Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett is a significant work that prompts society to ask hard questions about religions and ultimately try to answer them through scientific inquiry. The “spell” that Dennett refers to in the title is not what many may think. He’s not outwardly asking people to leave organized religion, but simply asking that it be critically examined. Most aspects of society have been examined under the microscope of the physical and social sciences, but religion remains elusive. Sure a lot of work has been done on the subject, but it remains a taboo, which he would like eradicated. I agree with him on this. I think that any subject should be analyzed through a critical lense. Examining what human beings were like before religion, the rise of tribal beliefs, the evolution of those beliefs that eventually transformed into organized religion are just a few aspects that he would like to see explored further.
A few questions he brings up that I find interesting:
Is religion the product of evolutionary instinct or a rational choice?
There has been a lot dedicated to the question of whether a ‘God gene’ exists. If, for example, a gene did in fact make people more prone to religious beliefs, why did it enable survival over other genes?
Would a world without love be possible or good?
What were our ancestors like before religion?
How well have non literate cultures preserved their rituals and creeds over the generations? This question is difficult to study for obvious reasons but I think it is an interesting one to think about.
Dennett does a fantastic job covering a range of topics in a way that is very accessible. Numerous points were raised in the book, but none more important than his main one: that religion should be subjected to the same scrutiny and scientific inquiry as other subjects such as physics, psychology and philosophy. I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the subjects of religion, philosophy or the evolution of beliefs and human societies.