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Publisher's Summary For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why - and how - it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and p Publisher's Summary For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why - and how - it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Daniel C. Dennett charts religion’s evolution from “wild” folk belief to “domesticated” dogma. Not an antireligious creed but an unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy, Breaking the Spell will be read and debated by believers and skeptics alike. ©2006 Daniel C. Dennett (P)2013 Audible, Inc.


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Publisher's Summary For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why - and how - it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and p Publisher's Summary For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why - and how - it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Daniel C. Dennett charts religion’s evolution from “wild” folk belief to “domesticated” dogma. Not an antireligious creed but an unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy, Breaking the Spell will be read and debated by believers and skeptics alike. ©2006 Daniel C. Dennett (P)2013 Audible, Inc.

30 review for Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Audiobook)

  1. 4 out of 5

    Manny

    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- 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-reproducing patterns of human behavior ("memes"), which take over their hosts and make them carry out acts whose main purpose is to further spread the meme. To Dennett, the religious martyr is like a mouse whose brain has been modified by T. gondii. If you are yourself religious, the above may leave you feeling angry and disappointed with the author. This is perhaps not the best reaction, since Dennett (I think, anyway) is genuinely trying to understand the nature of religion without judging it. To him, the meme theory is the only one that makes scientific sense, and throughout the book he stresses that it in no way implies that religion-memes would necessarily harm their hosts. As he says, our bodies contain trillions of non-human cells, many of which are essential to our survival. Religions may be deadly parasites like T. gondii; but they could equally well be as vital to human well-being as our intestinal flora, without which we would be unable to digest our food. And although a Christian will probably be unhappy to hear Christianity called a mind-virus, she may be more willing to stick that label on Scientology or one of the Pacific cargo cults. As long as it isn't a religion you feel any personal affinity with, it does rather seem to make sense; once you're prepared to agree with that, you may reluctantly admit that the distaste and anger you feel when the reasoning is applied to your own religion could just be the meme defending itself. Evidently, an adaptation which discouraged believers from even considering arguments against their religion would be fitness-increasing. Dennett's basic thesis seems perfectly reasonable to me as a starting point for further investigation, but I was disappointed that the greater part of the book was extremely speculative; as evolutionary theorists like to say, it mostly consisted of "just-so stories". Yes, religious ceremonies may have evolved because they improved fidelity of meme-copying, and religions may initially have increased the fitness of the populations that practiced them by helping people make difficult decisions or making them more receptive to medicinal hypnosis; but it seemed to me that these ideas created almost as many difficulties as they resolved, and were not well-supported by empirical data. On the other hand, Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist, and his business is more to ask questions than to answer them. If he's managed to get people thinking about these issues, maybe he's done all that can be reasonably expected of him. I could end here, but there is one point I kept thinking about that I just have to mention. Dennett discusses religion from a scientific point of view, and cannot avoid the obvious question: maybe science is just another religion? He claims that it isn't, since science is based on empirical analysis of data while religion is not, but I was not entirely satisfied with his response. A scientist's attachment to any particular theory may not be religious; but what about the scientific world-view itself? Why, exactly, should we use facts and rational debate to resolve disagreements? I've just been reading through the Dialogues of Plato, which (at least in my view) constitute one of the important founding documents for the modern scientific outlook. Socrates, a highly sympathetic character, takes nothing for granted and questions everything. He duly dies for his beliefs, and it is hard not to think of him as a kind of martyr to rationality. Why, exactly, is he different in kind from other religious martyrs, except that he is supporting the belief system that I personally happen to like? Aaaargh, Dennett's somehow got me playing his game... I think I've been infected by the religion-as-meme meme! Didn't he say something about welcoming a response? These philosophers are so damn tricky... ___________________________________ It's hard to stop thinking about this book. If Dennett is on the right track, I wondered what other memes there might be that propagated in ways similar to those for religions; to me, the ones that seem to fit best are language, music and poetry. They're all things that spread well and demand extremely faithful copying: as Dennett says, pretty much a sine qua non for a successful meme. But how are these different patterns related? How did the meme-copying adaptation arise, and what memes was it originally being used to transmit? Is it possible that all of these memes started off as the same thing, and only split apart later? It would be nice to come up with some way to find empirical data... ___________________________________ People curious about T. gondii may find this article interesting.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Marina Keenan

