Saturday, 14 July 2012


Dick Pountain/24 May 2006/10:55/Political Quarterly

TITLE: Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
AUTHOR: Daniel C. Dennett
PUBLISHED: Feb 2006, hard cover, pp 448, £25.00

The current resurgence of fundamentalist and evangelical religiosity in both the Christian and Muslim worlds is a source of great worry and puzzlement to secularists (present reviewer included) who had thought such beliefs on the wane in the face of a triumphant science. What's perhaps most surprising is how ineffective the leading style of Darwinist/Rationalist counter-argument - as for example expounded by Richard Dawkins, Francis Wheen, or the author considered here, Daniel Dennett - is proving against this new strain of belief. So feeble it is that a leading Intelligent Design proponent, William Dempski, recently thanked Dawkins as "one of God's greatest gifts to the intelligent-design movement..." This debate is of more than academic interest, since a fierce ideological war currently rages between secularists and evangelicals for control of the US school curriculum.

That Homo sapiens is not a wholly rational animal has been known for several thousand years, by the pre-Socratics through Shakespeare and Nietzche up to Freud. If we were indeed rational animals then belief in God could only be an error, even an illness, that could be cured by scientific education, and it's hardly surprising that many people find this attitude at best patronising and at worst threatening. The fact is that US evangelicals may reject Darwinism but they still drive cars and use the Internet, while al Quaeda activists reject western secular culture but deploy heat-seeking anti-aircraft missiles. Neither has any trouble distinguishing the material from the spiritual worlds, but unfortunately our current cheerleaders for rationalism and secularism appear to have.

In 'Breaking the Spell' Daniel Dennett sets out to naturalise religion - that is, to explain why people feel a need to believe in a supernatural world in terms of evolutionary survival value. His explanations are tentative and complex, and never become so crass as to suggest that there is a simple 'God-gene'. He quotes much solid research and often describes experiments that need to be done, but haven't yet. The mechanisms he proposes operate at a more abstract level than any particular instance of religion. For example there's clear survival value in being fascinated by causes ('why did that rock land on my head') and therefore an impulse to invent causes where they're not yet known. The power of the Placebo Effect is only just now becoming understood by scientific medicine, but for thousands of years it was the only anaesthetic humans had, hence belief in healing shamans and spirits. The tendency to band together and conform to a common code of behaviour has enormous survival value, and far the most effective way to achieve it is to impose some supernatural Big Brother who watches us all. (Indeed, modern secular states still struggle against the nihilism that arises following his banishment).

Eventually we arrived at the stage of reasoned theology, which like science tries to explain the world, but in moral rather than material terms - how it ought to be, rather than how it is. The 20th century witnessed disastrous experiments in secular morality, all of which collapsed into perverted theisms (worshipping Stalin and Hitler, Mao and Kim Il Sung). Following World War II the advance of secular, science-based, social democratic cultures in the Western world looked as if it might finally relegate religious belief to a matter of private conscience, but more recently the moral perspective has been regaining the upper hand. That this turn is occurring alongside a revival of laisser faire capitalism and a global widening of economic inequalities is unlikely to be pure coincidence.  

Dennett broaches this subject through the device of distinguishing 'belief' from 'belief in belief'. The former actually imagines a grey-haired father figure in the sky watching over us, while the latter merely thinks that belief is a good idea because it makes people behave well (presumably agreeing with Pascal when he recommended that you "bend the knee" and faith would follow). However Dennett shrinks from following this line to its conclusion, namely that religion is often politics in disguise. Running through the history of Christianity (and probably Islam too) is a streak of millenarianism, a desire for class revenge, the notion that the rich might enjoy the privileges of this world but they would burn in hell in the next. US evangelicals rebel against the 1960s liberalism of the East and West Coast Media Elites, whose drug-taking, free love and abortion happen to coincide with a monopoly on the best-paid jobs; Islamic fundamentalists, despairing of justice for Palestine, invoke the Wrath of God only because the Wraths of Nasserism and Baathism proved corrupt and impotent. Dennett's patronising brand of rationalism can barely scratch the surface of such passions. 

'Breaking the Spell' is ultimately disappointing on several levels. Its Darwinian themes are too shallow to satisfy, and it's too often timid about upsetting the religious reader when it needs to be tough, but patronising where it ought to be sympathetic. It also suffers from certain infuriating tics: he coins the repulsively complacent term 'brights' to describe secular-minded people like himself (tempting me to convert to Wahabism), and deploys Dawkins metaphor of the 'meme' to explain the spread and evolution of religious ideas. I lack the space here to argue against the meme theory: suffice to say that in my opinion it confuses the mental and material realms in a way that no half-bright country vicar would dream of. Setting out from a view of religion as false consciousness, Dennett fails to capture those needs it fulfills that purely scientific accounts of the world leave unsatisfied. That wisest of naturalist philosophers, George Santayana, once said "Everything is a miracle, until we call it natural": if we secularists are to ever convince the religious, implying they're stupid is not a winning strategy.

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