Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett


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The New York Times bestseller – a “crystal-clear, constantly engaging” (Jared Diamond) exploration of the role that religious belief plays in our lives and our interactions

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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780143038337
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/06/2007
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 464
Sales rank: 347,286
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.37(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About 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 From Bacteria to Bach and Back, Freedom Evolves, Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, a finalist for the National Book Award.

Table of Contents

Breaking The SpellPreface


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


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?


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


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Breaking the Spell 3.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 45 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Not always an easy read, but a great book none the less.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Dave56 More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
cdogzilla on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dennett reminds us (and by "us" I mean everyone with a side in the debate between theists and atheists) of the importance of questioning not just the other side, but our side as well, with regard to what we know, what we think we know, how we know it, and how we can know more tomorrow than we do today. If he's not as strident as Dawkins and Harris, he strikes me as a little more grounded than Onfray, whose philosophical take on theism was a little more lit-crit than I'd have liked. Recommended.
dick_pountain on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The current resurgence of Christian and Muslim fundamentalism is a source of great worry and puzzlement to secularists (present reviewer included) who thought such beliefs would the wane in the face of a triumphant science. What's perhaps more surprising is how ineffective the kind of Darwinist/Rationalist counter-argument expounded by Richard Dawkins, Francis Wheen or Daniel Dennett is proving against this new strain of belief.The pre-Socratic Greeks, Shakespeare, Nietzche, Freud all tell us, as if we didn't know already, that we're not primarily rational animals - if we were then belief in God could only be an error or even an illness that could be cured by scientific education, which is what Dennett appears to believe. It's no surprise that many people find this attitude patronising or even threatening. American evangelicals may reject Darwinism but they still drive cars and use the internet. Dennett distinguishes 'belief' from 'belief in belief': the former actually imagines a grey-haired father figure in the sky, while the latter merely thinks that believing in such a figure is a good idea because it makes people behave well. However he shrinks from following this to its conclusion, that religion is often politics in disguise. Running through the history of both Christianity and Islam is a millenarian streak of class revenge, the idea that while the rich might enjoy the privileges of this world, they will burn in hell in the next. US evangelicals rebel against the 1960s liberalism of the East and West Coast Media Elites, whose freedom loving lifestyle happens to coincide with a monopoly on the best-paid jobs; Islamic fundamentalists despair of justice for Palestine and invoke the Wrath of God because the Wraths of Nasserism and Baathism proved corrupt and impotent. Dennett's brand of rationalism can barely scratch the surface of such passions, and the book disappoints on several levels: its Darwinian theme is too shallow to satisfy, and it's often soft on religion where it should be hardest but patronising where it ought to be understanding.
Atomicmutant on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I can't really cover it better than "oakesspalding" does below, I agree with him.I am as wary of scientism as a dogma as I am of any other dogma. Dennett¿s just too plain angry and convinced that he¿s right. I can¿t get behind Dawkins¿ concept of `memes¿, either, as being anything but a fancy description of ¿idea¿, and so his repeated invocation of that concept became a bit exhausting. I am also not in favor of the ¿flavor of the month¿ designation of ¿brights¿ for rationalists/humanists. It¿s entirely condescending to my way of thinking, and was distracting.I really wanted to like that book, (I enjoyed an interview with Dennett about the book that I heard), but ultimately, I think it¿s ultimate failure is in absolutely not respecting it¿s audience.It¿s Dennett¿s magnificent intellect against the world, and I think we¿re to be forgiven for passing him by like any other zealot on a soapbox. He¿s written better, and I hope he¿ll write betteragain.
tgoodson on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
The entire thing could be stated clearly in ten pages.
llasram on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Didn¿t appeal to me nearly as much as Dennett¿s earlier books. I felt it suffered from an unclear conception of audience, trying to appeal to both those who assume religion must necessarily be a natural phenomenon and to those why are still ¿on the line.¿ I¿ll probably give it another look at some point.
