March 2006

Barbara J. King


Religion, Science, and Temptation: Breaking the Spell

Granted, it’s no forty days-forty nights xeric trial, but it’s temptation I fight nonetheless. Suburban-Virginia counterparts to desert-dwelling demons whisper in my ear about just how sated I would feel if only... if only I would indulge. If only I would let myself write about Breaking the Spell in author Daniel Dennett’s style. The pull of the sneer! The intoxication of intellectual certainty! The lure of the dismissive and the condescending!

Yet a tiny inner voice resists: you know what, that’s just too easy. Or rather, Dennett, probably best known as the author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, makes it too easy in this just-released book. His zeal is evangelical. He wants to pull back “the gauze curtains of soft-focus veneration through which we traditionally inspect religion.” The problem is urgent: “The spell that I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.” Dennett really believes he can lead the confused (the faithful) to the oasis of reason; he really believes in his own courage as spell-breaker among the entranced masses; he really believes that invoking the memosphere is the best way to explain religion’s evolution (more just below on the memosphere). So I will start by letting Dennett’s speak directly to those he hopes to enlist as disciples.

On memes: For anyone who hasn’t kept pace with evolutionary psychology, here is Meme Theory 101: Memes are “information packets or recipes for doing something… behaviors such as shaking hands or making a particular rude gesture, or taking off your shoes when you enter a house, or driving on the right… These behaviors can be described and taught explicitly, but they don’t have to be: people can just imitate the behaviors they see others perform. Variations… can spread…”

Memes are thus parallel to genes; memes are idea-like bits that get transferred from person to person in cultural ways just like genes get passed along in biological ways. For Dennett, religion arose because certain memes outreproduced others in human prehistory: “The evolutionary design process that has given us religions involves the differential replication of memes, not [social] groups.” And “…the ultimate beneficiaries of religious adaptations are the memes themselves, but their proliferation (in competition with rival memes) depends on their ability to attract hosts one way or another. Once allegiance is captured, a host is turned into a rational servant, but the initial capture need not be -- indeed, should not be -- a rational choice by the host.”

What happened next in human evolution, when people became conscious meme-tenders, is what Dennett calls “belief in belief”: “Once our ancestors became reflective about their own beliefs, and thus appointed themselves stewards of the beliefs they thought most important, the phenomenon of believing in belief became a salient social force in its own right...”

As Dennett admits, almost all of this is basic evolutionary psychology, recycled from other theories and closely related to work by anthropologists Pascal Boyer and Scott Atran, with a nod to Dean Hamer’s God gene [see June Bookslut].

My own anthropology is meme-averse (now there’s an understatement coupled with an example of temptation-resistance in action). In my anthrosphere, humans (and their ancestors, and yes, at certain times and in certain degrees, the present-day apes I study, too) create meaning when they connect emotionally with each other. They come together with particular social histories rooted in specific places and times, and yet they continuously create and recreate meaning. This is an evolutionary picture, but one peopled primarily by, well, people, and not by memes abstracted away from the lived emotional experience of their “hosts.” (Yes, Dennett really does believe that memes “enter” human beings.)

Let’s leave the memosphere for more uniquely Dennettian territory. On reason versus faith:

"Whichever religion is yours, there are more people in the world who don’t share it than who do, and it falls to you -- to all of us, really -- to explain why so many people have gotten it wrong, and to explain how those who know (if there are any) have managed to get it right."

"I appreciate that many readers will be profoundly distrustful of the tack I am taking here. They will see me as just another liberal professor trying to cajole them out of some of their convictions, and they are dead right about that..."

“So isn’t my belief that belief in evolution is the path to salvation a religion? No; there is a major difference. We who love evolution do not honor those whose love of evolution prevents them from thinking clearly and rationally about it!”

“Part of my effort in this book is to get you to think and not just feel.”

The battle at hand then is to discover who-is-right-who-is-wrong about religion, and it is led by rational Dennett (and by strong implication, courageous Dennett; he wonders why he persists in this project in the face of the very real possibility he’ll be poked in the nose or worse!).

On the faithful:

“When I began working on this book, I conducted interviews with quite a few people to try to get a sense of the different roles that religion plays in their lives... Some people had endured hardships that I could not readily imagine myself surviving... Less dramatic, but even more impressive in retrospect, were the people of modest talent and accomplishment who were, in one way or another, simply much better people than one might expect them to be...”

Regarding Christian and Buddhist contemplative monks, “the best that can be said of them is that they manage to stay out of trouble, which is not nothing.”

On what to do now:

We should teach all the world’s religions “in a matter-of-fact, historically and biologically informed way, the same way we teach... about geography and history and arithmetic.” We just need to chip away at all those accumulated religious absurdities and “if we start holding religious organizations accountable for their claims -- not by taking them to court but just by pointing out, often and in a matter-of-fact tone of voice, that of course these claims are ludicrous -- perhaps we can slowly get the culture of credulity to evaporate.”

Confronting a passage such as that last, the temptation mounts and the will weakens. I pledge to get it out of my system in a single brief burst: The arrogance meme has entered Dennett and it begat the sneering meme and it unfortunately failed to beget an irony meme. Rude sneermaster Dennett notes the “relentless barrage of defensive sneering” and the “breathtakingly rude and condescending put-downs” from the social sciences toward evolutionary psychology with zero awareness of the attendant hypocrisy.

In sum, this whole take on religion works only for someone who creates analogy after analogy in flatly simplistic terms. For Dennett, to persuade a person to examine her religion is like the attempt “to persuade your friend with the cancer symptoms that she really ought to see a doctor now…” And religion is like a swimming pool because both are “attractive nuisances,” so that people who maintain either must be held responsible for what happens when innocents are lured too close.

It works only for someone who understands religious rituals primarily as “memory-enhancement processes” in aid of meme replication.

It works only for someone who writes about shamanism primarily in terms bounded by sleight-of-hand and deception: “One of the most interesting facts about these unmistakable acts of deceit is that the practitioners, when pressed by inquiring anthropologists, exhibit a range of responses. Sometimes we get a candid admission that they are knowingly using the tricks of stage magic to gull their clients… And sometimes, more interestingly, a sort of holy fog of incomprehension and mystery swiftly descends… These shamans are not quite con men -- not all of them, at any rate -- and yet they know that the effects they achieve are trade secrets that must not be revealed to the uninitiated for fear of diminishing their effects.” This passage is literally breath-taking for anyone who has read Black Elk Speaks or other accounts of the real experiences of shamans, healers who work in intimate emotional connection with other people and engage with them spiritually.

Should you read Breaking the Spell? Sure, why not? The writing is lively and I doubt that the ideas are powerful enough to cause any real harm. Dennett offers his views in service of breaking the spell regarding such a watered-down version of religion that I suspect he will tempt far fewer readers toward “reason” than he hopes.

-- Barbara J. King thanks everyone who has written to her about Hall & Oates.