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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.

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