International Society for Science & Religion - Library Project

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett

Introductory Essay by Robert Lawrence Kuhn

Three categories of arguments attack belief systems that feature a supernatural being: analytical arguments that undercut “proofs” of God’s existence; common-sense arguments that array horrors of religion’s history; and psychological, sociological and anthropological arguments that naturalize religion’s core claim. Epitomizing the third category, philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell offers compelling if speculative ideas of how and why religion took root in the human psyche, intermixed with rhetoric that reflects how “brights,” atheist’s self-assigned name, work to weaken what they see as religion’s pernicious power.

Dennett defines religion as “belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought” and his objective is to separate religion from its protective moorings. Feigning cautiousness, he calls for the scientific study of religion, taking,  “as a working hypothesis, as any scientific exploration must, that religion needs nothing supernatural” The only way of demonstrating otherwise, he says, “would be by making this assumption and then running into insuperable difficulties,” adding, “So far, I don’t see any inexplicable phenomena.” [Comments on Closer to Truth, PBS TV, 2010].

I applaud Dennett’s project. True or not, religion is too important to be condescendingly sheltered. However, by setting science as the singular touchstone of religion, does the trier of truth blind himself to aspects of reality that may exist and yet may not be accessible by measuring observational regularities and requiring experimental repeatability? This is the gold standard core of the scientific method, and when probing religion, must it always and exclusively apply?

There are two books here. The first provides theoretical tools for exposing the underpinnings of religion, which explain how, without God, religion forms and flourishes. The second is a series of lamentations about religions and prescriptions for what to do with them. Defanging religion is a deep Dennett goal, whether decoupling morality from theology or preventing children from being brainwashed. 

Dennett uses the evolutionary perspective as a scalpel to dissect out the foundations of religion from its contemporary superstructures.  He encourages us “to think not just historically, but biologically or evolutionarily.” He discerns “religion's origins in superstition, which grew out of an overactive adoption of the intentional stance.” [as above]

The intentional stance is key to Dennett’s thesis. It asserts that human mentality has evolved to treat things as agents, “with beliefs and desires (and knowledge and goals)”—“the imaginative offspring of a hyperactive habit of finding agency wherever anything puzzles or frightens us.” [123]

Building on Richard Dawkins' now-classic idea of “memes” as cultural viruses that propagate by infecting minds, Dennett traces how “a hallucinated agent” makes multiple copies of itself. “What’s it for?” Dennett asks. “It’s for itself.  It just happened because it could.”

Dennett goes on to describe the motivational strategies, or manipulative tricks, that religions use to survive and thrive.  He differentiates “belief in belief in God” from “belief in God”—the former, he says, becomes more relevant to religious life by conforming private attitudes to public conventions.  People want and need to believe in God, irrespective of the fact or fallacy of God’s existence.

To account for religious beliefs and behaviors, even those who fear God should recognize that personal psychology and group sociology empower religion. The methods of science can analyze religion. Religion can be explained without God.

But is there residue? After doing all the science, does anything theological remain? Even if religion as we know it, particularly organized religion, is entirely of human origin, it does not follow that there is no God. Breaking the Spell offers insights into religion; it does not address the existence of God. But I’d not submit religion as evidence.