Book review

Breaking The Spell

Religion As A Natural Phenomenon

by Daniel C. Dennett


This is an thorough and well-argued review from Daniel Dennett of the ways in which religions might have emerged as natural phenomena in early humans, and how the pressures of evolution on this new set of social constructs might have then produced many of the traits we see in today’s religions.

His argument adds important elements to a pure psychological view of religion, although it certainly starts there. In the early chapters, Dennett argues that humans have what he calls an “intentional stance”: that in order to best predict the world, we tend to think of things in the world as rational agents, and figure out the desires, and thus the actions, of that agent. This works brilliantly for other humans, and it works pretty well for the animals that early humans might need to hunt or escape. Thus it’s easy for us to see how we might extend the same logic to other things – the weather, diseases, and so forth. From this, we can see how we might have grown to attribute apparently random changes in (say) the weather to an unseen entity behind the weather itself, and to then see the changes in the weather as reflecting true intentions of that entity. If you want to get it to rain, therefore, it makes perfect sense to try and communicate with the entity behind it, and to get the entity to cause it to rain. We attribute “agency” to the weather, and it makes sense then to try and bargain with the agent.

(As I write this, we’re in lockdown due to the COVID-19 epidemic, and this desire to treat the disease as an entity with intentions, capricious or malignant though they might be, is very visible in the way many people talk about it.)

From here, Dennett grows the argument. Everything we value, or are fearful of, we value or fear for reasons. This view of the world gives us challenges in everyday living, which early folk religions enabled us to handle, psychologically. Once in the culture, these folk religions were susceptible to the same evolutionary pressures – this time at the level of “memes” that thrive or die out – as humans themselves, only many many times faster that physical evolution. Only the best variants of these beliefs will propagate – and “best” means most successful in meeting our deep psychological and physical needs.

As human societies grew, specialised intercessors to these agents emerged (“shamans”, he calls them for convenience). Dennett goes on to suggest that these shamans, and others, had time to become more reflective, and so from these early folk religions, organized religions began to emerge. Sometimes, the simple beliefs in the folk religions were bolstered or even entirely replaced by carefully crafted reasoning. At this point, it might have become necessary to put some of these religious views out of the reach of “gnawing skepticism”, as Dennett puts it. This leads to an interesting way of splitting the world:

“This winnowing has the effect of sequestering a special subset of cultural items behind the veil of systematic invulnerability to disproof – a pattern found just about everywhere in human societies. As many have urged, this division into the propositions that are designed to be immune to disconfirmation and all the rest looks like a hypothetical joint at which we could well carve nature. Right here, they suggest, is where (proto-)science and (proto-)religion part company”

Dennett rightly spends a fair while on this point. Is it right that we treat religion, by definition, as “systematically immune to confirmation or disconfirmation? … No religion lacks these effects, and anything that lacks them is not really a religion, however much it is like a religion in other regards.” Dennett rightly points out that this view wasn’t shared by the shamans themselves: if they saw they were losing their flock to the shaman down the road, they were quite prepared to take on new approaches and ideas – to evolve. So one of the important features that emerged as folk religion merged and became organized religions was this secrecy and systematic invulnerability to disconfirmation.

Now we see Dennett broaden the view out from the leaders to the groups who also believed. He sees this as in many cases an entirely rational decision to join on the part of individuals, who would see benefits from being part of a group regardless of possible supernatural benefits from the gods themselves. There are also many possible psychological benefits in belief, but there is a darker side as well – tribalism in humans is very often reinforced by conflict, and the tendency of religions to spark conflicts and wars from prehistory to the modern day is terrifying. Of course it could be argued that they were being co-opted by pre-existing power structures, but none the less the features of very many religions do seem to be shaped, and often thrive, on conflict.

At this point, Dennett spends a while talking about “belief in belief”. This, he argues, is a very powerful force, in religions and elsewhere, and can completely transform them. For example, he points out that many feel it’s important to maintain the belief in democracy, regardless of its flaws. So we tend to play down the flaws and play up the benefits, and in doing so lose track of the logic which may (or may not) support the arguments for its value. Similarly with science – we may believe in science, we may believe that “e=mc2”, without knowing (or caring) how it is so. None the less, we believe! And, he argues, the same is true of religions. Even very devout followers may not share identical views on details of doctrine, and many lay believers will turn out to have quite different interpretations of major points. But it doesn’t matter – what matters is that they all share the belief in the importance of their beliefs.

Finally, Dennett looks at religions today. He starts to talk about whether religion is, all things considered, a good thing. Is religion good for people, he asks? There is definitely evidence that belonging to religious organisations can improve the morale, and hence the health, of participants. Believers would also argue that the meaning it gives their lives is immeasurably valuable. More specific experiments, for example on the benefits of “intercessory prayer”, give mixed results, and include at least one notorious case of academic fraud. Finally, almost all religious people see their religion as the foundation of their morality. On this point, Dennett comments

“I have uncovered no evidence to support the claim that people, religious or not, who don’t believe in reward in heaven and/or punishment in hell are more likely to kill, rape, rob, or break their promises than people who do. The prison population in the United States shows Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, and others – including those with no religious affiliation – represented about as they are in the general population … Indeed, the evidence to date support the hypothesis that atheists have the lowest divorce rates in the United States, and born-again Christians the highest.”

