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May 21, 2007 | by  | in Books |
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Breaking the spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

With the publication of Richard Dawkins’ typically arrogant and polemic best-seller The God Delusion, and Keith Ward’s predictably reasonable response on the side of the angels with Is Religion Dangerous?, 2006-07 has been a great period for religious/scientific debate in the mainstream media. In contrast to both the strident “I’m an atheist, thank god” rhetoric of Dawkins and the apologetic “religion doesn’t kill people, people kill people” tone of Ward’s book, Dennett’s contribution to the debate is a welcome relief.

Dennett is an experienced and respected philosopher, and has been a prolific writer for a number of years, with previous titles including Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Freedom Evolves, and the well-known Consciousness Explained. His topics have, until now, focussed mainly on the philosophy of mind and consciousness, artificial intelligence and the paradox of free will. Breaking the Spell is the first of his books to focus specifically on religion, although he revisits many of the ideas and topics covered in earlier books and essays in order to illustrate the points he makes.

While unashamedly writing from, and (to my mind) successfully defending an atheistic, evidence-based view of life, Dennett for the most part avoids getting obviously worked up about his topic, although it is very clear that it is one he feels strongly about. Instead he takes pains to present his argument as reasonably as possible, in a tone that is equal parts conversational and scholarly, and avoids (or does his best to avoid) talking down to his audience.

Dennett states more than once throughout the book, that his aim is not to provide answers, but to provoke questions, thought and discussion. His typically eloquent approach allows him to apologise to the people who might find these questions offensive, without sounding as if he is simply trying to please all audiences.

This is not to say that he backs down from stating his case at any point. His discussion of the evolutionary roots of religion, and the modern-day means by which religious thought is often protected by the application of a shoddy veneer of pseudo-scientific language (which Dennett refers to as the “academic smoke-screen”) is direct, informative and insightful.

Breaking the Spell is an excellent book, not only for those of us interested in the question of religion, but for anyone interested in philosophy, morality, or evolution.

DANIEL C. DENNET

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