    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 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 really the collective concept of a group of people who are similarly connected socially and religiously. In a recent Good Reads forum based on Dawkins' The God Delusion, most of the faithful who participated suggested that because so many others believed in God throughout history, their study of "scripture" should not be questioned by me or other participants. Alas, none were willing to address the reasons why their church hung pictures of a Jesus who looked more like a white musician from Seattle than someone from Jesus' home town. This scares me because the faithful have confirmed that their minds are not their own and they have lost the ability to think critically about their beliefs. The other part of the definition that almost leads me to panic, that the participants seek approval from a supernatural agent or agents, means that not only is some vaguely defined and socially reinforced God concept granted greater-than-self status in the minds of the faithful, but the agents' "prophets," to whom enough has been revealed to write a bestseller, are granted God's special favor, and their approval must be sought as well. This scenario is made possible by the aforementioned sacrifice of mind, and enables leaders of any religion you'd care to name to compromise its believers in practically any way. In Breaking the Spell, Dennett demonstrates faith in people's ability to make clear decisions by suggesting that if school children were to study all of the world's religions, they would learn to think critically and be unwilling to sacrifice this ability for the sake of any supernatural agent or prophet. Should students begin to have thoughts that transcend social/religious paradigms and pressures, no current religious system could survive it, and I think that would be a good thing.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    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 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 focus is on the truth question, Dennett's on whether religion is good for man or not. I did miss the directness of Dawkins in this book, and the speculative nature of the many theories and hypotheses Dennett unleashes on the reader surprised me. But certainly the second part convinced me that Dennett is definitely the more intelligent thinker of the two. I especially found the distinction he makes between "believing in a God" and "believing in believing in a God" an eye-opener that should be developed further. But you can clearly see Dennett hopping on 2 legs in this book: he has an eye for the good sides of religion, but at the same time he regularly hints at what nonsense religions sell and how much evil they do, and that it comes down to 'breaking the spell'. Certainly in his last chapters you see the pendulum swinging back and forth in his text, and that gives the book a rather tousled undertone (although his stance as a combative atheist is very clear). Ultimately, I especially remember this book's strong plea to subject religions to scientific research. And I think that is a good thing: everything must and may undergo the careful screening by science. I can absolutely follow Dennett in his outline of how cautious science should be in this, step by step and with a lot of empathy, critical and also open to self-criticism. “I would like nothing better than for this book to provoke a challenge — a reasoned and evidence-rich scientific challenge — from researchers with opposing viewpoints”. But at the same time, Dennett is a child of his time, with a rock-solid belief in the ultimate truth through science. Unfortunately, in my opinion, such scientism will never succeed in bringing out what’s really valuable in life. (rating 2.5 stars)

  4. 5 out of 5

    Tucker

    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 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.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Rod Hilton

    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 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 the book and abandoned it. In fact, I abandoned the whole effort, and it wasn't until a few years later that I resumed my journey by reading The End of Faith, which I really enjoyed and then plowed through the other two books. I felt guilty that I had skipped over this book, the only one of the "Four Horsemen" books I hadn't read. I wondered if I had perhaps been unfair, and disliked it only because of where I was, and not what the book was. So I picked up the same paperback copy I had purchased years earlier, and again tried to read it. Again, I quickly found myself losing interest, and it was never a book that I "stopped reading", it was just one that I never reached for when I felt like reading. The third time was shortly after I'd gotten an ebook reader. I figured, with a huge library of books at my fingertips, I'd be more likely to read this one, so I tried once again. I got the ebook version of Breaking the Spell, and for the third time found myself losing interest. I had officially moved this book to my 'will-never-read' shelf on Goodreads, and had resigned myself to simply never bother reading this book. I was bummed about it, and I couldn't quite figure out why I disliked it so much, but there are so many great books out there, I decided I couldn't bother caring any more. Then, out of nowhere, I was logging into Audible.com one day and noticed that Breaking the Spell had been released on audiobook format. Audiobook! This was the key! I could listen at the gym, on the bus, in the car, and walking around downtown. This was how I was going to get this book read, I thought. Well, I'm happy to say, I did actually manage to get all the way through Breaking the Spell this time. I am, however, unhappy to say I still hated it, and largely forced myself to complete it out of a weird sense of obligation and completion. Less because I enjoyed the book, and more because I knew this was my last chance. After getting all the way through it, I finally figured out what it was I hated so much about it, and sharing that will be the entirety of my review of it, aside from the personal historical lesson above. I've read a lot of these "atheist screed" type books in the past few years. What is interesting is that the background of the authors of each of these books is directly reflected in the content and style of the book itself. Richard Dawkins is a world-renowned scientist and professor, so it's no surprise that "The God Delusion" is written very scientifically, citing as many studies as possible and outlying arguments in a clear, logical way. Sam Harris is a neuroscientist, but also has a Bachelor's degree in Philosophy, so The End of Faith is a little less scientific than Dawkins's work, and a bit more meandering. Carl Sagan was a scientist and educator, so The Demon-Haunted World is extremely scientific, but also very approachable and friendly. Christopher Hitchens was a debator, a journalist, so God is Not Great draws upon a lot of current events and political angles, and reads like a very long OpEd piece. So what's Daniel Dennett? He's a philosopher. If this fact doesn't give you pause, you probably haven't read a lot written by philosophers, or you are one. Philosophers have a tendency to ramble forever, carefully mapping out their argument in excruciating detail. There's a point in the argument where a normal reader might say "alright, I get it" only to discover they are approximately 40% through the entire argument, and must now eye-roll their way through the remaining 60%. Philosopher's seem to like questions more than answers, and like to pose tons and tons of questions, and consider every possible angle about a particular point, including purely hypothetical ones with little to no basis in reality. The short way of saying this is: a lot of philosophers love the sound of their own voices. This is obviously a mean generalization, but I have to admit I've found it to hold true surprisingly often. Dennett's Breaking the Spell is no exception to this. It is exactly what one might expect from a philosopher, illustrating every negative aspect of stereotypical philosopher writings. Case in point: the first third of the book is spent merely justifying the existence of the rest of the book. What would be a normal author's introductory chapter is, instead, nearly 100 pages of droning about the need for his book. Can science study religion? SHOULD science study religion? Ugh. In fact, the TITLE of the book, "Breaking the Spell" seems to indicate that the book will be about what we can do to break society free of the cycle of religiosity. The only chapter that even remotely deals with that, "Now What Do We Do?" is the final chapter, a mere 32 pages of the book's 340 (non-appendix) pages. Another (mild) irritation is Dennett's constant citations of his own previous work. I understand if an author wants to point readers to his previous work because it might be interesting, or help articulate a point, but it seems almost comically frequent in Breaking the Spell. There's a palpable sense of pretentiousness. I don't want to give the wrong impression. It's not that the book contains nothing of value. On the contrary, there are some really enjoyable bits to the book, some really interesting points, and a lot of food for thought. The problem is that of padding: an interesting point that should take up a merel paragraph to be accurately conveyed to a reader might instead consist of a few dozen pages instead. Every moment reading the book feels like wading through haystack after haystack looking for needles. They are nice needles, but you can't help but ask why Dennett couldn't be bothered to simply edit the haystacks out. There are lots of similar books that are more informative, or more interesting out there, so it's tough to recommend this book. I know a lot of people love it, so I think a big part of the issue is my own general distaste for this particular kind of writing.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Mehrsa

