ALLEN LANE £25, £22.50 (P&P FREE) 08700 798 897

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

Only animists shout at their computers

The stated aims of his new book are also eminently reasonable: "For many people, nothing matters more than religion. For this very reason, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it. That, in a nutshell, is the argument of this book." Breaking the Spell, however, has already provoked a very unreasonable response. It's been called "insidious", a "prejudiced" attack on religion in which the Tufts University professor "betrays his academic standards"; and his casual dismissal of the standard Christian arguments for the existence of God has been labelled "amazing".

In his mild-mannered way, Dennett admits that he expects to be attacked; and so far his contention, that to some people, the very act of holding values they believe to be sacred up to the light of enquiry is in itself offensive, seems to have been born out.

What Dennett actually does is to look at religion as a cultural replicator, or a "meme", to use the term coined by his friend Richard Dawkins. "Whatever religion is as a human phenomenon," says Dennett, "it is a hugely costly endeavour, and evolutionary biology shows that nothing so costly just happens." He does not say, as some have already inaccurately accused him of doing, that this meme has to act as a malign virus. It could be a mutualist, aiding our fitness along with its own, or a commensal, whose effect is purely neutral. Acknowledging that it is commonly held that humans have a yearning for something beyond the material and explainable, he raises the question of whether we have a "god centre" in the brain that developed for evolutionary reasons.

He traces the pathways of religion from animism, a leftover remnant of which he amusingly suggests is evident when we shout at a computer or some other complicated device, thereby implying that the object is an intentional being, through shamanism, folk religion and finally to organised religion.

Here he raises interesting research which looks at an economic model of contesting religious ideas. "The more you have invested in your religion, the more you will be motivated to protect that investment," he writes. Religions which require more, or are more "costly", yield greater value, thus explaining the appeal of born-again Christian groups and fundamentalist Islam. This may be unpalatable to secularists or liberal Christians, but is supported as a theory by the inexorable decline of such "low cost" religions as the Church of England.

Dennett also examines what it is that believers actually believe (and writing from an American perspective, he is mainly concerned with Christianity). Rather than a genuine hotline to God, many of them, he claims, have a "belief in belief", wherein the content of the second belief is at best hazy. Given that many Christians today still have an anthropomorphised idea of God - the one who might look like Dennett - which modern theology cannot sustain, he's right to make this distinction. It's for this reason, too, that he can get away with dismissing the traditional arguments about the existence of God, because for most Christians they play no part in their beliefs. What percentage of a Sunday congregation could explain the Ontological Argument, for instance, or argue against Dennett's mischievous suggestion that you might use it to prove the existence of the most perfect ice-cream sundae conceivable - "since if it didn't exist there would be a more perfect conceivable one: namely one that did exist"?

His convincing conclusion is that religion does not depend on a uniformity of belief, but on a uniformity of profession. Orthopraxy, as he puts it, not orthodoxy. Questioning is for the sacerdotal caste, not the followers; and the priests are content to leave it that way, for the final object of their contemplation cannot be adequately described in words.

Thus far, despite the protests of those who wish to take offence at the occasional levity of tone, Dennett is largely non-judgemental about religion. Curious about people's devotion to it, perhaps, but not actively rude. In the third part of his book, "Religion Today", he argues that the mostly unquestioning faith possessed by the majority of believers might not be so consequence-neutral after all. He compares "true religion" to falling in love; those who feel it "just know". The danger here, he says, lies in the sacred becoming too sacred. "An important task for religious people of all faiths in the 21st century will be spreading the conviction that there are no acts more dishonourable than harming 'infidels' of one stripe or another for 'disrespecting' a flag, a cross, a holy text," he says, writing presciently before the Danish cartoon controversy.

Then he starts laying down the law. Just as being drunk while committing a crime is not a defence, he says, "religious intoxication is no excuse either," and moderates who fail to condemn extremists are "complicit" in the actions of the latter. Having an unquestioning faith in a religion, while not properly considering whether those to whom authority is delegated are worthy of that position, is in fact an "immoral" stance. Those who fail so to question, he says, are "excusing themselves from the moral conversation, inadvertently acknowledging that their own views are not conscientiously maintained and deserve no further hearing".

