Breaking the Spell

Fascinating conversation between Moira Gunn and philosopher Daniel Dennett at IT Conversations (podcast). Dennett is a renowned determinist, but isn’t talking along those line here. His book “Breaking the Spell” makes the point that religion has been — and is — one of the most important forces (for change, or its opposite) in the world. As such, it deserves to be studied objectively, from the outside, as thoroughly and as rigorously as the banking industry, as politics, as world demographics. “The spell” is what prevents that kind of study from taking place — the tacit belief that religion is somehow in a different category, and that it’s somehow disrespectful or taboo to study religion itself. Religions like to be studied from the inside — using their own scriptures or lore as a framework for study. But they tend to resist study from the outside – a spell that Dennett wants to break.

He also makes some fascinating observations about the biological/genetic triggers for religion, leading to some interesting speculation on its cultural origins. Another synopsis on Dennett at Salon.

Totally tangential: Not even The Archbishop of Canterbury believes that creationism should be taught in schools. SF Chronicle:

I think creationism is, in a sense, a kind of category mistake, as if the Bible were a theory like other theories,” the Most Rev. Rowan Williams told the Guardian newspaper. … My worry is that creationism can end up reducing the doctrine of creation rather than enhancing it.

England does not have an evangelical movement to parallel the one in the U.S.

Music: Ornette Coleman :: Harlem’s Manhattan

6 Replies to “Breaking the Spell”

  1. I haven’t read Dennett but it sounds like he’s backing into a debate that has raged in Religious Studies for decades now. One the one side are phenomenologists, who argue that the only way to understand a religion is to try and enter into its world view, from within. On the other side are sociologists and psychologists, who analyze the manifestations of religion in the world with as much objectivity and scientific rigor as possible. Both camps have been producing lots of research for decades.

  2. Yeah, there’s a missing piece here. In the podcast, he alludes to the “fact” that religion has not been successfully studied in an objective and comprehensive manner from the outside, and that his book aims to do that. I was kind of taken aback by that statement, since obviously mountains of material have been written from every conceivable angle. So I think he must have been referring to something more specific, but without reading the book it’s hard to say what.

    Still, the 30 minute conversation is well worth listening to.

  3. Dennett was featured on CSPAN’s BookTV recently, offering an overview of “Breaking the Spell” with an accompanying Powerpoint presentation at a Washington DC bookstore to an audience of a few dozen people. It’s worth recording and watching.

  4. I get the impression that his line on the study of religion comes, with some modifications, from Sam Harris’s book “The End of Faith”. It sounds to me as if Dennett read Harris’s book and decided to push things further in that direction. I also get the impression that Richard Dawkins’s recent UK TV program was similarly inspired.

    I think perhaps the difference between these and earlier scientific studies of religion is that Harris, Dennett and Dawkins start off from less of a position of deference: there is an implicit understanding with religion that certain areas are taboo, these three (rightly, in my view) don’t hold with that idea.

    Of course, it could just be that all three decided to embark on their respective studies simultaneously. It’s no surprise that, at a time when Christian and Islamic fundamentalism are on the rise and having serious effects on the political landscape, three atheist academics should decide that religion needs to be put under the microscope.

  5. Scot wrote: “England does not have an evangelical movement to parallel the one in the U.S.”

    Well, not quite. True, British society, like the rest of Europe, is much more secular than we are here in Jesusland…errr “The U.S.” ;) The percentage of the population that actually attends church on a regular basis in the U.K. is quite a bit lower than here.

    But there’s a thriving evangelical movement in the Anglican church, who are just as troublesome and politically extremist as their counterparts here. They are, quite frankly, attempting to destroy the tolerant, middle-of-the-road nature of the Church of England and remake it in their own neo-Puritan image (Very much like the so-called “renewal movements” are trying to do for the mainline denominations in the U.S. These movements are sponsored by some of the scariest ultra-conservative organizations out there, like the Institute for Religion and Democracy. Google them, if you have the stomach for it. They’ll turn your hair white).

  6. Yes, we have one or two religious nutters in the UK, and they seem to be on the increase (witness the recent fuss over “Jerry Springer, the Opera”), but thankfully they are a very small minority and most of us just laugh at them.

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