Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

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Overview

For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why?and how?it 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 religion?s evolution from ?wild? folk belief to ?domesticated? dogma. Not an antireligious screed but an unblinking look beneath ...

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Overview

For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why—and how—it 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 religion’s 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.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Faith-based initiatives; evolution vs. intelligent design; the right to life vs. the right to choose; gay marriage; international terrorism: Even if you're not a believer, you can ignore religion only at your own risk. In this provocative book, philosopher Daniel C. Dennett asserts that religion is a cultural phenomenon shaped and governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection; succinctly stated, we are hard-wired to believe. At a time of ever-widening schism between rationalists and believers, Breaking the Spell offers an analysis that acknowledges the power of faith without relinquishing the claims of reason.
Publishers Weekly
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. (Feb. 6) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal
On a crusade against crusades, Dennett (philosophy, Tufts Univ.; codirector, Ctr. for Cognitive Studies; Consciousness Explained) 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. Although Dennett specializes in philosophy, not biology, he is no newcomer to evolutionary theory; in Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), he took on the role of a modern T.H. Huxley and popularized sociobiological accounts of distinctly human phenomena such as language and morality. Here he reports in clear and vigorous prose on cutting-edge evolutionary explanations for various religious beliefs and rituals and in the concluding chapters makes some provocatively illiberal political suggestions. But Dennett can also take on the strident, self-righteous tone of the zealot, and the hypotheses he presents, though ingenious, are too conjectural to dispel the charm of the sacred. Still, his reputation and the timeliness of his topic would seem to make this book a necessary purchase for most public and academic libraries. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 10/15/05.]-Charles Seymour, Wayland Baptist Univ. Lib., Plainview, TX Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
An exploration of modern scientific theories of religion, framed by an argument that society must overcome its "spell" against studying religion as a natural, evolutionary occurrence. Dennett (Center for Cognitive Studies/Tufts), a National Book Award finalist for Darwin's Dangerous Idea (1995), seeks to expose religion to the systematic tools of modern science. It is too important in our global culture to leave unstudied, he arguespointing to instances in which religion has proven dangerous to society (e.g., radical Islam, the Heaven's Gate cult, etc.). Dennett then presents material from various researchers regarding how religion has evolved in human cultures. By drawing attention to theories that shaman "healing" practices, group cohesion and loyalty to ideas beyond the self have been a part of human evolution related to proto-religions, the author demonstrates why the existence of religious practice may have developed so uniformly in all human cultures. When broaching more developed and institutionalized forms of religion, however, he steps onto thinner ice. In concluding that many people believe more in their traditions than in the dogma and doctrine of their faith, and in pointing out inconsistencies between scriptural authorities and modern theologies, Dennett observes religion from an outsider's vantage point. This is, of course, his goal as a researcher, but it leads to a tendency to dismiss the role of faith, often by setting up straw men to knock down for the sake of his thesis. For instance, he states that, to many, faith is much like being in love, then concludes that love can delude individuals and even be bad for them. This analogy may not prove very convincing to thefaithful. Dennett seems certain that many will indeed vigorously refute his work, but sees this as a worthwhile risk for starting the conversation. An intriguing argument, but one not likely to persuade any but the most heterodox of religious adherents.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780143038337
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA) Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/6/2007
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 174,289
  • Product dimensions: 5.57 (w) x 8.41 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor, professor of philosophy, and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. His books include Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea, a finalist for the National Book Award.

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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

Appendixes
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

Notes Bibliography Index

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 34 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 34 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2012

    Fascinating book!

    This book is well written and thought provoking. I am a Christian, and never felt that the author was insulting or demeaning to any religion. I felt he made many good points, made many suggestions towards the study of religion as a natural phenomenon, and did so in an entertaining way. He challenges believers without degrading them.

    4 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 4, 2010

    Very intellectually fulfilling

    This is the most intellectually fulfilling book on religion that I've ever read. If Dennet's writing seems too difficult at times, it's only because he condenses so many complicated ideas into so few pages. I found the passages on idea evolution (or "memetics") particularly interesting and deserving of further inquiry. Out of all the worthy books being written by atheists today, this is by far my first recommendation.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 9, 2013

    Not always an easy read, but a great book none the less.

