Breaking the Spell

This is another one of the books that has been sitting on my desk for longer than it should have. This post contains some affiliate links. Thank you for your support of

This may not be the greatest book review/summary as I am in the process of recovering from one of many viruses that have been circulating the school yard. My apologies in advance. 

A while back an exchange with Matt of Jerico Brisance (check out the impressive bibliography page) led me to picking up a copy of Daniel C. Dennett’s book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. The book arrived and then sat on my desk. I started it enjoyed it greatly, got part way in, put it down (I think the holidays happened), and then it sat some more, somewhat overlooked on a shelf.

I have the hardcover edition of Breaking the Spell which feels a little intimidating and very authoritative. It is not a light read to be skimmed in an afternoon, even the dust jacket makes for heavy, thought provoking, reading:

In a spirited argument that ranges widely through biology, history and psychology, Dennett explores how religion evolved from folk beliefs and how these early “wild” strains of religion were then carefully and consciously domesticated. 

In an effort to more clearly define my reading goals, I put a book mark at the end of the book just before the Appendices start (cutting the reading down to 339 pages from a total of 448), in doing so, Dennet’s central policy recommendation jumped out at me:

[My recommendation] is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame. (p. 339)

As I am on a quest to educate myself, I decided I really should start at the beginning and dutifully flipped back to the Preface where Dennett begins by openly acknowledging his bias as an American, and offers insight into why he has chosen such a “provincial” focus — namely, religion in America. I like his style.

Breaking the Spell is neatly divided into three main sections, then divided into eleven sub-sections, that are further broken down into 3-7 sub-sub-sections, rather like a the outline for a history paper. Throughout, Dennet poses thought provoking questions to the reader and provides brief summaries of what is to come in upcoming chapters.

As far as I can tell, Dennett is not arguing that religion is good or bad, he is arguing that region should be studied, questioned and examined. Religions make extraordinary claims, that should be looked at critically, tested, and studied. Sadly, as Dennett points out, there is the time-tested argument against this:

If anybody ever raises questions or objections about our religion that you cannot answer, that person is almost certainly Satan. In fact, the more reasonable the person is, the more eager to engage you in open-minded and congenial discussion, the more sure you can be that you’re talking to Satan in disguise! Turn away! Do not listen! It’s a trap!

Christian Science replaces “Satan” with “error” or “malicious animal magnetism” but the idea is the same. It’s a trap!  Issues, with “Satan” (or “error”) aside, religion influences too many people for it not to be studied. It should not be immune.

I don’t recommend reading this book while you’re sick. It requires you to think, which can be tricky when your head feels like it is wrapped in wool and there is unbearable pressure behind your eyes.

I look forward to reading the other book in my pile by Dennet: Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

Update:  I have since attempted to read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and I’m having a hard time grasping the concepts as completely as I’d like. Eventually I hope to finish reading, and review the book in question, but for now it has moved to my “come back to it later” stack.


3 thoughts on “Breaking the Spell

  1. tildeb says:

    Yes, Dennett’s thesis is that religion should be studied like any other subject and not granted special privilege from this inquiry. And I agree with you; it’s a bit of a challenging book to read.

    Dennett is one of the New Atheist horsemen in that he is a strong advocate that atheism be active and publicly challenge religious privilege wherever it is found. It is a bit of a shock to attach to him and his Kris Kringle appearance and demeanor with the typical pejorative terms used to describe New Atheists – you know, militant and strident and angry and so on – because they simply don’t fit.

    One of Dan’s interests involves people in positions of religious leadership who stop believing and he was instrumental in setting up the Clergy Project that has grown to over 600 members (nobody seems to know that Dawkins and Dan Barker and the FFRF were in on this at the ground floor building and funding a secretive community whose sole aim was to help people transition from depending on the religious life to make a living to the secular).

  2. Matt Barsotti says:

    Sorry I missed this one — I took a long break from blogging this year. Glad you’re giving Dennett a try. His lectures on YouTube are mind expanding and very entertaining.

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