Breaking the Spell - religion as a natural phenomenon by Daniel C. Dennett

One rainy day in the end of August, a friend gave me this book by Daniel C. Dennett and told me to have a read. We had already then had quite a few discussions on the general role of religion in modern society and on the idea of memes. After I read A Devil's Chaplain by Dawkins I had gotten more an more interested and started to regret that I did not pick up any of his other books earlier.

In any case my friend, N, told me that Breaking the Spell was really worth while reading and a quite good introduction to the subject of religious ideas as evolved concepts. Not that I needed much convinicing. The book itself have som kind of pleasing, inviting air about it.

I started reading the same evening and have been returning to it whenever I had the time there in between. The read was quite an eye opener! Not from a religious perspective, I have always had a more nature scientific than religious view on the world. But out of recognition!

For quite some time now I have viewed both culture and ideas as products of an evolutionary process. More intuitively and as a result of my own philosophy and observations, than by any serious studies of the subject. I have however been wondering if there are any active ongoing research in the area. Breaking the Spell proved to be an excellent introduction to this world. I have not felt such a harmony, such a relief that someone address things that I have been thinking of and pondering about, since I read Lessig's books on Cyber law (a totally different subject).

Dennett argues that we must invest time and effort into research on the effects of religion on society. Furthermore that the research methods must be inspired by the natural sciences. The book present arguments to why such studies are nescessary, proposing methods and also performing some first analysis and discussion. It is overall a very interesting publication.

Moreover, it is a joy to read! Dennett has a very humble language and much humour. He have tried hard to write a book that both make a strong argument, but also tries to keep readers that may be of a different opinion when starting to read. Well, at least if they are prepared to listen to normal arguments and common sense. To be honest I was a bit surprised to some of the arguments directed at religious people; they seemed a bit too soothing at time ("What? Surely, no one could be offended by this!"). But then again, Dennett say already in the introduction that he has targeted this book at his American countrymen and women. Maybe a different tone is needed over there.

In any case, as I stated above, for me the book first and foremost served as an introduction to ideas and vocabulary of memes and replicators for me. I have been thinking about evolving systems of general information for years, but to read about existing works and being presented with names for concepts that I have been considering on my own opens up to a larger world. Clears out muddy thoughts.

However, the book also made me think about the role and price of religion in modern society. Never much of a religious person my self, I have still appreciated the form of some of the ceremonies and art of religion. Previously I have been quite tolerant about the need for religion in society, thinking and arguing that religious people may do good for others in certain situations. Now, I am not so sure. Well, it is still clear to me that people can find comfort and strength in religion. But what are the costs? Religion can be very demanding both personally and for the society. Clearly many people finds comfort in religion at times of crisis, thus when their minds are as most susceptible to the meme. It will thus replicate more easily.

It also makes me think further: Is it possible to have the benefits of religious memes without the viral part? Is it possible without believing, or believing in believing? It might be that this process is happening, that the benefits from the religious memes in human minds over the centuries has introduced many of the pillars on which our civilization rests. Both culturally and ethical. What if religion was the carrier for other memes (it's turles, all the way down!) which used the efficient replication strategy of the religion-memes to piggyback through society? Maybe these concepts were part of the religion meme from the beginning but if so, surely they are memes of their own by now; mutated, detached from the the religious entity. What we see here, these books and ideas, might be a movement away from the religious concept. Maybe the human society and minds no longer benefit enough by religious memes, it is becoming an infertile ground for replication and the concept-memes are spread by other means?

Well, by now it should be clear that Breaking the Spell is a though provoking book. You should read it! It has introduced me to a world of ideas, and I will try to read Dennett's books in the future. However, first I will go out and buy the Selfish Gene. The book is as old as I am for God's sake, and it is well past time that I read it.

Finally, Breaking the Spell had one unintentional benefit. It is part of the Book Crossings network. If you haven't heard of this concept you should definitely check it out. I may write some more about it in the furure, but in short: I think that the concept is great! Makes me warm inside. The web page could use a little bit of work and a lot of Web 2.0 content though. (What about google maps tracking for instance? Also, stop trying to sell me stuff! Don't try to get my mail address! And a bit of re-design please? Mostly good stuff though.)

I will release this book into the wild during the next month or so. It will probably be either in Helsinki or Uppsala where I will mostly be during this time. Keep an eye out if you are interested!