    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 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 granted that it is not and yet most cultures have created religion over time and again and again. It must have served some function that is not deleterious. He seemed unwilling to probe that. I would suggest Robert Wright's work as a better explication of evolution and religion (it's not a defense of religion at all--but more of an evolutionary view of religion).

  7. 4 out of 5

    Paul Fidalgo

    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). 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).

  8. 4 out of 5

    Jamey

    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 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 unclean spirits, and so on. If you do believe in a God or Gods, this is a strong enough book to make it worth your while outmaneouvering it; if you don't, this is a strong enough book to take on as an ally. It has little or none of the hysteria you find in Dawkins and Hitchens.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

    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 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 irrelevant anecdotes. I also found it very strange that Dennett proposes, as if it is something new and intellectually heroic, that we study religion as a "natural phenomenon". Last time I checked, anthropologists, sociologists, historians, and critical theorists have been doing that for well over a century and a half. Of course, Dennett supposes that if we open up religion to the neurologists and biologists, the game is surely over, and we will all become secular humanists in light of the "results". I, for one, am quite confident that if religion has survived these purportedly devastating queries so far, a gaggle of neurologists telling us which neurons flash when someone prays is unlikely to make us throw it all away either.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Jimmy

    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 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 the scientific study of music has just begun to figure out why we love it. We need the same kind of study for religion. "If you were God, would you have invented laughter?"--Christopher Frye in The Lady's Not for Burning. What a great question. I think I would have invented it just to deal with this incredible mess that a supposedly perfect being created. Dealing with a corpse plays a central role in religions everywhere. Something must be done with it. Therefore, we create an elaborate ceremony of either burning or burial. "Ancestor worship must be an appealing idea to those who are about to become ancestors."--Steven Pinker, How the Mind Works. So we old folks preserve these traditions that help us to deal with the end of our lives. Evolution has designed us to love babies as being cute. It's important to our survival. All mammals have that within them. But it works the opposite way as well. Babies are hardwired to trust their parents. Those parents pass on memes like religion to the trusting children. There is a profusion of ways that ancient people delegated important decisions to uncontrollable externalities. Instead of flipping a coin, you could flip arrows (belomancy) or rods (rhabdomancy) or bones or cards (sortilege), and instead of looking at tea leaves (tasseography), you can examine the livers of sacrificed animals (hepatoscopy) or other entrails (haruspicy) or melted wax poured into water (ceroscopy), Then there is moleosophy (divination by blemishes), myomancy (divination by rodent behavior), nephomancy (divination by clouds), and of course the old favorites, numerology and astrology, among others. Divination memes may just make people feel like they are receiving divine assistance. It makes them feel good. Thus they go on. "Anyone who goes to a psychiatrist should have his head examined."--Samuel Goldwyn. People went to shamans because they had no one else to go to. It provided them with some sense of relief. Folk religion turned into organized religion just the same way folk music turned into professional music. "Among the Nuer it is particularly auspicious to sacrifice a bull, but since bulls are particularly valuable, a cucumber will do just fine most of the time."--E. Thomas Lawson. Anthropologists find people deeply believe in their gods. "Everyone knows they exist!" "Those to whom his word was revealed were always alone in some remote place, like Moses. There wasn't anyone around when Mohammed got the word, either. Mormon Joseph Smith and Christian Scientist, Mary Baker Eddy, had exclusive audiences with God. We have to trust them as reporters--and you know how reporters are. They'll do anything for a story."--Andy Rooney, in his book Sincerely, Andy Rooney. In the film Marjoe, Marjoe Gotner explains how he got people to faint, make passionate displays of love for Jesus, and empty their wallets. The film won an oscar for best documentary in 1972. Some of the many Christian sources were later excluded and banned as heresy. Why? What made them so dangerous? "Religions exist primarily for people to achieve together what they cannot achieve alone."--David Sloane Wilson, Darwin's Cathedral. "But what are the benefits? Why do people want religion at all? They want it because religion is the only plausible source of certain rewards of which there is a general and inexhaustible demand."--Rodney Stark, Acts of Faith. "The Pope traditionally prays for peace every Easter and the fact that it has never had any effect whatsoever in preventing or ending a war never deters him. What goes through the Pope's mind about being rejected all the time? Does God have it in for him?"--Andy Rooney, Sincerely, Andy Rooney. "When I was a child, I used to pray to God for a bicycle. But then I realized that God doesn't work in that way--so I stole a bike and prayed for forgiveness!"