Book Review: Breaking the Spell

Daniel Dennett is a Tufts University professor and a great writer. He also summers in Maine which gives him extra points in my book. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a book written by a philosopher to the pious. He doesn’t actually answer the big questions or make conclusive arguments as Dawkins, Harris, or Stenger have in other books I’ve read, but instead tries to pursuade the reader that religion can and should be examined.

Mr. Dennett argues early on that religion, like classical music and nudity, is natural. Religous belief seems to be as ubiquitous in ancient peoples as much as it is today. Religion, however, is terribly expensive. Why then is it ubiquitous and what makes it a successful meme? Is the mystery what makes religion appealing? If so, will studying it destroy its value? Possibly, Mr. Dennett points out, but the consequences of not learning everything we can about religion would be much worse.

This isn’t an easy read; I read many of the pages two or three times. It is, however, interesting and enlightening. My copy has many highlighted passages and pages with scribblings in the margins. Here are a few of my favorites quotes:

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. —Anonymous

There is a trap here lying in wait of those without foresight. Perhaps no parents are immune to a twinge of regret when they see the first evidence of loss of innocence in their child, and the urge to shelter a child from the tawdry world is strong, but reflection should show anybody that it just won’t work. We need to let our children grow up to face the world armed with knowledge, with much more knowledge than we ourselves had at their age. it is scary, but the alternative is worse.

If you have to hoodwink–or blindfold–your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct.

Anybody can quote the Bible to prove anything, which is why you ought to worry about being overconfident.

You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.

The only way to take the hypothesis of miracles seriously is to eliminate the nonmiraculous alternatives.

Most people don’t feel the need to examine the details of the religious propositions they profess.

You can’t prove the existence of anything (other than an abstraction) by sheer logic.

There is no reason at all why a disbelief in the immateriality or immortality of the soul should make a person less caring, less moral, less committed to the well-being of everybody on Earth than somebody who believes in “the spirit.”

There are many people who quite innocently and sincerely believe that if they are earnest in attending to their own personal “spiritual” needs, this amounts to living a morally good life.

1 Comment

  1. Now this book….I gotta read! Some of the quotes are just too appropos.

    “You don’t get to advertise all the good that your religion does without first scrupulously subtracting all the harm it does and considering seriously the question of whether some other religion, or no religion at all, does better.”

    Wow! So true. There are a few problems with the idea but the general gist is right on.

    “Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. –Anonymous”

    The most powerful question in the world is, “Why?” It should be asked much more often.

Leave a Reply