Breaking the Spell

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Daniel C. Dennett

There’s a squirming conflict in here that prevents any kind of overall coherence. Dennett calls for the unbiased scientific study of religion, yet we find him oscillating here between an apparently warm, generous streak that clearly wishes to work hard for peaceful co-operation with religion, and his obviously deep-rooted personal conviction that matter as described by science is the sum of anything anyone wants to call reality.

I’ve got time for certain kinds of materialist belief. We’re all just stabbing in the dark anyway, so if your belief’s got its own coherence and is interesting, inspiring, why not? Ken MacLeod‘s novels are a fantastic convergence of Marxist materialism and cybernetic and psychedelic consciousness; Manuel de Landa‘s fascination with nonlinear dynamics and emergent phenomena does something similar in non-fiction.

Dennett’s “materialist slogan” (“Yes, we have a soul; but it’s made of lots of tiny robots”) has a certain nanotech charm to it. But, unlike my reading of MacLeod and de Landa, spending time with Dennett certainly does “break a spell”. Or rather, he fails to cast a spell. I agree with Dawkins, that it’s possible to reap much wonder from contemplating science’s vision of the world, possibly enough for many people. But there’s a certain magical quality of perception (I can hear Dennett’s demands for less vague terminology as I’m typing) that keeps you interested in and in love with the world, a fire which is fed and stoked by writers and artists of all kinds. Envisioning the world in the materialist fashion is certainly fair enough, and doesn’t necessarily extinguish this fire. However, even though I appreciate Dennett’s aim here is debunking, he doesn’t complement his dismissal of religion by demonstrating how his own vision can inspire and provoke awe.

Debunking? Hang on, didn’t I say he was calling for unbiased scientific study? Well, on the one hand, we do find instances of quite accommodating friendliness towards religion, irritated atheism switched temporarily with a more reasoned agnosticism. But on the other hand, the key metaphor of the whole book, and the cover for this paperback edition, is the ant whose brain, infected by a lancet fluke that reproduces in grazing animals’ stomachs, commands it to climb to the tip of a blade of grass. This is religion, of course. Get it? OK, on with the objective science!

No, it’s not a good start. He’s being provocative of course, which I like. But it seems like a bad qualification for someone trying to talk religion round to opening itself up for prodding and poking. Persistent comparisons to mindless parasites seems like a recipe for a witch-hunt rather than a debate. But, the “meme” meme has a strong hold on the neo-Darwinians, extending as it does their remit past biology into the whole human sphere. I haven’t formulated my problems with “memes” yet, but so far they seem weirdly… is “essentialist” the terrible academic word that fits in here? Maybe I should slip a quick “reify” in? I’m not sure.

He spends a disappointingly short amount of time on prehistory, although this makes some sense in that his main objection seems to be to organized religion and the whole package of crap that the Neolithic kicked off and which the Religions of the Book consolidated. My own interests made his comments on prehistory and the anthropology of foraging cultures stand out to me, but they’re certainly revealing. In discussing the fact that in a certain sense popular knowledge of science relies on the same thing as tribal religious knowledge (receiving it from “the experts”), he notes that “it happens that their experts have got it wrong”. The attached endnote is one of those little outbursts that again reveal Dennett as singularly unqualified for the supposedly scientific position he puts himself in:

I should emphasize this, to keep well-meaning but misguided multiculturalists at bay: the theoretical entities in which these tribal people frankly believe—the gods and other spirits—don’t exist. These people are mistaken, and you know it as well as I do.

Hehehe. Can you hear that tone? The parent refusing to believe or go along with the child’s game she had going with the fairies in the garden. “You know these things don’t exist, don’t tell me they do!” What a dull reinforcement of neo-Darwinian stereotypes. Newton’s still snoring loudly…

The most interesting part of the book is near the end, where he proposes that, in the spirit of establishing fair ground rules for the scientific study of religion, religions should agree to come up with an induction course for would-be scientific students of their faith. Dennett points to the early errors in social studies that turned the eye of anthropology on science itself, where certain aspects of lab life were misinterpreted because of the lack of familiarity with the complexities of lab culture. He admirably highlights how this applies to studying religion, too, and proposes this “induction course” idea. I imagine most mainstream religions will be unable to supply anything in their induction for scientists that will change their minds; these guys long lost the knack of doing anything but moulding impressionable minds. Functioning visionary religious traditions, however—certain Sufi sects, esoteric schools of tantra, aboriginal shamanic traditions, ayahuasca churches—might be able to wake a few out of Single Vision, and hopefully let them proceed in their studies with a more sophisticated, multi-levelled eye for their subject.

“Ah,” they would say, “we won’t submit in the induction to anything that might risk our mental health.” And there’s the rub; exactly why they will never understand the origins of religion (but not for the reasons they think).