Friday, October 06, 2006


Michael Shermer On Dennett's “Breaking The Spell”
By Thomas Riggins

BREAKING THE SPELL: RELIGION AS A NATURAL PHENOMENON by Daniel C. Dennett, Viking, New York, 2006, 464pp.,
reviewed by Michael Shermer in SCIENCE 27 January 2006.

Dennett claims that his book is a “forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.” He also claims that such a study will not void “the life-enriching enchantment of religion itself.” Since Shermer tells us the author is an atheist, this seems like a case of wanting to have your Eucharist and eat it too. When we find out that God-belief turns out to be a boo-boo in thinking how do we keep the feeling of “enchantment”?

Dennett thinks the general public, being 90% religious, will resent a scientific approach (if indeed that is what his approach really is) and so he spends the first 55 pages of his book, according to Shermer, talking down to them (Shermer doesn’t quite say this but the implication is there). He thinks “believers” have a “repugnance for science” and so he has taken upon himself the “daunting task” of enlightening them (l’homme moyen sensual.)

Shermer says the book is actually written for “scientists and scholars” who have not given much thought to religion as a “natural phenomenon.” This must be a very small audience, especially since Shermer doesn’t tell us what is meant by “natural.” At any rate, the reviewer tells us that Dennett begins with something called “rational choice theory” as it has been applied to religion by the sociologist Rodney Stark (“Religion, Deviance, and Social Control” 1997, et al.). This is a theory also used by many bourgeois economists. It assumes that people make rational choices based on their perceived interests. The fact that they don’t often actually do this (think of Kansas) has not dampened enthusiasm for the theory.

Shermer explains Stark’s application of the theory thusly (I have boiled it down to get rid of jargon): religion acts as an exchange mechanism between the people and the gods--i.e., people do rituals, etc., for the gods and the gods give the people things they need-- rain, good hunting, victory in war, etc. This theory, by the way, is as old as the hills. It is better put forth by Spinoza.

Dennett takes this theory but “looks for a deeper causal vector.” This, since Dennett is an evolutionist, turns out to be reproductive fitness [as with Catholic priests and Hindu and Buddhist celibate monks perhaps-tr]. Dennett says, quoted in the review: “Any such regular expenditure of time and energy [as is done in religion-tr] has to be balanced by something of ‘value’ obtained, and the ultimate measure of evolutionary ‘value’ is fitness: the capacity to replicate more successfully than the competition.” Since there are more Chinese than any other population group, does this mean Marxism is a religion? Why doesn’t the Kama Sutra outsell the Koran or the Bible?

Shermer now asks how is evolutionary fitness enhanced by religion. From this point on I think the discussion becomes confused due to a category mistake. I mean that terms and ideas developed in the biological sciences are transferred mechanically to the social and cultural sciences. What we get is a modern day version of the type of social Darwinism created by Herbert Spencer in the nineteenth century.

In answer to his question Shermer lists four “values” that religion provides that promote “evolutionary fitness.” These are 1. “mythmaking to explain apparently inexplicable phenomena in the world.” Why should this make us more fit? How could anything like this be tested? There are many evolutionarily fit systems that have developed without recourse to myths. Some mythical systems are independent of religion (such as the race theories or the current fad of meme theory.) 2. “redemption (forgiveness in this life) and resurrection (immortality in the next life “-- this is too specifically Christian a formulation to be put forth in a general theory about religion since redemption and resurrection are not universal features of religion. 3. “morality (reinforcement of pro-social behavior and punishment of anti-social behavior)”-- again it appears that this value can exist independently of religion and while associated with some religions (though not all) some type of morality seems to be a universal feature of social life even predating conscious formulation of religious ideas. Finally, 4. “sociality (encouragement of within-group amity and between-group enmity”-- this is also a universal features of social grouping with or without religion.

Shermer says Dennett admits we don’t know if religion can be explained by these values, and on the face of it it doesn’t look like it can. While an argument could be made for evolutionary (reproductive) fitness being a benefit of 3 and 4, 1 and 2 don’t seem all that relevant. Regardless of this admission, Shermer maintains the book “presents a plausible explanation” that they do. Shermer presents Dennett’s theory as follows.

As humans attained self-consciousness the mind developed (or brain) a “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD). This HADD alerted us to real dangers in the world-- scorpions, snakes, etc., but “also generates false positives” and attributes minds and powers to “rocks and trees,” etc. Dennett is quoted: “The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.”

This is of course, as Shermer points out, “animism” which eventually leads to belief in one God, but “God is a false positive generated by our HADD.” Then Shermer says, “our ancestors created folk religions, which, between the Neolithic revolution and the rise of cities, evolved into the organized religions we recognize today.” I hope this is not part of Dennett’s theory. If you were to go back to the end of the Neolithic and the rise of cities, i.e., the commencement of the Bronze Age around 3000 BC or so you would not find any traces that “the organized religions we recognize today” had “evolved.” Buddhism is 2500 years in the future, Christianity won’t appear until the Roman Imperial period ( what is now called “Judaism” was concocted around this time as well). Islam will not appear until the Middle Ages and India is still basically in the grips of a folk religion.

We are told the “God” of today is a “meme” that resulted” from a contest of “countless God memes” in the past. “Meme” theory, which postulates little “mental” entities (analogous to biological genes) which compete to control our “mental DNA” as it were, are themselves the latest example of a HADD which has led to a modern form of animism. Once we enter “memeland” we have left the world of natural phenomena for the world of idealist philosophy and metaphysical speculations and so we take our leave of Shermer’s review at this point.

Read this book if it you want to, but 464 pages is a major investment of reading time for many people and it doesn’t look like there is much to it. I should also mentioned that the book is marred by McCarthy like anti-communist comments. If you really want to learn something about the origin of religion read Ludwig Feuerbach’s The Essence of Christianity, Hegel’s early writings on the positivity of the Christian religion and Engel’s “Ludwig Feuerbach and the End of Classical German Philosophy.”

Thomas Riggins is the book review editor of Political Affairs and can reached at

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