Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

3.89 of 5 stars 3.89  ·  rating details  ·  6,082 ratings  ·  295 reviews
An innovative thinker tackles the controversial question of why we believe in God and how religion shapes our lives and our future

For a growing number of people, there is nothing more important than religion. It is an integral part of their marriage, child rearing, and community. In this daring new book, distinguished philosopher Daniel C. Dennett takes a hard look at th...more
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published February 2nd 2006 by Viking Adult
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Sep 10, 2014 Manny rated it 3 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Open-minded people curious about religion
As people who read books on evolutionary theory will know, mice sometimes exhibit bizarre behavior, fearlessly walking into the waiting jaws of cats. They do this because they have been infected by the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, which can only reproduce in a cat's digestive tract; the mouse's behavior is thus adaptive, not for the mouse, but rather for the parasite. Dennett uses this as his starting point when discussing the nature of religion. Maybe religions are like T. gondii: they are self-...more
Marina Keenan
Feb 15, 2008 Marina Keenan rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: People who want to change beliefs that resist their scrutiny
To preface my remarks here, I think it is important that I note Dennett's definition of religion and its implications. He defines religion as social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought. Two elements of the definition almost cause me panic as I read them. The first, the fact that any religion is a social system, suggests to me that since one cannot worship a supernatural agent alone, God, a "he" most everywhere you look, is reall...more
An admirable intellectual, Dennett spends the first several chapters carefully establishing the parameters of his discussion. His book addresses the adherents of organized religion: more specifically, those who believe that God is a "who" rather than a "what", and who hold certain sets of beliefs without making them available for rational critique. The title of Dennett's book, "Breaking the Spell," refers his insistence that religious beliefs should be examined logically and scientifically to in...more
If I understood it, the basic thesis of Dennett's arrogantly titled Consciousness Explained was that consciousness is a phenomenon that emerges from the harmonious orchestration of many smaller, dumber subsystems in the brain. Among the good ideas in Breaking the Spell is the claim that one of these little modules is an "agent detector," and that it's "over-active," so that people experience the wind as the breath of a God; the rain as the God's gift, disease as the presence of exorcisable uncle...more
Paul Fidalgo
I can't recommend this highly enough. This is not an anti-religion screed at all, but comes at the topic of religion as a naturally emerging aspect of humanity in a thoughtful, funny, accessible way. It is "New Atheist" only in that it calls for open questioning and research of religion and its utility (and it's written by an atheist).
I really wanted to like this book, because I'd just finished reading The End of Faith and God is Not Great, but this book suffers from lack of conviction. Where The End of Faith is the absolute model of conviction, and God is Not Great lays out convincing arguments (but takes some of their momentum away with dryly humorous asides), Breaking the Spell has neither conviction nor cleverness.

I confess I only read the first couple of chapters, because I lost interest in an author who wasn't willing t...more
Jon Edward
I considered for the first time that teaching a child religion might be a form of child abuse. I learned that there might be bio-evolutionary reasons why religions develop and that when we come to see that religion is invented, we need to remember to be gentle with others who might not have seen that. Nonetheless, we owe it to ourselves to consider the costs of religion. It might be that it harms our world more than helps it. If religions were based in fact, we would have to accept that. Since t...more
Rod Hilton
This was my fourth attempt at reading Breaking the Spell. Back when I first got interested in nonbelief, it was one of four books I purchased physical copies of at the bookstore, along with The God Delusion, God is Not Great, and The End of Faith. In fact, it was the first of those four books I decided to read, because I was struggling with my own dwindling faith, and the title seemed the least confrontational so I figured it would be the best to ease myself into things. I quickly got tired of t...more
It was certainly interesting, and its chief thesis is worth contemplating. I think that were it less philosophical (i.e. speculative b.s.) and more empirical, I would have found it more persuasive--or at least a more enjoyable read. I sound like my students now in saying that I think it could have been written with the same (or greater) effectiveness in about a third of the pages, but in this case it's true. He elaborates in a way that seems more self-indulgent than illuminating. I don't know, I...more
Mr. Dennett is one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism, and a personal hero of mine. In this book, he discusses the need for science to study religion. He points to "an absence of information" about religion. We need to find out why people believe in the supernatural and what the results of those beliefs are. I agree. He presents his case in an easy to read book meant to reach out to a large audience.

