Saturday, January 07, 2006

Religion explained ... again.

Here's Scientific American's review of Daniel Dennett's new book, "Breaking the spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon." You know, yet another scientist who tries to find a completely rational explanation of religion.
In the 21st century, cybernetic metaphors provide a rational grip on what prehistoric people had every reason to think of as ghosts, voices of the dead. And that may have been the beginning of religion. If the deceased was a father or a village elder, it would have been natural to ask for advice--which way to go to find water or the best trails for a hunt. If the answers were not forthcoming, the guiding spirits could be summoned by a shaman. Drop a bundle of sticks onto the ground or heat a clay pot until it cracks: the patterns form a map, a communication from the other side. These random walks the gods prescribed may indeed have formed a sensible strategy. The shamans would gain in stature, the rituals would become liturgies, and centuries later people would fill mosques, cathedrals and synagogues, not really knowing how they got there.
Except religious history doesn't really follow such a neat pattern of progress, does it? In some places (like India), the shamans and the more "sophisticated" religious systems coexist, side by side. In others (such as biblical Israelite religion) there's a strong trend that counters the official cult (the prophetic criticisms of the temple cult, for instance). Those are just two examples that come to mind. Point being, do some history. Instead of imagining things that suit your conclusions.

With speculations like these, scientists try to understand what for most of the world's population needs no explanation: why there is this powerful force called religion. It is possible, of course, that the world's faiths are triangulating in on the one true God. But if you forgo that leap, other possibilities arise: Does banding together in groups and acting out certain behaviors confer a reproductive advantage, spreading genes favorable to belief? Or are the seeds of religion more likely to be found among the memes--ideas so powerful that they leap from mind to mind?
And why are both possibilities mutually exclusive?

This time he may have assumed the hardest task of all--and not just because of the subject matter. Dennett hopes that this book will be read not just by atheists and agnostics but by the religiously faithful--and that they will come to see the wisdom of analyzing their deepest beliefs scientifically, weeding out the harmful from the good. The spell he hopes to break, he suggests, is not religious belief itself but the conviction that its details are off-limits to scientific inquiry, taboo.
Harmful? Good? By whose measure? Because, we all know, for instance, that killing embryos so that certain scientists can get fat budgets and heaps of glory is good, right? Or, will good only be defined in some evolutionary term, such as that which advances the reproductive-possibility of the species?

Actually, I agree, a certain amount of rational study of religious phenomena is useful. Especially in this pluralistic world. And especially when dealing with the rather difficult distinction between superstition and religious belief.


Mark Mossa, SJ said...

Good points. It would be interesting to read the book to see if it's as bad as advertised. Dennett has done a lot of interesting work.

I'd also add one thing that might change your perspective a bit--Dennett is a philosopher, not a scientist.

Welcome home!

Gashwin said...

Hmm ... maybe I'll have to read some of his stuff then? :)