Daniel C. Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon”

12:01 am | Naturalism

As pointed out on Stand to Reason’s blog and Jeff Downs, the New York Times Review of Books recently featured this review of Daniel C. Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon“:

“The God Genome” Reviewed by Leon Wieseltier

A couple of other blog entries on this subject:

The Christian Mind

Remarkable exchange between Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett

This colorful email exchange between Michael Ruse and Daniel Dennett is particularly interesting given Dennett’s new book, and Richard Dawkins’ recent appearance on U.K. television program entitled “The Root of All Evil” in which he demonizes organizes religion:

I think that you and Richard [Dawkins] are absolute disasters in the fight against intelligent design – we are losing this battle, not the least of which is the two new supreme court justices who are certainly going to vote to let it into classrooms – what we need is not knee-jerk atheism but serious grappling with the issues – neither of you are willing to study Christianity seriously and to engage with the ideas – it is just plain silly and grotesquely immoral to claim that Christianity is simply a force for evil, as Richard claims – more than this, we are in a fight, and we need to make allies in the fight, not simply alienate everyone of good will.

My current list of people actively promoting this theory in print:

Dean Hamer (of the “Gay Gene” fame)
Richard Dawkins and Susan Blackmore (”memes”)
Daniel C. Dennett
Paul Bloom (see article in Atlantic Monthly)
Pascal Boyer (group selection theory)
David Sloan Wilson (group selection theory)
E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature)
Robert Wright (The Moral Animal)

Not all of these theories are compatible - anyone familiar with the debates in Sociobiology will recognize that group selection theory is often strongly criticized by those who insist that selection is primarily genetic, for instance.

This particularly lucid comment by Evolutionary Biologist H. Allen Orr at the end of his review of David Sloan Wilson’s “Darwin’s Cathedral” is telling of the self-refuting nature of trying to explain the existence of religion and religious experience in naturalist terms:

Why didn’t Wilson write a book that argues for a multilevel selection explanation of science? [instead of religion? –michaelh] …I can only guess but the guess seems plain: biologists are, as a lot, fond of science but suspicious of religion. Science is the hard-won product of long intellectual toiling, not a mildly embarrassing epiphenomenon that evolved because it brings you and me material rewards. My point is not that this stance is wrong. It might well be right to evolutionarily reduce religion but not science. My point is that this stance reflects an intellectual commitment that is logically prior to evolutionary theory. What we try to explain by multilevel selection is not determined in any principled way by the theory itself, but, apparently, by prior notions of what can be accepted on its own terms versus needs explaining away.

This point is not novel. It echoes William James’s (1902) warning in the Varieties of Religious Experience against “medical materialism.”; One must be wary of thinking that one explains away religious states of mind when noting that they are mere consequences of neurobiology; after all, he pointed out, scientific states of mind are also mere consequences of neurobiology. But novel or not, it is a point that demands attention… In the end, you are, I suppose, free to believe that religion is a mere byproduct of multilevel selection. But intellectual honesty demands that you ask why science isn’t too.

H. Allen Orr, “Review of ‘Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society” pp.200-202 Evolution Vol. 57 Issue 1, 2003.

This kind of honesty on the part of an Evolutionary Biologist is refreshing.




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