Dennett on Breaking the Spell

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Daniel Dennett says there isn't anything spiritual about religion that science cannot explain. Forget about religion as being hands-off for scientists. Prayer, the need for God, belief in an afterlife, religious faith: science says it can explain them all very well, thank you.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett hopes to break the spell--not of religious belief, but of the conviction that it is not a fit subject for scientific inquiry. Never the twain shall meet--this is a bad idea according to Dennett. Stephen Jay Gould wrote of "non-overlapping magisteria," of both science and religion as worthy of respect in their own rights, but unbridgeable, the one to the other.

Dennett takes exception to this, maintaining that religion is a fit subject for scientific scrutiny, and in doing so he draws upon evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. He speculates as to how a primitive belief in ghosts later became a belief in wind spirits, rain gods, wood nymphs, and leprechauns. According to Dennett, as hunter-gatherers became farmers, as they aggregated into prehistoric villages, a need to protect one's own arose--property, spouse, children, crops, livestock. Richard Dawkins' selfish gene no longer served the common weal. That is, genetic kinship among tribe members was not enough in itself to insure Darwinian cooperation. Shared beliefs rather than DNA enforced proper behavior. People became commanded by an authoritarian but vengeful god to do their duty to others not genetic kin.

This is a tidy explanation, tying all up in a neat bundle, but there are the Neanderthals who were not fit inside. At digs of Neanderthal burial sites, something extraordinary was found, something which provides evidence of Neanderthal practices long before ours became the dominantly successful species. Around the burial site and bones of a beloved individual flowers and trinkets were carefully placed. They are extinct now, the Neanderthals, but could this mean that even they had a sense of the spiritual, a regard for an after life? I can see no other way to understand the findings. So much for Dennett's religion as emergent from the need for duty in communities. Something there is that cannot be packaged as well as he would have it. As Yeats put it, "An aging man is but a paltry thing, a tattered coat upon a stick unless soul clap hands, sing, and louder sing for every tatter in his mortal dress." Religion was informed by spiritual as well as moral needs.

Dennett draws upon the concept of memes--scientifically unverifiable and another Dawkins concept--to explain how primitive beliefs evolved into modern religions. "Every minister in every faith is like a jazz musician keeping traditions alive by playing the beloved standards . . . but mixing familiarity and novelty in just the right proportions to grab the minds and hearts of their hosts." Hosts here is meant to mean the same as an unsuspecting, sometimes insentient host for a virus, a parasite. According to Dennett, people are dumb, unwitting hosts for memes, in this case religious beliefs. I will add, they are also hosts for the vaunted faith in the scientific model as the only true way of understanding the universe.

Sorry, Daniel, but I cannot get there from here. Nor can you. Dennett is playing in a "mind-field," one that eventually will explain nothing and sets off duds.

Although I do not have interest or belief in the dogma or doctrine of any religion, I do see all religions as serving a deep, human need. (I think Dennett would agree with me on this while he holds that humankind would be better off without the need.) The need is not served by a flawed scientific paradigm in which the objects of scientific investigation somehow are supposed to provide meaning. (Else, why are they pursued?) I am reminded of Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Weinberg, who famously remarked, “the more we find out about the universe, the more meaningless it all seems.” Meaningless, because science ignores the other magisterium, which at its core--though not always in tenets--points to what we all are, and teaches that fulfillment-meaning cannot be found in the objects of scientific research. John Gray continues for me.

"One cannot make a sharp distinction between natural processes and supernatural agents unless one presupposes a view of the world something like that presented in the biblical creation story, and the distinction is not found in most of the world's religions. For example, in animism - which must rank as the oldest and most universal religion - spirits are seen as part of the natural world.

More fundamentally, it is a mistake to assume that belief is the core of religion. This may seem self-evident to many philosophers, but in fact belief is not very important in most religions. Even within Christianity there are traditions, such as Eastern Orthodoxy, in which it has never been central. For the majority of humankind, religion has always been about practice rather than belief. In fixating on the belief-content of religion, Dennett emulates Christianity at its most rationalistic and dogmatic. Pascal knew better, and understood that faith is not so much the basis of the religious life as a derivative from it. Dennett mocks those who say that life without faith has no meaning as "believers in belief". Yet he displays a zealous faith in unbelief that is far more inimical to doubt, and there is more scepticism in a single line of the Pensees than in the whole of Dennett's leaden tome.

Breaking the Spell approaches its subject with a relentless, simple-minded cleverness that precludes anything like profundity, and much of it seems designed to demonstrate the author's intellectual ingenuity rather than to advance the reader's understanding."

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