Monday, February 15, 2010

Book Review - Breaking the Spell

It only took a year of starts and stops, but I finally finished Breaking the Spell by Daniel Dennett.

For atheists, the general premise is certainly not new: Religion is a meme that has evolved over time. However, Dennett takes this further than simply stating this; He asks whether this particular meme is truly beneficial and looks at the origins of it.

The book starts with an exploration of whether or not science can actually address religion (it can) and asks whether the topic should even be broached. He compares the effects of doing so to what might happen if you spoil a magic trick; It dispells the illusion (breaks the spell) and the entire system might collapse. If religion is truly a good force in this world, then perhaps its best not to break the spell. Ultimately he concludes that, with the growing global communication, there's no way that religion won't move more into the spotlight than it has in the past, and that, if it's going to, it should do so with the fair and critical eye of science rather than with the propaganda and hysteria it currently cloaks itself in.

To build a hypothesis on religions roots, Dennett looks at other things that we crave with apparently no basis. One example was that of sugar; We used to like it because it was important to our well-being and since it was scarcely available, it wasn't a problem. But now that we've cultivated it and can mass produce it, we're damaging ourselves through overabundance. Could religion be a similar phenomenon in which it played a useful role in the past but now is simply detrimental to society and the individual?

He also asks whether or not the interplay between our society and religion is truly in our best interest or if religion may simply be a parasite meme that plays no benefit at all. This is highly doubtful and even atheists as staunch as Dawkins will point out some benefits of religion. Obviously the truth lies somewhere in between as some sort of symbiont, which Dennett recognizes.

But regardless of this, where did this proto religion come from? Dennett proposes it could arise the same way other features like language did. Or possibly it was a byproduct of other features of ours. Namely Dennett suggests that, because we as a species developed the unique ability to infer the thoughts and feelings and others, perhaps that same ability went to far and we tended to anthropomorphize things that shouldn't need them (such as the weather). Once that was in place, it would be a base for a meme that could be built upon.

The obvious next step is how would it be built upon. Dennett's answer comes from the behavior of chickens in an experiment in which they were fed at random intervals. In an attempt to get more food, chickens would remember the actions they were performing when the food came and attempt to replicate them to trigger new food dispersal. Eventually they would build up odd and complex patterns as they tried. A similar phenomenon as humans tried to please their anthropomorphized nature would be the basis for rituals. Add in a bit of language to pass it on and we're well on our way to a full fledged religion.

Another interesting feature is that religions often tend to pray and worship together in unison. This is something we should expect from a religion founded naturally as a meme. The uniformity improves the fidelity of copying.

From there, Dennett looks at how these wild religious memes were domesticated as their maintenance was taken over by ritualistic leaders in the same way music has come to be dominated by musicians. Both became more of a show, more of a spectacle. At this point, "trade secrets" would become essential and a cloak of secrecy would arise trying to discourage questioning with miraculous answers and logical incongruities.

Eventually, brand loyalty would develop as people invested so heavily in their religious sect that the thought of leaving it would become impossible. Even when the core belief would be lost, many would still adhere to the practices because, if nothing else, there is a strong belief in belief in God rather than a direct belief in God. Indeed, many religions seem to be switching away from a very direct definition of God and His characteristics to more ambiguous terms. Now that the belief in belief is established, the omnipresent sky daddy becomes deanthropomorphized, making it even more contagious. The added nebulosity makes it even harder to directly analyze adding yet another veil to the concept.

At this point, I remembered one of my main reasons I personally gave up on religion; It was contradictory and stupid when taken too literally and worthlessly vague when not. A balance between stupid and worthless was no better. The veils floated off and I found the core to be hollow.

This ends the second section of the book. Having established a logical and testable route from which religion could have developed, Dennett turns to whether religion deserves the adoration it receives. He compares it to music saying,
Suppose I love music more than life itself. Other things being equal, then, I should be free to live my life in pursuit of the exaltation of music, the thing I love most, with all my hear and soul. But that still doesn't give me the right to force my children to practice their instruments night and day, or the right to impose musical education on everybody in the country of which I am the dictator, or to threaten the lives of those who have no love of music. If my love of music is so great that I am simply unable to consider its implications objectively, then this is an unfortunate disability, and others may with good reason assert the right to act as my surrogate, conscientiously deciding what is benefit for all, since my love has driven me mad, and I cannot rationally participate in the assessment of my own behaviors and its consequences.
This, I feel, is the perfect sentiment. Those so absorbed into something that they have lost vision should not be permitted to force it on others without a damned good reason.

This begs the question (which Dennett does not answer) as to how to apply this to science; Is science in general or evolution in specific so blindly followed that its protagonists should not have any say?

Hardly. The standards of evidence, that is to say the scientific method, is an external locus agreed upon by all people, even those that seek to undermine it. If it weren't, then Creationists wouldn't be so desperate to validate their nonsense by passing it off as science. Quite the paradox for them.

Dennett concludes that people should be allowed their freedoms to do and promote as they wish provided so long as they don't
close their minds
1. through fear or hatred or
2. by disabling them from inquiry (by denying them and education for instance, or keeping them entirely isolated from the world)
Sadly, no mainstream religion would qualify given that their promotion is largely based on fear of punishment.

Thus, Dennett suggests, it is time to break the spell.

But for one final challenge, Dennett questions how this should be done. To illustrate the problem with Islamic radicals; They will only respond to discussions from other Islamic people. But if those Islamic people are perceived to be influenced by us to do so, that will only drive the radicals further away. Yet without prodding from us, the moderates won't act.

With this in mind, Dennett calls for moderates of all faiths to help to curtail the religious extremes of their respective faiths. I suspect this won't work. Moderates won't sush the extremists because they realize that if they do so, then they would be the extreme and their views would be subject to scrutiny. Thus, the future may seem bleak, but as Dennett suggested earlier, this cloudy period cannot endure. Perhaps one day, light will shine through. I look not to religious moderates to do the work themselves. Rather, I suspect the clouds will be blown away by those who dare to look at them; the atheists.

1 comment:

Wayne said...

I disagree. Moderates don't need prodding from atheists to act, and too often atheists contribute to the problem by reinforcing the either/or mentality that drives people into thinking that they must choose either science or faith. Many are unwilling to give up on their faith, and they write off science. Just as detrimental, in my opinion, are those who write off religion as incompatible with scientific inquiry.