Marina Keenan's Reviews > Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett
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Feb 15, 08

Recommended 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 really the collective concept of a group of people who are similarly connected socially and religiously. In a recent Good Reads forum based on Dawkins' The God Delusion, most of the faithful who participated suggested that because so many others believed in God throughout history, their study of "scripture" should not be questioned by me or other participants. Alas, none were willing to address the reasons why their church hung pictures of a Jesus who looked more like a white musician from Seattle than someone from Jesus' home town. This scares me because the faithful have confirmed that their minds are not their own and they have lost the ability to think critically about their beliefs. The other part of the definition that almost leads me to panic, that the participants seek approval from a supernatural agent or agents, means that not only is some vaguely defined and socially reinforced God concept granted greater-than-self status in the minds of the faithful, but the agents' "prophets," to whom enough has been revealed to write a bestseller, are granted God's special favor, and their approval must be sought as well. This scenario is made possible by the aforementioned sacrifice of mind, and enables leaders of any religion you'd care to name to compromise its believers in practically any way.

In Breaking the Spell, Dennett demonstrates faith in people's ability to make clear decisions by suggesting that if school children were to study all of the world's religions, they would learn to think critically and be unwilling to sacrifice this ability for the sake of any supernatural agent or prophet. Should students begin to have thoughts that transcend social/religious paradigms and pressures, no current religious system could survive it, and I think that would be a good thing.
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Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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message 1: by Judy (new) - added it

Judy "Alas, none were willing to address the reasons why ... Jesus ... looked more like a white musician from Seattle than someone from Jesus' home town."

That was funny. You 'rock!'


message 2: by William (new)

William Braddell "In Breaking the Spell, Dennett demonstrates faith in people's ability to make clear decisions by suggesting that if school children were to study all of the world's religions, they would learn to think critically and be unwilling to sacrifice this ability for the sake of any supernatural agent or prophet. Should students begin to have thoughts that transcend social/religious paradigms and pressures, no current religious system could survive it, and I think that would be a good thing."

You've clearly never heard of Sanatana Dharma or of the Sophia Perennis, both of which totally refute your thesis.


message 3: by Rob (new)

Rob Lewis William, (in your opinion) is critical thinking antithetical to enlightenment?


message 4: by William (last edited Apr 13, 2012 01:08AM) (new)

William Braddell Rob said: "William, (in your opinion) is critical thinking antithetical to enlightenment?"

I suspect your comment is just a typical example of Bulverism but I'll give you the benefit of the doubt and reply anyway:

Do I think that critical thinking is antithetical to 'enlightenment?' Not at all and it is impossible that you could have discerned that I thought it was from my comment above, at least assuming you were acting on intellectually honest grounds. Through critical thinking, many have developed an interest in esoterism and metaphysics, so it is obvious that critical thinking can be a very valuable asset.

I don't find much critical thinking in the New Atheist movement though, they just target Evangelical Christians and thats like shooting fish in a barrel. From what I know of him, I certainly have not found much 'critical thinking' in Dennett who seems to be determined to reduce all discussions on consciousness to a false dichotomy between Materialism and Cartesian-Bifurcationism and then act as if he's refuted all views that contradict the former. Equally as dishonest as just targeting the Evangelicals, I must say.

If Marina really wanted to assert what she has asserted in an accurate manner, then she should be aware that not all religions hold excluvist viewpoints and that even within the ones that do, there are often more esoteric currents within them that diverge on this point. Therefore you really should have directed your question at her and not me, as she does not appear to have examined the matter from anything other than a very narrow perspective.


message 5: by Rob (new)

Rob Lewis re: bulverism - I wasn't extending any kind of argument or insinuation regarding your previous post; sorry if the question came off that way.

I didn't understand the reference you were making with that one sentence: "You've clearly never heard of Sanatana Dharma or of the Sophia Perennis, both of which totally refute your thesis.".

Thanks for expanding the thought.


message 6: by William (new)

William Braddell No problem, I perhaps jumped to conclusions a little to early in my reply. I'd recommend using Wikipedia for those two terms though, it might explain things better.


message 7: by Miriam (last edited Jul 14, 2014 10:25AM) (new)

Miriam In a recent Good Reads forum based on Dawkins' The God Delusion, most of the faithful who participated suggested that because so many others believed in God throughout history, their study of "scripture" should not be questioned

Seems to defeat the purpose of having a forum in the first place...


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