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

Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett
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Oct 06, 2007

really liked it
bookshelves: finished
Read in September, 2007

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 investigate whether they are true. Beliefs should not be eligible for a cloak of mystery simply because they are religious in nature; furthermore, such a cloak does not enhance the real value of these beliefs.

This is a slow read that requires a good background in philosophy, but it is worth the time and effort. It is full of fascinating ideas, many of them old philosophical standbys with a modern scientific twist. For example, when Dennett compares love for God with romantic love, he looks at the evolutionary basis of romantic feelings and behaviors. He asks how religion benefits our fitness for survival, given that it requires so much of our energy. He notes that some neurologists have postulated a "god center" in the brain, and he clarifies that we may have culturally perpetuated the idea of God only because the idea happens to stimulate the pre-existing "whatsis center," and furthermore, that not every individual may even have such a center.

Dennett's tone is one of cheerful optimism. He thinks religious people often mean well, and he believes that they succeed in living good, moral lives just as often as non-believers do. But he insists that religion is not necessary for moral behavior, and he demands that religious people desist from harming atheists and skeptics. He wants a healthy climate for honest debate and a world where people do not injure each other over such topics. It is a fair and diplomatic book that makes an apparently sound argument. Of the various books I've read by atheists, this is the one of which I'd be most surprised to see a successful refutation.
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04/16/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Excellent review.


message 2: by Stephen (new)

Stephen I like the review. I do not see how I as a believer have harmed anyone. To me that is the problem with "religion needs to stop..." Religion for me has nothing to do with infidels or heretics or witch hunts or finger pointing. To automatically associate religious people with such things is to engage in a generality which is basically unfair.

I like Dennett, but I don't see why I need to expose my inner most faith or self to anyone's examination. Does this make sense?


message 3: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 02, 2009 06:28PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio None of the current prominent critics of religion paint religion with a broad brush like this. This is the problem with people not reading the books and just assuming things. Your brand of religion is distinguished and addressed differently by these critics, Dennett is quick to do this as is Sam Harris.

You don't have to engage people in conversation about your religious beliefs, but if you want to you can't also expect people not to raise their objections. This is what an intellectually honest and mature conversation is. Dennett (and Harris and others) is simply saying that religion is an area of human life that is just as much fair game for rigorous exploration and examination as any other area of life is. And often times this is going to involve criticism. They're saying that the rules of conversation and standards of evidence don't suddenly shift to make this area somehow more off limits than other areas of life. Because it is still taboo to call certain ideas into question in our culture. Just see all of the hysterical backlash against people like Dennett, Harris, Dawkins, Hitchens (who aren't all the same either, by the way) for clear confirmation of this taboo in action.


message 4: by Stephen (last edited Oct 02, 2009 02:53PM) (new)

Stephen I agree MFSO. My question is, why do writers even want to talk to us about it? That is what perplexes me. I'm not arguing, I'm merely stating no one is going to make ground with the other.

Admittedly, there is a disturbing number of books out there from the Christian world that take science head on, which I think is an enormous waste of time and effort. They often are the ones who shun people like me aside when I ask them, why do you care what they say?

Why is this important to either side, is really my question? And, more important, does this advance science or philosophy in any way at all? Why waste time writing books like this when other, more important topics, need addressing.


message 5: by Joshua Nomen-Mutatio (last edited Oct 02, 2009 06:27PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Religion has a massive number of direct effects on human society and psychology. I don't know how you can think it's not an important topic. Religion is one of the most important things (and often the most important thing) to billions of people on the planet and has been throughout all of recorded human history. Seems to me to be an area of life worth looking in to.

It's not merely a matter of the clashes between science and religion (though this is a big part of people's concerns on all sides). It's also a matter of addressing social and ethical problems. It's also a matter of pure intellectual curiosity and philosophy. Religion is a huge subject that crops up in almost every subject if the conversation or train of thought lasts long enough.


message 6: by Stephen (new)

Stephen True. I'm just me. I don't want to convert you MFSO, what fun would you be then? You'd prolly learn to play a guitar badly, and then want to stand on the street corner in your underwear singing "Come to Jesus." Then you'd be arrested, and I'd have to come rescue you from the long dong of the jail cell.

Peace my friend. Peace.


Tucker Stephen wrote: "I like Dennett, but I don't see why I need to expose my inner most faith or self to anyone's examination. Does this make sense?"

In my review, I may have neglected to adequately emphasize that Dennett, while a peace-mongerer across the theist/atheist divide, also strongly advocates for the atheist proposition. He believes that a strong case for atheism can be made philosophically and scientifically. It makes sense that he would want people to voluntarily open up their religious beliefs for critical examination (by themselves or by others).

From my memory of reading this book a couple years ago, I don't think he objects to anyone's right to privacy; he just wants people to critically reflect on their beliefs. Sometimes the invocation of "privacy" is used a cloak for "I don't want to think about it." One of Dennett's major points in the book is that there is nothing to fear about critical reflection because it can only lead us to a better understanding of ourselves and others. Hence the title of the book, "Breaking the Spell." There is nothing to fear about breaking the spell of mystery that shrouds religion, because we can still find meaning underneath. Dennett strongly favors atheistic conclusions but acknowledges that other deep thinkers come to religious conclusions.


Jeffrey Mcandrew There needs to be more books like this. Dennett poses so many excellent questions. Great read indeed!!


Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Tucker wrote: "Sometimes the invocation of "privacy" is used a cloak for "I don't want to think about it.""

Spot on.


message 10: by Jessica (new) - added it

Jessica "He thinks religious people often mean well, and he believes that they succeed in living good, moral lives just as often as non-believers do."

Hehe. The way you phrased this struck me as funny because it's backwards from the way society treats non-believers.


message 11: by Brian (new) - added it

Brian I haven't read the book yet, but got as far in his TED talk as the plug for the book. This review has convinced me to get the book.


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