Breaking the Spell

When Charles Darwin was wrestling with the problem of God’s existence, he, like many thinkers throughout history, was troubled by the problem of evil. Unlike his devout wife, who saw ample evidence of divine benevolence in the world, Darwin found an overabundance of needless suffering. For example, he could not understand why a benevolent god would design ichneumon wasps, which laid eggs inside living caterpillars so that their larvae could hatch and devour their hosts, who suffered excruciatingly.

Daniel Dennett, an ardent Darwinian, begins his book Breaking the Spell with a similar adaptation that seems more like the product of a Satanic Sadist than a Compassionate Creator. In this instance, parasitic worms take over the brains of certain ants, causing them to climb up blades of grass, where they are eaten by cows, sheep, or goats. The parasite does this because it needs to get into such ruminants to complete its reproductive cycle. This grim example leads Dennett to wonder whether religious ideas in human brains are like this parasite in an ant’s brain, compelling humans to behave irrationally, even self-destructively. This example also illustrates how Dennett’s negative attitude toward religion often surfaces in the framework and content of his inquiry.

Dennett, a militant atheist who is aware of the adverse connotations of unbelief, has introduced the term “bright” for atheist, hoping that “bright” will accomplish for nonbelievers what “gay” has done for homosexuals. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) he began to show how natural selection helped to explain the structures and functions of all living things, including humans, and he extended his biological approach to language, culture, even ethics. His new book, Breaking the Spell, has the goal of making religion part of this naturalistic investigation. The spell that he wishes to break is the taboo against the scientific study of religion. For him, religion is too important to the past, present, and future of humanity to be left solely to theologians and other believers. He fears that theocracies and religious fanatics, if they gain control of modern weapons of mass destruction, will threaten the survival not only of the liberal democracies he favors but also of all human beings on Earth. Therefore the title of his book expresses an urgency that the spell of religion be broken now.

Although Dennett recognizes that atheists constitute a minority in most countries, he sees their numbers growing among the educated, and, in looking back through history, he finds such kindred thinkers as David Hume, John Locke, and William James, whom he calls his “heroes” in his rational study of religious phenomena. However, critics of Dennett’s book have pointed out that Hume was not a Dennett-like atheist but a theist who admired the harmonious laws of the universe discovered by Isaac Newton, another theist. Dennett’s views of science and religion are also different from those of such modern investigators as Stephen Jay Gould, who believed that science and religion function best when each acts in its own domain. Science’s domain comprises observable facts and the theories developed to explain them; religion’s domain includes morality and the meaning of life. Dennett views Gould’s scheme as implausible and wrongheaded, as Dennett believes that science can and should bridge the gap between science and religion by subjecting religion to scientific scrutiny.

Dennett divides his scientific study of religion into three parts. In part 1, “Opening Pandora’s Box,” he analyzes how scientific techniques can be used to make sense of religious phenomena. In part 2, “The Evolution of Religion,” he describes scientific research on the nature, origin, and development of religions. In part 3, “Religion Today,” he describes his views of modern religions and their potential for good and evil. In all three parts he approaches religion from the viewpoint of a philosopher who is convinced of evolutionary biology’s explanatory power with regard to both living organisms and human cultures. Just as neo-Darwinians discovered the significance of genes for understanding the fitness of various life-forms, so, too, have such social Darwinians as Dennett and Richard Dawkins emphasized the importance of memes in understanding how religious and other cultural ideas are created, copied, and transmitted. Memes can be ideas,...

(The entire section is 1817 words.)