He reveals his real standpoint at the end. "If you have to hoodwink your children to ensure that they confirm their faith when they are adults, your faith ought to go extinct." Those of faith are under an obligation to examine their beliefs scientifically, rationally and philosophically, says Dennett. That they are unlikely to do so is for the very same reason that he can get away with skating over the theological arguments for and against the existence of God - the practice of most people's faith is not open to such forensic examination. Dennett's diligent and reasonable enquiry may not, sadly, have much effect on the unreasonable.

Arts and Entertainment
BBC Three was launched a little over five years ago with the slogan: “Three, is a magic number, yes it is.”

BBC Trust agrees to axe channel from TV in favour of digital move

TV
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Armie Hammer in the new film of ‘The Lone Ranger’

TV
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Arts and Entertainment
The audience aimed thousands of Apple’s product units at Taylor Swift throughout the show
musicReview: On stage her manner is natural, her command of space masterful
Arts and Entertainment
Channel 4 is reviving its Chris Evans-hosted Nineties hit TFI Friday

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford plays Indiana Jones in The Last Crusade (1989)

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
A Glastonbury reveller hides under an umbrella at the festival last year

Glastonbury
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Miles Morales is to replace Peter Parker as the new Spider-Man

comics
Arts and Entertainment
The sequel to 1993's Jurassic Park, Jurassic World, has stormed into the global record books to score the highest worldwide opening weekend in history.

film
Arts and Entertainment
Odi (Will Tudor)
tvReview: Humans, episode 2
Arts and Entertainment
Can't cope with a Port-A-loo? We've got the solution for you

FestivalsFive ways to avoid the portable toilets

Arts and Entertainment
Some zookeepers have been braver than others in the #jurassiczoo trend

Jurassic WorldThe results are completely brilliant

Arts and Entertainment
An original Miffy illustration
art
Arts and Entertainment
Man of mystery: Ian McKellen as an ageing Sherlock Holmes
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Kitchen set: Yvette Fielding, Patricia Potter, Chesney Hawkes, Sarah Harding and Sheree Murphy
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Evans has been confirmed as the new host of Top Gear
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Top of the class: Iggy Azalea and the catchy ‘Fancy’
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

    Making of a killer

    What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
    UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

    Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

    Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
    Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

    Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most
    Katy Perry prevented from buying California convent for $14.5m after nuns sell to local businesswoman instead

    No grace of God for Katy Perry as sisters act to stop her buying convent

    Archdiocese sues nuns who turned down star’s $14.5m because they don’t approve of her
    Ajmer: The ancient Indian metropolis chosen to be a 'smart city' where residents would just be happy to have power and running water

    Residents just want water and power in a city chosen to be a ‘smart’ metropolis

    The Indian Government has launched an ambitious plan to transform 100 of its crumbling cities
    Michael Fassbender in 'Macbeth': The Scottish play on film, from Welles to Cheggers

    Something wicked?

    Films of Macbeth don’t always end well - just ask Orson Welles... and Keith Chegwin
    10 best sun creams for body

    10 best sun creams for body

    Make sure you’re protected from head to toe in the heatwave
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon files

    Milos Raonic has ability to get to the top but he must learn to handle pressure in big games
    Women's World Cup 2015: How England's semi-final success could do wonders for both sexes

    There is more than a shiny trophy to be won by England’s World Cup women

    The success of the decidedly non-famous females wearing the Three Lions could do wonders for a ‘man’s game’ riddled with cynicism and greed
    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth: Would people co-operate to face down a global peril?

    How to stop an asteroid hitting Earth

    Would people cooperate to face a global peril?
    Just one day to find €1.6bn: Greece edges nearer euro exit

    One day to find €1.6bn

    Greece is edging inexorably towards an exit from the euro
    New 'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could help surgeons and firefighters, say scientists

    'Iron Man' augmented reality technology could become reality

    Holographic projections would provide extra information on objects in a person's visual field in real time
    Sugary drinks 'are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year'

    Sugary drinks are killing 184,000 adults around the world every year

    The drinks that should be eliminated from people's diets
    Pride of Place: Historians map out untold LGBT histories of locations throughout UK

    Historians map out untold LGBT histories

    Public are being asked to help improve the map