Daniel Dennett breaks spell of religion

By Lally Gartel

Last Friday, as part of the MillerComm lecture series and Annual Philosophy Public Lecture, philosopher and author Daniel Dennett spoke in Gregory Hall about the concepts he addresses in his new book, “Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.” Though popular, Dennett is also extremely controversial, and 112 Gregory was so full that many were turned away. The talk, entitled “The Domestication of Wild Religions,” addressed the evolution and general scientific study of religion.

In “Breaking the Spell” he argues that the academic community and society at large must approach and study religion scientifically. We must do that because it is undeniable that religion can be, as Dennett put it in his lecture, “toxic.” This toxicity, in order to be removed, must first be understood and consciously rejected in favor of the more benign aspects of religious faith.

The toxicity of religion is certainly not something everyone agrees on. Perhaps many of us agree that fundamentalists of any faith can make that religion appear toxic; that Muslim terrorists and Christian abortion clinic bombers act as individually and singularly bad people amidst a largely peaceful religious faith. But the toxicity of religion is not just in the radical fringes of religious society; it is in large part that conceptually, religion puts people’s lives here on Earth second to the idea of God. Science, claims Dennett, can help us understand how this can be.

He describes religions, and ideas in general, as “memes.” Part of a relatively new theory of the evolution of ideas called memetics, memes are the building blocks of thoughts, simple ideas or frameworks that come into existence randomly and survive depending on their so-called fitness. Religion, on this view, is an extremely successful meme. Like a virus or infection, it compels its host to act in ways that transcend self-interest and can at points be harmful both to the host and to others.

Of course, Dennett’s ideas seem very dangerous for strict believers in any religion. It is often though that empirically understanding why we are religious will completely destroy the possibility of keeping faith. But this is not necessarily true. In fact, like the scientific study of climate change, disease and ethnic conflict, understanding why and how things happen can and does make the world a more manageable, hopeful place.

Many people are tempted to talk about how particular religions are harmful or lead to terrorism; but in the history of religion and religion-like movements, people have systematically been violent or suicidal for a “higher cause.”

Dennett rightfully points out that humans generally live their lives for something other than strict biological survival. When he asked how many people in the audience wanted to have as many children or grandchildren as possible, nobody raised their hand, even though this aim is the basic biological drive for survival and perpetuation of favorable genetic traits.

In fact, we often live our lives for some idea rather than being driven by a biological principle.

The point, though, is that religion presents a particularly vehement kind of life purpose; one which makes us believe this life is not singular and therefore not important as what is to come after.

At the end of the talk, an audience member asked a question about the source of meditation and other spiritual techniques if religions are just memes. Dennett responded that this question was similar to asking about the source of masturbation techniques; that is, human potential and ingenuity seems to perpetually find ways to make us feel better or to support things we already believe.

To move on and to have a society in which understands itself enough to survive and have its members mutually benefit from this survival, we must make sure to be critical and scientific about our beliefs, no matter how much they seem to transcend worldly calculation.