Breaking the spell of Religion
“Religion is a powerful force in the world. Now more than ever. We need to study it scientifically so that we can anticipate its changes”. Daniel Dennett with Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin Group 2006), almost seems to be answering Benedetto XVI’s volume. The Philosophy of Science director of Tufts University of the Centre of Cognitive Studies is turning hierarchy upside down: even religion is a natural phenomenon and as such should be studied with scientific tools. An evolutionist approach applied to a non-scientific theme which Dennett has already experimented with in other areas such as conscience, in The Mind's I: Fantasies and reflections on self and soul (Bantam, Reissue edition, 1985), and free will, in Freedom Evolves (Viking Press, 2003).
Digging deep into the first rituals and cults of human history, the philosopher, bright, rational and skeptic, reaches the current versions of the great monotheisms, to start with Christianity. Less argumentative and more analytical than his friend and companion, Richard Dawkins, Dennett, however, also does not hide behind words: for him religion or cows are equal. From an evolutionist point of view, he knows a lot.
Why is it necessary to naturalise religion? Which is the purpose you have in mind? What would you like to obtain showing that science can study and understand religion?
Religion is a very powerful force in the world today. We need to understand it—scientifically—so that we can anticipate its changes. Religion is evolving faster than ever—today’s religions are very different from the religions of 50 years ago, which were very different from the religions of two hundred years ago.
Which are the theoretical tools you used in Breaking the spell to pursue those goals?
I adopt a naturalistic perspective that sees individual human beings as having minds (cognitive systems implemented in their brains, not immaterial minds) that are powerfully shaped by many phenomena; not just their genes, and not just their rationality; their minds are heavily furnished with ideas from the cultures that they are embedded in, and these ideas are perhaps the main source of both the powers and the frailties of human minds. Evolutionary processes occur among ideas as well as among animals, planets, microbes, etc. We can get valuable predictive and explanatory leverage out of an evolutionary approach to culture.
One of your goals is to understand why religions work so well. What is the result of the analysis?
I don’t offer any final conclusions; I raise more questions than I answer. But some points emerge quite clearly: today’s religions are best seen as the domesticated descendants of earlier, ‘wild’ religions; Just as cows inherit many of the features of the aurochs, the wild ungulate from which they are descended, so today’s organized religions inherit features from folk religions that predate Christianity. Their features include many brilliant designs that were nobody’s brainchildren! They evolved by natural selection unaided by clever religion-designers. And many of the more recent innovations, deliberately designed by religious leaders, may be more harmful (to religions themselves, to the people in them).
From your point of view, are there differences among existing religions (3 big monotheisms, Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, African animism etc.)?
Of course, there are many species and subspecies of religion.
Is there a difference among different interpretations of the same faith? I'm thinking of, for example, between moderates and fundamentalists?
When scientists discover that they no longer believe a scientific theory, they abandon it and try to prove some alternative theory. When people discover they no longer believe the religious doctrines their parents or elders taught them, those who don’t abandon the ‘faith’ altogether often try to temper it, revise it into a less incredible set of doctrines. We’ve seen a dramatic dilution of the strong creeds of yesteryear; those who don’t feel the need for it are called fundamentalists.
You said that “religions are socially grounded for three main reasons: soothing the sufferings and calming the fear of death, explaining things that otherwise couldn’t be explained, encouraging cooperation in the group”. Don’t you believe that, ultimately, there is something positive in these aspects?
Of course there is—even though they all have serious negative sides; the same religious creeds and practices that can soothe sufferings can also cause terrible guilt and suffering; the explanations are always wrong, and eventually get replaced by better, scientific explanations; and the cooperation so powerfully encouraged by religions often leads to unthinking mob action that has produced some of the most vicious ‘enthusiasms’ seen on the planet. The unquestioning conviction that one’s cause is right, and justifies just about any deed, has led many otherwise good people to perform great crimes.
Don’t you think that the relativisation of religion as an evolutive phenomenon might take on a political meaning more than a cultural one?
I don’t see an important division or opposition between political and cultural meanings.
How would you answer to the objection that the scientific study of religion misses the target because it addresses answers to questions on the sense (of life, of the world) with an instrument (science) that doesn’t exactly deal with that sense (of life, of the world)?
Science better than any other activity, does deal with facts regarding experience, belief, knowledge, evidence. Science doesn’t attempt to create beauty (the way the arts do, for instance) but science can study how the arts create beauty—to put it with deliberate oversimplification. Similarly, science doesn’t attempt to do what religion attempts to do, but science can study, scientifically, what religion attempts to do, and how it does it.
Don’t you believe that the naturalisation of phenomena like religion (but also philosophy) stiffens and simplifies the multiplicity of human experience too much?
No, on the contrary, I think naturalisation improves our understanding, makes the phenomena both more intense and clearer, more wonderful. The scientific account of the solar system and the ‘heavens’ is far more awe-inspiring than the old myths about gods and flaming chariots being pulled across the sky. I think nature lovers who don’t know anything about biological theory are like music lovers who don’t know how to read music, who don’t know about harmony, theory, etc. Understanding magnifies delight and awe.
In Italy, even though there are some pressure groups, the two fields (the scientific and the religious ones) cannot be mixed. On the contrary, in the US Darwinism, politics, and some political options come often into conflict. In your view, what is the reason for this difference? After all, in Italy we have the Vatican, yet this cannot bring a largely common belief in public opinion – i.e. that the world was not created ex nihilo 6000 years ago - to discussion.
Well, the Vatican—the Pope and Cardinal Schoenborn, in particular—has recently attempted to contribute to the controversy over creationism, and I think it has stumbled badly in this. Pope John Paul II made his famous comment about how evolution was not just a theory, but he also went on to insist on exempting the human soul from evolutionary theory. He might as well have said that evolution is fine for all living things except kangaroos, or that evolution governed all life except for life on the Italian peninsula! The idea that our species, Homo sapiens, is somehow blessed with supernatural powers (and not just hugely greater intelligence) is not to be taken seriously. I am glad, though, that these issues are now being openly discussed. Those who have maintained that there is no substantive conflict between the teaching of science and the doctrines of religion are being shown to be seriously out of touch with reality. The conflict is real, and while we can all strive for a peaceful and respectful resolution, we must acknowledge that as in the days of Copernicus and Galileo, the scientific truth will render the earlier myths obsolete and incredible.