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15-02-2006, 10:33 PM
I found this review on the Economist website. I think that it is rather good.

TOWARDS the end of his elegant, sharp-minded essay on the need to study religion in a dispassionate way (in other words, just as anything else should be studied), Daniel Dennett teasingly asks his readers whether they have heard of a people called the Yahuuz. Among these exotic folk, he informs us, people who reach the age of 80 are expected to commit suicide, and their remains are then gobbled up by the whole tribe. What we would regard as child pornography, they call good clean fun; they also perform, in hilarious public rituals, the things that civilised folk do in a lavatory. If readers are disgusted, Mr Dennett goes on to suggest, they may finally have glimpsed what many Muslims feel about western countries where people drink alcohol, wear skimpy clothes and ignore traditional ideas about the family.

Had he been writing today, in a month when Muslims and Christians are engulfed in passionate conflict over the ridiculing of the Prophet Muhammad in a European cartoon, Mr Dennett, a philosophy professor at Tufts University, might have used a different metaphor or parable to convey the difficulties of discussing religion across high cultural barriers. Just as a set of rules and rituals can seem self-evidently horrific to some people and perfectly natural to others, the symbols of religion—holy persons, holy artefacts or holy buildings—can evince reactions ranging from awe to repulsion to indifference among people who in other contexts would find little to disagree over.

But, memorable as it is, the tale of the Yahuuz goes against the grain of Mr Dennett's main argument, which is that religious belief—especially in the United States—is often sheltered from the cut and thrust of intellectual argument and scientific scrutiny, and it should not be.

As the writer argues, there is now a huge range of intellectual tools which ought to be used to understand the phenomenon of religion better: from psychology to neuroscience (studying the parts of the brain where religious experience seems to occur) to genetics to social and cultural history. As a passionate neo-Darwinian, Mr Dennett is particularly interested by the “usefulness” of religion in evolutionary terms. And as a rigorous philosopher, he sets about deconstructing, in a few devastating strokes, some of the beliefs that people have held about the “personal” nature of reality.

In a world where many of the forces that determine human life seem unpredictable, frightening and capricious, it is natural—as Mr Dennett reminds us—to attribute personal qualities to those forces. But in everyday life, humans (and other animals) continually revise their beliefs about which agencies are personal and which are not. A noise outside the house may be an intruder, or it may be snow sliding off the roof—in the light of experience, we can tell which theory is right. Just as we use trial and error to test and revise our assumptions in small matters, we should bring empirical evidence to bear on the beliefs we hold about ultimate things.

In fact, as Mr Dennett points out, the situation in modern America is almost the opposite of that. The conventional view is that faith, in general, is something self-evidently desirable whose contents should not be scrutinised too closely. He might have added that conventional American wisdom also considers it in poor taste to draw attention to the fact that these generally desirable systems of belief hold tenets which contradict one another.

And this leads to odd results. Take, for example, the difference between believing that Jesus Christ was 1) God incarnate, 2) a person who wrongly claimed to be the Messiah, or to whom a claim to be the Messiah was falsely ascribed, or 3) a uniquely inspired prophet who will return at the end of time. This is not a trivial difference, especially from the point of view of anyone who holds one of those three views. Yet for historical and cultural reasons, modern American manners require that such differences are played down—though there are those who hold that believers in the third view (ie, Muslims) are doomed to clash with believers in the first two, ie, Christians and Jews.

How would such differences be handled in Mr Dennett's clear-eyed but courteous world? One benefit of honesty about religion, he suggests, is that children could be taught objectively about the harm and good that faith has done, both as an inspiration to social reform and altruism, and as a slogan that can inspire hatred.

But that still would not make communications between the Yahuuz and others easy. The conclusion Mr Dennett draws from his own anecdote is that Yahuuz and non-Yahuuz (ie, any pair of groups with vastly different thresholds of horror and cultural assumptions) should not shy away from dialogue with each other. In such a dialogue, both sides should be prepared to examine and revise their own assumptions. That sounds very sensible, but in the light of the passions now raging in the world, very improbable.

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Mr Dennett’s publisher provides information about the book.
Book details

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
By Daniel C. Dennett

Viking; 464 pages; $25.95.

Penguin/Allen Lane; £25

Buy it at



16-02-2006, 08:48 AM
I agree, it is rather good.