    Not always an easy read, but a great book none the less.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2006

    Longwinded and self-important

    I read this book on the recommendation of a friend, and soon after had the chance to see Dennett in person at a lecture at Caltech. As another reviewer here reflected, I wanted to like this book, and have long been interested in some of the ideas its based on. Unfortunately, Dennett's circular logic and rambling writing (and speaking) style left me more frustrated than illuminated, and for someone who argues against unsubstantiated faith, I felt he left science far behind in many of his assertions. The topic itself is worth a second star, but I would recommend choosing another author.

    2 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2006

    Provocative and cutting edge

    Daniel Dennett has written what may turn out to be one of the most significant works on the religious phenonmenon offered as a point of departure. The book does not succeed at all levels and in all areas, but that is hardly a damning assessment, for what he does succeed in doing is to break down the wall that many religous authorities wish to construct around their faith--wishing to apply their morality to the secular world but remain immune from criticism from that world. Probably the most effective portion of the book concerns his investigation of unquestioning faith in the correctness of someone's moral teachings and the inherent immorality of this position--an argument at once shocking and effective. The book is a little weak at the end, particularly the last chapter, but his central thesis, that religion deserves our attention and study as a natural phenomenon using a scientific approach to explain its pervasiveness and whether it is good or bad for humankind is a strong one and one that he effectively proves, sometimes to the point of overkill.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 2, 2012

    A difficult read

    I think you'd have to be a philosopher or theologian to understand this--too much for me anyway. I"m over 100 pages in and find nothing much except questions--no explanations or understandings to glean from it.

    1 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 28, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    A Dissapointment

    This book was a bit of a disappointment for me. It fails as a "scientist seeks to understand God" book. I would sooner recommend Kenneth Miller's "Finding Darwin's God", which, unfortunately I could not find on this site. It is about a Christian sientist (a biologist) trying to meld science and religion as many have tried before. His writing style is good for laymen and laywomen who do not understand scientific jargon. Mr. Dennet was not so fortunate.

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted November 29, 2008

    The Underlying Theme is Policy and Politics

    This is the first book that I have read by Mr. Dennett and let me say at the outset that I am thankful that there are authors like him that are willing to take the time to "circle" a subject and view it from several different scientific, sociological and anthropological perspectives. This book is not a harsh criticism of religion but an attempt, as I understand it, to foster a dialogue in order to determine what policies, if any, should be carried out in the future to curb potential threats from religious fanatics. I for one do not wish to live under a theocracy; I do not want to be told what to think - so here is where I must voice my concern regarding Mr. Dennett's references to making "policy" decisions: someone other than the individual or family would be making the call - making a value judgment for them. What is harmful, what is good and what is bad with regards to religion would all be decided by others. Policies and laws already exist - harmful behaviors have consequences. Where would the new "policies" end? Religion is not what I would call a "natural phenomenon" but only one of the many behavioral traits of the natural phenomenon known as the human animal. As I see it, the human mind is the last refuge - the place where one can dream and reflect, pray or meditate without outside interference - I think this is why there is such a reluctance by many (as Mr. Dennett notes)to even begin to try to understand why people believe what they believe.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2006

    A great idea in need of a better writing style

    While I appreciated many of the points raised in this book, the author's idiosyncratic writing style too often became a barrier to a clear understanding of what he was trying to convey. I think this topic deserves more attention, perhaps by an author less inclined to derail the reader in frequent asides and parenthetical side-trips. I REALLY WANTED to like this book, because I wholeheartedly agree with the premise. Perhaps I will glean more by selectively re-reading a section or two. It's a complicated subject, to be sure one that demands a writer who can stay on point. I found 'How We Believe' by Michael Shermer, to be a much better introduction to the state of current thought and study on this subject, though it's focus is slightly more narrow. In the end, I learned some new things, but I can't avoid the feeling that there was much more here that was simply hidden in the turbulent prose.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2012

    Kels

    Go to the nursery the babys r hingry

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2012

    Kitty

    Have ya got et open yet jacob?

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2012

    Hikari

    "Um...Wolf, you never explained what the Trinity of the Seal is..."

    0 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2012

    Jacob

    That is worse then the idea i had.

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2012

    Kels

    How

    0 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 12, 2012

    Wolf o all.

    My wedding is NOW. Go to greek love first resuly.

    0 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 2, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted July 19, 2011

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted November 5, 2010

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2008

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted September 26, 2011

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