Breaking the Spell Review

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:

  1. Part 1: Opening Pandora’s Box
    1. Breaking which spell?
    2. Some questions about science
    3. Why good things happen
  2. Part 2: The evolution of religion
    1. The roots of religion
    2. Religion, the early days
    3. The evolution of stewardship
    4. The invention of Team Spirit
    5. Belief in belief
  3. Part 3: Religion today
    1. Toward a buyer’s guide to religions
    2. Morality and religion
    3. 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!

13 Replies to “Breaking the Spell Review”

  1. Let me start off by saying, I don’t believe in religion. I do however believe that science and religion go together quite nicely. Theres no need to separate ourselves with choosing and comparing. We are all connected; until we all realize that & start acting like it the world will always be corrupt. Try this for yourself because you matter, & you do make a difference in this world. Instead of competing with one another, try to agree with someone you would normally dismiss on something, anything. That persons feelings and thoughts matter just like yours do. Try giving a compliment instead of giving criticism Peace+Love=Happiness

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  2. I highly recommend Harris’, Letter to a Christian Nation. Dennett is a philosopher, therefore he uses too many words. To me he seems that he likes playing the role of a philosopher and is a bit wish-washy. Hitchens is the best, and the most comprehensive and productive. Please watch some of his debates, GROG

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    1. Hi! I don’t know if I could really pick a favorite, because they’re all so different. I like Dennett, but he was too long-winded. I like Hitchens, but his writing was too in-depth poly-sci for my taste. He’s a pretty good debater, but I found that he said the same things a lot of the time and often didn’t address theist’s questions that have pretty easy answers. I really like Dawkins, but he comes off pretty angry in The God Delusion. And Harris wasn’t bad, but by the time I read and reviewed Letter to a Christian Nation, I’d already read TGD and God is Not Great, so it felt repetitive to me. However, I think if anyone had the right approach that could convert me if I was a theist, it would be Dennett because he’s the nicest and most matter-of-fact.

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  3. After thinking about my comment here, I have to take it back. 1. The book I read in hours wasn’t very deep and didn’t require my full attention. I could skim it and get what I needed from it. 2. I admire how TCA reads pro religion and also atheist books, analyzes the thoughts put forth in the books and draws her conclusions. It was ignorant of me to not want to read because I don’t need to be convinced. That’s like plugging up my ears or sticking my head in the sand to protect my biases. Anyway….

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  4. I just got done reading a 260 page book in hours, which is unusual for me as I’m a slow reader. I wasn’t compelled to understand each word of this particular book. I was told a trick in reading, which is to read the first sentence of each paragraph. The rest of the paragraph is fluff to explain that first sentence. This technique seemed to work in this case. I’ve not read any of the four horsemen’s books on atheism because i don’t need to be convinced.

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  5. As I moved away from religion (Christianity), I read several books. The four you mentioned were not among them. And yet .. even without their “wisdom,” I found my way out of the cave.

    We’re all different. The success of these authors demonstrates there are many who benefit from their different perspectives.

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    1. I moved away (or drifted, which is closer to the reality) from religion of any sort slowly, gradually. I never read a book about it, frankly I had never heard of any of these writers, and never read any books on atheism, christianity, and not much bible.
      I do seem to be an anomaly here, since my own beliefs were shaped by my, er, own beliefs, and the only thing that was an AHA moment was one day when I was meditating on the I Ching and realized that meditation is just prayer turned inward, instead of outward.

      And that seemed to open up a door. It was really a Santa Claus moment, when you understand that he just doesn’t exist and once you see that, you can’t get him back.

      I do, however, admire anyone who can read about religion, belief, or lack of it, with any enthusiasm. I just don’t have the patience. =)

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  6. I’d also like a shorter version, something that someone with a short attention span could get through. And probably written at about an 8th grade reading level, without being condescending.

    I’ve been looking for a book like that on evolution, written with a simple direct explanation of what it is and how it works, with color illustrations, and no direct mentions of religion at all. Something that I could recommend to a fundie who has only learned the warped creationist view of evolution, without triggering the backfire effect.

    If you ever find either of those books, I’d like to know about them.

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  7. …, 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.

    Yes, that’s a problem with Dennett’s writing style.

    I have not read this book, but I see the same problem in the several books that I have read.

    Dennett is generally a good writer, but I am often wishing that he “would just get on with it”.

    I suppose that it’s because, as a philosopher, he knows that other philosophers will misconstrue what he says unless he goes into so much detail that it becomes difficult to misconstrue.

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  8. I felt much the same way about this book. I was not particularly impressed by Dennett’s analysis. His unquestioning acceptance of the supposed ability of religion to inspire morality is so absolute that, if I had taken everything he says at face value, I would have been more convinced by his own internal counterarguments than by his actual arguments. He spends so much time addressing the potential objections to his argument that he never makes his argument very thoroughly, which strikes me as a more serious problem than merely drawing it out too long. Still, he does make some interesting points, and is certainly more openminded than Dawkins or Hitchens.

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  9. As Hitch used to ask when someone stated that they were offended by one of his arguments, “I am still waiting for your point.” Just being offended doesn’t say very much. One can be offended by lies, the truth, and everything in between. So giving offense says more about the recipient than the offender. Deliberately using language one knows will be offensive is being impolite but offending ideas require some parsing.

    For example, an argument around Hitch’s book “god is Not Great” is that he focused too much on the negatives. But so what, it might have been a book about the negative aspects? If those aspects constitute less than 1% of all religious activities and focusing upon them as if they constituted 50% of them, now that would be an argument. worth debating.

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  10. Thank you for this review. I’ve not read it. I find all four authors can be long winded with what they believe to be important, but so can I. Dawkins gets too science jargonish for me (at times), but I like to read him and I am working on the reality/magic one. All these people have helped me understand. Have a wonderful week.

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