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Daniel C. Dennett Won’t Break Religion’s Spell and Here’s Why

Daniel C. Dennett is an internationally renowned scholar at Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts, and he is out to break religion’s “spell.” By this, he means its irrational grip, which causes us to act against our own best interests. Although he acknowledges that religion does some good things, he believes that in general it hurts us. He wants us to weigh its pros and cons in public, allowing no place for it to run for cover. He wants us to see it as it really is.

I agree. The world’s religions are the most powerful forces on earth. Only the severest methods—imprisonment, torture, and death—are able to keep them underground. But as we saw in the former Soviet Union, as soon as the pressure eases they surface with sometimes more power than ever.

For this reason, it would be helpful to have a book that might make it easier for the world’s religions to practice the virtue of humility. I doubt that Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), by Dennett, is the needed volume. It may actually prompt a defensive reaction that will leave some groups within Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—the religions Dennett discusses the most—more closed and strident than ever. This volume may strengthen religion’s spell, not break it.

Dennett’s strategy is to offer us a biology of religion that complements the psychologies, sociologies, and anthropologies of religion we already have. It explains step-by-step how the radical monotheism we know today evolved from our primordial “Hyperactive Agent Detection Devices” without any supernatural assistance. His idea is that religion will be exposed, both displayed and discredited, once we understand its humble history.

It puzzles me that Dennett thinks this will help undo religion’s power. My own reaction was, “Hmm, this is interesting. I wonder what other theories say.” Responses such as mine do not usually trigger massive shifts in belief and behavior. Just as most people who go to concerts don’t clamor for detailed accounts of the evolution of music, so most who worship week by week in churches, synagogues, and temples don’t plead for elaborations of the evolutionary relationships between divination and shamanism and such things.

The relative indifference of many to religion’s evolutionary history is not entirely misplaced. The truthfulness of ideas and the healthfulness of practices are not determined by how they developed. They stand or fall on their own merits. Tracing the development of ideas and practices can be an interesting and worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. But our expectations for its practical impact now and in the near future should be modest.

Meanwhile, the world’s religions persist for a simple but profound reason: people calculate that, for them, the benefits outweigh the costs. This is the place where Dennett must strike if he wants to break religion’s spell. He must demonstrate that it takes more than it gives. Once he does this, it will charm us no longer.

Despite his stunning erudition and evident playfulness, I fear that Dennett cannot strike where it counts because he does not seem to appreciate fully what people pay for when they buy religion. At one point, he says that among the authors of books and articles on this subject “the three favorite purposes or reasons d’etre for religion are to comfort us in our suffering and death, to explain things we can’t otherwise explain and to encourage group cooperation in the face of trials and enemies,” or some combination of these. He claims that these are good as far as they go but that they don’t go far enough. “There is so much more to ask about, and so much more to understand.” He’s right.

This is why it surprises me that he settles for a twofold account of the possible practical benefits of religion by William James. On the one hand, “It might make people more effective in their daily lives, healthier, both physically and mentally, more steadfast and composed, more strong-willed against temptation, less tormented by despair, better to able to bear misfortunes without giving up.” On the other hand, “it might make people morally better.” In addition, “it could accomplish both ends, in varying degrees under different circumstances.”

Dennett seems more willing than I am to give religion a passing grade on the first possibility, or at least to suspend judgment until more information is in. “There is growing evidence that many religions have succeeded remarkably well on this score, improving both the health and morale of their members,” he writes. “In most surveys the results are positive, often strongly so.” His conclusion: “The evidence to date on that question is mixed. It [religion] does seem to provide some health benefits, for instance, but it is too early to say if the side effects outweigh the benefits.”

Dennett lumps Judaism, Christianity, and Islam together and treats them as though they are one religion. Because they all descend from Abraham, I agree that in a way this makes sense. Yet I also believe this does not do justice to their many different expressions and the likelihood that some are related more strongly with human flourishing than others.

There is some research as well as anecdotal evidence suggesting that we should take the differences within the three monotheistic religions as seriously as we take the differences among them and between all three of them and irreligion. For example, ten years ago H. G. Koenig, K. I. Pargament and J. Nielson at Duke University reported that “Certain types of RC [religious coping] are more strongly related to better health status than other RC types.” Whether patients viewed God as benevolent or punishing were among the important variables in their study (Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease, Sept. 1998, 513–21).

