Book review by Rupert Sheldrake

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Daniel C. Dennett
Allen Lane 2006, 448 pp, £9.99
ISBN 978-0-1-410-1777-8



In this book, Daniel Dennett proclaims himself “bright.” He is impressed by the success of homosexuals in calling themselves “gay,” and, together with the evolutionist Richard Dawkins, he is trying to re-brand atheism. The results so far have been disappointing. One problem is that calling yourself bright sounds arrogant. Dennett, a U.S. philosopher of mind, suggests a new solution: “Those who are not brights are not necessarily dim. . . . Since, unlike us brights, they believe in the supernatural, perhaps they would like to call themselves supers.”


Atheists used to believe that with the spread of secular education, religion would fade away and science reign supreme. But this has not happened. Breaking the Spell is part of a wave of new books by militant atheists who feel threatened by the power of religion. As part of this campaign, Dawkins presented a series of programmes against religion on British television last month, called The Root of All Evil? and promoted by the broadcasters as a “polemic.” Dawkins describes Breaking the Spell as “surpassingly brilliant.”


Dennett wants to reach “as wide an audience of believers as possible,” but he has an ambiguous attitude to his intended audience. Sometimes he is scornful, as when he compares religion to nicotine addiction, echoing Karl Marx’s dictum that religion is “the opium of the people,” or when he follows Dawkins in treating religious beliefs as “memes” — defined as “cultural replicators” — that leap from brain to brain like viruses.


He opens the book with the story of an ant climbing a blade of grass, falling down and climbing up again because “its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke, that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle.” He asks, “Does anything like this ever happen to human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings . . . devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains.”


Sometimes Dennett is friendlier to his religious readers, and offers them lengthy justifications for his skeptical approach. He concedes that religion can serve a useful function by bringing out the best in a person. He also cites a series of studies that show that regular churchgoers tend to be healthier, have better morale and live longer than those who do not attend religious services.


Whatever the benefits of religions, Dennett believes that they arise entirely inside human minds. No spiritual realities exist outside us. He also takes it for granted that the mind “is the brain, or, more specifically, a system or organisation within the brain that has evolved in much the same way as our immune system or respiratory system or digestive system has evolved . . . by the foresightless process of evolution by natural selection.” He assumes what he sets out to prove.


The central message of this book is that religion is a product of evolutionary psychology, based on aspects of human nature favoured by natural selection over many thousands of years. Dennett proposes a variety of theories: First, “sweet tooth” theories. We have evolved a receptor system for sweet things, and in a similar way we might have a “god centre” in our brains. Such a centre might depend on a “mystical gene” that was favoured by natural selection because people with it tended to survive better.


Second, religions might be memes that infect our brains. They are not necessarily parasitic, but could be symbiotic, conferring advantages on those who are infected.


Third, religion might be favoured in sexual selection by females. For example, women might have preferred men who demonstrated sensitivity to music and ceremony, thus spreading genes for religious behaviour within the population.


Fourth, religions may be cultural artefacts, like money. They could have evolved because they make social life more harmonious, secure and efficient. Or else they could have evolved because they enable an elite to prey upon the ill-informed and powerless.


Fifth, religions may be rather like pearls, beautiful by-products that arose in response to irritants, which then captivated human beings for no good reason.


These theories are evidence-free and wildly speculative. By several criteria, they are pseudoscience. Or they are intellectual games. In any case, Dennett goes on to speculate further. For example, in shamanic cultures, there might have been natural selection for a “hypnotisability gene” that affected brain chemistry, making people more prone to suggestion by shamans, and hence more likely to survive ill health because of a greater placebo response.


He also proposes that we have inherited an evolved capacity for romantic love that has been exploited by religious memes, which could “get people to think that it was actually honourable to take offence, to attack all skeptics with fury, to lash out wildly and without concern for their own safety.”


Dennett’s book was commissioned in the wake of 9/11, and he is preoccupied with the dangers of religious fanaticism. But I wish he had discussed how atheism itself can become fanatical and destructive. The Soviet Union was run by brights. Stalin was an atheist, as were Mao Zedong and the Red Guards in China, and Pol Pot in Cambodia. The bright Red Army Faction in Germany was in the vanguard of modern urban terrorism. Brights are not always benign.


Dennett sees himself as being brave, and imagines that by discussing religion skeptically he risks “getting poked in the nose or worse, and yet I persist.” Perhaps he is in danger in the United States, but in Britain, where I live, moderate forms of atheism and secular humanism have long been the standard belief systems among educated people, and are generally uncontroversial, except when promoted too zealously.


It soon becomes clear that Dennett knows very little about religion, apart from stereotypes about fanaticism and credulity. In this field he is an amateur, not an expert. He admits that his research for this book was hurried because of the “urgency of the message.” His study of religious experience seems to have been limited to discussions with some of his students at a Tufts University seminar in 2004, an unpublished questionnaire survey and “quite a few” interviews.


His perspective is largely confined to the United States, and to American Protestantism in particular. He seems to know next to nothing about Catholic or Greek or Russian Orthodox forms of Christianity, or about Christian theology, or about Judaism, Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.


For me, the most interesting part of Dennett’s argument is his chapter on Belief in Belief. He points out that beliefs are social forces in their own right, and that some beliefs need to be maintained for the general good. For instance, democracy depends on maintaining a belief in democracy. The authority of science likewise depends on maintaining a belief in scientific authority: “Since the belief in the integrity of scientific procedures is almost as important as the actual integrity, there is always a tension between a whistle-blower and the authorities, even when they know that they have mistakenly conferred scientific respectability on a fraudulently obtained result.” Dennett argues that, in a similar way, many people support religion because they believe that religious belief is important for others.


In reading this book, I appreciated Dennett’s intelligence and ingenuity. But he is pompous when he tries to persuade, even bully, religious believers to go on reading his book, and patronising toward those who have not achieved the intellectual superiority to which atheists lay claim. I ought to have been an ideal reader: I am a Christian, an Anglican, not a bright. I am a strong believer in the value of scientific enquiry. I used to be an atheist myself. But I didn’t find myself being reconverted by reading Breaking the Spell, and I was put off by Dennett’s one-sidedness and dogmatic certainty. His commitment to atheism makes him dismiss out of hand the significance of religious experiences. For example, many people have experienced a sense of the presence of God, or overwhelming love, or a feeling of unity with nature, or visions, or transformative near-death experiences. In the 1970s, the Oxford biologist Sir Alister Hardy initiated a scientific enquiry into religious experiences in Britain, and found that that they were far more common than most atheists — and even most believers — had imagined.


Both Dennett and I admire William James, one of the pioneers of psychology, and author of the classic book The Varieties of Religious Experience. James made a serious study of people’s accounts of religious experiences, as did Hardy. But Dennett rules all such evidence out of court. Powerful personal experiences “can’t be used as contributions to the communal discussion that we are now conducting.” He assumes that religious experiences are generated inside the brain, and that they are illusory.


How can Dennett be so sure? In the end, it all comes down to his own beliefs. Bright memes have infected him and taken over his brain. Those memes are now trying to leap from his brain into yours through the medium of Breaking the Spell.


Reprinted with permission from the Toronto Globe and Mail.