--Emo Phillips. A key marketing problem for religions is to entice the customer to wait. The physicist Paul Davies has recently defended the view that free will may be "a fiction worth maintaining." Many people know about the change from polytheism to monotheism. Fewer understand the change from concrete anthropomorphism to ever more abstract and depersonalized concepts. "You're basically killing each other to see whose got the better imaginary friend."--Rich Jeni Theists resist having a specific definition of God. It makes the concept easier to refute. "God is so great that the greatness precludes existence."--Raimundo Panikkar, The Silence of God. "It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us."--Peter De Vries. "There are people who believe, often passionately, in God, even though they cannot tell others all that much about the God in which they believe."--Alan Wolfe "It is very easy not to murder people. Very easy. It is a little bit harder not to steal because one is tempted occasionally. So that is not great proof that I believe in God. But, if he tells me not to have a cup of coffee with milk in it with my mincemeat and peas at lunchtime, that is a test."-- "It isn't just that I don't believe in God and naturally, hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."--Thomas Nagel, The Last Word. Our salvation may depend on evolutionary theory. If we continue to ignore its lessons, we endanger the earth and ourselves. Only evolution gets hit with the "just a theory" bullshit. Nothing else in science gets that treatment. The proposition that God exists is not even a theory. "It was the schoolboy who said, 'Faith is believing what you know ain't so.'"--Mark Twain. Children are subject to religious practices that would send any other practitioner to jail. Why do we say a kid is a "Catholic child" or a "Muslim child" or any other. Let's do more religious education, not less. Let them see the truths. Instead of trying to destroy the madrassahs that corrupt young Muslim minds, why don't we provide more alternatives? We do, and they get attacked. There is a secretive Christian organization that believes in the End Times scenarios. It includes such famous politicians, mostly Republican, as Grassley, Dominici, Inhofe, Nelson, Ensign, Stupak, and De Mint. "The religion that is afraid of science dishonors God and commits suicide."--Ralph Waldo Emerson.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Paul

    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 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 to commit to a point of view. He's basically saying yes, religion is a dangerous, polarizing influence on human behavior but hey: you can believe whatever you wanna believe - can't we all get along? The reason I loved The End of Faith so much is because Sam Harris chose a convincing point of view and supported it with compelling - even poetic - arguments. Chris Hitchens seems like he'd be fun to get a drink with, and Daniel Dennet seems like he couldn't even decide what drink to order.

  12. 4 out of 5

    Jed

    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 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 they cannot be proven to be based in fact, we don't have to accept the harm they do. I now call myself a "bright", that is, someone who accepts that the material world has no creator, no supernatural power. Despite having completed more than a year of studies toward the ministry, I feel relieved by this new awareness. I am a secular humanist. If the world is going to be improved, I now believe it will be because we did the necessary work to make it better. There is no deux ex machina. No god will come save the day. The book is full of quotations from other authors. Two I particularly liked are: "It was the schoolboy who said, 'Faith is believing what you know ain't so.'" - Mark Twain "Good people will do good things, and bad people will do bad things. But for good people to do bad things -- that takes religion." - Steven Weinberg, 1999 Be forewarned: it's not an easy read. At the end of each chapter, Dennet provides a summary of the chapter you've just read and an overview of what's to come in the next chapter.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Adam

    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 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 example of this broader philosophy. Dennett wants scientists to embark upon a massive project to understand religions - their origins, their impacts (good and bad), their psychology, sociology, economics, etc - in short, everything about them that can be addressed scientifically. He makes the argument for two reasons: science on religion has been hampered by a sort of veil of politeness, in which it might be considered offensive to take the often overly forward tools of science to something so dear to so many people; and because religion will play such a large role in large-scale future societal issues that we can't afford to not understand it. These arguments are straightforward and compelling and it's hard to imagine anyone even half-way reasonable objecting to them. Dennett, I'd like to think correctly, goes on to assume that the reservations of his audience have melted away in the face of his overwhelmingly reasonableness. He spend the bulk of the book fleshing out a popularly-oriented review of theories on the evolution and social impacts of religion, making liberal use of the meme concept he finds so useful. While it is primarily a summary of prior research and an identification of the key open questions in the debate, Dennett doesn't hesitate to flesh the picture out with a starting hypothesis: the one he considers the most persuasive. This is interesting, but not the sort of thing I'd normally go out of my way to read. Yet it was a true joy to read, for many reasons. Dennett is just a really clear thinker, a wonderful writer who has many nice turns of phrase (half the pages I dog-eared are just for some clever way of articulating a thought I've had or might use). His thoughts on science - what it is, why it is, and how it can be used in social and cultural contexts, are particularly clear and exciting.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mike

