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
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn