Review of Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett

Breaking The Spell by Daniel Dennett

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The dangerous ideas Dennett won’t touch

Daniel Dennett missed out on a career as a whodunit writer. But I, for one, am glad, because what he has to tell us is more important than what you’ll find in the average crime novel. He boldly storms onto the philosophical crime scene, takes every puzzle ever to have exercised the human mind, gives it a good rinse in what he calls Darwin’s universal acid, and leaves us with the solution to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything.

You may not like the answers he comes up with, but you can’t help but admire the way he approaches his task. He outlines for us what the mystery is – just trifling ones like the origin of life, the physical basis of consciousness, stuff like that – and slowly and enticingly takes us through each step of his argument. Like watching an episode of Columbo, knowing whodunit at the start and that Columbo will find the answer doesn’t at all spoil the fun.

Read his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, and you’ll see a true master at work. He may not have quite the same facility with language and colourful metaphor as his comrade in arms, Richard Dawkins, but his is a skill of a different yet equally impressive kind. In Dennett’s latest book on religion, you can still find some of the magic.

The book as a whole, however, has to rank as a failure. Unlike his earlier work, it staggers from one poorly thought-through idea to another like – as Winston Churchill once put it – the men who stumble over the truth, but hastily pick themselves up and hurry on as if nothing has happened. (1)

If you are at all familiar with Dennett’s work, you would probably buy this book expecting a thoroughly materialist, Darwinian and scientific account of the evolutionary emergence – and continuing appeal of – religion. Surprisingly, he refuses to provide it.

Instead, he tiptoes around the subject, and, rather than making bold speculations and creating a credible scientific story with testable hypotheses, he surveys the field, avoids judgement on all the interesting issues, and, when things get tricky, inflates a hot air balloon that’s labelled ‘memes’, climbs into it and floats away (as Andrew Brown hilariously and accurately put it in The Guardian). (2) This is odd indeed from a man who dared to call a previous book Consciousness Explained. So why do we not get here a ‘Religion Explained’?

Dennett’s answer is that we need to do more research and the data isn’t in yet, and that his aim is merely to get everyone to agree that studying religion scientifically is a good idea and should be done. But he could as easily have said that about human consciousness. Why the change of tack? It’s because this time Dennett has a specific political agenda.

His book is a clumsy intervention in the so-called ‘war on terror’. He believes that religion is a credible threat to peace-loving and democratic peoples – he goes as far as to claim that “one religious fanaticism or another could produce a global catastrophe”, a situation he understandably finds “scary”.

So no more erudite texts on Darwinism for the interested but non-specialist reader. Instead, he is aiming for a broader audience, including, he hopes, religious believers, who he wants to engage in a rational discussion with the hope of cajoling them out of their beliefs.

The amusing thing is that, for all his anti-Marxism, Dennett’s style in this book resembles nothing more than a leftist pamphlet, aimed at the masses but read by the already converted, patiently explaining in dumbed-down style what all reasonable people ought to know anyway.

The result is the same sermonising tone you’ll find in the worst Communist pamphlets. The daft thing about this approach is that, should the broader audience he is wishing to reach decide to start buying Dennett’s books (and they should), they would surely as a matter of self-respect want to climb up to his level, not be talked down to.

Dennett’s new style is unconvincing in another way too. The conceit in the book is that Dennett has looked around at the world, found it wanting in a few particulars, and so wants to get the troublemakers together for a bit of chin-wag. So he pulls up an armchair, takes a deep breath, and says, OK, let’s have a good talk about this. I’ll listen to your point of view; you, in turn, then commit yourself to listening to mine.

There’s nothing wrong with that in itself of course. It’s a noble aim, if nothing else. But do we believe that Dennett is really interested in coming to an understanding of religion from the point of view of those who practice it?

Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and say that he is. He needs to try harder. In ‘Darwin’s Dangerous Idea’, Dennett berates one of his critics for not finding a sympathetic reading of his ideas – this is what you have to do if you want to write a serious criticism, rather than one that sets up straw men in order to knock them down.

But in Breaking The Spell, Dennett is incapable of finding a sympathetic reading of religion. Granted, he does seem to be trying his best. But how sympathetic can you be to religion when you view it, as Dennett does, as a parasite on humanity, responsible for wars, suffering and terrorism? (3)

Dennett is famous for wanting to bring Darwinian logic to bear on all problems, including those traditionally the domain of social and cultural theorists, and derides those who doubt the wisdom of this as “Darwin dreaders”, terrified of what science might do to their ideas.

There’s undoubtedly some truth in this. But that situation is unlikely to change if a Darwinist of Dennett’s standing can’t come up with a convincing Darwinian account of a phenomenon as apparently universal in human culture as religion.

As always, Dennett stumbles over the interesting questions. Let’s look at one example. In the ruthless Darwinian world where our animal cousins have to live, communication is a problem. If evolved organisms are selfish individualists competing for resources and for sex, why should a communication signal from any other individual be believed? What kind of signals would we expect to be believed?

One answer is that honest signaling must be costly. A peacock’s tail, to use a commonly cited example, places a costly burden on the peacock, not least in terms of avoiding predators. But the costs borne are also therefore a reliable signal (to females) of the male’s suitability as a mate.

As Dennett states throughout the book, the question that needs to be asked is, Cui bono? Who benefits? The peacock’s tail appears to be a silly encumbrance from the male point of view, and one that places a huge handicap on the male. Cui bono? By giving females a reliable signal of genetic fitness, the male’s genes benefit by winning the evolutionary struggle for survival and reproduction.

All this has interesting implications if we are going to study religion “as a natural phenomenon”, as Dennett’s subtitle puts it. Because the first thing any study of religion is going to show is that it is costly. All hunter-gatherers, for example, have initiation rituals. Initiation is the condition for the existence of religion – without it, counterfactual beliefs just wouldn’t get passed on down successive generations. And initiation rituals are costly.

They involve fasting, abstinence and very often intense pain, including genital mutilation. The interesting question here is, as Dennett agrees, cui bono? According to the Darwinist theory outlined very simply above, we would be led to expect that such a costly display was perhaps a reliable evolutionary signal. As there is no cheap way of signalling commitment to a coalition, perhaps the evolutionary emergence of religion has something to do with the evolution of group life, of uniquely human sociality, and all that comes with it: consciousness, culture and language. (4)

Darwin dreaders will no doubt not like the sound of all that. But Dennett shys away from it too because he is, to use Kenan Malik’s term, a “sociophobe”. Sociophobes, says Malik in his book ‘Man, Beast and Zombie’, do not deny the social but they do “insist that social phenomena can only be understood as natural or physical phenomena”.

So when the Darwinist argument veers into what looks dangerously like social phenomena – at exactly the point that Dennett would have to start taking seriously the anthropologists, social scientists, and historians he derides for not being sufficiently Darwinist – Dennett inflates his meme balloon and floats off into safer territory.

In short, he answers the cui bono question by suggesting that maybe it’s the ideas (“memes”) themselves that benefit. Faced with the option of conducting a serious materialist study of society and social relations or retreating into idealism, the hard-nosed materialist Dennett opts for the latter (ideas now handily redefined as physical things that replicate and infest our brains like viruses). Why? There seem to be two possibilities.

The first is suggested by the very form of words just used. A materialist study of society and social relations? Ugh. That might sound worryingly familiar. Would that mean studying social classes, how they are formed, their interrelationship, their material basis in economic exchanges, how this material basis informs the realm of ideas?

Would it mean asking the cui bono question of society as a whole? The spectre of Marxism is enough to scare anyone away, even someone brave enough to deal in Darwin’s universal acid. If that sounds too conspiratorial and nuttily leftist for your taste, a second possibility is that if all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail.

Dennett is committed to the methodological individualism inherent in Darwinism, and any problem found at another level must at all costs be traced back to the individual head. Memes are a way of providing a superficial account of the undeniably social nature of ideas without leaving the confines of natural science.

But the sleight of hand is unconvincing. The problems that concern Dennett are irreducibly social, not to say political, and his Darwinian theorising has thrown very little light on the actual problem. A trade unionist friend of mine recently gave a talk at an evangelical protestant church in London, attended largely by Latin American immigrants.

He was there to give them advice about their rights in the work place, how to deal with the authorities, and so on. As an atheist, my friend was slightly uncomfortable with the setting in which he had to give his talk. Perhaps he should instead have read from Dennett’s book?

Perhaps cajoling them out of their irrational beliefs, getting them to rebel against the selfish memes infecting their brains, would have been a better idea? Perhaps so, but such a lecture would have had to deal with some awkward facts.

His audience were welcome in that church, and that’s more than can be said for any other institution they’ve come across since arriving in the country. The church provides emotional and psychological support for people who have been torn away from their previous lives, families and loved ones for economic reasons. It provides English lessons. A social life. A feeling of belonging.