I think it probable that good research would show that Jewish, Christian, and Islamic people who view God as benevolent have stronger relationships with human flourishing by standards that both Dennett and I can accept than do people in their own religious traditions who view God as arbitrary, capricious, and punitive. Questions as to whether religion correlates with better health are incapable of being answered in the form that Dennett asks them. Some religions do and some religions don’t.

But this still isn’t precise enough. I suggest that credible studies would show that some expressions of each of the religions relate more strongly with well-being than others. The most important question is not whether someone is a believer or non-believer but what kind of a believer and what kind of nonbeliever he or she is.

Just as Dennett is willing to suspend judgment as to whether religion makes us healthier, I am prepared to postpone it on whether it “makes us moral.” In fact, I think it best to postpone this until the Final Judgment!

There are good Jews, Christians, and Muslims, and there are bad ones, and we don’t know for certain who is which. Besides, if we do spot someone who appears obviously bad, those of us who believers are likely to contend that he or she wasn’t the genuine thing in the first place!

We do know several things. One of these is that the basic principles of the moral life do not logically depend on any or all of the religions. The fact that thoughtful people in many times and places have independently come up with something like the Golden Rule, easily establishes this. Another is that whether religion helps or hampers moral living certainly varies from case to case. Still another is that those of us who are Jews, Christians, or Muslims have repeatedly failed to live up to our own ideals, often causing others to suffer intensely and die horribly. Still another is that, contrary to what some of the ancient Greeks apparently thought, to know the right is not always to do it. In this respect, monotheistic moral psychology may be more true to life.

We come closest to my greatest difference with Dennett if we paraphrase Christopher Hitchens and stipulate that human beings are “meaning mapping mammals.” The primary function of the religions is to help us make sense of our lives. It is neither to improve our health nor to make us more moral. It isn’t even to help us explain unusual occurrences. Religion’s primary function is to help us figure out who we are in the overall scheme of things.

Religions are like maps because they inevitably shrink and distort the way things actually are. They are also like maps in that they attempt to convey as accurately as possible what is actually there. So, yes, religions are human creations, but they are not utterly fanciful. Each one has at least a small and often mangled grasp on reality. When this ceases to be the case, they die.

Religions concentrate first of all on the usual passages of life: birth, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, parenting, illness, and old age and death. They do interpret unusual occurrences, often in ways that are subsequently embarrassing; however, this is not their primary function. The job of the religions is to explain why we should get out of bed each morning.

Here and there Dennett acknowledges this but he doesn’t make enough of it. Most often, he notes the mapping function of the religions, then he hurries on to his insistence that no one has a right to impose a religion on others. He’s right! Religions are supposed to be voluntary experiences. Unless we harm someone else, we should all be free to choose or to create one(s) of our own. But this is not the whole story.

The other part is that, in the aggregate, humans would rather go without food and water until they die than to live as though their lives are without purpose. Dennett can provide an evolutionary explanation; however, this is beside the point. The issue is that here and how, regardless of how they got this way, humans abhor meaninglessness and won’t tolerate it for long. Many proclaim that they would rather die in a religious war than live in a pointless world. We should take them seriously.

Dennett seems not to seem to understand this. It is not as though those he spoofs because of their religious faiths do not know what he and people of his persuasion have to offer. They understand this very well. Some of them from home and abroad have been educated in our best universities. Yet they are turning their backs on what they have learned with loathsome disgust. They do not need to read Breaking the Spell because they’ve heard it all before: “Your life has no ‘end,’ as Aristotle used the term, except what you create yourself. Lots of luck!”

Paul Tillich used to say that religion is the substance of culture and culture is the form of religion, or something like that. We can put it this way: religion is the soul, and culture is the body, and the two are inseparable. We can’t vacate the first and expect the second to flourish.

Dennett leaves me the impression that this is exactly what he is trying to do. He will not succeed. Using his current methods he can make things worse but he can’t make them better. If he doesn’t like the religions we have, he had better get busy devising new ones because the only cure for bad religion is good religion.

Jesus once told a story about a man who banished a demon from his front door only to have several rush in through the back. It will be too bad for us all if this is what Dennett accomplishes.

David Larson teaches in the School of Religion at Loma Linda University.

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