Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
Daniel C. Dennett. xvi + 448 pp. Viking, 2006. $25.95.
In recent years, Scott Atran (In Gods We Trust), Pascal
Boyer (And Man Creates God) and David Sloan Wilson
(Darwin's Cathedral) have all set forth evolutionary
theories of religion. This focus is unsurprising: Like language,
moral cognition, elaborate tool use and the extensive division of
labor, religious belief seems to be both a typical and a distinctive
feature of human intelligence—one of remarkable persistence.
Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking The Spell adds to the growing
list of books on religion as a natural phenomenon but is strikingly
different in tone and content from its predecessors. It is written
for Americans, whose world is not secular: In the United States, it
is impossible for an open skeptic to be a serious political figure,
and even the skeptical take religion to be of profound moral and
social significance. Dennett devotes much of his energy to trying to
convince his nonsecular readers that it is legitimate to inquire
scientifically into the roots of religious belief and to assess its
moral consequences, good and bad. Reading this, I felt like a member
of an alien species; it was a strange experience for a secular boy
from a secular world.
Before I discuss Dennett's take on religion, let me explain why I
think his cultural project is doomed. He wants the religious reader
to take his assessment of religion's causes and effects seriously,
and he labors mightily to present himself as fair-minded, if not
neutral, about the truth of the central claims of such faiths as
Christianity. The smart money is not on him. His intended audience
will rightly regard any evolutionary model, indeed any secular
model, of religion as essentially corrosive. For the so-called
"genetic fallacy" (the erroneous supposition that a defect
in the genesis of something is evidence that discredits the thing
itself) need be no fallacy. A causal account of the origins and
maintenance of belief can undermine that belief's rational warrant.
Suppose, for example, that someone were able to explain my political
views about discrimination in university hiring by making the case
that I held them because I am male and Caucasian. That explanation
would not show that my beliefs were false, but it could show that
they were not rationally based, because they depended not on the
flow of information from the world to me but on my selfish
interests. Given those interests, I would have those beliefs whether
or not university hiring practices were fair. If, in fact, my
beliefs were true, they would be so by luck. Rationally formed
beliefs are counterfactually sensitive: Had the world been
different, the agent's views would be different. For that reason,
economic and other institutional theories of attitude are
undermining. If true, they show that there is no mechanism through
which an agent's beliefs about the world track states of the world.
Likewise, secular theories of religion are corrosive. Religious
commitment cannot both be the result of natural selection
for (for example) enhanced social cohesion and be a
response to something that is actually divine. A
cohesion-and-cooperation model of religion just says that believers
would believe, whether or not there was a divine world to which to
respond. If a secular theory of the origin of religious belief is
true, such belief is not contingent on the existence of traces of
the divine in our world. So although a secular and evolutionary
model of religion might be (in a strict sense) neutral on the
existence of divine agency, it cannot be neutral on the rationality
of religious conviction.
I think this is true of all secular models of religious conviction,
even the "economic model," the one that most aspires to
neutrality. According to this model, which Dennett discusses in a
chapter titled "The Invention of Team Spirit," religious
belief is an instance of ordinary economic behavior. People join
religious communities and sacrifice time, money and freedom to
secure concrete rewards: immortality-despite-death, guaranteed
bliss, supernatural intervention on their behalf and the like. These
things are not available elsewhere; you can't just purchase them
online. No wonder that the suppliers of such services stay in
business. The trouble, of course, is ensuring delivery.
We have a noncorrosive explanation of religion, but not a secular
one, if we think that people are rational to expect to get what they
pay for. We have a secular but corrosive theory if we think that
such expectations are irrational and reflect the projection of
economic decision-making beyond its proper domain. The economic
model looks neutral only so long as we refuse to ask ourselves
whether the expectation of return is rational. Once that question is
posed, neutrality collapses. So Dennett is too optimistic if he
imagines that religious readers will regard his research project as
anything other than poisonous: They could be vindicated only by the
Still, Dennett has a lot of interesting things to say about why
religion might have evolved. His account is more multifaceted than
those of Atran, Boyer and Wilson. In contrast with Wilson, for
example, Dennett does not take religion to be a unitary phenomenon
with a single evolutionary cause. Also, he does not present an
integrated, systematic theory of religion; rather, he assembles the
materials from which such a theory can be given for particular
cases. I shall spend the rest of this review surveying some of these
materials and Dennett's use of them.
Dennett has based his case in part on work of cognitive
anthropologists Atran and Boyer, who in effect have argued that
religion is a spandrel—a side effect of certain other
cognitive adaptations. The simplest hypothesis is Atran's idea that
religion is a consequence of our tendency to anthropomorphize, to
project intentionality onto the world. We treat people as
intentional agents—creatures that act as they do because of
their thoughts and preferences. That regarding people this way is an
adaptation is almost uncontroversial. As Dennett himself has
persuasively argued in many of his works, it is often adaptive to
treat other systems as intentional agents, especially when they are
well-designed, well-functioning systems. But we habitually overuse
this productive heuristic. It is harmless to talk to your cat, and
it may well be productive for a hunter to conceive of his prey as
actively planning to avoid or escape his attentions. But it is not
adaptive to shout at and kick the step for being in the way after
you have stubbed your toe on it. Likewise, we get no capacity to
intervene in or predict the weather by thinking of storms as
produced by divine agents. To the contrary, we get a false sense of
control, which imposes a double tax: the price of the sacrifices we
make, and the risks we expose ourselves to by embracing the illusion.