Drifter83 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I had been looking forward to reading this for some time. Overall, I was disappointed. I do not believe that it adds much to the discussion, and Dennett does not write in as compelling a manner as some of the other authors in the field. In his defense, he begins the book by warning that (1) he sets out to raise questions, not answers, and (2) this book is geared for readers outside of academia. That said, saying "This book will suck" at the very beginning will not make a book suck any less - it just shifts the onus for continuing to read it onto the reader. (Also, I think he fails in his attempts to make the book "accessible." He ends up somewhere between audiences - he has not geared the book down enough to make it flow well, but has geared it down just enough to whet your appetite for a more serious discussion of the technical issues - which never comes).Dennett has a style that frustrated me immensely - every chapter began in a way that would build my excitement for the discussion to come. Then, suddenly, I would start reading about how exciting our discussion had just been - but I couldn't, for the life of me, figure out when the actual substantive discussion had happened (because it hadn't).It would be unfair to say that there were no interesting ideas raised in the book - there were. But I do not feel that I know anything more about the topic than when I began. Also, Dennett has a tendency to go on tangents (addressing the reader directly) regarding why religion does not make sense and atheism is the more reasonable position. I have no problem with this discussion in general, but I think it (1) distracts from the topic (supposedly) at hand, and (2) alienates the reader. At least with Dawkins and Harris they are upfront with their positions and don't pull any punches. Dennett purports to be more neutral, but undercuts that position throughout the text.
Qshio on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I can't recommend this highly enough. This is not an anti-religion screed at all, but comes at the topic of religion as a naturally emerging aspect of humanity in a thoughtful, funny, accessible way. It is "New Atheist" only in that it calls for open questioning and research of religion and its utility (and it's written by an atheist).
getdowmab on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Interesting discussion of the need for scientific examination into the value of religion.
Mandarinate on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
On the one hand, an interesting speculation on religious creeds as competing "memes" (ideas that struggle for survival through reproduction and mutation), on the other, a tedious rhetoric aimed at dissuading people with strong religious convictions. The book would have been so much more interesting as an empirical and theoretical investigation of the survival and evolution of religious ideas.
Devil_llama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Dennett is much more readable than many of today's philosophers. He doesn't obscure his ideas behind a wall of abstruse language designed more to befuddle than illuminate. Maybe that's why he has become so controversial when other writers on the same topic have not: people can actually understand what he's saying. Dennett calls for a new paradigm that allows for the open, honest criticism of religion just as other fields of study are openly evaluated. I recommend this book for anyone; and I promise, you won't be struck by lightning if you read it (or at least, I wasn't. I don't actually control lightning, so maybe I should say it's improbable.)
NotAZombie on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Darwin's Dangerous Idea is still my favorite of his, but this one was a good read. Provoked a lot of thought. I hate religion, but I still entertain arguments for their potential benefits and they won't be better defended by an atheist than Dennett offers in this book. I'm glad smart people are willing and able to speak to the issues surrounding unreasonable beliefs.
sylverpyro on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
More or less, this book is a 300 page question (most of it lead up) as to weather or not the occurrence of religion can be explained by Evolutionary Psychology. That is can the existence and evolution of religion be explained by the inborn traits of the human race (such as the need for community, need for leadership, susceptibility to the placebo effect, ect.). The book contains far too much information and borders on a dissertation when it comes to the amount of academic arguments the author brings into play, which isn't necessary a bad thing. But it does have the tendency to lose you at some points however with its logic.In the end however the book is simply a question, and there are no definite conclusions posed. The purpose of the book rather is to force enough information on the reader that they have enough ideas in their head to look at religion with an eye of discern rather than unquestioning loyalty (which is the authors greatest issues with Religion: the fact that it places its self behind a veil of unquestionably with "we are not meant to understand this, so just believe it and everything will be fine").
triminieshelton on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
WRitten for the lay (nonscientist, nonphilosopher), book discusses the Darwinian evolution of religion. Interesting ideas about memes, faith, etc. A bit manic.
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