Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Dennett's Dangerous Idea: Breaking the Spell

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Philosophers have a natural interest in the nature of how we decide what we will hold as true or real (epistemology). Yet a major group of theories, of "known things", are held to be exempt from such inquiry. These are the religious beliefs — not religions alone, but all those concepts which are protected from rational inquiry.

In Breaking the Spell, Daniel Dennett has chosen to negate the protective charm that prevents such rational investigation. With careful steps, he hopes not to destroy the belief itself, but to shed light on why we believe.

He looks at formal religions and spiritualism alike; examines hauntings and UFOs, cults and cloisters; lays bare the foundations of jihad and jingoism.

This is not dry philosophy either — Dennett's approach is enjoyable and witty, even titillating. (If there is a "belief gene", could its success be attributable to the need for the male to promote sexual arousal in the female?) His careful explanation of intentional objects, our conception of God as a causative agent, as a combination of what we have already encountered (Father/Teacher/Judge) with a partially-understood effect (good or bad fortunes, weather, etc.), is introduced gradually so that the reader can put down the treatise at any time his belief is threatened.

Along the way, if you stay the course, you are also introduced to others who have dared this inquiry, and exposed to the musings of artists and authors, politicians and playwrights, scholars and scoundrels who have challenged belief — or used it as a tool.

And if in the end, the spell is broken for your particular belief, it will not be without support from Dennett. The final chapter, Now What Do We Do?, reveals that he has turned that searchlight on his own philosophy. There should not be a belief that is exempt from rational examination. That is a spell that Dennett has broken.