    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 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 didn't read the book in the best way. I set it down for too long, and rather than starting over (as I should have) I picked up where I left off, and that discontinuity diminished my impression of the book, I think. One thing that IS interesting, though, is he differs greatly from the othr New Atheists in his lack of confidence that religious propositions can be tested, though he's all about testing scientifically-framed religious questions. But whereas most of the other New Atheists seem to think that religion is at least understandable and therefore subject to falsification, Dennett's view, rather, is that most religious propositions mean almost literally nothing. That they are pronouncements very much in the vein of a non-latin speaker reciting a verse of Latin. Just sounds. Comforting sounds. And he argues, more, that most people don't believe in God, but they believe in belief in God. Hmm.....perhaps, though hard to tell (which is his point, actually).

  15. 4 out of 5

    Aya Hatem

    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 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 the spell that lures thousands of poor young Muslim boys into fanatical madrassahs where they are prepared for a life of murderous martyrdom instead of being taught about the modern world, about democracy and history and science! If only we could break the spell that convinces some of our fellow citizens that they are commanded by God to bomb abortion clinics!

  16. 4 out of 5

    Xander

    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 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 have shrouded themselves in mysticism/obscurantism and have immunized themselves of critique. Believers all over the world claim to be offended by critical probing into their convictions and the effects of those convictions on society as a whole. This is what Dennett sees as the spell that has to be broken. Another spell that has to be broken is the timeless (and tiresome) linkage between belief and goodness (this is the origin of religious hatred against atheism) and the association between spiritualism and morality (only spirituality - of which religion is perceived to be only one form - can offer you a good and meaningful life). The 'belief in belief' and the 'belief in spiritualism' are claimed to be moral and good, but in reality both of those beliefs are selfish and childish. It's time to break this spell as well! The second goal of Breaking the Spell (2005) is to synthesize the different strands of scientific theories on religion and to offer a preliminary model of religion, to be investigated further - via the scientific method. In part 1 of the book Dennett explains why the spell needs to be broken (21st century problems), how science can offer help in making informed policies and decisions regarding religion and how our investigations should proceed. Basically, we should ask ourselves Cui Bono? - who benefits? Dennett shows (convincingly) that religion doesn't have to offer benefits to its believers, it can either be a parasitic, symbiont or neutral complex of memes. In part 2, Dennett gives an oversight of the current science of religion and synthesizes this into an explanation how it is that religion is a universal cultural trait. Human beings use the 'intentional stance' to attribute agency to other humans and all sorts of natural objects that move. We seem to have 'hyperactive agent detection devices' - the continued mental triggering of alarms signalling agents wherever we look. Some of these imaginary agents can be used as decision aids (divination), others can be used as shaman's tools (health maintenance). Because these mental constructs are memes, they have been subjected to - conscious as well as unconscious - revision and design, i.e. thus ultimatly based on memetic fitness). Rituals, music and storytelling - in our eyes extravagant religious displays - were tools to transmit information (we are talking about times before the invention of writing). Shamanic traditions were possibly helpful interventions, playing on our natural dispositions. For example, there's evidence that the presence of hope in a sick person triggers fierce immunological responses, thereby increasing the chances of recovery (we are talking about times before the invention of pills or surgery). The next step in Dennett's explanation of religion is that people became stewards of the (religious) ideas that entered them, domesticating these ideas and thereby bringing a new dimension to the Cui Bono? question. Some of the features that emerged from this religious design are secrecy, deception and systematic invulnerability to disconfirmation (thereby giving these stewards powers they wouldn't otherwise be able to wield). This stage in the evolution of religion is tightly connected to the adaption of agricultural practices ca. 10.000 year ago; due to specialization and bigger communities there was room for castes of priests to originate (for the first time in human history). The last stage in the evolution of religion is the interplay between religious memes and our human need for group forming: because of language and culture, religion could serve as a marker for in-group friendliness and out-group hostility. Because of trade networks and the dispersion of knowledge, a marketplace for religious ideas originated. Different designed systems competing for adherents with different needs and tastes. This is why rationalistic economic theories, in combination with memetics, are our best shots at explaining the existence of so many different creeds. The result of this evolution of religion is that we ended up with a 'belief in belief'. Even though most people might not be religious anymore (in any way that makes sense), the consensus is still that belief is associated with morality and goodness. This makes it hard for atheists to combat religion, because 'belief in belief' ensures immunity to religious creeds, even though the defendants in question might not even be religious themselves. We have to break the spell that belief is necessary, or indeed sufficient, for an intellectually fulfilled and meaningful life. In part 3, Dennett offers his comments on some loose ends. We should chart the pros and cons of religion in an honest attempt to develop a (metaphorical) Buyer's Guide to Religions. He argues that the academic smokescreen, upholded by postmodern, neo-Marxist social scientists, has to be annihilated first. After this, there are two questions to ask: (1) Is religion beneficial to people? There's no evidence in favour for this. There are some health benefits, but other studies show that prayer for patients created higher levels of stress, leading to lower recovery rates. (If there would be evidence to the claim that religion offers health benefits, we would know them by now, since religious organizations would be the first to bring the news). (2) Is religion the foundation of morality? This simply can be answered with 'no'. Descriptively speaking, morality has biological and cultural roots, and prescriptively speaking, religion has no claim to the moral high ground. If morals are just prudence (I do as god tells me, because I will get a heavenly reward), then religion is dangerous. If morals are good in and of itself, then religion is simply not necessary; at best it hinders our efforts to get to universal human moral (and rights). In the final chapter, Dennett asks us to use his model and predictions as a stepping stone to scientific knowledge on religion as a natural phenomenon, in order to create well-guided policies to combat the religious delusions that endanger the entire world in the 21st century. One of Dennett's building blocks is education on all (!) religions, thereby creating an environment in which children can make informed decisions as adults. Another building block is to get the religious moderates to speak out against the fanatics in their midst, and destroying the barrier that they have built around their ideas: only constantly critizing ideas can combat extremism - religious moderates stand in the way, always claiming they're offended. I re-read this book, after reading it some years ago. I can remember I found it a dull book, but on my second reading it offered me some gems of insight. Maybe I just wasn't open-minded enough back then. In any case, this is a decent book (not one his best) that conveys a very important message. I found that most if his predictions and claims have withstood the test of time and that some of them seem even more urgent now as back in 2005 when this book was published.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Kat

