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Thursday, February 23rd, 2006 | ISSN 1556-5696

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detail from Breaking the Spell book cover (re-coloured)

lecture reminder…

Breaking The Spell
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

with Dr. Daniel Dennett

Sunday, February 26th, 2pm
Baxter Lecture Hall, Caltech

One of the greatest thinkers of our age tackles one of the most important questions of our time: why people believe in God and how religion shapes our lives and our future. In this lecture, based on his new book of the same title, Dr. Dennett shows that for the vast majority of people there is nothing more important than religion. It is an integral part of their marriage, child rearing, and community. Dennett takes a hard look at this phenomenon and asks: Where does our devotion to God come from and what purpose does it serve? Is religion a blind evolutionary compulsion or a rational choice? In a spirited investigation that ranges widely through history, philosophy, and psychology, Dennett explores how organized religion evolved from folk beliefs and why it is such a potent force today. Deftly and lucidly, he contends that the “belief in belief” has fogged any attempt to rationally consider the existence of God and the relationship between divinity and human need.

Dr. Dennett is a professor and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, and the author of the highly acclaimed Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained, and Freedom Evolves.

READ more about our Lectures at Caltech >


In this week’s eSkeptic, Michael Shermer reviews Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. (Viking, 2006, ISBN 067003472X)

You might also want to check out Dennett’s lecture Freedom Evolves: Free Will, Determinism, and Evolution, part of the Skeptics Distinguished Lectures Series at Caltech. AVAILABLE on DVD, VHS, CD, and audio cassette >


Believing in Belief

a book review by Michael Shermer

In a 1997 episode of the animated television series The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson discovers a fossil angel. Suspecting a hoax, she takes a piece of the fossil to the natural history museum where Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (playing himself) analyzes it. The age-old conflict between science and religion then plays out in this ne plus ultra of pop culture. The town evangelical Ned Flanders bemoans: “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends.” When Gould announces that the test results are “inconclusive,” Reverend Lovejoy boasts: “Well, it appears science has failed again, in front of overwhelming religious evidence.” Marge counsels Lisa’s skepticism with motherly wisdom: “There has to be more to life than just what we see Lisa. Everyone needs something to believe in.” Lisa’s rejoinder is classic skepticism: “It’s not that I don’t have a spiritual side. I just find it hard to believe there’s a dead angel hanging in our garage.” The Scopes-like trial that ensues ends when the judge issues a restraining order: “Religion must stay 500 yards from science at all times.”

This is, in fact, Gould’s conciliatory solution he called NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria)1, and it is the primary target of Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his latest book, Breaking the Spell. All restraining orders are off, as Dennett calls for “a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.” The spell to be broken is the taboo that science will render incapable “the life-enriching enchantment of religion itself.”

So sensitive is he to the potential reaction on the part of his readers (which Dennett maintains is the general public, over 90 percent of which believe in God) that the first 55 pages of the book are an apologia for why it is okay for religion to be studied scientifically. Readers familiar with such publications as The Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion can skim this section, since the field has been around for over a century. My concern is that religious adherents will take offense at his rationale before they get to the heart of the book, where Dennett really shines. In one passage, for example, he tells believers that their repugnance to science is misdirected, but admits that his attempt to convince them otherwise “is a daunting task, like trying to persuade your friend with the cancer symptoms that she really ought to see a doctor now, since her anxiety may be misplaced and the sooner she learns that the sooner she can get on with her life, and if she does have cancer, timely intervention may make all the difference.” The deeply devout will not take kindly to their beliefs (about either science or religion) being equated with cancer. Or to cigarettes, as in this subsequent passage: “Sure, religion saves lives. So does tobacco — ask those GIs for whom tobacco was an even greater comfort than religion during World War II, the Korean War, and Vietnam.”

