Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

The recent issue of Kirkus reviews Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as Natural Phenomenon, "an exploration of modern scientific theories of religion, framed by an argument that society must overcome its 'spell' against studying religion as a natural, evolutionary occurrence" (1/1/06, p 25).

Dennett is the author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea, a book delightful for its attack on those uncomfortable with the implications of evolution, while also somewhat disappointing at times for its more philosophical (rather than scientific) knock-downs of straw men. But for all his shortcomings, Dennett is always worth reading. Here's how the reviewer describes his new book due out February 6.

"Dennett...presents material from various researchers regarding how religion has evolved in human cultures. By drawing attention to theories that shaman 'healing' practices, group cohesion and loyalty to ideas beyond the self have been a part of human evolution related to proto-religions, the author demonstrates why the existence of religious practice may have developed so uniformly in all human cultures. When broaching more developed and institutionalized forms of religion, however, he steps onto thinner ice. In concluding that many people believe more in their traditions than in the dogma and doctrine of their faith, and in pointing out inconsistencies between scriptural authorities and modern theologies, Dennett observes religion from an outsider's vantage point...[which] leads to a tendency to dismiss the role of faith, often by setting up straw men to knock down for the sake of his thesis. For instance, he states that, to many, faith is much like being in love, then concludes that love can delude individuals and even be bad for them. This analogy may not prove very convincing to the faithful." (ibid)

I'll have to read the book before judging this, but on the face of it, the last analogy is hard to disagree with on a general level. Faith is much like being in love, and often delusory. Perhaps that's not always a bad thing. David Livingstone Smith tells us that unconscious self-deception is a survival trait, necessary for our mental well-being.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I had to chuckle when I read your aside on Darwin's Dangerous Idea regarding "its more philosophical (rather than scientific).."
I tend to be very popular around our place when I suggest that the evolutionary biologists be relocated to the philosophy department or the department of religous studies where their research interests can be better accomodated. :-)
Please do post a review if you read the book.

Blogger James Crossley said...

The love thing is really interesting. The following is speculation but hey. The language of some of the poetry and hymns and all that. Dying for the loved one. And what about all the mystical traditions and some of the erotic imagery (that kind of stuff is in the DSS too). I'm sure it's been done but it sounds like a pretty interesting research project to me.

Anonymous Anonymous said...

You may enjoy hearing what Dennett had to say when Professor of Buddhism Robert Thurman posed some questions about this new book.

Anonymous John said...

Hi its John from Melbourne Oz.

Please check out these related essays re the relation between science/secularism and conventional exoteric religion.



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