Philosophers of religion get very little attention in the world of philosophy.

He points out how th...more
Apr 08, 2007 Kat rated it 5 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Everyone
Dennett is a proud atheist, and he does not back away from his convictions. He is able to singlehandedly defeat many Christian conventions that have become acceptable to our modern American society through the use of pure, philosophic logic that works well to break us all out of the spell in which we have been living all of our lives as members of a "Christian Nation" (to quote Sam Harris). He use of example and parable makes the book invaluable to anyone who wants a new way of loking at the con...more
Damon Gubler
Probably my favorite book club book so far. I'd give it a 4.5 but since that isn't an option I rounded up.
This is a great book IMO for the religious or non-religious just for the questions that he poses. Lots to think on and he does it in a very gentle way.
Of all the books out there that take on the subject of religion head on, this one definitely has the softest touch. Daniel Dennett doesn't set out to mock people for believing the unbelievable; rather, he makes a very interesting case for religion being a "natural phenomenon," as the subtitle suggests. And Breaking the Spell is much more than a polemic. I can't begin to say how much I learned from this book, about the coevolution of human society and the world surrounding it. Dennett expands on...more
Pros: Dennett's clear and light-hearted (self-effacing even) style of writing has the ability to bring readers from all walks of life into his theories and examples. He weaves evolutionary theory into several disciplines, and isn't as pedantic as some philosophers writing in the same area(s). In Breaking the Spell, he approaches religion from his standard naturalist worldview and posits the question "Cui bono?" (who benefits?) throughout the work as he attempts to explain the origin and survival...more
John Doe

I have been attending a new church, and I have been listening to some things I needed to hear. 'Leagalism' is a term used to describe the perspective that following rules and living up to certain standards is how you win your salvation. Christians know that our salvation doesn't come from following rules or living up to standards, but rather, it comes from our trust in christ. This, I understand, does not mean that christians should not follow rules but only that our salvation does not dep...more
Dennett establishes the foundations of an empirical program for the study of religion, which requires that he establishes (and he does) reasons for thinking of religion as a natural phenomenon, using meme theory and evolutionary theory to do so. Dennett dispels some of the myths and prejudices surrounding religion and its 'special status' in the eyes of both hardline religious folk and sensitive mutliculturalist academic/leftist sorts. Aside from some pretty minor issues, this is a sophisticated...more
Although he is a member of the group of freethinkers and "new atheists" who are now speaking out in print against religion, Dennet takes a somewhat different approach. He lays out a case for subjecting religious tenets to scientific scrutiny, treating religion as a natural phenomenon that should be investigated with as much detachment and scientific curiosity as the fundamental forces, elementary particles, or chemical/biological processes. Occasionally I wasn't sure if he was arguing for invest...more
Dennett's underlying concern in this book is the growth of fanaticism among the adherents of religions - especially Islamist terrorism, but also extremists within Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism. He believes that a major obstacle in addressing fanaticism is the general reluctance to submit religion and religious belief to scientific inquiry - to understand it, in other words, as a naturally occurring phenomenon. Religions, which regard themselves as grounded in the supernatural, are well def...more
Rowland Bismark
Whoever would have guessed the pineapple had such an interesting history. It's early association with the explorations of new worlds and the wonder of new new tastes and the marvels of an expanding concept of geography made it tremendously appealing to the royalty and the rich of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. No costs were spared to possess, and indeed to cultivate this amazing and delicate treasure. Although a bit over informed by the end of the book I was, never-the-less entertained...more
First off, this might be obvious, but if you're not fairly interested in the subject, this is likely to be a pretty dull experience.

Now for the actual book. I think Dennett did a very fine job dissecting all his reasoning, and then come to his final verdicts, perhaps, too good a job. While reading I felt a bit bored for the first 250 or so pages, which is quite a chunk of the book, and only then, do the more interesting stuff start. I could use a little more conclusions and opinions in the firs...more
John Alt
In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett hopes to break the spell--not of religious belief, but of the conviction that it is not a fit subject for scientific inquiry. Never the twain shall meet--this is a bad idea according to Dennett. Stephen Jay Gould wrote of "non-overlapping magisteria," of both science and religion as worthy of respect in their own rights, but unbridgeable, the one to the other.

