HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

April 2, 2007
From Liberty Street

The Nature of Spells

John Turner


Daniel C. Dennett is a philosopher of science who has written a number of best sellers about evolution and human consciousness, most notably, I suppose, Darwin's Dangerous Idea. In his latest book, Breaking the Spell, written admittedly for a popular readership, he takes up the question of how we should deal with religious belief in a democratic state.

His primary argument is that religious doctrine and what people tend to call their "faith," has no right to persist behind a screen which exempts it from analysis and criticism. If religion expects to be taken seriously, then it has to be subject to the same scrutiny we direct towards any other set of assertions. The idea that religion is, somehow, too sacred to be examined strikes Dennett as simply silly.

Dennett also says his book is directed primarily at Americans but that Americans, in reading it, won't see that it is. Europeans, however, would see it immediately and would ask why Dennett chose to be so provincial. His point is that Americans take for granted certain attitudes that would be considered bizarre anywhere else in the Western world, attitudes associated with privileging religion far more than we do any other set of preferences or loyalties.

Dennett's tactic is not to make any hard pronouncements about either the truth or the value of religious belief but rather to raise questions about all religious phenomena, questions he's fairly sure can be answered if we devote the proper energy and research to them. For example, we need to know better than we do where religion came from. Dennett is firm in saying that there were human societies before there were religions, so that we cannot claim that religion and humanity are coterminous. That being the case, religion had to evolve out of something, and Dennett, being a thoroughgoing evolutionist, says it evolved in the same way all other human practices did. Consequently, the question that we ask of religion is the same question we ask of any other system, cui bono?  That is, who stands to gain from it? When that question is asked, religion begins to be seen in a different light.

It would be fairly obvious to say that priests, shamans, ayatollahs and so forth are the figures who most benefit from religion. But that's not the kind of easy charge Dennett is given to making. That's because religion is almost never pure, that is, it never remains unmixed with other loyalties which quite often can be used to help powerful people maintain their positions. Though the official holy men of society do garner prestige from their offices, they are not often the figures who decide on life and death for other people. That privilege goes to heads of state, and the way religion benefits them is by training people not to ask questions, particularly not about anything that can be declared sacred.

The reason Dennett's book is especially pertinent in America now is that powerful people lately have been throwing sacred stuff at us faster than hash-house cooks flip hamburgers. The troops are sacred, our security is sacred, the American way of life is sacred, the American dream is sacred (even when nobody can define it), the nation itself is sacred. How do politicians get away with all their sacred blather? The technique works because the people have been trained to think that we aren't supposed to ask questions about the sacred. Whenever it comes up we're expected to put our shoulders to the wheel.

That's the spell Dennett wants to break. He wants us to ask questions about everything, and when we encounter those who refuse even to entertain questions to dismiss them as people not worthy of being taken into account. If somebody can't tell you why the course he advocates is good for our democratic republic, it doesn't matter how often he invokes the name of God, it doesn't matter how quickly he refers to his deep faith, it doesn't matter how much he proclaims what he learned through prayer. He is, as far as citizenship is concerned, a lout. And that's how we should respond to him.

It may sound like abrasive advice at first hearing. But the more you attend to it, the more sense it makes. Active, vigorous debate is the only tool we have to protect ourselves against charlatans, and history tells us that the latter have never been reluctant to claim devotion to the holy as a way of advancing their schemes. Whether or not they are sincere doesn't particularly matter. As long as they persuade people to follow them without question, the results are the same. People can believe in their belief in God when they are utter fools, and, consequently those who accept them as leaders aren't much better.

I don't know if we are as much under a spell as Dennett thinks we are. But I do know that however powerful it is, we would be right to break it. Spells and democratic decision-making are a toxic mixture.


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