On Philosophy

June 6, 2006

Review: Breaking the Spell

Filed under: Reviews — Peter @ 3:09 pm

Breaking the Spell is Dennett’s latest book, in which he examines the origins and benefits of religion from a naturalistic standpoint.

Unlike many books on religion Dennett never makes a claim as to whether or not god actually exists as part of his arguments. In fact he attempts to make sure that his arguments will be valid in either case. As Dennett mentions even if you believe that your religion was divinely inspired, you still have to explain where all the other religions on the planet came from. In fact Dennett spends one third of his book defending the idea that the phenomena of religion (not the content of religious beliefs) can and should be investigated scientifically.

Carefully tiptoeing to avoid offending religious readers, Dennett proceeds to construct an account of the origins of religion, from the extremely primitive up to modern times. Although we don’t have the evidence needed to be absolutely sure of this story, as Dennett admits, his reasoning is sound. This is probably the most extensively researched section of the book, and I expect that it will be the most quoted, but it is also the least philosophically interesting.

Finally Dennett proposes to address the question “should we be religious?”, in terms of the benefits of religion, not its accuracy. Dennett does show that morality is not dependant on religion, but since the book isn’t on ethics he doesn’t propose an alternate theory of morality. Unfortunately Dennett’s conclusions concerning religion are fairly weak; he does not take a definite stance on whether religion, as a whole, is harmful or not. It is true that we don’t have enough data to support, in full, either position yet, but I think it would have been interesting to hear Dennett’s opinion on the issue, even if his opinion wasn’t guaranteed to be true. The one thing that Dennett does condemn is teaching children that they are not allowed to question certain ideas, which could be considered a criticism of a part of most religions, but then again it is not only religious beliefs children are raised not to question.

For some the most interesting part of the books may be its appendices. In them Dennett defends more thoroughly the position that scientific investigation will reveal objective truths (which is important since his book is a scientific investigation into the truths about religion). The appendices also defend the idea the memes can be considered to evolve. Much of Dennett’s conclusions rest on the idea that memes really do exist and can evolve; however not everyone is convinced that this is true, hence the appendix.

As a philosopher I find the origins of religion to be somewhat interesting, as are religions’ practical benefits, but that the more important question is whether the contents of religious belief are right or not. Even if religion did emerge in a total natural fashion that does not show that it can’t be right; mathematics also came about naturally and few philosophers doubt its validity. Dennett does not tackle this question, since it is only peripherally related to his investigation, but I wish he had.

Other Uses:
Dennett’s work may be useful to you if you are studying other social phenomena besides religion. Sports, courtship rituals, economic systems, all of these have changed over time to reach their present forms. Using the tools Dennett presents could help guide an investigation into why and how they became what they are now.

Alternatively you could use this book to help become a better cult leader. Dennett describes why religious practices emerge, and what makes them successful, so it shouldn’t be too hard to capitalize on this information to make a better cult. Should you have complex rituals or simple ones? Should you make potential members pay costs to enter the cult or should it be free? Dennett’s books can help you answer these questions.

Overall Score

Intellectual value: 9/10
Philosophical value: 3/10
Style: 8/10

See it on Amazon ($16)



  1. …but that the more important question is whether the contents of religious belief are right or not. Even if religion did emerge in a total natural fashion that does not show that it can’t be right

    You’re putting yourself into hot water with the word “right” in that sentence. Try to think in terms of “fact” and “fiction” for a change, and things are going to be rather straightforward:



    Comment by Y.T. — June 11, 2006 @ 10:34 am

  2. Right = fact, wrong = not fact, and that is all there is to it, unless I am speaking in an ethical context, which I am not here.

    Comment by Peter — June 11, 2006 @ 3:34 pm

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