Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon  

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"You watch an ant in a meadow, laboriously climbing up a blade of grass, higher and higher until it falls, then climbs again, and again, like Sisyphus rolling his rock, always striving to reach the top. Why is the ant doing this? What benefit is it seeking for itself in this strenuous and unlikely activity? Wrong question, as it turns out. No biological benefit accrues to the ant. It is not trying to get a better view of the territory or seeking food or showing off to a potential mate, for instance. Its brain has been commandeered by a tiny parasite, a lancet fluke (Dicrocelium dendriticum), that needs to get itself into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to complete its reproductive cycle. This little brain worm is driving the ant into position to benefit its progeny, not the ant’s. This is not an isolated phenomenon. Similarly manipulative parasites infect fish, and mice, among other species. These hitchhikers cause their hosts to behave in unlikely—even suicidal—ways, all for the benefit of the guest, not the host.

Does anything like this ever happen with human beings? Yes indeed. We often find human beings setting aside their personal interests, their health, their chances to have children, and devoting their entire lives to furthering the interests of an idea that has lodged in their brains."-- incipit Breaking the Spell

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a 2006 book in which the American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett argues that religion is in need of scientific analysis so that its nature and future may be better understood. The "spell" that requires "breaking" is not religious belief itself but the belief that it is off-limits to or beyond scientific inquiry.

Synopsis

Part I

The book is divided into three parts. Part I discusses the motivation and justification for the entire project: Can science study religion? Should science study religion?

Part II

After answering in the affirmative, Part II proceeds to use the tools of evolutionary biology and memetics to suggest possible theories regarding the origin of religion and subsequent evolution of modern religions from ancient folk beliefs. Part III analyzes religion and its effects in today's world: Does religion make us moral? Is religion what gives meaning to life? What should we teach the children? Dennett bases much of his analysis on empirical evidence, though he often points out that much more research in this field is needed.

Dennett's working definition of religions is: "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought". He notes that this definition is "a place to start, not something carved in stone".



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