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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

3.88  ·  Rating Details ·  9,004 Ratings  ·  365 Reviews
In Breaking the Spell Daniel C. Dennett explores how the great ideas of religion have enthralled us for thousands of years - and whether we could (or should) break free.

What is religion and how did it evolve? Is it the product of blind evolutionary instinct or of rational choice? Is the only way to live a good life through religion?

Few forces in the world are as potent as
Paperback, 448 pages
Published March 29th 2007 by Penguin (first published January 1st 2006)
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Aug 24, 2014 Manny rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 06, 2007 Tucker rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: finished
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
Nov 04, 2007 Jamey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 25, 2008 Paul Fidalgo rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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).
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
Miloš Kostić
Jan 13, 2016 Miloš Kostić rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
Već od samog provokativnog naslova nam je jasan cilj knjige, ali ton samog izlaganja je zapanjujuće prijateljski, sa vrlo malo provokacija. Izgleda da je autor zaista iskren kada kaže da je knjiga napisana da bi je čitali i religiozni ljudi. Naravno, on misli na obrazovane i intelektualno poštene ljude, ne na fundamentaliste koji ne prihvataju, na primer, evoluciju života. Knjiga zvuči kao da je napisana prvenstveno njima. Još jedna od glavnih ciljnih grupa su mu budući istraživači.
Da bi uopšte
Jul 21, 2009 Jed rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: theology
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
Dec 06, 2007 Paul rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 25, 2011 Jimmy rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: atheism
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
Aya Hatem
The problem is that there are good spells and then there are bad spells. If only some timely phone call could have interrupted the proceedings at Jonestown in Guyana in 1978, when the lunatic Jim Jones was ordering his hundreds of spellbound followers to commit suicide! If only we could have broken the spell that enticed the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo to release sarin gas in a Tokyo subway, killing a dozen people and injuring thousands more! If only we could figure out some way today to break t ...more
May 31, 2011 Mike rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Apr 08, 2007 Kat rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Feb 28, 2014 Damon Gubler rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: book-club
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.
May 02, 2012 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommended to Adam by: Andrew
Dennett is among the nicest scholars I've encountered. He is just eminently reasonable, kind-hearted, and eloquent throughout. The argument he makes in "Breaking the Spell" is almost tamely reasonable: "my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives." OK, of course, no arguments there, from nearly any quarter.

The bulk of the book is occupied with a much different argument, perhaps an exam
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
Jul 07, 2012 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 08, 2012 John Doe rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: reviewed

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
Dennett doesn't offer us much that is new in this book; it's basically a re-presentation of old ideas (we're just robots taking up the intentional stance, religion is a meme to be explained in Darwinian terms, etc), thrown together with a good deal of liberal social commentary, a painfully distorted presentation of Catholic, Jewish, and Islamic belief and practice, and some revisionist history for good measure. It could easily have been two hundred pages shorter if he had cut out all the irrelev ...more
Apr 24, 2009 Tyler rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Aaron Lord
Dec 13, 2012 Aaron Lord rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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...
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
May 04, 2010 Rebecca rated it really liked it  ·  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
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
Apr 08, 2012 Ron rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: nonfiction
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
Dec 23, 2011 Daniel rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 05, 2011 Adam rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Oct 19, 2009 Becky rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Todd Martin
In Breaking the Spell Dan Dennett, Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University, examines religion as a natural phenomenon. In other words, he examines the evolutionary, sociological and psychological factors that served to make religion ubiquitous among Homo sapiens.

Dennett has been dubbed one of the “Four Horsemen” along with Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Sam Harris which is bizarre because he comes off as about the nicest, most cordial and courteous person around (he even looks li
Frank Clark
There was some good information and concepts in this book, but they were often very difficult to discover. Dennett is extremely wordy - often needlessly so. And after finishing the book, I'm still struggling to understand exactly what many of his points were. Ultimately he falls short of living up to the title. I had been looking forward to reading Dennett for some time, and I can honestly say that, after this book, I won't pick up another of his. Finally, I really find it pompous when someone q ...more
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Is Dennett being reasonable? 5 48 Sep 13, 2013 05:58AM  
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Daniel Clement Dennett III is a prominent philosopher whose research centers on philosophy of mind, science, and biology, particularly as they relate to evolutionary biology and cognitive science. He is the co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies and the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. Dennett is a noted atheist, avid sailor, and advocate of the Brights move ...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.” 206 likes
“People are afraid of being more ignorant than their children―especially, apparantly, their daughters.” 25 likes
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