Religion from the Outside

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett
Viking Penguin, 448 pp., $25.95
Daniel C. Dennett
Daniel C. Dennett; drawing by David Levine

And now comes Daniel Dennett to take his turn at breaking the spell. Dennett is a philosopher. In this book he is confronting the philosophical questions arising from religion in the modern world. Why does religion exist? Why does it have such a powerful grip on people in many different cultures? Are the practical effects of religion preponderantly good or preponderantly evil? Is religion useful as a basis for public morality? What can we do to counter the spread of religious movements that we consider dangerous? Can the tools and methods of science help us to understand religion as a natural phenomenon? Dennett remarks at the beginning that he will proceed

not by answering the big questions that motivate the whole enterprise but by asking them, as carefully as I can, and pointing out what we already know about how to answer them, and showing why we need to answer them.

I am a philosopher, not a biologist or an anthropologist or a sociologist or historian or theologian. We philosophers are better at asking questions than at answering them….

Dennett practices what he preaches. He does not answer the questions, but takes four hundred pages to ask them. The book proceeds at a leisurely pace, with an easy conversational style and many digressions. It is divided into three sections, the first concerned with the nature of scientific inquiry, the second concerned with the history and evolution of religion, the third concerned with religion as it exists today. In the first section, Dennett defines scientific inquiry in a narrow way, restricting it to the collection of evidence that is reproducible and testable. He makes a sharp distinction between science on the one hand and the humanistic disciplines of history and theology on the other. He does not accept as scientific the great mass of evidence contained in historical narratives and personal experiences. Since it cannot be reproduced under controlled conditions, it does not belong to science. He quotes with approval and high praise several passages from The Varieties of Religious Experience, the classic description of religion from the point of view of a psychologist, published by William James in 1902. He describes James’s book as “a treasure trove of insights and arguments, too often overlooked in recent times.” But he does not accept James’s insights and arguments as scientific.

James is examining religion from the inside, like a doctor trying to see the world through the eyes of his patients. James was trained as a medical doctor before he became a professor of psychology. He studied the personal experiences of saints and mystics as evidence of something real existing in a spiritual world beyond the boundaries of space and time. Dennett honors James as an explorer of the human condition, but not as an explorer of a spiritual world. For Dennett, the visions of saints and mystics are…

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