BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Why religion?

As I noted in a review a few weeks back, I recently decided to get caught up on several “atheist” books that I'd gotten in a number of years ago, and so Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon got out of the “to be read” limbo and into my active reading mix. This is one that I pretty much ordered “by reputation”, without having a lot of particular info (and, hence, expectations) about it. I guess Dennett was quoted enough in other books that I figured that I should get around to reading this one as well.

Dennett writes with a bit of a wry attitude – and brings (what in context of Dawkins, Harris, and Hitchens is) a fairly gentle counterpoint to religions here. I suspect that this comes from his being, by profession, a philosopher (holding a Chair at Tufts University, and being a director of the Center for Cognitive Studies there), and, while the sciences are more specifically his area of study, religion (as in the sub-title here, “as a natural phenomenon”) seems to be a professional interest, rather than the bête noire that it is for most of his “teammates” on the Atheist side of things. However, I take it that he's a big wheel in The Brights movement, so there's certainly no hesitancy to make fun of the religious.

Now, I just finished reading this, so it's not been sitting around draining out of my head … but I still don't have a good summary about what the book's “about” … while not being “academic” (although chock full of citations), it sort of rolls through what it rolls through and didn't leave a solid impression on me. This may be “my bad”, or it might be something about the book … I certainly enjoyed reading it, but it's a good thing that I bookmarked a bunch of stuff, because if I was going to do this review from unaided recall, neither of us would be happy with the results.

Structurally, it's in 3 “parts” with various thematic chapters, which are broken up into numerous topical sections. The “parts” are: Opening Pandora's Box, The Evolution of Religion, and Religion Today (followed by four Appendixes), which gives you the broad-strokes of what's in here.

Tellingly, this starts out looking at parasites that cause “suicidal” behavior in various animals, from a microscopic fluke that infects ants' brains and causes them to climb high on grass, just so the fluke can get into the digestive tract of a sheep or cow – which is necessary for the fluke's reproduction, to the parasites that get into mice or rats and make them fearless around cats, because the parasite needs to get into the cat's digestive tract to reproduce. One of the recurring questions here is Cui bono?, the Latin phrase that means "to whose profit?" … which certainly gives a starting place for explaining bizarre behaviors in the host creatures for these various parasites – which could well include the entire concept of religion among humans.

Dennett puts forward a rather convincing call for the study of religion:
We have particularly compelling reasons for investigating the biological bases of religion now. Sometimes – rarely – religions go bad, veering into something like group insanity or hysteria, and causing great harm. Now that we have created the technologies to cause global catastrophe, our jeopardy is multiplied to the maximum; a toxic religious mania could end human civilization overnight. We need to understand what makes religions work, so we can protect ourselves in an informed manner from the circumstances in which religions go haywire. What is religion composed of? How do the parts fit together? How do they mesh? Which effects depend on which causes? Which features, if any, invariably occur together? Which exclude each other? What constitutes the health and pathology of religious phenomena?
He does suggest caution, however, referring to the knee-jerk move to low-fat dietary guidelines (driven by politics, of course), where “the demands of the public for simple advice – run up against the confusing ambiguity of real science”. He goes on to say:
Good intentions are not enough. This is the sort of misguided campaign that we want to avoid when we try to correct what we take to be the toxic excesses of religion.
Again, much of the book is involved in delving into specific philosophical questions dealing with belief, with historical indications of how modern cultures arose, with brain function, with cultural insularity, etc., etc. etc. This is presented in a very accessible format, with humor and reference to a wide array of cognitive frames. Unfortunately, none of that makes for quick-and-handy quotes or summaries. Here, however, is one section that did sort of stand out:
Belief in belief in God makes people reluctant to acknowledge the obvious: that much of the traditional lore about God is no more worthy of belief than the lore about Santa Claus or Wonder Woman. … {he references Dawkin's famous line: “... modern theists might acknowledge that … We are all atheists about most of the gods that humanity has ever believed in. Some of us just go one god further.”} The trouble is that, since this advice won't be heeded, discussions of the existence of God tend to take place in a pious fog of indeterminate boundaries. If theists would be so kind as to make a short list of all the concepts of God they renounce as balderdash before proceeding further, we atheists would know just which topics were on the table, but, out of a mixture of caution, loyalty, and unwillingness to offend anyone “on their side”, theists typically decline to do this. … This double standard is enabled if not actually licensed by a logical confusion that continues to defy resolution by philosophers who have worked on it: the problem of intentional objects … the things somebody can think about.
The start of that, “belief in belief in God” is featured through this quite a bit, which eventually gets contrasted with various scientific theorems …
Do you believe that E=mc2? I do. We all know that this is Einstein's great equation, and the heart, somehow, of his theory of relativity, and many of us know what the E and m and c stand for, and could even work out the basic algebraic relationships and detect obvious errors in interpreting it. But only a tiny fraction of those who know “E=mc2 is a fundamental truth of physics actually understand it in any substantive way.
He goes on to quote from Richard Feynman's QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, where in a lecture that great mind said:
It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don't understand it. You see, my physics students don't understand it either. That is because I don't understand it. Nobody does … It's a problem that physicists have learned to deal with ...
Lots of other threads are woven through here: anthropological studies of obscure cultures, “teaching stories” from various traditions, atrocities committed in the name of various religions (Kosovo, the destruction of Buddhist statues in Afghanistan, etc.) – with the comment “This is the great danger of symbols – they can become too sacred”, with a look at how religion has been historically studied in the West.