There is a lot I really liked about this book. The arguments are thorough, carefully constructed, and evidence is sought wherever possible. Some technical material is present in appedices, a couple of which I found useful I am, I should point out, not a religious believer of any creed, although I do think that there is a deep human need (which I feel) for the spiritual, and so I can’t comment on how a theist would have felt. I hope they would have been able to read the arguments through to the end, and Dennett I feel does a good job of presenting the best arguments on both sides.

There were a few irritations, for me at least. The very first chapter or two nearly caused me to give up, as Dennett spends an entirely unnecessary (for me) amount of time justifying the whole enterprise. He’s also very fond of italics to emphasise key words in his paragraphs, and sometimes this is perhaps too heavy handed. But it’s a forgiveable style. Four and a half stars, rounded up to five on final consideration.

Book review

Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World

by Tim Whitmarsh

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I learned three main things reading this very readable account: first, that there have always been atheists, with writers expressing various philosophical positions and arguments about atheism for all of Greek and Roman ancient history (even early Christianity having a place for it). Atheism was only ever one point on the spectrum of beliefs, but it was always around, and often attracted some high profile proponents.

Second, I found an eminently clear account of the major lines of philosophy running all the way through the ancient world. I hadn’t really seen this laid out like this before, and seeing it set against the historical political background was very helpful.

And finally, I found an interesting slant on the Stoics, which made me rather uncomfortable with the modern geek (not Greek!) revival of Stoicism as a philosophy for living your life today.

The first and the last of these are worth a bit more unpacking. The first is, of course, the main purpose of the book. Tim Whitmarsh gives us a scholarly and yet very readable account of the various threads of (non)belief in the ancient world, and how these were received by their contemporaries. He starts in about the seventh century BC, where the ancient Greek city states were enormously diverse, but didn’t seem to view organised religion in political terms, but rather “for personal communion with the divine”. It provided a vehicle for collective involvement in the community, but differences in belief were personal matters, so long as they didn’t impact the cohesion of the community. This view seems to have continued for hundreds of years – even the trial of Socrates in 399BC for (among other things) “failing to acknowledge the gods the city acknowledges” was about this risk to social cohesion, rather than any atheistic leanings per se.

As we transition into the Roman era, after the Punic Wars and the final sacking of Carthage in 146BC, we still see religion and the gods viewed in the same way: the Roman emperors after Augustus (who died in 14AD) were viewed as gods, but just one amongst many. The ensuing two centuries of Pax Romana didn’t change this: not believing in the gods was acceptable, especially if you were prepared to keep the peace by making the odd minor contribution to the community in other ways. It was only with the emperor Constantine’s conversion to Christianity on his deathbed in 312AD that we would have seen a move towards a much sharper division into “true religio” versus “false superstitio”. With this came the assumption that “all humans are born with a natural sense of the divine but that some people have been led into misunderstanding by false teaching”.

For me, this Christian belief is reflected in Christianity’s much more prosyletizing approach to religion. The Greeks and Romans didn’t really do this, because their polytheism allowed them to incorporate the gods of peoples that they conquered. Indeed, the often produced tables of equivalences, and as long as you knew which of your gods mapped to which of theirs, you could continue to worship whichever you chose (or none at all), and everyone was happy. Not so with Christianity, which was much more all-or-nothing. It’s not until the arrival of the Enlightenment that atheism became a philosophical position that could be held in the Western world (and even then, you were wise to keep quiet about it in many cases!).

All of this is the main thrust of the book, and Mr Whitmarsh provides an excellent and readable account of all of this. Definitely worth the wear on your eyeballs of reading it all.

My other learning, as I said, was a realisation that the modern revival of Stoicism has a rather unpleasant (for me) set of philosophical beliefs embedded within it. I certainly agree that many of the main thrusts of Stoicism are helpful views to hold: be resilient against the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune by anticipating the worst, act according to your beliefs, and confine your actions and your judgement to your own sphere of influence, rather than wasting too much time judging others. All good and helpful, and much lauded today by everyone from Navy SEALs to Tim Ferriss.

But in Mr Whitmarsh’s contrast of Stoicism against the other philosophies that were around at the time I saw a different side: the side that says don’t fight against conventions and the prevailing political system, don’t push back against the hierarchy, just stay in your own small world. All very well if you are already at the top of the hierarchy (as Marcus Aurelius of “Meditations” fame of course was – extraordinarily wealthy, and in due course emperor himself). But not so good for anyone in, say, the bottom half. So I need to do more personal reading here, but for the moment, whilst I will read quotations from modern fans of Stoicism with a more jaundiced eye…