For the last two months, I’ve been getting to know the work of the fourth horseman of atheism: Daniel Dennett. I’ve read and reviewed the other three, Dawkins, Hitchens, and Harris, before this, and I’ve found it interesting to get to know each author’s writing style and area of expertise. Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist, Hitchens takes a political science approach, and Harris and Dennett each take their own individual approach to psychology. But from what I’ve seen, Dennett is the only one with the greatest amount of reserve when critiquing religion when it seems that the other authors are attacking it.
Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon takes a unique method in exposing religion’s potential psychological and societal evolutionary origins. I really appreciate it because this is the only one of the four books that I think a religious person really could read and be left contemplating their beliefs and not just thoroughly offended (I found Dawkins and Harris to be particularly guilty of this). Dennett spends the first part of the book explaining whether or not it would be appropriate for a non-religious scholar to study the sociological aspects of religion. In his usual levelheaded tone, he says, “I ask just that you try to keep an open mind and refrain from prejudging what I say because I am a godless philosopher, while I similarly do my best to understand you” (21). From there, the book is manifested in the following parts:
- Part 1: Opening Pandora’s Box
- Breaking which spell?
- Some questions about science
- Why good things happen
- Part 2: The evolution of religion
- The roots of religion
- Religion, the early days
- The evolution of stewardship
- The invention of Team Spirit
- Belief in belief
- Part 3: Religion today
- Toward a buyer’s guide to religions
- Morality and religion
- Now what do we do?
Anyone reading this would know that Dennett has an atheistic bias, seeing religious belief as fantasy. But if any religious person were to read this book, I would say to them: try to leave behind your own biases about Dennett’s biases, because I believe that he does his best to leave them out of his analysis. Unlike Hitchens’ god is Not Great, his focus in the book isn’t on the harm caused by religion, but on how and when and why it came to be. You can tell that he believes religion to be a delusion which is often harmful, but he also gives time to why religion is good. That is, after all, essential in trying to figure out how religion and its memes evolved into so many of the world’s cultures.
Dennett gives many suggestions of which influences religion evolved from, including the human evolutionary tendency to attribute agency and consciousness to things whether or not they are actually alive, and the divination of God, which relieves pressure from people who would prefer God to make the hard decisions when they don’t know what to choose. Dennett often shows how concepts like this could have made the skeletons of folk religions which, after becoming polished and refined over time with groups, leaders, and storytelling, evolved into the organized religions that we have today as well as those which have disappeared into history.
My only grievance of this book can actually be found in its 339-page length. Breaking the Spell is by far not the longest book on my bookshelf, compared to books like Dawkins’ The Ancestor’s Tale and Carrier’s On the Historicity of Jesus, both with over 600 pages. But this is the longest book from my atheist library that I’ve read so far, and the reason I take issue with the length is because I think the same goal could have been accomplished in about half the pages.
Dennett really draws out all of points, almost painfully. This is obvious in that Part One of the only three-part book is entirely dedicated to whether or not he ought to study religion from a scientific perspective, but the entire time, the reader knows that he will, or else the book wouldn’t exist in the first place. I felt that the point of each chapter could have been reached in half the time, but I understand Dennett’s desire to be thorough and clear so as not to be mistaken as saying something he wasn’t. But I definitely wouldn’t mind if an abridged version of this book was available, with all of the main points but half the fluff.
I’ve heard that Harris’s Letter to a Christian Nation somewhat serves this role to The End of Faith, and since I’ve read the former, I no longer have any real need to read the latter. Although I don’t entirely agree with its execution (I explain why in my review), I’ve always thought of the 87 page book as a quick read and a typical book suggestion that an atheist might use to introduce a religious friend or family member to their way of thinking.
As I said before, though, Breaking the Spell is a much better and less aggressive alternative for an introduction to secularism that wouldn’t offend religious readers too terribly. But I wouldn’t recommend this book to my family members, because it would be such a long and in-depth study rather than an easy introduction. If this book had its own 87-page counterpart, I think it would definitely be a step in the right direction for getting people to reconsider their long-held beliefs.
Have you read any of the four horsemen’s books? What did you think, and how did they compare? Do you think we could use an abridged version of Breaking the Spell? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter!