Feb 27, 2008

Breaking the Spell

Religion As a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C. Dennett

It is time for a confession of sorts. Usually I like to avoid being too personal on this blog, as it is solely about the books and there are other places where I talk about my family and daily life. But now I feel a brief explanation is called for.

I was raised a very religious person. In my late twenties I became disillusioned by it and faced my own disbelief. I began reading texts not only on the history of the particular faith I adhered to (written both from the inside and outside) but also on religion in general. It was a very eye-opening experience that continues at a slower rate to this day. Up until now I have avoided discussing these books because it is sometimes difficult for me to separate emotional reaction from an analysis of the book on its own merit. But I feel it is time to try. I may not be able to say much in depth about these books because I am trying to keep that separation, and because it has been several years since I read most of them. However, I still want to have a record of them on my blog. So here goes the first of many. I hope this and future reviews of books that examine religion cause no one pain or offense; I do not wish to belittle anyone's belief, as for most of my life I've been a very strong believer myself. What I desire is to have a better, fuller understanding.

Breaking the Spell is an excellent read. Written by a professor of philosophy, it looks in depth at the nature of religion in the life of mankind. Religion (particularly in America) is examined in a historical, scientific, philosophical and cultural sense. The amount of information can be quite staggering, but it is well organized, and for someone like me who doesn't read much philosophy, it is very well-written and easy to understand. Some of the many questions the author addresses are: what does humanity's need for religion arise from? why does religion attract such strong followers? is religion the best way to live a moral life? how has religion altered the face of America? This book places ideas of science and religion side by side and uses one to illuminate the other. It even looks at an explanation of religion in an evolutionary context, something I did not expect at all. It does not criticize or demean religion, but treats it thoughtfully, with consideration and a degree of respect. I think this is a good book regardless of whether you are atheist or believer. It really made me think a lot. Personally I don't care much for the title, but if you get past a reaction to that and read what's inside, I feel it is well worth the effort.

Rating: 4/5                 Published: 2006 pp 448


  1. That's interesting. I've been interested in comparative mythology since high school, and sometimes I read about Catholicism (what I grew up with), but I've never read just a general text about organised religion. I'll have to look into it!

  2. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Jeane. I really enjoyed reading this post.

    I really admire Dennett. I read his book "Consciousness Explained" at 18 and it really helped cement my worldview. I like the fact that even though he is an atheist he doesn't alienated readers from a religious background, and like you said he always treat religions with respect.

    I am an atheist myself, and although I admire Dawkins' work as a scientist, I don't like how he sometimes can give people the idea that atheists are "out to get" religious people, which is not the case at all. I'm glad that there are people like Dennett to balance things out.

  3. I've always had a problem with belief, but struggled in that direction because my father was so devout and he was my favorite parent. Finally, I just couldn't do it anymore, and finally gave up. Now I feel the happiness and relief you're supposed to feel when you're "saved". Anyway, I'd love to read this book. Onto the wishlist it goes. Thanks!

  4. Anonymous2/28/2008

    This looks like something I would really enjoy. I love looking at how religion functions in our culture, how it came about and what it does. I'll definitely be adding this book to my wishlist. Thanks!

  5. Terrific review, Jeane.
    For a long time I have wanted to read this book. Dennett is the only one of the Four Horsemen of Atheism [the other three being Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens] that I have not yet read!
    I'm a former Christian minister, former evangelical fundamentalist, actually.
    Nowadays I am telling people that if you really want to read the most insightful and honest books about "God"... you must go to the atheists. Even though I myself am not one, [an atheist] per se.
    Your review confirms for me that I've got to get my heretical hands on this book!

  6. Jeane - I am very interested in this book and the thread (comments above). I grew up an a very religious house/family (incidentally after my parents divorced my dad does not practice any more and my mom doesn't quite as much). With the religious I grew up in--it is as much a belief system as a culture. I went to one of the church's colleges my freshman year and really really struggled not only with the beliefs but with the culture it created (wait...which comes first? The culture or the beliefs??). I ended up leaving after my first year and breaking away from the church.

    I've always been fascinated by religion and always find it a little amusing that I tend to know more of the different dogmas than my more religious friends (I won't go as far to call myself an athiest, but certainly agnostic leaning towards athiesm). I'll have to check this one out (and the other titles above). thank you for your thoughtful review.

  7. I am glad you are taking a chance and bringing these books to our attention. It's a shame religion and faith can lead to such ugly arguments sometimes.

    I will definitely look out for this book. It sounds like something I would definitely be interested in reading. Thanks for writing about it!

  8. Thank you all for your interesting and considerate remarks. I was a bit trepidations about writing this post because of the subject matter. My husb even said: keep a close eye and monitor those comments! He was afraid it would burst out into inflammatory arguments or insults. I had to remind him that book-bloggers tend to be the most polite group of people I know online, and in six months I've only once had to censor a comment.


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