    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 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 convention of religion in general, as long as you get through it without becoming offended (which I did, because I believe his thought processes to be both sound and beautiful).

  18. 4 out of 5

    Gendou

    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 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 (like this) makes for a very difficult (and confusing) read.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Matt

    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.

  20. 5 out of 5

    Damon Gubler

    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. 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.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Robert Narojek

    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.

  22. 4 out of 5

    Dennis Littrell

    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 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 using it, only serves to isolate them from others--but perhaps that is the point. Putting that aside, I also need to put aside another of Dennett's mostly irrelevant preoccupations in this otherwise carefully considered and nearly exhaustive examination of religion, namely that of the power of memes. Coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976), a meme is, on the one hand, a fancy word for "idea" and the results of ideas, and on the other hand, a kind of cultural gene or virus that replicates itself through the activities of living things, especially humans. Here's the way Dennett expresses it: "The idea of memes promises...to unify under a single perspective such diverse cultural phenomena as deliberate, foresighted scientific and cultural inventions (memetic engineering), such authorless productions as folklore, and even such unwittingly redesigned phenomena as languages and social customs themselves." (p. 355) In other words, Dennett believes the term "meme" can be extremely useful by helping us to understand cultural evolution. And, yes, religion can be seen as a meme. However I think his purpose in this book would have been better served if he had narrowed his focus and concentrated exclusively on religion as a natural phenomenon. And it is that, and Dennett makes a convincing case for scientists to respect something so natural to humans. What he doesn't do is make the case for an end to religion. What he wants is for those in our various religions to have the courage to openly examine their beliefs, tenets and practices and the effect they have on society as a whole. The question, is religion a good or a bad thing? is asked throughout the book, both explicitly and implicitly; however for the life of me I am not sure what Dennett's answer was!--although I can guess. At any rate, its clear that he believes if such an examination were conducted there would be fewer true believers in the world and less pain and suffering. But religion is not going to go away because religion and humans are as intermixed as the yoke and white of a scrambled egg. For most people a religion is like a thought in your mind. You cannot long be without one. Dennett doesn't care for this idea, I suspect, since he declares that his beliefs do not constitute a religion. A "religion" is a way of life. Tracing the derivation in Webster's International Dictionary (the venerable and highly respected Second Edition) one has to wade through several hundred words before arriving at "8b Acceptance and devotion to such an ideal as a standard for one's own life." For the most part Dennett is using earlier, more exclusive definitions. Of course some people do not have a religion since they live willy-nilly, from one impulse to the next without much foresight or appreciation for past events. But such people are in the minority; indeed they are, in a sense, children. Dennett calls the reader's attention to the evils and dangers of religion at length while at the same time giving religion its due as a sometime force for good in this world. But much of the good that religion does is seen by Dennett as the result of something like a placebo effect, and would benefit humankind regardless of the "truth" of the religion. He acknowledges studies that show that "regular churchgoers live longer, are less likely to have heart attacks, and so forth...," but adds that many of us "haven't stopped to consider how independent [these results]...are from whether or not any religious beliefs are true." (p. 272) Yes, it would be better--and such a day may come--when our religious beliefs are more in line with reality than they are today, taken as most of them are from the primitive science and psychology of long ago. Religion also has utility, Dennett allows, because it strengthens people psychologically in some circumstances by giving them resolution and confidence, regardless of the fact that their confidence is based on nothing real. (p. 178) Sometimes any plan or belief--even one that is clearly wrong--is better than no plan or belief. Religion may also help people by creating or strengthening "bonds of trust that permit groups of individuals to act together much more effectively." (p. 178) Dennett does not add at this point, but very well might have, that the cohesiveness of the tribe under the spell of a charismatic leader of the endemic religion strengthens the tribe in warfare. Indeed my contention is that this is the major reason that those of us living today have a built-in propensity to believe without evidence, because those that didn't died out because they were defeated by tribes that got their warriors to die for the cause in the name of their God. Dennett doesn't explore this path--although he does mention it--probably because he finds "group selection" troublesome. I wish I had the space to go into more of the many interesting points that Dennett makes or to quibble with some of his conclusions. The book is fascinating and--even though Dennett, as usual, is intent on leaving nothing out--it is readable and lively, more so than some of his other books. --Dennis Littrell, author of “The World Is Not as We Think It Is”

