Monday, March 23, 2020

Breaking the Spell-A Book Review by Sutton

Breaking the Spell:
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon    


   Daniel C. Dennett

Reviewed by

  Geoffrey S. Sutton

One Sunday I had the occasion to view both spells in action. A Christian scholar was presenting various theological perspectives on the apocalypse when an attorney interrupted with challenges to the speaker’s shifting from literal to metaphorical interpretations and to textual problems with the doctrine of the trinity. At one point, the theologian, notably frustrated with the challenger, raised his hands, and decried that he did not know the answers to all the questions, noting that humans are ‘‘peanut-brained’’ (repeated twice for emphasis), and that anyone who pretended to understand such mysteries was arrogant. 

And that is the problem in discussing religion. It is notably hard to analyze using logic and any questioner is cursed (though I suspect the lawyer had been called worse than "peanut-brained").In this blog, I will summarize and comment on Daniel Dennett's attempt to break two religious spells. Most people on earth are religious or spiritual. And only a small percentage are atheists or "nones." Therefore, the notion that such people are under a spell is worthy of consideration. At the end of the post you will find a link to my academic review (Sutton, 2009).

Dennett organizes Breaking the Spell into three parts, which are not intuitively obvious by glancing at the creative labels for the parts and 11 chapter titles adumbrated in the table of contents. 

The first part, ‘‘Opening Pandora’s Box,’’ focuses on understanding the powerful spellbound effect religion produces. He also addresses how science might study religion, and what theories might account for the existence and persistence of religion. 

    What is religion? Here's Dennett's working definition of religion.
 ‘‘ systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or      agents whose approval is to be sought’’ (p. 9).
    What are the two spells? The spells are two issues that protect religion from objective analysis.
1. There is a taboo against subjecting religion to analysis. Religion is sacred. To raise doubts is to be offensive.
2. Religions cast a spell of fear that keeps people engaged for fear they will suffer severe consequences if they violate the rules or leave.
Dennett wonders what will become of religion. He suggests five hypothesis. I am not sure there bear repeating. Frankly, I am not sure much will change because so many people are religious and any persecution of religious people appears to strengthen rather than weaken their commitment. 

The second part, ‘‘The Evolution of Religion,’’ includes a history of religious practices suggesting a progression from beliefs in local helping-agent gods to more developed
monotheisms and belief systems that ensure survival. He observes the benefits people receive when they believe. For example, religion offers great comfort when loved ones are ill or die. In this section, he refers to Dawkins' (1999) concept of a meme to show how religious beliefs might be transmitted like genes from one generation to the next.

Part three, ‘‘Religion Today,’’ concludes with three chapters discussing the importance of
contemporary religious or spiritual beliefs, matters of morality and meaning in life, and
implications of religion for society. Dennett reminds us of the 9/11 attacks on the US, which I have called the Purpose Driven Death. These attacks make it clear that it is important to study religion--it might be a matter of life and death.

Dennett offers readers a thoughtful view of religion and is quite different in his approach than his more aggressive colleagues (e.g., Dawkins, 2006 and Hitchens, 2007). I do agree that violence in response to beliefs that religious leaders or a god or gods commanded such action is reason enough to take religion seriously. However, as a student of the psychology of religion, I believe there has been considerable work done in this regard by psychologists and my colleagues in sociology and anthropology. Thus, the first spell is not quite as  powerful as it was when people remained in the closet about personal beliefs out of fear for their lives.

As I write this post, years after my published review, the world is managing the terror of Covid-19. Death rates are climbing. And as predicted by Terror Management Theory, people are turning to their religions for support. In fact, many places of religious worship are closed but religion has moved online along with words of comfort and support. There are other theories that offer additional explanations and the models have been tested (e.g., Meaning Maintenance Model).

The idea of the second spell cast by religion itself is worthy of additional consideration. In western cultures I have observed a number of younger people leaving conservative Christian subcultures in favor of more progressive denominations or none at all. A few confided in me that they no longer have faith; however, they remain in the closet out of concern for losing family and friends. Thus, even the second spell has been weakened to some extent when fundamentalist beliefs don't seem to square with observed reality. The concept of "progressive" Christianity is likely a mutation that will survive as it offers a more adaptive stance toward science and culture for the younger generation who will reproduce and pass along the new memes to their children. Meanwhile, the less adaptive fundamentalisms will likely fade with the older generation in western cultures where there is freedom of religion.

FOR Related books on Atheism CLICK HERE

Related Posts

The God Delusion

The Case for God

Caught in the Pulpit

The End of Faith

When Religion Becomes Evil

You might also be interested in A House Divided: Sexuality, Morality, and Christian Cultures available on AMAZON.


Dawkins, R. (1999). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford.

Dawkins, R. (2006). The god delusion. New York: Houghton Mifflin.

Dennett, D. (2006). Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon. New
York: Penguin.

Hitchens, C. (2007). God is not great: How religion poisons everything. New York:

Sutton, G. W. (2007). [Review of the book, God is not great: How religion poisons
everything]. Journal of Psychology and Christianity, 26, 372–373.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book: The god delusion by Richard Dawkins].
Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 11, 235–239.

Sutton, G. W. (2009). [Review of the book Breaking the spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon by D. C. Dennet].  Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health, 11, 231-234.  Academia Link     Research Gate Link 


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