Thursday, September 26, 2013

Breaking the Spell I

My Unitarian Universalist Adult Religious Education group is reading Daniel Dennett’s 2006 study of religion *Breaking the Spell.*  The plan is to discuss small chunks every two weeks or so through next May.  Therefore my plan is to post a series of commentaries, one chunk at a time, allowing for much more depth than most of my blog posts.  This post covers chapter 1, “Breaking Which Spell?” 

Dennett proposes to break the taboo against studying religion scientifically “as a natural phenomenon” even at the risk of breaking the spell, the “enchantment,” of religion itself.   I found it puzzling that he would spend so much time defending this proposal since I was under the impression that historians, social scientists, psychologists, etc., had been studying religion and religious experience long before 2006.  As a student at a Disciples of Christ sponsored college in the late 1960s, I was required to take two semesters of religion.  Both courses were scholarly studies of the Bible based on historical, textual, and linguistic evidence.  Jerry Falwell studied under the same professor as I did, and, according to the professor, he objected strongly and vocally to this approach to Biblical study.  The taboo was apparently real for Falwell (no surprise there), but the professor defended his approach on academic grounds and no students, faculty, or administrators that I knew ever objected.

Having been raised as a Southern Baptist I will confess that my college religion classes did break what little was left of the “spell” that my religious upbringing had cast over me.  That spell, however, had already been put in question by high school biology (we studied evolution) and my own rational thinking.  Ironically, it was my formal and informal study of literature, poetry, metaphor, symbolism, mythology, world religion, philosophy, astronomy, and physics that recast the spell in much more sophisticated, figurative, abstract, and, yes, scientific terms. 

My reading of *The Housewife and the Professor* (see previous post) reminded me of my early fascination with Platonism, which I studied in college philosophy classes and which could be considered a religious world view.

And like many of my friends, who consider themselves “religious” or “spiritual,” I welcome the study of religion and the opportunity to expand my understanding of this aspect of my experience and understanding of the world.  I wonder why Dennett has not been exposed to more of us for whom religion, responsible scholarship, rational thinking, and scientific study are not necessarily at odds.

Related to this question is the second bone I have to pick with Dennett’s first chapter.  Why does he define religion so narrowly?  Here’s his “tentative” definition:  religions are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.”  I understand the value of distinguishing between organized religion (“social systems”) and private religious or “spiritual” experience or belief.  But why must religion be limited to belief in a “supernatural agent  or agents whose approval is to be sought”?  Dennett seems to restrict religion to belief in an anthropomorphic “god” or “gods” with the power to pass judgment on us.  He seems to take the anthropomorphic language of traditional religion literally, without allowing for the capacity of believers to use the language metaphorically.

In other words, he seems to propose to subject fundamentalist, literalistic religious belief (such as that of Jerry Falwell) to an exhaustive scientific study but not the kind of religion that itself takes into account science and rationality or the kind that resists claims of certainty but simply maintains a mindset that is open to exploring the possibility of a supernatural reality (not necessarily a being or “agent”) or dimension in the universe. 

Finally, by Dennett’s definition, my own religious denomination of Unitarian Universalism, though it qualifies as a social system, would not meet his definition, and would therefore be considered a form of religious fraud, illegitimately taking advantage of the 501c3 tax exemption for religious organizations. 

I wonder if his “tentative” definition will undergo any loosening or broadening as his study continues to unfold.


  1. I wondered the same thing as I read this. My conclusion was that he was targeting organized religion, and not spiritual experience. Have you read "The Future of Illusion" by Freud. He talks about organized religion as an illusion to control people. I'm wondering if this is the road that this book might be leading toward.

    1. I haven't read the Freud, but I wouldn't be surprised he's headed that way. He did quote Freud in this chapter. It just seems to me if he's defining religion in fundamentalist terms, he's picked too easy a target!