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Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

A-BreakingTheSpellAt some point in life, someone inevitably trots out that chestnut of sage advice: in polite conversation, steer clear of politics and religion. Increasingly, one might add evolution (or intelligent design) to that mix, as it has become a particularly virulent nexus of faith, government regulation, and hard science. Philosopher, agnostic, and fervent Darwinist Daniel C. Dennett is little interested in being polite. In Breaking the Spell, he supposes that the conversation about faith is actually a conversation about biology, and he proposes that the human yearning for religion results from a long process of natural selection. What started as pagan idolatry was refined over millions of years into modern fundamentalism, a progression of natural selection that Dennett insists must be uprooted for the sake of mankind.
Viking. 464 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 067003472X

San Francisco Chronicle 2.5 of 5 Stars
"Indeed, the desire to appeal both to proponents and skeptics of religion makes for an oddly disjointed, tonally inconsistent, and somewhat baggy book. … In the end it feels more like a promissory note than a conclusive statement, and several of Dennett’s comments suggest that it is intended as such." Troy Jollimore

The Guardian (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"If you want to naturalize religion, as Dennett does, and to show that it is a human activity arising from the normal workings of nature, then you need to discover what parts of our evolved human nature it appeals to." Andrew Brown

Sunday Times (UK) 2 of 5 Stars
"His principal aim, however, is to persuade religionists to submit to a scientifically based examination of their values and beliefs. Unfortunately, he hampers that debate by sniggering up his sleeve at religious belief even as he appeals to be taken seriously as an investigator." John Cornwell

San Diego Union-Tribune 1.5 of 5 Stars
"What could have been a very interesting survey of current thought on the evolution of the religious impulse, turns, instead, into a laundry list of complaints against and remedies for religion." Cyril Jones-Kellett

NY Times Book Review 1 of 5 Stars
"Dennett recognizes the uses of faith, but not its reasons. In the end, his repudiation of religion is a repudiation of philosophy, which is also an affair of belief in belief. What this shallow and self-congratulatory book establishes most conclusively is that there are many spells that need to be broken." Leon Wieseltier

Critical Summary

The debate about Daniel C. Dennett’s new book has been lively from the get-go. Dennett has already had cause to respond to the New York Times regarding Leon Wielseltier’s reduction of his book to "a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions." Wielseltier’s charge of scientism ("the view that science can explain all human conditions") is one that Dennett admits wholeheartedly; the author of Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) just doesn’t care to have his philosophy so summarily dismissed as an "ism." In fact, honest criticism about the book is obscured by the attack on Dennett’s ideas. Most reviewers concur that Breaking the Spell presents an intriguing argument for the scientific investigation of religion but that the author’s difficult prose and prejudices bog it down.