  23. 5 out of 5

    Mark Lawry

    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. 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.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Rowland Pasaribu

    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 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 by the stories of this fruit's conquest of the west. Breaking The Spell by Daniel C. Dennett 2006 Penguin Group Ok some people are just smart. And sometimes it is so gratifying to find that a smart person has put into words the way you have felt all along. And done it to rigorous academic standards. Thank you Daniel Dennett for writing this book. "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" examines religion from a dispassionate, biological, evolutionary perspective. It asks readers to put aside all emotional filters and look at the subject objectively, from the vantage of the present going back to the beginnings of religion once humans began developing speech. In the beginning was the word", he explains. But actually Dennet brings us much further back to the origins of life itself and the forces that allowed and encouraged it's survival. Religion must be viewed as a choice life made to carry for some kind of advantage it provided for survival. From these elementary beginnings Dennet follows the evolution of religion, of faith and of spirituality through the ages. Throughout Dennett challenges the reader to examine what is belief and what is belief in belief. I found this book exhilarating. It is very well written and only occasionally did I find myself having to reread a page or two to keep up with him. But that's my problem. What I mean to say is that the book is accessible to the lay reader. It is full of compelling stories, illumination, compassion and surprise. I feel smarter for having read it. I want everyone to read it. "...modern theists might acknowledge that, when it comes to Baal and the Golden Calf, Thor and Wotan, Poseidon and Apollo, Mithras and Ammon Ra, they are actually atheists. We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further." Dawkins "What these people have realized is one of the best secrets of life: Let your self go. If you can approach the world's complexities, both it's glories and it's horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the greater scheme of things. That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural."

  25. 4 out of 5

    Joe Iacovino

    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 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 examined their position on faith and belief or are just starting to. I did so long ago so this book only added nuggets of supporting information for my convictions. As a philosopher, he is stunningly detailed in his mapping an argument and his approach is very even handed. This makes him accessible to those who are intellectual and also wanting to take an honest look at the arguments on faith, etc. Dennett doesn't demonize or mock peoples beliefs but rather just lays the arguments out for reasonable discussion. However, Dennett is so thorough he comes off as a bit meandering and boring if you already know where he's going. But, if you are new to the arguments or material then you will probably enjoy this hard work. I didn't like the idea of grouping "freethinkers" as "brights" for two reasons: 1. It simply seems a little corny; 2. It implicitly suggests those who believe are "dims." Again, where ND Tyson and Dennett shine (as did Sagan so perfectly) is their non-offensive approach which allows people to process the information without tuning out due to perceived insult. This is the role of the educator. In the end, I think I prefer listening to Dennett in a lecture setting more than his writing as the time constraints force him to be quicker to the point. But again, for those who enjoy philosophy or simply want a robust, yet unoffensive, argument on faith and belief this book will likely serve them well.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Adam

    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 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 of religion in terms of natural selection. Also, he scratches the surface of the doxastic systems required to be religious (paraphrasing 'Believers have to BELIEVE they can believe in the facets of their faith.') which leads to an interesting discussion regarding propositional attitudes towards religious belief. Cons: Dennett sometimes ruins his charade of neutrality by getting on his atheist stump and preaching (to the choir - for who else will read his work?) which detracts from the arguments and hypotheses he presents. Also, some explanations - while relevant and usually fun - run a little long. The worst offense is the strength (if any) of his arguments is diminished by his lack of conviction to really hammer his solid points home. I suspect he doesn't want to sound dogmatic, or even worse, be quoted and pigeonholed forever by his claims. But then again, his claims are so vague now that he could be erring so far on the side of caution that his work will fail to make a significant impact. Overall: I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the study of religion. I would not recommend this book to professional philosophers (and I think Dennett intended it to be this way).

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tyler

    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 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 the idea of memes and the evolution of ideas, including religion. There are so many interesting subjects here: divination as a means of reducing responsibility for decision-making; dealing with the death of loved ones; the reproductive advantage of memes that involve fantastic elements, like a floating axe or a talking donkey. The list goes on. Most interestingly, he points out that not all things that coevolve are mutually beneficial, and the various good and bad points to the world's evolved religions are explored as well. My favorite book on the subject of religion in general.

