Monday, August 18, 2008

Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell

I am currently working my way through Daniel C. Dennett's Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. If you are a Christian, you will likely have the same reaction to it that Leon Wiesletier, a book critic for the New York Times, does. I have to say that the book that Wiesleter read seems completely different from the one that I am reading. Most of Dennett's book has little to do with Christianity or Christian concepts of God. Rather, it is a study of the phenomenon of religion, and it is based on research that he undertook in support of philosophy classes that he teaches. Unlike Dawkins, in his well-known book The God Delusion, Dennett does not confine himself to an attack on Christian views of God. What has surprised me is that I think Dennett has done a far better job than Dawkins at exploring the evolutionary bases for religion in the human species. Dawkins is the evolutionary biologist, but Dennett seems the more thoughtful and objective evolutionary thinker. Perhaps it is because Dennett is not really engaged in a polemic. That is, while he makes the occasional polemic remark, he is for the most part concerned with just trying to understand what it is about religion that makes it so ubiquitous in human society.

The thing about Dennett's book is that he constantly asks the Latin question "Cui bono?" (To whom is the benefit?). This is the essence of evolutionary thinking, because evolution is design by what Dennett calls "free floating rationales". That is, there is no intentional designer with a rationale. There is just a free-floating benefit to replicators that happen to be lucky enough to be in the right place when the conditions are right. Religion is an expensive form of behavior. It requires people to devote large amounts of their time to maintain and promulgate it. Vast resources are expended to defend various competing religious doctrines. Quite often it leads to strife and warfare, causing members of the species to die off prematurely. So why would it have emerged as such a common form of behavior in human society? To answer the question, Dennett takes the view that there must be some payoff somewhere to make religion such a species-wide phenomenon. What do people get in exchange for all that effort to "keep the faith"?

There is no simple answer to this question, because evolution is always messy. There are usually many factors that come into play to support specific behaviors. Evolution is a "substrateless" phenomenon in that it always requires 3 ingredients: 1) Replication (a copying process), 2) Variation (mutation), and 3) Competition (natural selection). It is not just about DNA and genetics. There may be no single gene that causes humans to be religious, but there is likely a complex of genes that favor the creation and replication of religious "memes" in human society. For example, we are all programmed to believe in and obey authoritative sources of information. Children in particular benefit from this programming, because it favors their survival to take advantage of the experience of more mature members of the species. Ancestor worship is a form of authoritarianism, and ancestor worship seems to form to basis of many religious myths, e.g. the Gilgamesh epic. So these are the kinds of issues that Dennett analyzes and critiques in his very detailed analysis of the ubiquity of religion. I highly recommend this book, but only for people who have the stomache for provocative thinking. Dennett never tries to hide his atheist bias, but he also allows for the possibility that atheism may not be the best answer to our survival as a species.

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