Ye Olde Natural Philosophy Discussion Group

Reviews and comments on
Daniel C. Dennett:
Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [2006]

      With only one exception, everyone in our group was tremendously disappointed by this book. On a scale of 0 to 10 our group average was only 2.9, and several people rated it a flat 0! Our general disappointment with the book is all the greater since almost all of us approved of Dennett's primary goals, to study religion scientifically and to help break the hold it has on so many people (in the U.S. especially).

      One near universal complaint was with the first 95 pages which focused on the theme of why people—especially those enthralled with religion—should read the book. The strange thing here, we all felt, was that this excessively prolonged challenge to "dare to" read the book very likely has exactly the opposite result, turning people away before they ever get into any solid discussion. Even some in our group couldn't get very far into the book. Kevin S., for example, said he got to p. 95, and "based on that the book should be burned; it is an unmitigated and total piece of shit". And Kevin was not the only one with "total disdain" for the book.

      Most of us also felt that Dennett didn't have a clear and consistent idea of the audience he was writing for. From that first 95 pages, and occasional isolated passages later on, it seems like his intended audience is ordinary people who are under the spell of religion. But what he actually wrote in a large part of the book is really directed at other people, especially his fellow professional philosophers. Despite his avowed intention, it seems he ended up mostly not addressing the concerns and issues which grab the true believers, but rather the esoteric questions that Dennett's own milieu worry about (such as "memetics" and Quine's nutty thesis about the "indeterminacy of radical translation"). Rosie put it best: "Who in the hell did he think his audience was?!"

      Another charge most of us made against the book is that the writing is really quite poor. Kirby, who said he didn't find much to disagree with in the actual content of the book, nevertheless thought that the writing style must surely have turned a lot of people off to it. Rosie said the style was way too wordy, and also very haughty. John condemned the verbosity and said that Dennett "did not make his case". "I hated it", he added. Ron said that Dennett "went about trying to convince his audience in the wrong way" and that "his style of writing prevented him from achieving his goal of drawing in a wide audience". Rich remarked that the book had "the worse writing I've ever seen in my life!" He added that it was rambling and desperately needed a good editor. "It came across more like bullshitting in a bar!"

Daniel Dennett

      Another complaint that several people raised was about just how much actual science there was in the book. Rosie thought that often he was just giving his opinion and calling it science. Scott quoted the highlights of Dennett's own summary of what he puts forward as a scientific theory of religion (Chapter 11), and found that it really has very little substance to it:

      My description of the evolution of various features of religion in chapters 4-8 is definitely "just a a theory"—or, rather, a family of proto-theories, in need of further development. In a nutshell, this is what it says: Religion evolved, but it doesn't have to be good for us in order to evolve. [Then several sentences elaborating that part. —Scott] It is not surprising that religion survives. [Then a couple sentences elaborating that bit. —Scott] Religion is many things to many people. [A little bit more elaboration. —Scott] Religion provides some people with a motivated organization for doing great things—working for social justice, education, political action, economic reform, and so forth. For others, the memes of religion are more toxic, exploiting less savory aspects of their psychology, playing on guilt, loneliness, the longing for self-esteem and importance. Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future." [pp. 309-310]

Scott then remarks: "That's it?? That's all Dennett is even proposing?! That is downright pitiful! Much, much more profound theories of religion have been proposed and ably defended by many people in the past, including Marx and Freud. About all Dennett has done is reframed in evolutionary terms a small part of what any reasonably sophisticated person already knows full well about religion. And even that is made largely inaccessable to many readers by his jumbled writing style and the needless references to 'memes' and other jargon."

      Scott thinks that Dennett is quite prone to the sin of "scientific puffery". It is not so much that what he says is wrong (though occasionally some of it is), but that he puffs up commonplace knowledge into supposed grandiose "theories". This makes him look rather ridiculous! Is religion a cultural phenomenon that has evolved over time, and which is based on human emotional needs (and thus ultimately on human biology)? Of course it is! The mystery, however, is what Dennett thinks he is up to by trying to make such a big deal out of something so obvious. The charge of "scientism" has been leveled against Dennett by religiously-inclined people (that is, the "charge" that Dennett views science as the only means of understanding—at least potentially—everything about the world and about human beings). Scott himself upholds "scientism" in that sense (though he calls it the "scientific materialist world view"). But Scott suspects that what a lot of people are really objecting to with Dennett and others is not so much their view that science is the way to understand the world, but rather this ridiculous "scientific puffery" and posing.

      Another thing that several people complained about in Dennett's book is his tendency to grant too much to religion, and to view it way too positively as a social force. In his book Dennett spends so much time commending religion in this way, and trying to explain religious conceptions from the religious point of view, that a careless reader might even get the idea that overall he is on the side of religion! You doubt that? Well, that's exactly what happened to one member of our book club. What everyone tends to get out of books is in large part what we ourselves bring to them. We tend to look for points of agreement, for example, and are pleased when we seem to find them. Dennett appears to most of us in the group to have leaned over backward so much in his attempt to "be fair" that he has actually ended up seeming to be supporting religion to some readers! Egads!

      Most of us in our group had other criticisms of the book as well, both big and small. Many of us dislike the term "brights" he pushes for those without religion, for example. (What's wrong with the terms atheists and agnostics?) 'Brights' is not only less clear, and much less widely understood, but is also reeking with arrogance. Perhaps this is just more evidence that Dennett is so out of touch with the ordinary religious people (who he claims to be trying to release from their spell) that he is simply unable to talk to them in ordinary language.

      Overall, we are just really alarmed and annoyed by how poor a job Dennett did with this book. Rich remarked that Dennett had a good premise in trying to look at religion as a natural phenomenon, but "he went nowhere with it". And in an age when many of us are seriously looking for material to use to try to disabuse people of their religious fantasies, this book was a serious disappointment. As Rosie summed up, "it didn't do what I hoped it would do".

Non Sequitur cartoon by Wiley

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