Daniel C Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a book that every person interested in religion should read. It’s been on my reading list for some time but I have, of course, heard a lot about it before opening its pages. Christian critics, in particular, have labelled Dennett’s approach to religion/spirituality as reductionist and his argument based on the already discredited idea of the meme proposed by Richard Dawkins. But a good deal of the critiques I have read have quite plainly misunderstood what Dennett is on about.
In his book, Dennett wishes to achieve two aims:
Firstly, he wishes to argue that religion should be examined in the same way as we examine any other area of human experience. Religion has been protected from careful scientific scrutiny on the ubiquitous assumption that it is outside of the domain of science. But Dennett provides a compelling case for its urgent analysis. There is so much we don’t know about religion (despite continual claims for its benefit to society or, vice versa, claims that it is the centre of much of the strife in the world) and it has so much influence/impact on society. But there seems to be a social assumption that it is off-limits to inquiry. It is time for that to change.
Secondly, Dennett wishes to propose a possible theory of the evolution of religion as a natural phenomenon in human history. If the first of his wishes is that religion be open to scientific inquiry, then there needs to be a testable theory of religion. In the second half of the book, Dennett constructs a coherent theory of religion’s origins, development, and status in society. But he recognises that all he is suggesting are hypotheses and that they may very well be contentious. He quite openly concedes the contentious nature of some of his proposals including the idea of memes.
Breaking the Spell achieves both of these aims and in a highly intelligent, witty, and respectful manner. Dennett raises some profoundly important issues and provides a wealth of well-informed information on the state of religion in society. My preconceptions of this book were “blown out of the water”. Dennett is honest, plain speaking, and eminently reasonable, constantly acknowledging the limits of our (and his) knowledge about religion.
Religion has nothing to fear from Dennett’s approach – unless religious believers fear what we so frequently say we seek – the truth. It is about time that the sorts of questions Dennett poses in relation to religion were confronted and dealt with and that believers stopped hiding behind the “sacredness” of religion suggesting that its examination is off limits to those who do not believe.
Dennett does not claim to be stating the truth about religion. What he does do is plead for religion to be transparent to inquiry and that the “spell” it holds over society and culture be broken by answering the most basic questions about it. Then we can make fully informed decisions about the role of religion in society, how children are raised in relation to religion, and how religion relates to politics and culture. And why wouldn’t any intelligent Christian or follower of any other religion want that? After all, the truth will set us free.