Brighting the Spell

Daniel C. Dennett’s 2006 book Breaking the Spell, Religion as a Natural Phenomenon reached the bookstores a few months ahead of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.

Breaking the Spell is reasonably long, at 412 pages after the end notes, well-researched, and current. He doesn’t spend much time on philosophical questions about the existence of God or the nature of truth, except to say that there are no convincing arguments that religion should not be studied and its claims to truthiness tested. (He doesn’t actually say truthiness). Nor does he spend too much time on the idea, popular in religious studies and the literary humanities, that religion is out of bound because it adds meaning to human life or the argument that studying religion scientifically disrespects feelings. He argues that there is a social benefit gain in demystifying religion. I am not sure about that one. Modern living tends to destroy social connections, leaving people searching for therapies and entertainments to soothe their anxieties.
He doesn’t make the conventional atheist arguments about the irrationality of belief, religion as opiate of the masses, religion as mass illusion or delusion, religion as the cause of war and oppression, or religion as the construct of parasitic priests. He appears to regard these arguments as too speculative to explain why religion happens, and probably too stale.
He pays more attention to sociology, like Rodney Stark’s use of rational choice theory in the study of successful religions. He pays a lot of attention to the work of linguists and anthropologists Dan Sperber, Scott Atran, and Pascal Boyer. He mentions Jared Diamond a lot and Steven Pinker a few times.
While his main theme is that religion is a natural human activity which can be studied and explained scientifically, he also has some theories. He suggests that human thinking tends to attribute intentionality to natural events, a particular aspect of social living and consciousness, which he calls the intentional stance. He likes to point out that religion, historically has been bound to culture – everyone seems to know the religious stories on the basis of common knowledge, but very few understand the stories or can respond to enquiries. He points out that anthropologists have started to realize that people make things up when they are questioned about their gods.
He also has adopted memes to explain the way that religious stories and ideas perpetuate themselves across cultures and across time. In fact, in dealing with Sperber, Atran and Boyer, he acknowledges that they don’t accept memes, but he appropriates and translates their ideas into his own memetic theory of religion and culture.
He tries to persuade by jovial, common sense arguments. He loads his arguments with rhetorical questions, and he seems to be too chatty on some issues. The impression is that he is genuinely thoughtful and making a serious effort to communicate respectfully.
He appears to be writing for Brights, and promoting a Bright perspective. To the extent that he avoids Dawkins’ more forceful perspective, he demonstrates a difference in persuasive tactics. Dawkins is determined to beat his foes down with the force of his words. Dennett relies on the sticking power of a cheery presentation of oddly memorable ideas. I would say that he is more tuned to cultural issues than Dawkins, and a more discerning judge of workable memes.

2 thoughts on “Brighting the Spell”

  1. I think Dawkin’s approach is entirely consistent with a memetic “attack”. In her book THE MEME MACHINE, Susan Blackmore points out that memes tend to spread more successfully when they come up against opposition, where argument is involved, or ideological conflict. I think we’ve seen a conscious application of that in both Sam Harris (LETTER TO A CHRISTIAN NATION) and Dawkins (THE GOD DELUSION), where the tone is starkly confrontational. Neither wants to persuade. Both, I think, want to engage in argument, to promote the replication of the new, aggressive atheist memeplex. “Everything changed with 9/11” says Dawkins, explaining his new aggression, offering religion no quarter or respect. Why? Because 3,000 people died in one day at the hands of religious fanatics? That’s true. However, that same year, more than 40,000 people died in the US in traffic accidents, 5,000 of those in New York alone. Looking at 9/11 in perspective, Harris’s and Dawkins’s books seem more like irrational and emotional responses to the tragedy than a new, aggressive, “scientific” approach. Death from “religion” worldwide since 9/11 pales in comparison to death by car. Here’s something else: of those 40,000 Americans who died on the road in 2001, 17,000 involved alcohol. Both Harris and Dawkins would do more good for humanity by writing brochures for Mothers Against Drunk Driving! That said, Dawkins is brilliant when he’s writing about evolution. The Dennett book sounds interesting. I’ll put it on my reading list.

  2. Small addendum to my comment: I should have mentioned that I have no problem with Dawkins’ arguments against the existence of God. I think most believers, of whatever stripe, have considered most of them… although the argument about the improbability of the existence of a creator was fresh. I just think that his aggressive, disrespectful tactics are unwarranted.

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