Lest we get too misty eyed, it also provides them with easy answers to social problems such as the disaster in New Orleans (the sinners got what was coming), famine in Africa (unbelievers brought it on themselves), and domestic violence (the wife belongs to the man and must obey). If you accept that all this can be explained as an outbreak of a meme infection, I suspect that you yourself are infected with a particularly virulent form of the sociophobia meme. (5)

In spite of all that’s been said, however, I can’t bear to finish on a negative note. For all his faults, Dennett is incapable of being boring, and is always worth reading. Breaking The Spell is very far from being his best work, but perhaps reading it will inspire you to investigate what should go in the holes where the memes are. If so, it’s a worthwhile book indeed. Let’s finish with a quote from Dennett on how it is possible to be a materialist, and remain a ‘spiritual’ being. To my mind it still misses much, but it’s not all that bad a starting point:

“What these people [those who say that ‘man’ has a ‘deep need’ for ‘spirituality’] have realised is one of the best secrets of life: let your self go. If you can approach the world’s complexities, both its glories and its horrors, with an attitude of humble curiosity, acknowledging that however deeply you have seen, you have only just scratched the surface, you will find worlds within worlds, beauties you could not heretofore imagine, and your own mundane preoccupations will shrink to proper size, not all that important in the great scheme of things.

Keeping that awestruck vision of the world ready to hand while dealing with the demands of daily living is no easy exercise, but it is definitely worth the effort, for if you can stay centred, and engaged, you will find the hard choices easier, the right words will come to you when you need them, and you will indeed be a better person. That, I propose, is the secret to spirituality, and it has nothing at all to do with believing in an immortal soul, or in anything supernatural.”

Breaking the Spell – Religion as a natural phenomenon


1. Of course, ‘the truth’ of the matter in much of what Dennett discusses has not been definitively established, even assuming that it could be. But there are, to my mind, much more persuasive accounts of the evolutionary emergence of religion, or accounts that at least introduce some necessary tools for thinking about the subject, some of which Dennett stumbles over. See especially:

Dunbar, R., C. Knight and C. Power (eds), The evolution of culture. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Knight, C. 1991. Blood relations: Menstruation and the origins of culture. New Haven & London: Yale University Press.

Knight, C., C. Power & I. Watts. The human symbolic revolution: A Darwinian account. Cambridge Archaeologial Journal, 5 (1): 75-114.

Kohn, M. 1999. As we know it. Coming to terms with an evolved mind. London: Granta.

Power, C. and L. Aiello, 1997. Female protosymbolic strategies. In L. D. Hager (ed), Women in Human Evolution. New York & London: Routledge, pp. 153-171.

Sosis, R. 2003. Why aren’t we all Hutterites? Costly signaling theory and religous behavior. Human Nature, 14: 91-127

Sosis R. and Alcorta C. 2003. Signaling solidarity and the sacred: the evolution of religious behavior. Evolutionary Anthropology 12: 264-74.

Dennett should be especially interested in the work of the anthropologist Chris Knight, referenced above. On page 122 of his book, Dennett says that he is interested in hypotheses “with testable consequences” that could account “for the world’s menagerie of mythical creatures and demons”. Knight’s work specifies just such a hypothesis.

2. Andrew Brown’s review; better, however, is Marek Kohn’s review.

3. Dennett’s analysis and agenda are surprisingly unsophisticated. It’s the old “religion causes wars” argument. To steal a joke from the comedian Mark Steel, it’s about as credible as the idea that, when a Protestant youth in Northern Ireland lobs a brick through a Catholic’s front window, he’s thinking, “Transubstantiation my arse.”

4. “In the beginning was the Word,” quotes Dennett approvingly. If he’d read to the end of that sentence, he would have found that “the word was with God and the word was God”, and opened up another intriguing line of enquiry.

5. Whenever Dennett gets into hot theoretical water, he always retreats into his meme balloon. This is extremely irritating, and it’s not hard to see why. Richard Dawkins himself can’t seem to stand the idea. In the book ‘Not In Our Genes’ by Richard Lewontin, Leon Kamin and Steven Rose, the authors suggested that Dawkins was acting as a legitimator for bourgeois ideology. They claimed that:

“… it is universities that have become the chief institutions for the creation of biological determinism… Thus, universities serve as creators, propagators, and legitimators of the ideology of biological determinism. If biological determinism is a weapon in the struggle between classes, then the universities are weapons factories, and their teaching and research faculties are the engineers, designers, and production workers.”

Dawkins sarcastically refused to take this passage seriously. Perhaps he’s right to, but what he’s rejecting could very easily be turned into meme talk, with the advantage of making it more plausible to the likes of Dawkins and Dennett, but less plausible to everyone else, (Quote taken from Dawkins’ review.)

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