In the “Morality and Religion” section there is an interesting discussion of a key element that appears to be preventing Islam from evolving into something less medieval:
It is equally unknown how many Muslims truly believe that all infidels and especially kafirs (apostates from Islam) deserve death , which is what the Koran (4:89) undeniably says. … of the Abrahamic faiths, Islam stands alone in its inability to renounce this barbaric doctrine convincingly. The Koran does not explicitly commend killing apostates, but the hadith literature (the narrations of the life of the Prophet) certainly does. Most Muslims, I would guess, are sincere in their insistence that the hadith injunction that apostates are to be killed is to be disregarded, but it's disconcerting, to say the least, that fear of being regarded as an apostate is apparently a major motivation in the Islamic world. … Even Muslims “on the inside” really don't know what Muslims think about apostasy – they mostly aren't prepared to bet their lives on it ...
Reflecting back to the science example, Dennett talks about “division of labor”, where there are “experts” in various areas, and he suggests that this is frequently what drives most bodies into the pews, and despite quoting H.L. Mencken's “For every complex problem, there is a simple answer – and it is wrong.” he notes:
... if you decide, after conscientious consideration, that your moral decision is to delegate further moral decision in your life to a trusted expert, then you have made your own moral decision. Your have decided to take advantage of the division of labor that civilization makes possible and get the help of expert specialists.
Of course, this hinges on the “conscientious consideration” part … people thinking it through (which I suspect is a sucker bet every time) … with the problem coming with those who “have an unquestioning faith in the correctness of the moral teachings of their religion are a problem”. Dennett defines these (probably the majority of believers) as “taking a personally immoral stand”, which he suspects is the “most shocking implication” of his studies in this area.

The book closes out with a chapter “Now What Do We Do?”, where he summarizes much of the material, while still introducing some new elements. I liked this piece in the early parts of this chapter, where's he sort of setting up his “closing arguments”:
Religion provides some people with a motivated organization for doing great things – working for social justice, education, political action, economic reform, and so forth. For others the memes of religion are more toxic, exploiting less savory aspects of their psychology, playing on guilt, loneliness, the longing for self-esteem and importance. 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.
Dennett does eventually get around to “politics”, and he gets into some territory sure to irritate the Left (which, needless to say, got my attention), including a discussion comparing dangerous religious believers to dangerous political believers, and here's a bit of that:
There were Marxists working very hard to bring about the revolution, and it was comforting for them to believe that their success was guaranteed in the long run. {according to the doctrine that “the revolution of the proletariat was inevitable”} And some of them, the only ones that were really dangerous, believed so firmly in the rightness of their cause that they believed it was permissible to lie and deceive in order to further it. They even taught this to their children from infancy. These are the “red-diaper babies,” children of hardline members of the Communist Party of America, and some of them can still be found infecting the atmosphere of political action in left-wing circles ...
Heck, one of them regrettably managed to “infect” the White House!

Again, Breaking the Spell is both rather wide-ranging and in-depth in its philosophical consideration of its numerous subjects. Dennett's prose is fortunately “light” in the sense of a college professor adding humor into the lectures, making this less of a slog than it might be. However, my take-away is that this would make a wonderful series of symposia, each taking up discussions on the 50 or so specific sections here … and that it's more of a starting place for consideration of “Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”, than a definitive statement on the topic.

This is still in print (in various formats), with the paperback being quite reasonably priced once the on-line big boys have knocked nearly 40% off of cover … nice for a book that could easily be in that stratospheric “textbook” pricing zone. Being as it's been kicking around out there for nearly a decade at this point, used copies are available, with “very good” hardcovers being offered for under a dime (plus shipping). This, of course, will not be for everybody, as it requires a good deal of thinking, which goes against the proclivities of the faithful, and those seeking the “simple answers/advice” mentioned a couple of places above … but it's really a quite enjoyable read for those who like to get their synapses stretched, and I'd recommend it heartily to that demographic.

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Tags: book review
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