Religion Explained


Philosopher Daniel Dennett has a new book coming out, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, in which he takes a stab at trying to explain how religious belief arose among our primitive ancestors and why it persists today.

The Scientific American review of the book puts it this way:

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, has embarked on another of his seemingly impossible quests. His provocatively titled book Consciousness Explained made a persuasive effort to do just that. More recently, in Freedom Evolves, he took on free will from a Darwinian perspective.

This time he may have assumed the hardest task of all–and not just because of the subject matter. Dennett hopes that this book will be read not just by atheists and agnostics but by the religiously faithful–and that they will come to see the wisdom of analyzing their deepest beliefs scientifically, weeding out the harmful from the good. The spell he hopes to break, he suggests, is not religious belief itself but the conviction that its details are off-limits to scientific inquiry, taboo.

"I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the tack I am taking here," he writes. "They will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that–that's what I am, and that's exactly what I am trying to do." This warning comes at the end of a long, two-chapter overture in which Dennett defends the idea that religion is a fit subject for scrutiny. The question is how many of the faithful will follow him that far.

My bet is that the answer to that last question is, not many. Still, it looks like a good read.

See Reason's interview with Dennett here and my article on Freedom Evolves here.