Breaking the Spell is really written for scientists and scholars who have thought little on the subject of religion as a natural phenomenon. Dennett’s starting point is the “rational choice” theory of religion, proffered by sociologist Rodney Stark and his colleagues, which holds that the beliefs, rituals, customs, commitments, and sacrifices associated with religion are best understood as a form of exchange between believers and gods or God. Where resources and rewards are scarce (e.g., rain for crops) or nonexistent (e.g., immortality) through secular sources, then religion steps in to act as the exchange intermediary.2 To an evolutionist like Dennett, such exchanges demand that we look for a deeper causal vector:

Any such regular expenditure of time and energy has to be balanced by something of ‘value’ obtained, and the ultimate measure of evolutionary ‘value’ is fitness: the capacity to replicate more successfully than the competition does.

What is the value of religion to evolutionary fitness? In two books, I have outlined at least four such values:

  1. mythmaking to explain apparently inexplicable phenomena in the world,
  2. redemption (forgiveness in this life) and resurrection (immortality in the next life),
  3. morality (reinforcement of pro-social behavior and punishment of anti-social behavior), and
  4. sociality (encouragement of within-group amity and between-group enmity).3

Do such values explain religion? We don’t know yet, Dennett admits, but the rest of his book presents a plausible explanation that I summarize as follows.

Humans have brains that are big enough to be both self-aware and aware that others are self-aware. This “theory of mind,” or what Dennett calls “adopting the intentional stance,” leads to a “hyperactive agent detection device” (HADD) that not only alerts us to real dangers, such as poisonous snakes, but also generates false positives, such as believing that rocks and trees are imbued with intentional minds, or spirits. “The memorable nymphs and fairies and goblins and demons that crowd the mythologies of every people are the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.” This is animism that, in the well-known historical sequence, leads to polytheism and, eventually, monotheism. In other words, God is a false positive generated by our HADD.

Around these animistic entities our ancestors created folk religions, which, between the Neolithic revolution and the rise of cities, evolved into the organized religions we recognize today. During this transition there was competition among the countless god memes (each of whom were believed to control some tiny part of the world), out of which emerged the winner: a single God meme believed to control everything. Concomitant with God’s triumph was a corresponding belief in belief — not just belief in God, but belief in belief in God. This, says Dennett, was the coup de gráce: religion no longer had to depend on uniformity of belief, only uniformity of professing belief.

Through his many provocative books4 Dan Dennett has emerged as the advocatus diablos of science, and his belief in belief concept is his most dangerous idea to date. It is dangerous because it is a two-edged sword that cuts for and against. On the one side, it not only grants believers some elbow room for doubt (as long as you still believe in belief in God), it allows atheists like myself (and Dennett) to profess that I believe in God; that is, I believe in the God that exists in the minds of people who themselves believe in the existence of an omniscient and omnipotent deity. That God is so powerful that He can get believers to bomb abortion clinics and fly planes into buildings.

On the flip side, perspicacious believers may perceive that an ontological trap is being set: belief in belief implies that the God in your head doesn’t actually exist. I predict that in the competitive memescape that is the human mind, the belief in God meme will beat out the belief in belief meme, as much as I would like to believe otherwise.

References & Notes
  1. Gould, Stephen Jay. 1999. Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life. New York: Ballentine.
  2. Stark, R. and W. S. Bainbridge. 1987. A Theory of Religion. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press; Stark, R. 1997. Religion, Deviance, and Social Control. New York: Routledge; Stark, R. and R. Finke. 2000. Acts of Faith: Explaining the Human Side of Religion.Berkeley: University of California Press.
  3. Shermer, Michael. 2004. The Science of Good and Evil. New York: Henry Holt; Shermer, Michael. 2000. How We Believe: Science, Skepticism, and the Search for God. New York: Henry Holt.
  4. Dennett, D. 1991. Consciousness Explained. New York: Little Brown; Dennett, D. 1995. Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster; Dennett, D. 2003. Freedom Evolves. New York: Viking.

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