Synopses & Reviews
An innovative thinker tackles the controversial question of why we believe in God and how religion shapes our lives and our future.
For a growing number of people, there is nothing more important than religion. It is an integral part of their marriage, child rearing, and community. In this daring new book, distinguished philosopher Daniel C. Dennett takes a hard look at this phenomenon and asks why. Where does our devotion to God come from and what purpose does it serve? Is religion a blind evolutionary compulsion or a rational choice? In Breaking the Spell, Dennett argues that the time has come to shed the light of science on the fundamental questions of faith.
In a spirited narrative that ranges widely through history, philosophy, and psychology, Dennett explores how organized religion evolved from folk beliefs and why it is such a potent force today. Deftly and lucidly, he contends that the "belief in belief" has fogged any attempt to rationally consider the existence of God and the relationship between divinity and human need.
Breaking the Spell is not an antireligious screed but rather an eyeopening exploration of the role that belief plays in our lives, our interactions, and our country. With the gulf between rationalists and adherents of "intelligent design" widening daily, Dennett has written a timely and provocative book that will be read and passionately debated by believers and nonbelievers alike.
"In his characteristically provocative fashion, Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, calls for a scientific, rational examination of religion that will lead us to understand what purpose religion serves in our culture. Much like E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Dennett explores religion as a cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection. Religion survives because it has some kind of beneficial role in human life, yet Dennett argues that it has also played a maleficent role. He elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens. Because Dennett offers a tentative proposal for exploring religion as a natural phenomenon, his book is sometimes plagued by generalizations that leave us wanting more ('Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future'). Although much of the ground he covers has already been well trod, he clearly throws down a gauntlet to religion." Publishers Weekly (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"Breaking the Spell is a work of considerable historical interest, because it is a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions....Dennett recognizes the uses of faith, but not its reasons." New York Times
"If some parts of the book are frustrating, others are rich and rewarding....Breaking the Spell is the product of an extremely bright mind." San Francisco Chronicle
"Remarkably bold, Dennett's agenda includes plans for preventing overzealous parents from instilling their faith in their children and for deploying the technology of mass advertising to foster religious doubt. A book certain to spark heated controversy." Booklist
"On a crusade against crusades, Dennett...wants to save the world from religious fanaticism and figures that the best way to do so is to break the spell of its supernatural pretensions by giving a purely naturalistic, evolutionary account of the development of religion." Library Journal
Ambitious . . . an accessible account of what might be called the natural history of religion. (The New Yorker
How would a visitor from Mars dispassionately explain human religion? . . . My guess is that the result would be something like this crystal-clear, constantly engaging, and enjoyable new book. (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prizewinning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse
Rich and rewarding . . . the main business of the book is to give a scientific account of how religion may have developed among creatures such as us. . . . The product of an extremely bright mind. (San Francisco Chronicle)
An elegant, sharp-minded essay on the need to study religion in a dispassionate way. (The Economist)
Penetrating . . . a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. (Scientific American)
For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask whyand howit 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 religions evolution from wild folk belief to domesticated dogma. Not an antireligious screed but an unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy, Breaking the Spell
will be read and debated by believers and skeptics alike.
About the Author
Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University.
Table of Contents
Breaking The Spell Preface
PART I: OPENING PANDORA'S BOX
1. Breaking Which Spell?
1. What's going on?
2. A working definition of religion
3. To break or not to break
4. Peering into the abyss
5. Religion as a natural phenomenon
2. Some Quesions About Science
1. Can science study religion?
2. Should science study religion?
3. Might music be bad for you?
4. Would neglect be more benign?
3. Why Good Things Happen
1. Bringing out the best
2. Cui bono?
3. Asking what pays for religion
4. A Martian's list of theories
PART II: THE EVOLUTION OF RELIGION
4. The Roots of Religion
1. The births of religions
2. The raw materials of religion
3. How Nature deals with the problem of other minds
5. Religion, the Early Days
1. Too many agents: competition for rehearsal space
2. Gods as intersted parties
3. Getting the gods to speak to us
4. Shamans as hypnotists
5. Memory-engineering devices in oral cultures
6. The Evolution of Stewardship
1. The music of religion
2. Folk religion as practical know-how
3. Creeping reflection and the birth of secrecy in religion
4. The domestication of religions
7. The Invention of Team Spirit
1. A path paved with good intentions
2. The ant colony and the corporation
3. The growth market in religion
4. A God you can talk to
8. Belief in Belief
1. You better believe it
2. God as intentional object
3. The division of doxastic labor
4. The lowest common denominator?
5. Beliefs designed to be professed
6. Lessons from Lebanon: the strange cases of the Druze and Kim Philby
7. Does God exist?
PART III: RELIGION TODAY
9. Toward a Buyer's Guide to Religions
1. For the love of God
2. The academic smoke screen
3. Why does it matter what you believe?
4. What can your religion do for you?
10. Morality and Religion
1. Does religion make us moral?
2. Is religion what gives meaning to your life?
3. What can we say about sacred values?
4. Bless my soul: spirituality and selfishness
11. Now What Do We Do?
1. Just a theory
2. Some avenues to explore: how can we home in on religious conviction?
3. What shall we tell the children?
4. Toxic memes
5. Patience and politics
A. The New Replicators?
B. Some More Questions About Science
C. The Bellboy and the Lady Named Tuck
D. Kim Philby as a Real Case of Indeterminacy of Radical Interpretation