The adapted view of God

Breaking the Spell

May 12, 2006

Whether religion is good for believers or just a parasitical meme, it should not attempt to claim the high moral ground, says Richard Harries

Daniel Dennett has a pacey style, deploying vivid analogies, arresting quotations and popular references in crisp, clear sentences. In short, he is highly readable. He is also, to a British reader, intensely irritating. First, he suggests in the early part of his book that this is going to be a scientific study of religion as a human phenomenon that will break its spell, without any apparent awareness that anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and historians of religion have been doing just this for 200 years. Then he labours for far too much of the book against the fundamentalist in his mind whom he is trying to convince of the need for his kind of study.

That said, once Dennett gets going on his central thesis, the book is an absorbing read. Here, he does indeed draw on a great deal of earlier work, particularly that of anthropologists. But what he is seeking to show is not just that religion can and should be the subject of serious, dispassionate scientific study, but that it must be understood in evolutionary and biological terms. Here, he draws on a moderate version of Richard Dawkins's concept of memes.

In the early evolution of religion, Dennett looks particularly to the practices of divination and shamanism to understand and explain it. He leaves open the question as to whether religion has persisted so long and strongly because it is in the best interest of its adherents to do so or because, like a parasite, or like genes themselves, it is in the best interests of the religion's memes to survive and prosper, whether or not the result is beneficial to human beings.

This links in with the fundamental moral question posed by Dennett's work, as to whether religion does more harm than good or vice versa. He is admirably tentative about his own hypothesis - indeed, as the biologist Robin Dunbar has written recently in New Scientist , there is a "growing recognition that religion is a real evolutionary puzzle". But Dennett urges that the research to understand religion in evolutionary terms must go on, as must its evaluation in moral terms by moral standards arrived at independently of any religious belief.

I am glad I read this book even though it has at least four fundamental flaws. First, the attempt to understand the early rise of religion purely in terms of divination and shamanism ignores a very great deal of archaeological evidence about the prevalence of earth goddesses and fertility rites.

The main evidence from the Palaeolithic period in addition to grave goods is of mother goddesses, of which the goddess of Willendorf (c 1900BC) is the best-known example. It is entirely plausible that early humans, dependent on nature and birth in a mysterious, inscrutable universe should seek to enlist the power behind fertility to their side, which is not of course to deny the likely role of shamanism in this.

Second, Dennett makes much of the fact that fundamentalists in all religions tend to make themselves impervious to any critique. For example, they might attribute his work to the Devil and go on to say that any denial of the existence of the Devil is the work of the Devil himself. This is a fair criticism, but Dennett seems to be blissfully unaware that he has locked himself into the same intellectually impregnable fortress. On the one hand, he spends a great deal of the book attacking the iniquities of literalist religion, arguing that they must be open to scientific truth.

However, when it comes to more sophisticated versions of religious belief, he either assumes that they are all of a non-realist kind or he does not understand apophatic theology. This highlights another of his failures, which is his unwillingness to pay attention to the nature of religious language.

Fundamental to his understanding of religion is that there is an "agent" with an "intent" behind the universe. Dennett will, of course, be aware of Aquinas's discussion of analogy and also of modern discussions about the place of metaphor in science and religion, yet he persists in attributing to all religious views a literalistic understanding of the nature of divine intent or else suggests that the religion becomes so abstract that it does not deserve the name.

When we contemplate this amazing, mysterious universe, which has evolved over 13.5 billion years and which is expanding, the mind literally boggles. Mathematical physicists can say something about this in their equations, but the human mind is totally incapable of imagining the divine source from whom, through whom and to whom all things exist. As the great bastion of Christian orthodoxy in the 8th century, John of Damascus said: "It is plain, then, that there is a God. But what He is in his essence and nature is absolutely incomprehensible and unknowable." What religious languages and practices can do is to orientate the person towards this reality through appropriate symbols.

Third, Dennett's definition of religion is much too narrow and moralistic. He defines religions as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". As J. H. Leuba's book on the study of religion published in 1912 already noted 50 definitions of religion, I do not claim that mine is any better than any of them. However, unlike Dennett's, it would at least seek to include religions such as Buddhism and Taoism and also earlier forms of religion where the moral element is less pronounced than it is now. My definition is: "Social systems whose participants have symbols and practices believed to keep them at one with a transcendent reality and which thereby bring about blessings." What happened in Israel between the 8th and 5th centuries BC, with parallels in other parts of the world, is that this "being at one" was given an overriding moral content. "And what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Micah 6, 8).

Fourth, in trying to assess whether religion does more harm than good, Dennett considers only religion fairly narrowly defined, and concentrates on terrorist acts in its name. But suppose there is a divine wisdom, beauty and love behind the universe to which we are drawn with a total loyalty? And suppose, because of our fallibility, we are always liable to give our total loyalty to other things, whether it is the nation, democracy, one's professional standing or whatever?

Paul Tillich described religion in terms of an ultimate concern, and idolatry occurs when we treat as absolute that which is less than absolute. When that happens, the most terrible things occur - as in the great purges in the Soviet Union under Stalin and in Nazism under Hitler. It is quite plausible to suggest that Soviet Communism at that time and Nazism were not just political programmes but dreadfully, dangerously distorted forms of religion, in that they claimed people's total allegiance. In discussing the horrors of religion, Dennett alludes to the bombing of abortion clinics in America. That is to be totally condemned. Instead of religion, he puts his faith in democracy. However, we cannot forget the cartoon that appeared in 1935 in The Nation in which two dead soldiers meet in the sky, with aeroplanes raining bombs on the earth below, and one says to the other: "I just died for civilisation!" The other replies: "Fine, buddy, I made the world safe for democracy!" How many people have been killed by suicide bombers? So far, the disastrous war in Iraq has resulted in nearly 32,000 Iraqi civilian casualties, more than 4,000 Iraqi police and soldiers killed and 2,241 US soldiers killed.

Let me make it quite clear that I think human beings have a capacity to discern right from wrong that is independent of any religious belief. Furthermore, I do not believe that religion should claim the high moral ground any more than I think that atheists and agnostics should claim the high intellectual ground. At a personal level, there are some wonderful atheists and agnostics who are, no doubt, much better people than I am and, more generally, the distortions of religion can be so terrible that atheism can be recognised as a moral purification.

Religion is now a major player on the public stage of the world. We have all been jerked into thinking more seriously about it, and Breaking the Spell , for all its intellectual failures, is a very stimulating and challenging goad to do this.

Richard Harries is Bishop of Oxford.

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Author - Daniel C. Dennett
Publisher - Allen Lane
Pages - 448
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9789 3

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