Reasoning about religion

I’ve just finished reading Dan Dennett’s new book, Breaking the Spell : Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Overall, it’s an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. As for a full review, I couldn’t do better than the one in The Economist. (I’ve also seen some awful reviews and interviews which completely miss the point of the book. Dan anticipated this, and on p.412 he notes that he has “made a list of the passages in this book most likely to be ripped out of context and used deliberately to misrepresent my position… I am keeping my list… sealed and ready to release.” I can guess what may be included.)
The book’s divided into three sections. The first three chapters (together with two appendices) set forth the justification for a rational (naturalistic, scientific) study of religion. I suspect that atheists like me will find this rather too obvious and long-winded, but perhaps Dan’s careful approach is warranted for those who subscribe to those faiths which discourage introspection. Please don’t skip over the second appendix (“Some More Questions About Science”); it includes some powerful points and elegant metaphors.
The middle section of five chapters (plus two appendices) presents a collections of theories (or at least hypotheses and questions for further study) on how religion might have evolved. It’s interesting to see how prescient William James was, and Dennett repeatedly returns to “The Varieties…” and other Jamesian material. Indeed much of this section is a synthesis of the work of many others, and although Dan contributes many original insights, he rarely draws attention to them. I enjoyed this section a lot; I found myself re-reading various passages just for the pleasure of re-living the “aha!” moments. A modest version of memetics is proposed, but the main thread – language, intentional world-models, death, shamans and hypnosis, guilds, and the rise of institutional religion – doesn’t hang on one’s attitude to memes. The simple question underlying all adaptation and selection – cui bono?, who benefits – is what drives the development of Dennett’s thesis.
The last three chapters on “Religion Today” are… well, frustrating. The overarching question is “so what should we all DO about all of this?”, and while I agreed with almost every point that Dan makes, I can’t see how we make progress. Yes, we should brush aside traditional “Philosophy of Religion” approaches. Yes, we should all talk, respectfully and openly – but how do you include those whose faith is systematically invulnerable? Yes, it’s deeply frustrating that religious moderates seem unwilling or unable to challenge the extremists in their own tradition. Yes, you can demonstrate the logical inconsistency of those who demand the respect that they are unwilling to grant to others – but so what? Perhaps for those of us that live in countries with liberal democratic traditions some of Dan’s ideas may be useful in working to defend those traditions, but when it comes to Islam reforming itself, or the challenge of disaffected youth in China, I suspect larger forces will be involved.
But perhaps contemporary events have left me too pessimistic. And if there’s one quality that permeates this book, it’s Dan’s optimism. We can understand these matters, if we can just shed the taboos that inhibit our natural curiosity. And we should, because knowledge is better than fear and ignorance. Cui bono? Everybody….