Daniel Dennett has this new book out, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll), and I don’t know that I want to read it. It was just reviewed by Michael Shermer in Science, and my general feeling was an uncomfortable vibration, liking some of what they said, but feeling at the same time that it was a tossup whether Shermer or Dennett is more annoying. Shermer has a tendency to be conciliatory towards religious babble, while Dennett has this overwhelming adaptationist bias that makes me cranky.
I’ve put a chunk of the review below the fold, let me know what you think.
In a 1997 episode of the animated television series The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson discovers a fossil angel. Suspecting a hoax, she takes a piece of the fossil to the natural history museum, where Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (playing himself) analyzes it. The age-old conflict between science and religion then plays out in this ne plus ultra of pop culture. When Gould announces that the test results are "inconclusive," Reverend Lovejoy boasts: "Well, it appears science has failed again, in front of overwhelming religious evidence." Marge counsels Lisa’s skepticism with motherly wisdom: "There has to be more to life than just what we see, Lisa. Everyone needs something to believe in." Lisa’s rejoinder is classic skepticism: "It’s not that I don’t have a spiritual side. I just find it hard to believe there’s a dead angel hanging in our garage." The Scopes-like trial that ensues ends when the judge issues a restraining order: "Religion must stay 500 yards from science at all times."
This is, in fact, Gould’s conciliatory solution, which he called non-overlapping magisteria, and it is the primary target of Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in Breaking the Spell. All restraining orders are off, as Dennett calls for "a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many." The spell to be broken is the taboo that science will render incapable "the life-enriching enchantment of religion itself."
I don’t have the anti-Gouldian sentiment of Dennett, but this sounds like a worthy goal so far; I detested Gould’s Rocks of Ages (amzn/b&n/abe/pwll). Pretending that there is no serious conflict between science and religion and giving each imaginary non-overlapping magisteria was both wrong and counterproductive. Religion has no monopoly on ethics and questions about why we are here (and in fact, has an abominable track record on both domains), and asking the religious to cede the entire realm of the natural world to scientists was naive.
So sensitive is Dennett to the potential reaction on the part of his audience (which he maintains is the general public, over 90 percent of whom believe in God) that the book’s first 55 pages are devoted to an apologia for scientific research on religion. My concern is that religious adherents will take offense at Dennett’s rationale before they get to the heart of the book, where the author really shines. In one passage, for example, he tells believers that their repugnance to science is misdirected but admits that his attempt to convince them otherwise "is a daunting task, like trying to persuade your friend with the cancer symptoms that she really ought to see a doctor now, since her anxiety may be misplaced and the sooner she learns that the sooner she can get on with her life, and if she does have cancer, timely intervention may make all the difference." The deeply devout will not take kindly to their beliefs (about either science or religion) being equated with cancer.
First penalty to Dennett: 55 pages of sucking up to the sensitivities of the religious? Spare me. It sounds like I might get to page 2 before deciding I’d have more fun brushing my teeth or shoveling the driveway.
Second penalty to Shermer. It’s not about what people take kindly to—what is it with these faint-hearted skeptics who squirm uncomfortably at the thought of plainly stating a case? He doesn’t like the 55 pages of hand-holding for the devout, and he doesn’t like blunt comparisons either.
Shermer does sometime grate on me with these kinds of tepid inconsistencies, but at least he isn’t Deborah Solomon.
Breaking the Spell is really written for scientists and scholars who have thought little on the subject of religion as a natural phenomenon. Dennett’s starting point is the "rational choice" theory of religion, proffered by sociologist Rodney Stark and his colleagues, which holds that the beliefs, rituals, customs, commitments, and sacrifices associated with religion are best understood as a form of exchange between believers and gods or God. Where resources and rewards are scarce (e.g., rain for crops) or nonexistent (e.g., immortality) through secular sources, then religion steps in to act as the exchange intermediary. To an evolutionist like Dennett, such exchanges demand that we look for a deeper causal vector: "Any such regular expenditure of time and energy has to be balanced by something of ‘value’ obtained, and the ultimate measure of evolutionary ‘value’ is fitness: the capacity to replicate more successfully than the competition does."
If I did make it through his introductory apologia, this is where I’d have to give up, again. This assumption that religion must contribute to fitness is a standard panadaptationist assumption, and I disagree strongly with the entire premise. Deleterious traits can be fixed in a population, too, and complex properties like religious behavior aren’t going to be so neatly dissected into simple causes. Religion is a parasitic side-effect, a by-blow of other characteristics (like social cohesion, curiousity, the need to explore causes) that are addressed sub-optimally by the simple shortcuts of religious dogma. Treating it as a good solution, rather than a pathological and limiting one, is conceding it far more credit and respect than it deserves.
Shermer M (2006) Believing in Belief. Science 311(5760):471 -472.