Why do all societies we know of practice some form of religion? Either religion must be “true”, or there must be some sort of natural explanation for this universal phenomenon.
“Breaking the Spell” by Daniel Dennett presents avenues of research into these explanation. He does not profess to have the answers to this question, or even the right question. He merely sets out to prove that the questions are important ones and ones that we can hope to gain insight into.
Dennett is a philosopher, and he has explained the role of philosophers with an analogy: A philosopher watching a magician sawing a lady in two offers an explanation: “You see, the magician is not really sawing the lady in two. He merely makes it appear as if he is sawing her in two.” When asked, “so how does he do that”, the philosopher answers “I’m sorry, that’s somebody else’s department.”
This story undersells Dennett and his books, of course. I have been a fan of Dan Dennett for over ten years. His accessible books “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” and “Consciousness Explained” have radically shaped my understanding of evolution and the brain. “Breaking the Spell” does the same with religion.
So, if religion has a natural explanation, what could this explanation be? Obviously, something in our evolutionary history has made us religious. Does this mean that religion is good for us, or rather, that it helped our ancestors survive? Not necessarily. Dennett shows how certain traits that could’ve been good for us, like susceptibility to the placebo effect and a disposition to interpret events to be caused by an actor, could’ve made the human mind susceptible to other ideas, or memes as well. As long as these ideas don’t cause the “host” fatal damage and they can spread to other “hosts”, such ideas would become widespread, even if they were (moderately) harmful to those who bear them.
This hypothesis is also explored by Dennett in one of his several talks for the TED-conference:
The question for the final part of the book, then, is what effect religion has on it’s adherents and society at large. When does it help us and when does it harm us? Dennett suggests experiments that could further explore this subject, but doesn’t offer definite evidence for any hypothesis.
The weakness of the book is that it spends quite a bit of time excusing itself to hypothetical fundamentalist readers. Even if you believe your religion is true, Dennett points out, you must wonder where all the other religions came from. Even if you believe your religion is true, you must wonder what effect other religions have on society.
I wish the book had spent more time exploring the issue at hand (why religion might exist, what effect it has) and less time excusing the validity of the question. But it’s an enjoyable read and gave plenty of food for thought.
Dennett remains my favorite philosopher author.
Be sure to check out Dennett’s great presentations on the web:
- Dan Dennett: Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes
- Dan Dennett: Cute, sexy, sweet, funny: A 7 minute talk about why, from an evolutionary point of view, we find things cute, sexy, sweet or funny
- Dan Dennett: Can we know our own minds?
- Dan Dennett: A secular, scientific rebuttal to Rick Warren: Dennett gives the superstar pastor of the Saddleback (no, that’s not a code word for something dirty) church a good spanking.