  28. 5 out of 5

    Book

    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: Strengths: 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 Weaknesses 1. It wasn't a fun, smooth rea 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: Strengths: 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 Weaknesses 1. It wasn't a fun, smooth read 2. Took too long to get to points 3. Too restrained, let loose Dr. Dennett 4. Scientifically shallow 5. Lacked conviction A mild recommendation. Slightly disappointed. In summary, Dr. Dennett claims that religion should be looked at scientifically and that it is no longer above criticism.

  29. 4 out of 5

    Aaron Lord

    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... 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...

  30. 5 out of 5

    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 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 like Santa Claus for goodness sake). The only people who could take offense to the book are those with chips on their shoulders who have already decided that a rational discussion of religion is a topic forbidden from examination. So what is Dennett claiming? 1. Religion is a natural phenomenon (as opposed to being ‘supernatural’, not surprising since there is no evidence supporting the existence of the latter). 2. Religion’s roots are found in the predisposition of humans to perceive ‘agency’. Agency is the sense that there is a consciousness responsible for specific actions. This heuristic (mental shortcut) works well much of the time. When we see someone pick up a object we assume it’s because the person performing the action has a desire to pick it up. However, this approach goes awry when agency is associated with natural events … for example - my crops failed because the spirits were offended by something I did or failed to do. It’s a short jump from perceived agency to the animistic gods who control winds, water and weather and from there to the judgmental gods who are preternaturally concerned with the things you do with your clothes off. 3. Religion spreads through stories, and only the best stories survive. Much like evolution through natural selection the weakest ideas are culled from the herd while the fittest persist. Thus mythologies are refined over time to become ever more interesting and resonant and therefore more likely to be propagated - a concept captured by what Richard Dawkins has dubbed a ‘meme’ (cultural information that is transmitted by repetition and replication in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes). 4. Some of the means used by religions to make themselves more robust as memes include: ceremony, ritual, music, recitation, celebration, repetition and basically everything else you associate with a church service. More recently churches have turned to marketing of their product much like is done for other commercial products or services. 5. Another factor playing a role in religions tenacity is a prevalence of what Dennett calls ‘belief in belief’. Some people believe in god, but many more (including some atheists) feel belief, in and of itself is a good thing. Thus many ‘profess’ belief whether or not they are truly believers because they think it’s the right thing to do. 6. Faced with scientific explanations of the natural world that have pushed god into the gaps of scientific understanding, the concept of a personal god has been supplanted by that of a ‘prime mover’ or ‘first cause’ or ‘ground of being’ in the minds of many ‘sophisticated’ theologians. This god is an ineffable being about which no claims can be made and thus is made immune from being disproven. Unfortunately for these ‘sophisticated’ theologians the ineffable and the nonexistent are largely indistinguishable. Probably the most interesting idea that Dennett presents is the idea of ‘belief in belief’. It’s a fascinating concept that leads one to ask whether people actually believe in their religion or whether they are simply ‘professing’ to believe in their religion. It’s a difficult question to answer since ‘conviction’ is difficult to gage. However, we can draw some conclusions from people’s actual behavior: 1. Believers will do things when they think they are alone that they would never do if their mother was standing in the room watching them. This, despite the fact that they presumably believe god is watching them at all times. 2. Believers grieve differently at a funeral than they do at the airport when seeing a loved one off. This, despite the fact that in both situations they presumably believe they will be reunited with those departing in the not-too-distant future. 3. The fraction of believers who renounce material possessions and dedicate their lives to helping the poor is vanishingly small, despite the fact that it is instructed that they do so in their holy books. 4. Believers who receive a diagnosis of a terminal illness do not celebrate as if they had won the lottery even though it means they will soon arrive in an otherworldly paradise of peacefulness and bliss. Instead, they react with shock and horror in the same manner as an atheist who is fully aware that no afterlife exists. Why are people’s actual behavior so very different from the behaviors you would expect from someone who actually believes the propositions they profess? Do people truly believe what they profess to believe or do they simply ‘believe in belief’? Dennett doesn’t think there is an easy way to scientifically arrive at the truth, but the answer seems obvious. People who desperately wish for something to be true, will fervently do their best to believe it to be true. But reality intrudes. The world around us simply doesn’t support the proposition that god exists (god is missing, evil exists, death appears final). Thus I suspect most people do their best to not think about it very deeply because deep down inside, concealed from the world (and even to the extent they can, even from themselves) they know that religion isn’t true and behave accordingly. So, what about the book itself? As a philosopher Dennett is trained to ask probing and insightful questions. That’s fine as far as it goes, but in the absence of probing and insightful answers the result is somewhat unsatisfying. Dennett certainly discusses plausible explanations of the phenomenon he observes, but given that ideas do not leave fossil evidence behind we are unlikely to ever know whether the explanations are true or merely a form of ‘Just-So’ story. Also, Dennett’s style of writing just didn’t work for me. His informal, chatty and meandering style seemed to take forever to get around to the point. I suspect he is writing with the religious adherent in mind and is attempting to carefully and patiently convince them to question their preconceived beliefs. But I found this approach frustrating … like toying with a loose Band-Aid I kept wishing he'd just get on with it and tear it off already.

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