I agree with Dennett that this idea of Atran's partly explains the
prevalence of religion. Dennett also accepts the central argument of
Boyer, who thinks religious ideas spread so well because they strike
a balance between strangeness (which gets them noticed and
remembered) and ordinariness (which gives them intelligibility and
appeal). That's why, according to Boyer, supernatural agents are
transformed but familiar: They are people, animals or plants,
natural objects like mountains, or artifacts like statues or knives.
But they are not ordinary ordinary objects. Run-of-the-mill
mountains do not eat, but this special, supernatural one does.
Nevertheless, sacred mountains are mostly like other peaks; hence we
can think intelligibly about them. That combination gives religious
ideas both salience and transmittability. Dennett thinks that there
is something importantly right about this observation and the ideas
Boyer develops from it.
I am unconvinced. It is one thing for a supernatural entity to be
memorable. It is another for it to be credible. Some stories get
deeply etched in people's minds, perhaps because they transform the
ordinary just enough to be gripping without becoming unintelligible.
Famous examples—The Iliad, say—have lasted thousands of
years. But people do not understand The Iliad as being literally
true; still less do they organize their lives around it. And how
would belief in one of the memorable fantasies humans imaginatively
generate when puzzled or frightened—say, a tree that can walk
(to use one of Dennett's examples)—ever be adaptive for an organism?
The best-known adaptationist ideas about religion link it to the
striking fact that people must cooperate to survive. Generating
resources jointly is an ancient feature of human lifeways, and we
are adapted to and for cooperative social worlds. Wilson, Joseph
Bulbulia and others have argued that religious belief is one of
those adaptations. A community that believes in an immensely
powerful and knowledgeable enforcer gets the benefits of its norms
being followed without paying the costs of policing them. Dennett
does not discount this hypothesis completely, but he is more
inclined to endorse less obvious proposals that link religious
belief to psychic benefits.
One such argument is that religion facilitates placebo effects:
Perhaps the belief that you are the object of divine concern has
real and crucial health benefits, particularly in a premodern world.
Another is Boyer's hypothesis that religious belief simplifies
choice-making in an informationally complex world.
In addition, philosophy has spawned a plethora of "ideal
agent" theories: One idea from ethics, for example, is that
what you ought to do is what you would want to do if you were
ideally rational. Boyer points out that divine agents are often
ideal agents; moreover, often they are ideal agents who are supposed
to have our best interests at heart (our ancestors, for example). So
in a complex and difficult world, it would be good to get their
advice and follow it rather than succumb to decision paralysis. A
nifty idea, although I remain skeptical: This strategy seems too
costly and exploitable to me.
Dennett has long been involved in synergistic interaction with
Richard Dawkins, so it is no surprise that Dawkins's memetic view of
religion plays a role in Dennett's theory. Religion thrives,
according to Dawkins, because its tenets and customs—its
"memes"—like so many DNA or RNA-based genes, are
structured to ensure that they are passed from one generation to the
next (the Shaker practice of celibacy not withstanding).
Here Dennett's theory is nuanced. He points out that today's
organized religions are reflective, self-conscious systems, which
include not just beliefs about the supernatural but also rather
strict ideas about how these beliefs are to be interpreted,
warranted and fit together. Early religions may have a more or less
direct biological explanation of the kind we have been discussing.
But modern religions depend on massive investment in the mechanisms
of cultural transmission. They cannot exist without the apparatus of
holy books, seminaries, catechisms, theologians. So here a theory of
cultural inheritance and cultural evolution comes into its own.
Biases in preservation and transmission will be central to the
explanation of the success and failure of modern religions. In
contrast to Dawkins, though, Dennett does not assume that the
dynamics of religious memes are virulently pathological. For him,
this is an open empirical question.
I have never formed a settled view of the memetic explanation for
the persistence of religion. Dawkins's image is wonderfully vivid,
but the memetic view does not include an account of our cognitive
biases that explains why we find supernatural explanations
believable. Perhaps Atran's hypothesis (or one like it) explains
this. But I have come to think that there is a plausible division of
labor between meme-based views of religion and those that emphasize
internal biases of the mind.
All selection processes depend on variation, and so a theory of our
mental biases helps account for the cultural variations that are
available. A meme-based theory is primarily external, emphasizing
networks of the exchange of ideas and information. These networks
and their organization help explain the transmission potential of
human ideas. In small-scale social environments, people transmit
many of their ideas to their kin in the next generation. Moreover,
there is a reciprocal dependence on one's neighbors. In such
networks, ideas and genes will be filtered in somewhat similar ways.
In addition, there is limited investment in books, memory aids and
other tools that help us remember and understand what we see and
hear, so intrinsic biases on what we can understand and repeat play
a leading role. In larger-scale societies, intrinsic memorability
matters less, because cultural mechanisms are available to ease the
memory burdens. So the amount of variation expands. Also, the
networks are more open. Thus the transmission potential of ideas
will be very different from that of genes, and ideas will be
filtered very differently. In today's world, religions are not
transmitted mostly to kin and to others who live in circumstances of
mutual dependence. Such religions are therefore potentially more
dangerous to us.
Despite my worry that Dennett is too hopeful that religious readers
will be open to his arguments, I found Breaking the Spell
thoughtful, informed and probing. It is surprisingly cautious:
Dennett is sensitive to the limits on what we currently know and is
mainly concerned to develop a research agenda. In discussing
specific hypotheses about specific religions, he is not at all
dogmatic. I doubt, though, that the book will reach the audience he
wants. It will mostly be read by people like me, not by his decent,
civil, morally serious Christian neighbors.