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

3.89  ·  Rating details ·  11,771 ratings  ·  480 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 thi
Hardcover, 448 pages
Published February 24th 2006 by Viking Books (first published February 2nd 2006)
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Average rating 3.89  · 
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 ·  11,771 ratings  ·  480 reviews

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Aug 24, 2014 rated it liked it
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 rated it it was amazing
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
Aug 03, 2020 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: atheism, religion
Because of the rather cumbersome first part, clearly addressed to an American public, I almost gave up reading this book. Fortunately, I did not, because in the second part Dennett gives an overview of some interesting theories on the origin of religions. It is not surprising that he prefers evolutionary biology ones, which always focus on the question of the evolutionary utility (cui bono?) of a certain development. That's the big difference with Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion: Dawkin's focu ...more
Oct 06, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Rod Hilton
Jan 21, 2014 rated it it was ok
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
Jul 04, 2020 rated it liked it
I am a huge fan of Dennett's other work, but not really this one. He spends most of the book talking about why it's worthwhile for scientists to debunk religion and for religious folks to put their faith through a scientific test (which is fine), but he spends much less time actually debunking religion through science. I don't mean debunking a "God created the world" theory, which other books have done, but the idea that religion is good for people and good for society. He seems to take for gran ...more
Paul Fidalgo
Dec 25, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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). ...more
Nov 04, 2007 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 17, 2010 rated it it was ok
Shelves: philosophy, evolution
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
Jan 25, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 06, 2007 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
Jul 21, 2009 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
May 02, 2012 rated it really liked it
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
May 31, 2011 rated it it was ok
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
Aya Hatem
Oct 19, 2016 rated it it was ok
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
Sep 28, 2016 rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
In this book, Daniel Dennett pleads for intensifying scientific research into religion as a natural phenomenon. We have waited too long to do this and nowadays we see ourselves confronted with issues of which we lack the essential insights to make informed decisions. For example, in combating islamic terrorism, we are awfully short on scientific facts to base our policies on.

This book is in essence a two-sided project. First and foremost Dennett wants to break the spell of religion. Religions h
Apr 08, 2007 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 29, 2011 rated it really liked it
His goal in this book is to break the taboo protecting religion from reasoned examination.
Unlike the other atheist author like Dawkins or Hitchens, Dennett goes to great lengths to maintain a congenial and fair treatment of religion.
This is commendable, but cripples his thesis.
Instead of presenting the ample evidence that religion is bad and does harm, Dennett calls for "further study".
In the end, I felt like he didn't go far enough, but it was a fun ride.

Dennett's overuse (abuse) of parenthesis
Oct 01, 2007 rated it did not like it
This gentleman writes like a college freshman. Rambles off on tangents constantly. Spends his first 100 pages re-stating the purpose of the book, while wondering if he should, in fact, write the book.
Damon Gubler
Feb 28, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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.
Robert Narojek
Oct 28, 2019 rated it really liked it
A great book, maybe sometimes too talkative and contains numerous repetitions, which, I think, takes into account the habits of the American reader (several times and slowly) but reads well. I especially recommend to those who are open to dialogue with believers and discussion without conversion.
Dennis Littrell
Jul 21, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Not likely to break the spell!

Professor Dennett is a philosopher and an expert on consciousness who writes from the perspective of a Darwinian. He is an atheist and calls himself a "bright," an unfortunate coinage from the redoubtable Michael Shermer of Skeptic magazine. I say unfortunate because those who do not identify themselves similarly might feel that they should be thought of as--shall we say--less than bright. Such self-designating and flattering terminology, however agreeable to those
Mark Lawry
Sep 24, 2018 rated it it was amazing
I grew up in the Christian world. My wife in the Muslim world. We both had given up on our respective faiths just in time to find each other. Praise God we did, and life got great. How that happened for both of us would be a very long book. It would probably be very similar to this one. The culture that best represents my wife and I is freedom. Which is to say we don't need walls around us to "defend our culture." Toward the end of Dennett's book you might get my point. ...more
Rowland Pasaribu
Jul 27, 2010 rated it liked it
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
Joe Iacovino
Mar 10, 2013 rated it liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 24, 2009 rated it it was amazing
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
Jun 24, 2011 rated it liked it
Shelves: atheism-religion
Dr. Dennett's book left a little to be desired. Can science study religion? Interesting topic indeed but Dr. Dennett in many instances took the scenic route to get to his points. Here are the strengths and weaknesses of the book:

1. Interesting topics
2. Introduction of new ideas
3. Well informed and intelligent author
4. Good overall organization of book
5. Makes good overall points
6. The third of three sections was the best part of the book

1. It wasn't a fun, smooth rea
Aaron Lord
Dec 13, 2012 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... ...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
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Is Dennett being reasonable? 5 52 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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