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Daniel C. Dennett


Religion as a natural phenomenon

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

Dennett begins his book on religion by comparing it to a parasite. Specifically, he compares it to a parasite of ants. When an ant is infected it climbs up a blade of grass and stays there. The parasite, a tiny fluke, wants to get into a sheep or goat and by making the ant behave in this way it increases the chances that the insect will be swallowed by the future host. Dennett uses this unflattering analogy to introduce his view of religion, which is, in essence, that it is a mind parasite on humans.

Here he is of course drawing on the idea of cultural replicators or memes, first advanced by Richard Dawkins as a footnote to his book The Selfish Gene, though Dennett's use of the idea seems to be more nuanced than Dawkins's and his discussion of religion is mostly good-humoured rather than confrontational.

Even so, it is likely to encounter resistance from many readers, especially since, as Dennett tells us at the outset, he is writing primarily for a North American audience, with its well-known fondness for religion. For this reason the whole of Part 1, consisting of nearly 100 pages, is used to justify his treating religion as an evolutionary phenomenon. Only when we come to Part 2 do we reach the real substance of the book, in which Dennett considers how and why religions arise. For me this was the best part, with lots of acute discussion and original insights, as one would expect from this author. Part 3 is about religion today: its place in society and its value, if any, to that society.

Convinced adherents of religion (any religion) will naturally object to Dennett's evolutionary approach. In addition, there are large numbers of fundamentalist Christians in the USA (and, increasingly, elsewhere too) who reject the idea of evolution itself. It is bad enough to take a secular attitude to religion, they will say, but far worse to set it in a Darwinian context!

Dennett touches on this (pp. 61-62) in passing, but it would clearly take him too far out of his way to discuss the evidence for Darwinism in detail, so he politely takes his farewell of Biblical literalists at this point. For those readers who are still with him but are still unconvinced about the validity of a scientific approach to religion, the question is treated further in an appendix.

From a secular point of view, why do religions exist? Three commonly suggest reasons are: for comfort, to explain the inexplicable, and to encourage group cooperation. Dennett concedes that these ideas may be partly correct but they are all based on armchair speculation. What we need, he believes, is proper research, and one of his concerns in the book is to indicate what advances have been made in this.

Here he draws on the writings of a number of present-day anthropologists, archaeologists, and others, though I was also glad to find numerous references to that great early twentieth century classic The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James. No examination of religion that fails to take James's work into account could claim to be comprehensive.

I was also pleased to find that Dennett sees a resemblance between religion and language (p.140), since this is something I have been interested in myself (see Religion and Language). Here Dennett makes a distinction between "folk religion" and organized religion, and compares this to the distinction between a spoken and a written language. In both cases, he suggests, the later version will preserve vestiges of the earlier form from which it originated. I found this an illuminating suggestion.

By "folk religion" Dennett means what some would call primitive religion, the kind usually studied by field anthropologists. An important difference between folk religion and organized religion, Dennett believes, is that those who practise a folk religion don't think of themselves as practising a religion at all. "Their 'religious' practices are a seamless part of their practical lives, alongside their hunting and gathering or tilling and harvesting." As a result, folk religionists don't analyse their beliefs or think about them consciously until anthropologists arrive to question them. The questioning process itself almost inevitably distorts the picture that emerges. (May there not also be cases in which people deliberately make up stories to entertain or tease the anthropologists?)

The transition from folk religion to organized religion entails, Dennett thinks, a change from "belief" to "belief in belief". The distinction is subtle but important. If I understand it correctly, belief in belief is only possible in a mature society in which the possibility of non-belief makes sense and is psychologically conceivable. As Dennett rightly comments, questions of belief are a particularly Christian preoccupation.

