The nature of religion and Breaking the Spell

A few science bloggers have referred to Daniel Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, and the controversy that is erupting around it. I haven't read the book, but this piece in The Boston Globe gives a very quick sketch of the ideas Dennett covers. It seems that Dennett wants to examine religion as just another natural phenomenon, a suite of behaviors and cognitive states characteristic of our species. In short, Dennett seems to be covering three primary modern hypotheses in regards to why religion seems a ubquitous aspect of our cross-cultural phenotypes:

  • The functionalist school
  • The rational choice school
  • The cognitive school

Unlike many atheists, I've read a lot about religion and theories of religion. In regards to the functionalist school, I've read Darwin's Cathedral by David Sloan Wilson. In the rational choice school I've read most of Rodney Stark's works, including his seminal A Theory of Religion.1 In regards to the last school, I've read books like Religion Explained by Pascal Boyer, In Gods We Trust by Scott Atran, Why would anyone believe in God? by Justin L. Barrett, Theological Incorrectness by Jason Slone and Mind and Religion by Harvey Whitehouse. I state the books I have read (and implicitly a host of papers written by these authors and their confederates) so that readers will know "where I am coming from." Most of my comments will directly address the last cognitive school because I suspect this is the orientation that Dennett himself most leans toward because of his own speciality in this field, but many of my assertions apply to the functionalist and economic orientations as well. So, a few quick points.

First, these works do not attempt to show that religion is false, or, more specifically to respond to a charge by some theists, they do not attempt to show God does not exist. Granted, an understanding of how religion could have come about might very well diminish the faith of many, or disabuse them of particular notions, but the same could be said for any attempt to systematically understand religous phenomena. All of these attempts to reduce religious behavior to causes and effects deal with proximate aspects of religion, not its ultimate fundamentals. In fact, some of the researchers in question are religious themselves, or strongly biased toward religion. Justin L. Barrett, one of the authors above, works for the evangelical group Young Life, while Rodney Stark's recent work comes very close to being apologia for Christianity (in The Future of Religion Stark admits in the preface that he wishes he personally could have the solace that religion provides!). Rather than show that religion is false, most of the authors conclude that the persistence of religion is inevitable, or specifically, belief in supernatural agents is inevitable because of particular aspects of the human mind or common social structures.

Second, evolution is not the summum bonum of these theories. The grand cognitive narratives (both Atran and Boyer's works) sometimes do have evolutionary context, but the more specific works tend to focus on more proximate phenomena, and since they view religious beliefs as a byproduct of our mental faculties there is no need to invoke selectionist hypotheses (in other words, religious emerges out of the correlation of various subcomponents of our mind which have been selected for other reasons). Both the functionalist and rational choice schools do appeal to selection more, but only in the former school is evolution (group selection) front and center.

Third, the cognitive school is firmly grounded in the lingo of the cognitive revolution. If you aren't comfortable with this paradigm I suspect lot of the cognitive explanations will sound like gibberish. In Theological Incorrectness Justin L. Barrett offers a rough taxonomy of the study of religion. He differentiates the cognitive/naturalistic model from the humanistic model of "Religious Studies" departments and the "Culturalist" model normative in cultural anthropology strongly influenced by deconstructionism and other narrative critical paradigms. Barrett's contention is that the cognitive/naturalistic model descends from thinkers like James Frazer who attempted to understand religion as a mundane phenomenon in a rational-empirical system of analysis. But, it supplements the intuitive analysis with the insights of the cognitive revolution as to the character of mental architecture. Rather than being something "out there," culture is an interface between the "in here" (the mind) and the world around us. Similarly, religion is a byproduct of the intersection of our mind with the universe around us over time.

The details of the cognitive view of religion can be found in my posts on my other blog. A problem that I see with the "debate" about Dennett's books are two fold: first, Dennett is a polemicist who has staked out positions where his opinion of religion is quite clear, second, the cognitive view of religion is difficult to parse without an overhead of terminology derived from advances in modern pysychology and anthropology.

1 - Not seminal because many people have read it, rather, the propositions put forward in this book lace all of his other more accessible popular works.

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I am about a third of the way through the book. I am enjoying it but I think that Dennett's obvious unfavourable view of religion detracts from his stated purpose which is to encourage scientific study of religion and to have religous people take a serious look at what their religion really is. While I am an atheist and have no problem with his views (and share many of them) I cannot see very many theists agreeing to cooperate with these studies if they get the idea that all scientists will approach it with Denentt's attitude. In short the book is interesting so far but is only going to appeal to those that already disbelieve in a need for religion.

By CanuckRob (not verified) on 22 Feb 2006 #permalink

Interesting. So maybe the important question is not "Is religion bad?" but, "Do some religions have better consequences than others?" and possibly, "Does believing in the 'best' religion have better consequences than not believing in any religion?"

I think that from this point of view "religion" means the tendency to believe that big events are all the result of someone's intentions, so that if the agent is not known, an invisible being is credited / blamed. Thrown in an afterlife and probably some idea of providence, and you have the bare minimum of religion. I don't think that a creator God or monotheism is necessary at all. Spirits, an afterlife, and providence.

The enormous structure built on top of this (Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, or pagan religions in their full complexity) are a whole different thing, building on the first. Most of them build on primitive beliefs in a reformist / constructive way, violently rejecting some beliefs and adapting others.

There are religions commonly identified as such that don't even meet those minimum criteria. There are philosophical Buddhists who are atheists and believe that the soul is an illusion and the idea of reincarnation merely functionally equivalent to mortality.

Matt, Razib and I have talked about this. I said about what you said, and he pointed out that at the pop level Buddhists are still religious in the sense I gave. What's different about Buddhism is the way the elite religion is designed to move you away from those beliefs.

Well, you're right about that; I don't get the impression that that sort of rarefied Buddhism is actually all that popular among the masses of self-identified Buddhists. And Razib's latest post makes that point nicely.