The Science of Shaking off Religion; Books

Article excerpt


Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C Dennett (Allen Lane, [pounds sterling]25)

WHY ARE most people in the world religious? And how can we shake them out of their delusion? Those are the two questions at the heart of Daniel Dennett's book.

The questions are closely linked. As an atheist, Dennett wants to rid the world of religion. By subjecting religion to the scrutiny of science he hopes to work out how.

For Dennett, one of the world's foremost philosophers and a great proselytiser for science, religion must be seen as a natural phenomenon. By "natural" Dennett means two things. First, that it is not supernatural, and so not beyond the scrutiny of science and reason. But natural to Dennett also means something else - that religion can be understood in evolutionary terms.

The origin of religion, Dennett suggests, lies in the evolved human tendency to attribute beliefs, desires and intentions to "anything complicated that moves". This is an argument that has been developed in recent years by two evolutionary anthropologists, Scott Atran and Pascal Bowyer, upon whose work Dennett draws heavily.

As social animals, humans are evolved to be acutely sensitive to the intentions of others, so much so that we are prone to attribute minds to inanimate objects and to assume that intentions lie behind many unintentioned events. Early humans conjured up the idea of spirits and gods to account for events that might otherwise seem uncaused, such as rainfall or the changing of the seasons. These ancestral relig ions deve loped into mor e sophisticated and elaborated descendents over time, "as people became more and more reflective about both their practices and their reactions".

Religious ideas, Dennett argues, are not beneficial to humans but are parasitical on our evolved human nature.

Much of the controversy about the book has centred on Dennett's atheism and his attempt to deconstruct religion with the tools of science. In fact, his frank disbelief is refreshing, even if his condescension towards believers can often be trying.

And his project of putting religion under rational scrutiny is surely to be welcomed in an age in which faith seems to shape so much of people's responses to political and social issues.

The real problem is that Dennett's explanation of religion is less than convincing. …