On Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon.”
Daniel Dennett is a brilliant philosopher, and also a general in the army that is out to rid humanity of traditional religions. He takes up his mission with the zeal of a preacher, saying at the very outset of this penetrating appraisal of religion: “I say unto you, O religious folks who fear to break the taboo: Let go! Let go! You’ll hardly notice the drop!”
Such language is appropriate, given that (as he sees it) religion is an unfortunate spell to which we are bound, and he is out to break it.
In 2006 Dennett published a provocative essay in which he described people who had rid themselves of all religious beliefs as brights, without using any epithet for those who haven’t. The present book, which offers some generous, if sarcastic-sounding suggestions as to how the non-brights might call themselves, is an expansion, elucidation, and defense of the brights-position. The book says little that is entirely new to reasonable skeptics, informed atheists and unreligious scientists, but it says it all with great wit, intelligence and persuasiveness.
In a “I-come-to-bury-Caesar-not-to-condemn-him” style, Dennett is not out to decry, degrade, or destroy religion, but only to analyze it from scientific perspectives so as to bury it. All he wants to explain is that religion is just another human invention to serve human needs, and is no revealer of truths, much less a vehicle that gives us a post mortem ride unto a grander or more terrible world beyond space and time, as most scriptures are suggesting.
His analysis of religion and its emergence is sharp and insightful, and as informative as that of a master anthropologist about an exotic culture. In an age in which mindless religious fanaticism does havoc the world over, and sometimes tries to distort or usurp science, a book like this is welcome.
However, what escapes Dennett’s analysis is that we are all under the spell of something or other. It could be mindless religion or unadulterated rationality. Redemption for the brights consists in breaking the spell of religion, and in coming under the spell of pure rationality in the appraisal and experience of everything human. As to whether this book will transform millions into brights, it is difficult to say, especially since not all non-religionists are necessarily bright, even if Dennett gives them that honor. It may be generations before that goal of converting the world to only brights is achieved. In the meanwhile, some, after recalling Stalin and Mao, may wonder if it is even a safe goal to strive for. There must be some more meaningful and compassionate world that is neither religion-intoxicated, nor religion-inimical I wonder why it is so difficult to construct it.