Dennett takes exception to this, maintaining that religion is a fi...more
Joe Iacovino
Dennett seems like he'd be one of the nicest people you would ever meet. He is not polarizing like, say Dawkins, but that also gives him the ability to reach a broader audience. That, unfortunately, may be where he lost some steam with me in this book. I felt like his detailing his argument parameters left me often saying, "I know, let's get to it." Therein lies the problem I had with this book, I wasn't the target audience. The book really seemed to be geared to those who have not really examin...more
May 13, 2010 Rebecca rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: anyone
There are lots of different kinds of atheist books out there, and contrary to popular (mis)conception, they are not all angry, nor are all they all written by scientists with an axe to grind against the creationists. I have read some of the angry books, and while I enjoyed them, I certainly wouldn't recommend them to a religious believer, because they would only succeed in raising the believer's hackles and putting them in such a defensive position that all debate would be stonewalled. It's not...more
Jan 12, 2009 Charles rated it 4 of 5 stars
Recommends it for: Open minded people who care about the state of our world.
Shelves: favorites
Daniel C. Dennett is a professor of philosophy so, as might be expected, he doesn't offer many answers in this book. He does however present more than a few questions and interesting ideas. Many of which I feel should be given more than just a casual glance.
The book is divided into three parts:
Part 1 Opening Pandora's Box
- What is the definition of religion?
- Can science study religion? Should science study religion?
- Cui bono? Who benefits from religion as a whole? Individuals? Society? Or...more
Pascal Durrenberger
Another disappointment for me with this second book from Daniel after consciousness explained. Perhaps it is because he is targeting a wider audience rather. A couple of points got me skeptic about his input on the topic of religion which I still believe should be dealt with by many sciences rather than philosophy. I actually experienced more disappointment as I read the book for a journal club where most people came without reading the book. All is not lost. There are a few sentences and commen...more
Lage von Dissen
Dennett asks us to inquire about religion using the same scientific methodology that we've used to investigate just about every other facet of human culture and experience. Religion has affected the evolution of the human race in incredible ways, and it continues to affect how we look at the world and our place in it. People have often said that scientific methodologies can't or shouldn't be applied to religion, for it is taboo to do so, and if for no other reason, doing so will "break the spell...more
Daniel Dennett, a brilliant philosopher, devotes his book to analysing religion as a natural phenomenon. He looks at religion from multiple points and comments on how our beliefs shape our reality and influence all aspects of everyday life. Why we don't trust the 'others' or what the modern science can reveal about our spiritual life, the concept of 'memes' in a way our brain stores the information and much more. An amazing book!
Rich Mccue
An important book with interesting insights into why people believe the unbelievable, but at times I felt like I was reading a text book. I'd recommend this book to anyone who want to better understand why bronze age religions still have such a strong hold on the minds of a large portion of their families and friends.
Aaron Lord
A groundbreaking work addressing the development of religions in terms of memes. But it's 33% appendices, so you might be closer to the end than you realize...
Abe TheSemite
This author has produced not smart titles for his books! He wrote also a book called "Consciousness Explained". It seems he tends to deliver his theses to his audience as if he were a Prophet who transcendentally knows it all! Neil deGrasse Tyson puts him in his place saying that "we still do not have any clue about what 'consciousness' is and there is really no such thing as 'consciousness' but rather it is some function of the human brain that is yet to be discovered."
It it always good and imp...more
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Is Dennett being reasonable? 5 44 Sep 13, 2013 05:58AM  
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"Daniel Clement Dennett (born March 28, 1942 in Boston, Massachusetts) is a prominent American philosopher whose research centers on philosophy of mind, philosophy of science and philosophy of biology, particularly as those fields relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is currently the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philoso...more
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“If you can approach the world's complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things.” 156 likes
“People are afraid of being more ignorant than their children―especially, apparantly, their daughters.” 17 likes
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