Breaking the Spell

Breaking the Spell

Religion as A Natural Phenomenon

Book - 2006
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The New York Times bestseller - a "crystal-clear, constantly engaging" (Jared Diamond) exploration of the role that religious belief plays in our lives and our interactions

For all the thousands of books that have been written about religion, few until this one have attempted to examine it scientifically: to ask why--and how--it has shaped so many lives so strongly. Is religion a product of blind evolutionary instinct or rational choice? Is it truly the best way to live a moral life? Ranging through biology, history, and psychology, Daniel C. Dennett charts religion's evolution from "wild" folk belief to "domesticated" dogma. Not an antireligious screed but an unblinking look beneath the veil of orthodoxy, Breaking the Spell will be read and debated by believers and skeptics alike.
Publisher: New York : Viking, 2006.
ISBN: 9780143038337
Branch Call Number: 200 Dennett 2006
Characteristics: xvi, 448 p. :,ill. ;,24 cm.


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Aug 23, 2018

Dennett is out to break the minds of religious believers. But he does it ever so gently.

This book is filled with interesting stories that build around his scientific explanations for why religious belief is essentially part of human evolution. And now, according to Dennett, we are beginning to evolve ourselves out of it, whether we want to or not.

Jun 19, 2016

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, author Daniel C. Dennett's main objective seems to be recommending that society undertake a formal, methodical, and overall scientific study of religion to figure out why so many people hold it so dear. Dennet is an atheist and makes it pretty clear that he thinks most religious beliefs are fantasies, but acknowledges that these fantasies appear to provide believers with some benefits and to motivate people to perform good works. Dennet's premise is that believers have a taboo or "spell" about studying religion scientifically, and he wants to break that spell. He doesn't say it explicitly, but it's pretty clear that Dennet expects rigorous examination to show that religion is, by and large, not worth the effort people put into it.

Dennet argues that for religion to have persisted, it must provide some competitive advantage that some other cultural ideas didn't. The middle section of the book is a hypothetical history of how religion might have evolved out of our earliest tendencies to assume that someone or something was responsible for almost everything that happened in the world, from the rising and setting of the sun, to illness and recovery, to weather, to crop failure or success, and so on. A key point in his theory is that religion evolves, much like biological organisms, and is not set in stone or in sacred writings. Dennet isn't necessarily saying his hypothesis is correct, but he feels it gives rise to questions that can be tested and validated.

The book concludes with a few chapters on issues in modern religion, including whether religion is essential for morality, and suggestions for further experiments and studies.

Dennet is a professional philosopher, but claims that this particular book is written for the average reader, not for other philosophers. I think the average reader is going to find this a difficult read, with some rather abstract ideas being presented. There are also copious end notes, three appendices with more detailed material on certain topics, and an index. This is not a light, summer read.

I think a scientific study of religion is a reasonable idea, in the same way we have scientific studies of art, music, and other human cultural behaviours. I don't think, however, it was necessary to take 339 pages (plus appendices and notes) to say that.

Nov 18, 2014

Such an important topic, yet such an unimportant book. One is hard pressed to find precisely what original contribution Dennett has made, as what this book contains is little more than a plodding book report on authors who HAVE contributed original thought to the topic.

soblessed59 Dec 11, 2012

As a former evangelical,now a new atheist this is one of my three new favorite nonfiction books Along with Why I Believed: Reflections of a Former Missionary by Kenneth W. Daniels and The Book Your Church Doesn't Want You to Read by by Tim C. Leedom.... Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon by Daniel C.Dennett are the top three books that I feel every skeptic/new atheist needs to have in their personal library. I read my library's copy of this book,but I just ordered my own copy as I know that I will want to re-read these books,as much as I used to study my Bible!They are a joy to read,since they make so much sense and are not full of contradictions like the Bible is.Breaking the spell did an awesome job of showing the similarities of religion to mythology and superstition,in easy to understand language,and that is where I found the greatest enlightenment and value. Very highly recommended!

Nov 08, 2012

Daniel Dennett's approach to atheism if one from a philosopher, and for this reason it is different from those of other famous atheists like Dawkins, Harris and others. He writes well. My only problem is as in the case of other books on a similar subject, the book is unnecessarily long to get the message across. So I skipped through it, bypassing many example and quotes from other sources. However, if you have the time and patience, it is a good read.

Oct 10, 2012

We need to understand religion if we are to understand ourselves. The best part of this book is that on several occasions Dennett dismisses the reader, i.e., he presents an idea, then states if you don't want to read, ponder, investigate this idea, then stop reading! It's quite refreshing. Biblical literalists may be offended with Dennett's ideas, but there is the possibility that they might actually keep reading; whereas the approach taken by Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris is beyond subtlety.

Hypatia_Dejavu Jun 15, 2011

A challenging book on a deep topic. Easily my favorite of the new atheists.

roaddogg09 Jun 06, 2011

I have finally gotten around to reading Dennett's book, "Breaking the Spell," and I have to say, I highly enjoyed it. I believe Dennett's overall goal was to start a conversation. Most of the book contains a lot of the research done on religions and how they have evolved. He does touch on a few other topics, like the interplay between religion and morality, along with whether or not god(s) exists. But, for the most part, the book seemed to just advocate that religion should be studied. That's it.

I found it wonderful that Dennett didn't give an certainties within the book. He talked about how it was our obligation to start having a discussion about religion and its role in society. Dennett posed more questions than answers, which being a philosopher, I am not surprised. I found it great to read about how until we actually break the taboo on religion that we can never know the answers to many questions plaguing society. Religion is a potent force in our world, and Dennett knows this.

I gained a lot from "Breaking the Spell," and I think you will too!

Nov 29, 2010

This was a slow read for me, because the book is so idea rich.
It's a shame that deeply religious people will find this perhaps offensive, because it does have an atheistic slant, but truly looks at the subject in very clear and sometimes strikingly original ways. Dennet is truly a philosopher to watch, and his book is a gem. I've asked my kids to get this for me as a xmas gift,

Highly recommended.

Sep 07, 2010

This is an excellent analysis of religion in our world. If you find Dawkins too abrasive Dennett maybe the man for you.


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