Dennett’s Modest Proposal

When Dan Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon was published, it received something of a drubbing in the press, the review in the New York Times being a good example. In several of these critiques Dennett is presented as yet another rabid Darwinian speaking out of turn in the hallowed halls of religion and sowing his own variety of disharmony, fundamentalism and intolerance. Such was the virulence of some of the reviews, that I confess that I hesitated before picking up the book, although I am personally a great admirer of Dennett’s work. I am glad, however, that I did take the time to read what is, in many ways, a very fine book.

Having read Breaking the Spell, I find the attacks levelled against Dennett to be curiously beside the point. Dennett’s proposal, when it comes down to it is modest: that we need to break the taboo on investigating the claims of religion through the methods of the human and natural sciences. Dennett does not set himself the fool’s errand of arguing against religion. Instead he is simply calls for a much more concerted effort to systematically research the claims that are made in the name of religion. Here Dennett is not talking so much about more metaphysical claims such as “God exists”, but the more day-to-day claims that are made concerning religion such as “Meditation is good for you” or “belief in God makes us more ethical”. Dennett insists – and I agree – that these claims are testable. Religion is simply too much a part of public and political life for us not to begin to investigate them. Whether we would be inclined to mourn its loss or whether we would be inclined to see a world without religion as a kind of utopia, the evidence of the present suggests that religion is simply not going to go away. So surely it is important, perhaps vital, that we investigate it.

In calling for such an investigation, he is swimming against the stream. I am often perplexed by the weird assumption that is commonly made by both politicians and by adherents of various faiths, that religion “in essence” is of benefit – socially and ethically. This assumption tends to bracket out anything that obviously is not of benefit as “extremism”, thus placing it outside of this assumed true and genuine essence of religion. But the fact is that we often simply don’t know enough about what in any particular religious framework is of benefit and what is of harm, and how these two might be tangled up with each other.

When Dennett highlights is the unwillingness of many adherents of various religious traditions to open up their claims to such research, he is pointing to something that I personally find disturbing: the cultural consensus by which the claims of religion, simply by being labelled ‘religious’ are exempted from being subjected to the kinds of scrutiny to which we subject other claims to truth. Dennett makes a legitmate point when he says that if these claims are as well-founded as those who make them believe, then there is no reason not to investigate them and to thereby demonstrate this well-foundedness.

There is perhaps much to disagree with in Dennett’s book, and there are those who might not take to his tone. Dennett, however, is not asking for his readers to agree, but instead to begin to engage with a debate which, he believes, could hardly be more important. Whatever the flaws of Breaking the Spell, it is a timely and important invitation.

Date First Published: Tuesday November 14, 2006

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