Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett


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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett

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: 278,459
Product dimensions: 5.40(w) x 8.40(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 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 32 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.
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