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

Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett
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May 04, 2010

really liked it
Recommended for: anyone
Read from May 04 to 13, 2010

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 an issue of "respect" (because the primary point of being an atheist is that religious beliefs don't deserve respect) but rather one of intention and the tone that goes along with that intention. If your intention – like Christopher Hitchens' – is to rock the boat and make complacent atheists or noncommital agnostics realize all the work that needs to be done, then your tone should rightfully be impassioned and indignant. Dennett's intention in Breaking the Spell is different. His goal is to assuage believers' fears about conversing with an atheist, put them at their ease, and talk about a few specific issues calmly and rationally with the goal of getting people to think more clearly about several unspoken and traditionally taboo subjects. No histrionics, no hyperbole, no accusations – just letting the facts speak for themselves. Needless to say, there are atheists (like me) who find this approach refreshing and more approachable than the writings of people like Hitchens, which, while still important and necessary, are not the kinds of books you can necessarily give to a religious person unless you are intending to piss them off.

Dennett's book is so well-reasoned, well-argued, and well-written that you could give it to your doddering old grandmother, who has followed Jesus her entire life, and chances are she would not feel unduly scandalized by what the book says (especially if she already accepts evolution as a fact of life, which Dennett chooses not to convince people of in this book, since he has an entire other book devoted to that topic). Dennett is not ambiguous about his stance as an atheist or his belief that religion is not a prerequisite for moral behavior, but he is open-minded about so many issues and trusts so much in the scientific method and reasoned debate to resolve problems that you can't help but respect and like him and his common sense approach. True, if you are a real dyed-in-the-wool Bible-beater, you will find the entire premise of this book – that religion has evolved naturally (as opposed to supernaturally) over the course of recent human history under specific circumstances and its evolution and appeal through the ages can be explained through understanding human psychology and sociology – offensive and disrespectful. But finding something disrespectful is not the same as proving something wrong, and it also doesn't do away with your ability (obligation, even) to confront the evidence that the other side has assembled. The surest way to support your point of view and convince people of its validity, after all, is to allow it to stand on its own in the full light of inquiry. And even if you are afraid of the results, you cannot deny more courageous minds the right to discover them. Dennett does an excellent job of not setting up a straw-man argument – he lets the religious point of view shine through in each chapter and even goes to some length to show how these viewpoints could be right, while ultimately showing that they are not all that persuasive when examined more carefully from a wider perspective on human history.
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