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Smashing Dennett’s Spell

By Cris

Several years ago I read Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006). It wasn’t easy. This is not because Dennett’s ideas and arguments are difficult (they aren’t). It is because I don’t care for Dennett’s style. While I can overlook stylistic deficiencies if the substance is solid, in this case I couldn’t. Despite the book’s promising subtitle, Dennett never explains religion as a natural phenomenon.

I remember thinking the book would appeal primarily to those who were vaguely hostile to religion, but didn’t know why. In Breaking the Spell (“BS”), they would find professional confirmation that their hostility was justified. But they still wouldn’t know why. At least they would be able to say that some really smart guy, a philosophy professor at Tufts, had somehow confirmed their suspicions.

During the ensuing years, I haven’t given the book much thought. I neither recommended it nor loaned my copy. Recently, however, I stumbled across Armin Geertz’s extraordinary review of BS: “How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today.” Geertz, professor of religious history and cognition at the University of Aarhus in Denmark, rips Dennett using language not often seen in academic journals:

A recent book by philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, called Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) is a catastrophe if our goal is to persuade skeptics of the advantages of cognitive approaches to the study of religion—or even just introduce cognition to the curious! Dennett seems to be hellishly bent on turning his readers off.

I used to think that philosophers by definition are sophisticated thinkers, gifted in the art of persuasive argument, valiantly exposing hidden assumptions and opaque meanings. But I am wrong. What Dennett has done is a disservice to the entire neuroscientific community.

Geertz’s trashing made me wonder: What did others say about BS? They were not kind.

In The God Genome, Leon Wieseltier takes Dennett to task for not distinguishing between the past and present: “And why is Dennett so certain that the origins of a thing are the most illuminating features of a thing, or that a thing is forever as primitive as its origins?  “Breaking the Spell” is a long, hectoring exercise in unexamined originalism.” This is a poignant question, one not contemplated by evolutionary scholars of religion who (mistakenly) believe that the current functions of religion explain past origins.

Dennett’s problem is he believes everything can be explained in evolutionary terms. Like David Sloan Wilson and E.O. Wilson, Dennett thinks evolution is a unified meta-theory. It isn’t, for one simple reason: cultures are not organisms. While Darwinian monism may be simple and satisfying, it is wrong.

In another harsh review of BS (Daniel Dennett Hunts the Snark), Daniel Hart explains why:

Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative.

This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.

In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.

When evolutionary theory is applied to culture change, we are dealing in metaphors and analogues. Societies do not evolve; they have histories. The sooner we stop talking about memes and “cultural evolution” the better. Time to break the spell.

Smashing Dennett’s Spell


Geertz, A. (2008). How Not to Do the Cognitive Science of Religion Today Method & Theory in the Study of Religion, 20 (1), 7-21 DOI: 10.1163/157006808X260232


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