Taking the soul out of belief

Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, doesn't so much demystify religion as dehumanise it.

Josie Appleton

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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel C Dennett, 2006.

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God’, says John, chapter 1, verse 1.

‘What are words?’, asks the philosopher Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. ‘What are they made of? Air under pressure? Ink…? Words are basically information packets of some sort, recipes for using one’s vocal apparatus and ears (or hands and eyes) – and brains – in quite specific ways.’

At a discussion about his book in London on Monday, Dennett said he wanted to ‘study religion in the same way as you would study the monetary system, or global warming’. The book is written from the dispassionate standpoint of a Martian landing on Earth, trying to work out why Homo sapiens wastes so much time praying to wooden crosses and killing each other over books.

But what this Martian misses is the fact that religion is a form a human consciousness, an attempt by people to understand and control their world. As a result, Dennett doesn’t so much demystify religion as dehumanise it – and, ultimately, makes it incomprehensible.

Past critiques of religion tended to ask: ‘What’s it all about? What desires and fears lie behind our notions of spirits and Gods?’ Today’s evolutionary psychology – which Dennett draws upon throughout the book – asks ‘Cui bono?’, or ‘Who benefits?’. How did religion increase the fitness of the individuals or groups who practised it?

One theory is that those individuals with a ‘god centre’ in their brains ‘not only survived better than those without one; they tended to have more offspring’. Believing in God made early humans better hunters, parents and lovers, so they passed on their ‘belief genes’ to their kids.

Other theories look at the benefit accrued to the religion itself. Just as genes survive because they ensure their own replication, so it is apparently with texts and beliefs. As Dennett put it at the London talk, ‘religion is cunningly designed to pull the wool over everybody’s eyes’. Or as Richard Dawkins put it in The Selfish Gene: ‘The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational enquiry.’ Religions’ immunity to being disproved means that they fox more people into believing them. Beliefs are seen as ‘viruses’ that jump from head to head, though they might be damaging to their host.

Then there are explanations based in sexual selection. Just as the peacock developed its brilliant tail to impress females, so perhaps is the case with religion. Maybe, says Dennett, there was sexual selection by females for ‘religion-enhancing psychological traits. Perhaps they preferred males who demonstrated a sensitivity to music and ceremony, which could then have snowballed into a proclivity for elaborate rapture.’

Perhaps. For all the gains of evolutionary biology in unearthing and dating bones, it is striking how today’s evolutionary theories often rival the Bible for mysticism. Once consciousness is discounted, investigation becomes a theoretical romp, imputing interests here or motivation there.

It becomes impossible to understand why early human beings crawled a mile into caves and painted vivid animals; why they burnt perfectly good food in religious offerings; why they treated the world as invested with spirits who could not be seen; why they went to such effort to bury their dead with food and tools. If you ask ‘Cui bono?’ the answer can only be pat: because they had more children; because it made them healthier; because it impressed the women; because they copied other people.

At base, religion is about man’s understanding of himself. Spirits, gods and demons are fantastic products of humanity’s developing consciousness. From the start, human beings have been vital and conscious – but they discovered truths about themselves and reality only gradually, over millennia of learning from experience. For early humans, their capacity for consciousness and agency appeared as something outside of them.

A primitive form of religion is belief in ‘mana’, an inchoate life force that could invest anything from men to stones. As the French anthropologist Mircea Eliade notes in his book Patterns in Comparative Religion, ‘a man is a good fighter not because of his own strength or resources but because of the strength he gets from the mana of some dead fighter’ (this mana could lie in a stone around his neck or leaves fixed to his belt). Man’s vitality seemed to come from without, from forces that would invest him and then desert him.

Beliefs in magic and demonic possession look mad to us now, but they were naive attempts to establish causal relations and to control the world. It’s likely that prehistoric paintings were parts of religious rituals, attempts to control the bull by creating an image of it. Freud argues that magic and religion can be traced to ‘human wishes’: ‘Men mistook the order of their ideas for the order of nature, and hence imagined that the control which they have, or seem to have, over their thoughts, permitted them to exercise a corresponding control over things.’ (1)

Features of religion that Dennett writes off were breakthroughs in their time. He sneers that it is ‘convenient’ that religions pointed to invisible forces. But the idea that invisible forces control things wasn’t merely a gimmick designed to pull the wool over people’s eyes. We now know that invisible forces do control some things: gravity, radiation, electricity. Prehistoric religions offered a suggestion that there is more to reality than meets the eye, that there is a difference between appearance and essence – a notion that forms the basis of all science today.

The best humanist critiques of the past manage to demystify religion, to bring it down to Earth. ‘God is man’, argued nineteenth-century thinkers, such as Karl Marx and Ludwig Feuerbach: the all-seeing, all-knowing being was actually the best of humanity projected into the sky. Mana is actually in man, in our capacity for agency. While Christianity held that there is a point to history because Jesus was born, died, and will come again, Enlightenment philosophers said that humanity made its own history. While religion offered a divine glimmer of human purpose, humanists made that purpose our own.

Evolutionary psychology is breaking the spell, not of religion, but of human consciousness. When evolutionary psychology does consider the social function of religion, it’s in terms of ‘group co-operation’ or ‘mate selection’ – notions of the social that could just as easily apply to goats or ants. Religion is a ‘pretty good move’, says Dennett, a ‘good way of making people loyal’. Others have wondered whether religious groups worked better together, and so had better survival rates than non-religious groups.

To his credit, Dennett is aware of the limits of this approach. He is no Richard Dawkins, gleefully machine-gunning religion while crying that we are merely receptacles for our genes. Instead, he draws back from striking a killer blow, aware that religion offers a source of belief and value that secular philosophies are no longer able to muster. While the old critics of religion could offer something better than God, that is not the case today.

Dennett’s book admires the use of religion for ‘team building’, for driving people on and giving them a sense of common purpose. ‘I honestly don’t know what to do with religion’, he sighed at Monday’s discussion. ‘If we didn’t have it, I don’t know what we would do. The best path is to turn religions into something else, to gently steer them into benign directions.’

In spite of his Martian approach, he seems to sense that there is more to believing in God than propagating your genes, and more to life than maximising your fitness. He talks about his love of music, quoting Shakespeare: ‘Isn’t it strange that sheep guts should hale souls out of men’s bodies?’ When somebody asked him the ‘What’s it all about?’ question, he replied: ‘Find something more important than you, and devote your life to it.’

The problem, though, is that we don’t know what that ‘something’ is. So Dennett ends up calling for religion with the passion taken out. Religions are a ‘hugely potent force’, he says, ‘no other institutions can compete’ – but he wants religion without the ‘overconfidence in its own rightness’. He seems to want religion as a gel to hold society together, without sincere belief that could spark conflicts. But that would render it pointless, a social inclusion policy rather than an existential explanation.

It’s contemporary disenchantment that leads Dennett to try to ‘break the spell’ of religion. And that’s also why he can’t quite bring himself to do it.

Read on:

The curious rise of anti-religious hysteria, by Frank Furedi

Is religion the root of all evil?, by Neil Davenport

(1) Freud, Totem and Taboo, Ark, 1983

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