ALLEN LANE £25 (448pp) £22.50 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a natural phenomenon, by Daniel C Dennett

Divine designs in mind

To the dismay and bewilderment of secularists, a couple of centuries of scientific reason have not produced the changes they expected in the climate of belief. Some varieties of religion have dried up in the light of reason, but the global effect has been increased and ominous turbulence. Even the godless now fear what may come down from the skies. This sense of crisis underlies the programme that the philosopher Daniel Dennett seeks to introduce in his new book. Having failed to neutralise religion by indirect influence, scientific reason must be brought directly to bear on it. The benefits and costs of religious belief must be weighed scientifically; scientists must develop accounts of how religion arises from the way the mind works.

While Dennett sees an urgent need to analyse religion as a natural phenomenon, he sees little point in pursuing the question of whether it is a supernatural one as well. He is already a convinced atheist, and a self-proclaimed "bright" - a term intended to do for non-believers what "gay" has done for homosexuals, combining positive connotations with a sense of assertiveness and commitment. Believers, he suggests, might like to call themselves "supers", a similarly positive tag that refers to the supernatural.

They are unlikely to welcome his offering, or to mistake it for a genuine token of respect. Dennett is happy to let his disdain for religion show through the framework of inquiry, insistent that it is disinterested. His opening sally compares the Word of God to a parasite that infects ants' brains. That is the view of religion articulated by Richard Dawkins, who sees faiths as "viruses of the mind".

Though Dennett is evidently in sympathy with his English comrade, he differs crucially in strategy. Dawkins takes a polemical position and wages frank war on God. Dennett's engine of rational inquiry insists that hypotheses must remain on the table until settled according to scientific procedure.

He proposes that religious ideas may be parasitic, harming the hosts whose minds they occupy, or may have mutually beneficial relationships with their host, or may be "along for the ride". Deciding between these possibilities is a goal of the research programme he urges.

To some ears this may sound like overweening scientism, a vain belief in science as a superior form of religion. But the impression left by Dennett's strategic compromise between sentiment and inquiry is closer to managerial politics than any grand vision of enlightenment. His studiedly open set of options resembles one of those consultation exercises that local authorities like to conduct, whose wording offers clues to which policy the authority has already decided to pursue.

The book's title looks like a clue. "Breaking the spell" suggests the removal of an external influence, probably a malign one. Dennett argues convincingly that the human readiness to believe in supernatural entities may have arisen from the evolved capacity to understand that other individuals have intentions.

This understanding provides a basis for empathy and a defence against deception as well as a means to anticipate others' behaviour. These capacities proved so valuable that people came to assume that intentions lay behind all events, and conjured up supernatural beings to account for intentions which could not be ascribed to humans or animals. These entities, or rather ideas of them, have evolved and multiplied in human minds.

In the course of their evolution they have imposed immense costs on their hosts. As Dennett points out, "To an evolutionist, rituals stand out like peacocks in a sunlit glade". To an evolutionist, the extravagance of a peacock's fan insists it must confer benefits that outweigh its costs. To an evolutionary psychologist, the universal extravagance of religious rituals, with their costs in time, resources, pain and privation, should suggest as vividly as a mandrill's bottom that religion may be adaptive. It might also suggest that, as costly signals are hard to fake and tend to be reliable, these advantages may relate to the establishment of trust, turning groups into communities.

But here, as throughout Breaking the Spell, the revving of a powerful analytical engine is followed by the sound of it slipping out of gear. Dennett suggests that rituals may be a means of ensuring that the ideas behind them are reproduced faithfully. The possibility that rituals benefit the individuals performing them disappears behind the focus on what may be in it for the ideas themselves.

Dennett is not alone among Darwinians in his reluctance to explore the possibility that religion is adaptive. Only a few evolutionary thinkers have taken up the study of religion, and evolutionary psychology has failed to incorporate religion with the same enthusiasm it has applied to other universal forms of human behaviour, despite its keen interest in the evolution of morality.

Dennett's reference to anthropologists' and historians' "blinkered perspectives" smacks of pots and kettles. Towards the end, he does declare that "scientists have much to learn from the historians and cultural anthropologists", but by that stage it evokes the distinction he draws earlier between what people profess and what they actually believe.

This absence may also reflect Dennett's intellectual preference, as a philosopher, for abstraction rather than detail. The minutiae of anthropologists' field observations or the archaeological record do not detain him on his way to his discussion of religion today, where past form can be dismissed. Even if religion was the foundation of human society, you could say the same about hunting and gathering, and we're not going back to that. People nowadays can live moral lives and sustain decent communities without religious faith, although it seems only fair to acknowledge that these moral frameworks are secularised versions of earlier religious ones.

Dennett insists that a sense of reverence for the sacred is not a necessary qualification for the analysis of religion. But the project does require passion, which is why Dawkins's essayistic voice is convincing even if not found persuasive. Breaking the Spell reads like an exercise in fulfilling a disagreeable obligation. It takes a hundred pages to justify itself, drops interesting ideas no sooner than it has picked them up, and we're still waiting for it to hit its stride when we run into the appendices. The style is familiar but the effect very different from a book such as Darwin's Dangerous Idea, where Dennett's voice is filled by something he really believes in.

To make real progress his project must engage with religion both as a natural phenomenon and a social one. It is in the latter terms that we can best make sense of why a populist Christian movement arose in America, insisting that the earth is just a few thousand years old, a good century after educated Britons had come to accept that the planet is far older than the Bible suggests. Scientists trying to comprehend religion don't just need to learn from historians and anthropologists; they need to learn how to make their fellow scholars into allies.

Marek Kohn's A Reason for Everything is published by Faber

Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge
books
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
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.

    Bryan Adams' heartstopping images of wounded British soldiers to go on show at Somerset House

    Bryan Adams' images of wounded soldiers

    Taken over the course of four years, Adams' portraits are an astonishing document of the aftermath of war
    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities