Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Breaking the Spell

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Daniel C Dennett
New York: Viking, 2006. 464 pages
Reviewed by
John C Greene

In this sizeable book, Dennett, a philosopher already famous for his earlier work Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), undertakes to convince his readers that religious beliefs have no empirical foundation and hence should be abandoned to prevent religious fanatics from destroying the world in a nuclear holocaust. In developing his argument Dennett relies on two sources: Charles Darwin's theory of organic evolution by natural and sexual selection and Richard Dawkins's theory of cultural evolution by the copying and competition of "memes" (ideas, rhymes, behavior patterns, and so on) which lodge themselves in the brain and compete for survival in human societies. Religious memes — gods, spirits, and so on — have no reality except as memes because their extra-human existence cannot be proved scientifically by observation and experiment.

Armed with this criterion of believability, Dennett presents an imposing array of scientific studies of religion by philosophers of religion, sociologists and psychologists, anthropologists, and neuroscientists. His purpose, he confesses, is to "cajole" his readers into abandoning some of their religious convictions and thereby to alleviate the world's "moral crisis" and make possible scientific solutions to the world's momentous political decisions by "delv[ing] into the evolutionary history of the planet" (p 53).

It then turns out that the reasons we love the things we love — religion, romantic love, folk art and music, sugar and spice, and so on — are not the reasons we give when asked about them. The real reasons, Dennett argues, are evolutionary reasons, free-floating rationales that have been developed by natural selection, that "blind, mechanical, foresightless siftingand- duplicating process that has produced the exquisite design of organisms" (p 79–80).

The second part of Breaking the Spell devotes four chapters to the "current version" of what scientific "proto-theories" tell us about how religions came to be what they are. It all began, says Dennett, with mutations in hominin genes enabling humans to speak. Language then spread rapidly, perhaps by sexual selection (women like to talk and hence would choose talkative males as partners). Language then gave rise to a virtual world of imagination, a world of intentional agents with beliefs and desires, a world gradually shaped by natural selection so as to improve cooperation within, but not among, social groups. Eventually — here Dennett cites Richard Dawkins — these "protomemes" produced what neuroscientists call the "god center" in human brains, paving the way for shamans to take charge as "stewards" of the beliefs and practices of folk religions. As religions were "domesticated", carefully crafted reasons for these beliefs and practices replaced earlier free-floating rationales.

As folk religions evolved into organized religion and priests took over as stewards of the sacred memes, Dennett continues, secrecy, deception, and the devising of doctrines designed to protect the body of beliefs from being discredited by scientific methods emerged, and rival systems of religious memes competed for adherents in the religious market place.

Moving forward in time, Dennett presents David Hume's essay "Of Miracles" and William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience as models of the empirical study of religion. Like Darwin's cousin Francis Galton, Dennett proposes a scientific study of the efficacy of prayer. On this question and on the question whether religion is good for people Dennett finds the evidence "mixed". On the related question whether religion is the foundation of morality he concedes that "nothing approaching a settled consensus among researchers has been achieved" (p 280). At the same time he aligns himself with the "brights" — atheists, agnostics, freethinkers, secular humanists and others — who have "liberated" themselves from specifically religious allegiances and who "channel [their] charity and good deeds through secular organizations" because they do not want to be "complicit in giving a good name to religion" (p 300–1).

Dennett then mounts a spirited defense of "scientific materialism" — "the theory that aspires to explain all the phenomena without recourse to anything immaterial." Spirituality, he insists, does not require believing in "anything supernatural". Instead it is grounded in an "awestruck vision of the world" viewed with a "humble curiosity" and a sense of wonders and beauties still to be discovered by scientific inquiry (p 303). The presumed relation between religion and moral goodness, Dennett declares, is an illusion.

In a final chapter, "Now What Do We Do?", Dennett describes his depiction of religion as "a family of 'proto-theories' in need of further development," acknowledging that it "is not yet established and may prove to be wrong"(p 309–10). His only "categorical prescription" is: do more research. To ensure that the scientific researchers are well trained for their task, he suggests that priests, imams, and theologians prepare an "entrance exam" which researchers must pass before beginning their research. They can then tackle such questions as: Is religion the product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Confessing that he is "deeply moved" by religious ceremonies, music, and art, although unpersuaded by the doctrines which gave birth to them, he concludes with his "central policy recommendation": "... that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives" (p 339).