People who believe in God are sure that God exists, and they are glad because they hold God to be the most wonderful of all things. People who moreover believe in belief in God are sure that belief in God exists and they think that this is a good state of affairs, something to be strongly encouraged and fostered wherever possible.
Hence it is possible to feel guilty about doubting one's belief and people often make efforts to revive their belief when they feel it is flagging. Some of these, such as Don Cupitt, cease to believe in God but "cast about for a religious faith that they can endorse with a straight face".
They seek a substitute. And the search … need not be all that conscious and deliberate. Without being frankly aware that a cherished ideal is endangered in some way, people may be strongly moved by a nameless dread, the sinking sense of a loss of conviction, a threat intuited but not articulated that needs to be countered vigorously. This puts them in a state of mind that makes them particularly receptive to novel emphases that somehow seem right or fitting.
Dennett mostly gets his facts right but there are one or two slips. He apparently thinks that, for Catholics, if the consecrated wine were taken out of the chalice it would cease to be transubstantiated (would no longer be the blood of Christ). This is wrong: the process can't be reversed. (At school we used to tell the no doubt apocryphal story of the priest who had just consecrated the wine when a large spider fell into it; he duly swallowed the spider to prevent sacrilege.)

I am also unpersuaded by his view that contemplative monks and nuns are, by definition, useless and selfish. At the very least they are not doing anyone any harm, unlike some busybody activists who, like Stevie Smith's cat, dash about doing good. And, having known some such monks and nuns, I have found them to be often a good deal more worth while than many people in the outer world. Dennet does not allow for the fact that there are some individuals who by nature are drawn to that kind of life.

Revealed religion is supposed to contain mysteries, which the human mind is unable to resolve and which therefore have to be accepted on faith. (The doctrine of the Trinity is an example.) Dennett has no time for such ideas and thinks that these conundrums "give the best brains something to gnaw on, like an unresolved musical cadence, and hence something to rehearse, and rehearse again, and baffle themselves deliciously about." There seems to be a resemblance here to the Zen koan, although Dennett does not make the comparison.

The classic arguments for God's existence are considered and dismissed (as indeed they are today by most theologians). Other reasons for believing in God are ascribed to an imaginary Professor Faith, who advances the view that God is indefinable and unknowable, beyond human ken. Dennett pretty much plays fair and allows the Professor to state his case adequately, but there is a temperamental difference in attitude here that is unbridgeable. There will always be some who say that it is impossible to understand a religion adequately unless you immerse yourself in it.

Even if religion is not true, perhaps it is is good for us. A number of studies suggest that people who take part in religious activities are healthier psychologically and even physically. Dennett concedes that there may be some truth in this, although he does not think that the evidence is conclusive at present. In any case, even if is the case that religion makes for a healthier life, that clearly is not evidence for its truth claims.

Nevertheless, it could be argued that it is wrong to try to disabuse people of their religious beliefs. For many people, religion is what gives meaning to their lives, so why try to take it away? In fact, the question is probably meaningless, because it usually is impossible to persuade them that they are mistaken in their belief. But it does seem to be a genuine moral issue. It is quite similar to the question about placebos: if someone is getting benefit from homeopathy, say, and you think homeopathy is just a placebo, should you try to convince them of the fact or let them go on getting the benefit? Is truth the ultimate good?

Perhaps the strongest argument against religion today is what adherence to it may cause—has already caused. We may face a prospect of "perpetuating the fatal downward spiral of 'righteous' wars, fought by misguided young people sent into dubious battle by leaders who don't really believe the myths that sustain those who are risking their lives."

What is good about this book is that it raises important questions without attempting to answer all of them. It has certainly not said the last word about religion, as Dennett himself makes clear. But I think his case for taking an evolutionary approach to the subject is made pretty successfully here. All human societies we know of have had some form of religion and this is surely something that needs to be explained.

10 April 2006

%T Breaking the Spell
%S Religion as a natural phenomenon
%A Dennett, Daniel C.
%I Allen Lane
%C London
%D 2006
%G ISBN 978-0-71399789-7
%P xiv + 448 pp
%K religion

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