Dec 06

Advent Triptych of Atheism: Daniel Dennett ‘Breaking the Spell’

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This book is not for you – it said to me in the preface. Me in this case being a non-US reader – however I was already disqualified being a fully paid up member of the choir already, having read pretty much everything by Dennett that has reached print. But this is an unusual book, sitting off-centre from the rest of his work in style and tone. It is a much more accessible book in that it is aimed at a general reader and there is consequently much less of the casual jargon of the philosopher. (Sadly, reviews of the book repeatedly underestimate Dennett’s philosophical credentials because of this.) More marked though for me, was the occasional tone of apparent disingenuosness. For someone whose writing is normally so ingenuous with a clear, distinctive and generous style respectful of the reader, this perhaps says something of the subject in hand. Or perhaps it survived the editing process on purpose, and I was feeling hyper crictical.

Either way, despite being on his side, I felt a little bit sorry for his imagined “believer” reader for it DOES read like an attack on religion by an atheist. Even though he goes through great hoops to placate and engage the religious, those very acts sometimes feel sarcastic. I do not believe that is (mostly) the case, because D is usually so generous in his will. But that’s me – a non-believer. What he is proposing is a no “off limits” study of religion, treating it (all of it) as a focus for study as a “naturalised” phenonmenon. That is as a creation of people, but taking it beyond the already thorny realms of the anthropology of religion to discuss its origin, development and the reason for continued existence. Treating it in short like the analogue of a living organism.

Though atheist in outlook, Dennett is not overtly suggesting an atheist project. It is not even agnostic, but a program where the existence or not of god is not even relevant. A review in the New York Times missed this and compounds this mistake, probably in anger:

“He thinks that an inquiry into belief is made superfluous by an inquiry into the belief in belief. This is a very revealing mistake. You cannot disprove a belief unless you disprove its content. If you believe that you can disprove it any other way, by describing its origins or by describing its consequences, then you do not believe in reason.”

The first sentence is manifestly not the case, and the book is NOT about trying to disprove belief in god. The reviewer in question doesn’t get it because he is offended by the project – and charges off in an unwarranted direction. Again it’s my suspicion that it’s just me and the rest of the choir listening, and this reviewer’s suspicion that the point of such a project might be to “hollow out” or deflate religion in the hope of taking away its power, reducing god to a “nothing but” status. This might scare and provoke, and the disingenuous tone is perhaps there for this purpose (scare up some column inches??), but the proposed quid pro quo is to reveal very real abilities of religion. (Research already revealing zero ability to keep the religious more healthy or moral than the a-religious.)

The book is a justification for and outline of a wide research program. First clearing the philosophical decks of objections (could such an investigation actually have a deleterious effect on us?) and then setting up the Darwinian view needed to explain the fundamental question: what makes religion such a stable part of the behaviour and beliefs of Hom Sap? As he puts it up front, the Darwinian approach is to ask “Cui Bono?” – who/what benefits from the efforts and energy expended? There is also time along the way for some interesting early research carried out along these lines.

This “external” behaviourist approach, a classic Dennett manouevre, ignores any metaphysical or phenomenological matters that cannot be relayed to the rest of the world. This works perfectly because no such aspects of the phenomenon could explain its existence and persistence – they lack causal traction. While interesting, they are not relevant to the enquiry. If they were qualitatively otherwise, the program would carry on unaffected. This point is central to the program but not really spelled out (in this book), and as such many religious criticisms of the book falters on this very point. If you don’t buy it, stop reading. The book that sets out his wider program is his earlier Darwin’s Dangerous Idea – a meta-Dennett book as it summarises his entire worldview, setting the rules and methods for what constitutes legitimate enquiry into natural phenomena.

Read that instead. Now THAT’S a book review.

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