Can we accept Dennett's reliance on Dawkins's much disputed theory of "memes" as cultural replicators and the supposed analogy between the copying of "memes" and the replication of biological traits? Dennett acknowledges the objections raised to this analogy by some of the scientists he cites as exemplifying the scientific study of religion and does all he can to answer them in Appendix A of his book. But this is not the only difficulty confronting Dennett. Religions such as Judaism and Christianity are historical religions claiming historical validation by the testimony of witnesses, as, for example, the resurrection of the crucified Jesus.

How would a scientist set out to prove that, in principle, miracles can never occur? The question whether they have occurred in any particular case must be settled by historical evidence,but Dennett shows very little interest in history or in historians like Thomas Cahill, Garry Wills, and John Pairman Brown who have taken the trouble to master the languages and perspectives of the ancient world. Like David Hume, one of his favorite philosophers, he excludes miracles as incompatible with the laws of nature (Hume's criterion) or with "scientific or philosophical materialism" (Dennett's criterion). But there is nothing scientific about materialism as a philosophy, which the Oxford American Dictionary defines as "the opinion that nothing exists but matter and its movements and modifications."

Among philosophers the mathematician- logician-philosopher Alfred North Whitehead took the lead in rejecting the concept of matter and expanding the idea of experience to embrace all natural entities, each entity prehending (taking into its own being the rest of the universe in some degree) in its occasions of experience. Among scientists the population geneticist Sewall Wright concluded that for humans "reality consists primarily of streams of consciousness. This fact must take precedence over the laws of nature of physical science in arriving at a unified philosophy of science, even though it must be largely ignored in science itself" (1977: 80). In science, he adds, the richness of the stream of consciousness is impoverished because the scientist restricts his investigation to "the so-called primary properties of matter" (p 80), which, ironically, can be measured only by voluntary actions. Wright concludes that we must acknowledge the necessity "of dealing with the universe as the world of mind" (p 85).

On the subject of the historical relations between science and religion in the Western world Dennett's remarks are equally sketchy. He concedes that priests collaborated with astronomers and mathematicians in fixing the dates of religious festivals, but he seems unaware of the numerous books and articles on important developments in medieval science by scholars like Marshall Claggett, David Lindberg, and Carl Boyer, or of the religiosity of Johannes Kepler, Robert Boyle, and Isaac Newton, to say nothing of scientists such as John Dalton, Michael Faraday, Clerk Maxwell, and the early English geologists and paleontologists, or of the polls taken of the religious views of twentieth-century scientists.

Dennett seems equally ignorant of the views of writers like Whitehead, Michael Foster, Reijer Hooykaas, and Denis Alexander who have argued cogently that the Christian world view helped to pave the way for the rise of modern science by conceiving nature as a contingent phenomenon intelligible only by empirical investigation, by raising the status of the manual trades essential to Bacon's experimental method, and by glorifying natural philosophy and natural history as the study of God's works (for example, Alexander 2001).

What, then, shall we conclude about Dennett's wide-ranging effort to discredit religious beliefs in the hope of preventing a nuclear holocaust? Shall we permit his "memes"(that is, ideas) to infect our brains, or shall we use our brains to detect the weaknesses in his argument? No doubt his intentions are good. He believes in spirituality ("whatever that is") but not in a human spirit (something science cannot conceptualize or explain). He concedes that science cannot give us moral values but thinks it can accumulate a "pool of knowledge" from which we can infer "what is just and what is good." Apparently he is not aware of the words of the Hebrew prophet Micah: "What does the Lord require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God," a prescription which TH Huxley, known as "Darwin's bulldog", considered "a wonderful inspiration of genius". "But what extent of knowledge [Huxley adds], what acuteness of scientific criticism, can touch this? Will the progress of research show us the bounds of the universe and bid us say 'Go to, now we comprehend the infinite?'" For his part Dennett relies on "respect for truth and the tools of truth-finding".

"'What is truth?' said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer," wrote Francis Bacon, an early advocate of experimental science. Bacon does not answer Pilate's question, but in an essay "Of Goodness and Goodness of Nature" he links goodness to the character of the Deity and to the theological virtue of charity. He writes: "The desire of power in excess caused the angels to fall;the desire of knowledge in excess caused man to fall: but in charity there is no excess; neither can angel nor man come in danger by it. ... But above all if he [the good man] have St Paul's perfection, ... it shows much of a divine nature, and a kind of conformity with Christ himself" (Bacon 1909). Apparently this early prophet of a new kind of science based on observation and experiment had none of the animus against religion which inspires the author of Breaking the Spell.

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