Saturday, November 18, 2006

Book Review: Breaking the Spell

Almost every culture on this planet has some version of religion being followed by its people. And almost all the religions have a basic feature: it is supposed to be above debate or scrutiny. You can argue about any other aspect of a culture but not religion. Somehow arguing about religion, or criticizing the religious beliefs of a person is supposed to be an indecent behavior. The taboo has become so pervasive that very few studies have been made about religion from a critical viewpoint.

The book "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" is a very bold attempt by the renowned philosopher Daniel C. Dennett. It tries to study the phenomenon of religion from an objective viewpoint using the scientific methods of observations and logical reasoning. Like all other books by Dennett it is highly thought provoking and I simply could not put the book down for 3 days.

The author asks us to rationally examine the questions like origin and purpose of religion in human culture. His basic tenet is that religion is a product of human culture and not some supernatural phenomenon. And therefore like all other human endeavors (art, music etc.) it should be studied critically. Dennett focuses on the question whether religion is fundamentally benign or "is it just another bad habit". To believers, he says that not answering this question is like behaving irresponsibly. Unless we have rational grounds that religion serves some good purpose, we should not devote massive amount of time and resources for its furtherance.

Dennett carries out his plan in a very organized manner beginning with the basics. In the first part of the books, he tries to form a sensible definition of religion and according to him religions are social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent. Thus his focus is on religions with a God (or some equivalent concept). For Dennett a religion without God is like a vertebrate without a backbone. Then he goes on to the question of scientific study of religion. And there two questions arise: "Can science study religion?" and "Should science study religion?" He answers both of them positively. I guess the believers will get irritated at the idea, but please be patient till you finish the book. And then arises the fundamental evolutionary question "What pays for the religion?". The standard Cui Bono (who benefits) applies in case of religion too and the answer is most likely the religion meme itself.

In part 2, he discusses the evolution of religion from grass roots beginning with ancient history. The evolution of God is very startling. He thinks that the belief in God arises because humans have a tendency to adopt intentional stance towards almost everything. Ancient people treated natural phenomena like weather as an intentional agent having desires and wants. And hence in order to have good weather they tried to please the corresponding intentional agent. With time the idea grew into the concept of an all powerful agent who has all the information and that became God. Humans being information gatherers were in desperate need of such an omniscient agent who would give them desired information. And thus arose the practices of worship in order to please God and get desired information or benefits from the all powerful agent.

In part 3, he presents religions in the modern world. The author poses very strong questions like "What does it matter what you believe?" and "What can religion do for you?". Also he discusses the link between religion and morality and says that there is not much correlation between the two concepts. The believers do not have a higher probability to behave morally compared to atheists.

Relating to problems caused by fundamentalist Muslims (9/11 incident) and Christians (abortion clinic bombings) he reiterates the need to study the pros and cons of religion. The standard objection to this idea by the religious community is that "one cannot study religion unless he has good knowledge of the sacred texts and other features of religion". Thus the believers say that only a priest (or equivalent) is an authority in such matters. Non religious scientists might not do the job well. This objection is ruled out by Dennett and he proposes a test for anyone who wishes to study religion. Let the experts make the test as demanding as they like, and give them total authority on grading it, but require some of their own experts to take the exam as well, and require that the test be blind-graded, so that the graders couldn't know the identity of the candidates. If a scientist passes this exam then he is qualified to study religion in a scientific way.

The book is mainly targeted to the believers who sincerely believe that religion serves a higher purposes, gives their lives a meaning and alleviates suffering from the world. It is to them that Dennett asks to analyze the pros and cons of this costly affair. I hope he is able to get his message across the believers.


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