This Thursday’s Nature had a review of Daniel Dennett’s new book called ‘Breaking the Spell; Religion as a Natural Phenomenon’. Michael Ruse, the philosopher and specialist on the relationship between science and religion, wrote the review. Dennett’s objective is to proffer a natural history of religion, to explain how and why religion exists and why it has such a hold over people. I haven’t read the book yet, although I will, but Ruse, whom I admire greatly is quite critical of it. Dennett, of course, is as enthusiastically atheistic as Richard Dawkins. They both believe that religion is a delusion that damages the individual and society. Dennett attempts to explain the emergence and persistence of religion in strictly biological Darwinian terms, ie as a phenomenon that has, for much of our past, aided our survival.
Ruse criticises Dennett for basing his explanation entirely on biological factors and for ignoring the obvious historical cultural and social influences that affect both what people believe and the fervour with which they believe it. He also criticises him sharply for a lack of empathy in portraying the claims of religion as entirely a matter of smoke and mirrors. As Ruse correctly points out, a naturalistic analysis of the sources of religious faith has no bearing on the truth or otherwise of religious claims. Dawkins in some of his work, most notably in his very recent two part TV series ‘Religion, the Root of All Evil?’ falls into the same trap that Ruse suggests that Dennett does. I found a great deal to admire in Dawkins’ TV analysis, particularly his excoriation of fundamentalism and the evils that proceed from segregation on religious lines and from religious competition, and the telling observation that people’s religious beliefs overwhelmingly correlate with the society and family they are born into rather than the inherent merits or truth of various beliefs. In the end, however, Dawkins himself came over as a fundamentalist. He failed to engage sophisticated theologians, with the notable exception of his interview with the Anglican bishop of Oxford, he did not acknowledge any positive aspects to religious belief and he glossed over (to put it politely) the possibility that religion can and does contain warranted beliefs. If Dennett doesn’t cut the mustard, who does? Since it was published several years ago, I have thought Pascal Boyer’s book ‘Religion Explained: The Human Instincts that Fashion Gods, Spirits and Ancestors’ is a wonderfully original, insightful and respectful analysis of why religion is a universal phenomenon and about the reason for religious beliefs having the characteristics that they do. Boyer’s book is based on narrower anthropological lines, but is no worse for that. Those of us, like me, who are atheists, ought to remember that whatever powerful evolutionary, anthropological and social forces shape religious belief also apply to us, and that we do not stand above our evolutionary history any more easily, comfortably or surely than do believers.