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
Lee Evans is quitting comedy to spend more time with his wife and daughter

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Len Goodman appeared to mutter the F-word after Simon Webbe's Strictly performance

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie T makes his long-awaited return to the London stage
musicReview: Alexandra Palace, London
Arts and Entertainment
S Club 7 back in 2001 when they also supported 'Children in Need'
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Bruce Forsyth rejoins Tess Daly to host the Strictly Come Dancing Children in Need special
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Dornan plays Christian Grey getting ready for work

Film More romcom than S&M

Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

Review: The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment
The comedian Daniel O'Reilly appeared contrite on BBC Newsnight last night

comedy
Arts and Entertainment
The American stand-up Tig Notaro, who performed topless this week

Comedy...to show her mastectomy scars

Arts and Entertainment

TVNetflix gets cryptic

Arts and Entertainment
Claudia Winkleman is having another week off Strictly to care for her daughter
TV
Arts and Entertainment
BBC Children in Need is the BBC's UK charity. Since 1980 it has raised over £600 million to change the lives of disabled children and young people in the UK

TV review A moving film showing kids too busy to enjoy their youth

Arts and Entertainment
Richard Flanagan with his winning novel

Books Not even a Man Booker prize could save Richard Flanagan from a nomination

Arts and Entertainment
Bryan Cranston will play federal agent Robert Mazur in The Infiltrator

Books
Arts and Entertainment
Nicki Minaj's lyric video for 'Only' features Drake as the Pope, Minaj as a dictator and Chris Brown as an army leader

music 'It was inspired by Cartoon Network'

Arts and Entertainment
James Nesbit in The Missing on BBC 1

TV review

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.

    Synagogue attack: Fear unites both sides of Jerusalem as minister warns restoring quiet could take 'months'

    Terror unites Jerusalem after synagogue attack

    Rising violence and increased police patrols have left residents of all faiths looking over their shoulders
    Medecins sans Frontieres: The Ebola crisis has them in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa

    'How do you carry on? You have to...'

    The Ebola crisis has Medecins sans Frontieres in the headlines, but their work goes far beyond West Africa
    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Isis extends its deadly reach with suicide bombing in Kurdish capital

    Residents in what was Iraq’s safest city fear an increase in jihadist attacks, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Underwater photography competition winners 2014 - in pictures

    'Mysterious and inviting' shot of diver wins photography competition

    Stunning image of cenote in Mexico takes top prize
    Sir John Major: Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting

    Sir John Major hits out at theatres

    Negative West End portrayals of politicians put people off voting
    Kicking Barbie's butt: How the growth of 3D printing enabled me to make an army of custom-made figurines

    Kicking Barbie's butt

    How the growth of 3D printing enabled toy-designer to make an army of custom-made figurines
    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?

    What are Jaden and Willow on about?

    Will Smith's children have made waves with a gloriously over-the-top interview, but will their music match their musings?
    Fridge gate: How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces

    Cold war

    How George Osborne keeping his fridge padlocked shows a frosty side to shared spaces
    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    Stocking fillers: 10 best loo books

    From dogs in cars to online etiquette, while away a few minutes in peace with one of these humorous, original and occasionally educational tomes
    Malky Mackay appointed Wigan manager: Three texts keep Scot’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    Three texts keep Mackay’s rehabilitation on a knife-edge

    New Wigan manager said all the right things - but until the FA’s verdict is delivered he is still on probation, says Ian Herbert
    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    Louis van Gaal: the liberal, the enemy and... err, the poet

    ‘O, Louis’ is the plaintive title of a biography about the Dutchman. Ian Herbert looks at what it tells us about the Manchester United manager
    Isis in Iraq: Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants

    Isis takes a big step back

    Baghdad hails the retaking of the Baiji oil refinery as the start of the long fightback against the Islamist militants
    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Bill Cosby: America’s beloved TV ‘dad’ or serial rapist?

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits: How to shop politically

    How to shop politically

    Ukip silk bow ties, Green Party T-shirts, and 'Iron Baby' romper suits
    The science of sex: What happens when science meets erotica

    Sex on the brain

    Fetishes, dominatrixes, kinks and erotica. They are subjects that should get the crowds flocking to a new exhibition at the Wellcome Collection