of them is just wrong., in spite of being an anointed prince or princess of the church of science. And what about the occasional scandals of fraudulent data and suppression of results? Scientists are not infallible, nor are they, as a rule, more virtuous than laypeople, but they do submit to a remarkable discipline that keeps them honest in spite of themselves, imposing elaborate systems of self-restraint and review, and to a remarkable degree depersonalizing their individual contributions. So, although it is true that there have been eminent scientists who were racists, or sexists or drug addicts or just plain crazy, their contributions almost always stand or fall independently of these personal failings, thanks to the filters, check, and balances that weed out the unreliable work. (Occasionally, a scientist or a whole school of scientific research will fall into dishonor or political disrepute, and since serious scientists don't want to cite those pariahs in their own work, this blocks perfectly good research for a generation or more. In psychology, for example, research on eidetic imagery—"photographic memory"—was stalled for a long time because some of the early work was done by Nazis.) [pp. 371—372]

For many the deciding issue is morality. A surprising number of people feel that moral systems can only flow, by revelation, from some greater moral authority, and they take a petty superior attitude about it, too. Is it justified?

...those who have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem: if they themselves haven't conscientiously considered, on their own, whether their pastors or priests or rabbis or imams are worthy of this delegated authority over their own lives, then they are in fact taking a personally immoral stand.

This is perhaps the most shocking implication of my inquiry, and I do not shrink from it, even though it may offence many who think of themselves as deeply moral. It is commonly supposed that it is entirely exemplary to adopt the moral teachings of one's own religion without questions, because –to put it simply—it is the word of God (as interpreted, always, by the specialists to whom one has delegated authority). I am urging, on the contrary, that anybody who professes that a particular point of moral conviction is not discussable, not debatable, not negotiable, simply because it is the word of God, or because the bible says so, or because "that is what all Muslims –Hindus, Sikhs...] believe, and I am a Muslim [Hindu, Sikh...]," should be seen to be making it impossible for the rest of us to take their views seriously, excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing.

The argument for this is straightforward. Suppose I have a friend, Fred, who is (in my carefully considered opinion) always right. If I tell you I'm against stem-cell research because "my friend Fred says it's wrong and that's all there is to it," you will just look at me as if I was missing the point of the discussion. This is supposed to be a consideration of reasons, and I have not given you a reason that I in good faith could expect you to appreciate. suppose you believe that stem-cell research is wrong because that is what God has told you. Even if you are right--that is, even if God does indeed exist and has, personally, told you that stem-cell research is wrong—you cannot reasonably expect others who do not share your faith or experience to accept this as a reason. You are being unreasonable in making your stand. The fact that your faith is so strong that you cannot do otherwise just shows (if you really can't) that you are disabled for moral persuasion, a sort of robotic slave to a meme that you are unable to evaluate. And if you reply that you can but you won't consider reasons for and against your conviction (because it is god's word, and it would be sacrilegious even to consider whether it might be in error), you avow your willful refusal to abide by the minimal conditions of rational discussion. Either way, your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will just have to work around you as best we can.

Notice that this stand involves no disrespect and no prejudging of the possibility that God has told you. If God has told you, then part of your problem is convincing others, to whom God has not (yet) spoken, that this is what we ought to believe. If you refuse or are unable to attempt this, you are actually letting your God down, in the guise of demonstrating your helpless love. You can withdraw from the discussion if you must—that is your right—but then don't expect us to give your view any particular weight that we cannot discover by other means—and don't blame us if we don't "get it." [pp. 295—297]

These days, "spirituality" is quite the rage, but no one really seems to know quiet what it is. Like moral authority, many people can't say but they feel they can recognize it when they see it.

In the course of my research on this book, I found one opinion expressed in slightly different ways by people across the spectrum of religious views: "man" has a "deep need" for "spirituality," a need that is fulfilled for some by traditional organized religion, for others by New Age cults or movements or hobbies, and for still others by the intense pursuit of art or music, pottery or environmental activism—or football! What fascinates me about this delightfully versatile craving for "spirituality" is that people think they know what they are talking about, even though—or perhaps because—nobody bothers to explain just what they mean. It is supposed to be obvious, I guess. But it really isn't. When I've asked people to explain themselves, they typically beg off, along the lines of Louis Armstrong's oft-quoted reply when asked what jazz was: "If you gotta ask, you ain't never gonna get to know." This will not do. To see for yourself just how hard it is to say what spirituality is, take a stab at improving on this parody, boiled down from many frustrating encounters: "Spirituality is, you know, like, it's alike paying attention to your soul or having deep thoughts that really move you, and not just thinking about who's got nicer clothes and whether to buy a new car and what's for dinner and stuff like that. Spirituality is really caring and not being ju8st, you know, materialistic" Along with this common and unreflective view of spirituality goes a stereotype of the atheist: atheists lack "values"; they are careless, self-centered, shallow, overconfident. They think they know it all, and yet they completely miss out on the spirit. (You really can't be a good person unless you have a spiritual life.) [pp. 302—303]

Dennett's goal is to argue that religion could have arisen naturally, through evolutionary pressures. I don't know that I accept his conclusion that there is indeed a likely explanation for religion in evolutionary biology, but it was worth talking about. I didn't find it as packed with stimulating ideas as Darwin's Dangerous Idea, but there was still plenty to keep it interesting.

-- Notes by JNS

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