Breaking the Spell
[ bookreviews ]
Some say we are now engaged in World War Three, an insidious conflict of "haves, have-nots, and have-mores" which has spread on two fronts around the planet and is becoming increasingly uncontrollable since the US invasion of Iraq.
The first front of this global war is economic and cultural, the lure of huge global markets driven to fruition by postmodern US techno-capitalism, a sort of free-floating Google/Hollywood/corporate marketing meme. It menaces the sub-stratum of non-democratic ruling elites by inculcating an alternative myth of modernity and breeding wealth-threatening instability in poor fundamentalist clans, tribes and nations everywhere, particularly in the Islamic world.
This global corporate "virtual invasion" is said to be morphing third world "have-nots" into "consumer wannabes" of all things material, sinful, fantastic, and Western - designer vodka, skateboard sneakers, American democracy, Australian wines and German pornography. A planet-wide 'modernity branding confrontation' (if you will) is unfolding at the speed of future shock, triggering rumblings among the under-classes and reactionary suppression from the "status quo have mores" who profit power and wealth in these very clans, tribes, and nations.
Think the new Russia, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and the mother of all modernity brand wars, Afghanistan and Iraq. In a slightly different context, think too of those fearful "undecided" American voters who, according to political analysts in 2004, voted because they feared domestic acts of terror and could no longer locate the America they cherished in the evening news.
Given this perspective, is Osama bin Laden's prime enemy the mass consumerism of godless corporate America, or the ruling family of Saudi Arabia? Which enemy offers greater hope of liberating the suppressed poor of Islam from an utterly failed non-secular status quo?
When in doubt about your identity, find an insignificant 'other', a target by which to contrast and define yourself. It's easier to secure your turf if your enemy is perceived as the 'other' against whom you can maximize opposition: the enemy is obviously a Christian, Jew, Hindu, or certainly a Shi'a, or Sunni, or even a secular humanist, depending on where you were born, which religion has socialized you into 'believing' your place in humanity, your relationship to an economic power elite, at some geographical coordinate on the planet.
Even Abraham Lincoln admitted you can fool all of the people some of the time.
Which brings us to the second front in the new global war: the fact that rational people (believers and non) might no longer tolerate these creeping barbaric schisms continually instigated by extremists within the world's "great" religions, Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Because even while the 'hot' war of terror and counter-terror expands across the Middle East, wreaking havoc and atrocity, a 'colder' war of intellect and law is also playing out in the US.
This war is about religion as a socialization force, the first and last impulse of differentiation and polarization among the human species. It's about religion as a social control mechanism for any status quo, any ruling elite. It's a conflict about religion as the mechanism for mass control, mass manipulation of human aspirations, and (as we witness daily around the world) mass murder.
On the surface a religious war is one waged between Muslim and Jew over land, a residue of ancient dogma, Western colonialism, displacement (diaspora) and irrational hatred between Israel and Palestine, Arab and Jew. It's also a war of ancient and renewed atrocities between Muslims and Christians across Eurasia, and it's the same war in Dar al-Islam, with a circle of slaughter by Sunni and Shi'te Muslims in India and Iraq - all this mind-numbing barbarism rooted in superstitious beliefs that a child's logic can undo. Irrational nonsense like the primacy of one sect's dogma over another, one holy book over another holy book, each claiming to be the spoken 'Word of God'. A bad situation whether one is dealing with Irish Protestant and Catholic fanatics in Belfast or with Muslim fanatics in Britain and Spain, or Jewish fanatics in Palestine.
Much of the world is paralyzed by religious war. Increasingly, perfectly normal peaceful people around the world - from the Balkans, Lebanon, Israel, Iraq and Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and, by way of terrorism, Spain, England, Northern Ireland, Italy, Greece, Russia, North Korea and the US - are forced to live in an Orwellian state of constant war or under a right-wing threat to liberty because of acts of religious rooted terror.
Is this the downside to the remarkable human advances made possible by the age of enlightenment, the industrial and technological and informational revolutions? The new globalism? Progress is relative and specific, not universal, and it's becoming increasingly obvious that 'progress' has to imply social justice if we are to move beyond an era of "global religious war" to a period of relative "global economic justice".
Ideologues everywhere have to recognize that social and economic justice are relative to specific human cultural contexts. Democracy, for example, probably would not have worked any better in Cuba immediately following the Castro revolution than it is working right now in Haiti. There is something to be learned (not feared) in Hugo Chavez and his seemingly weird experimentation in democratic Venezuela. The cultural context of Latin America is not the same as colonial New England, nor contemporary Canada or France.
In the US, quite apart from a disastrous war in Iraq which is destabilizing the entire region and an incompetent domestic 'homeland security' program, a battle line is being drawn between faith and reason, particularly as concerns science education in the American public school systems, women and civil rights issues, the intrusion of religion into politics in a secular democracy, and the programmed attempt by organized religions to (mis)shape US Constitutional law.
One of the more important intellectual issues facing the nation today is the uncomfortable question of how much religion - specifically faith-based, god-fearing irrationalism - will the average citizen tolerate as a matter of public policy before American democracy itself is destabilized?
A difficult question indeed, given 60 years of Gallup polling which finds nine in 10 Americans consistently saying they believe in some kind of a god, and when pushed on their 'intensity' of belief, 78% say they're "convinced" God exists while only 4% think God "does not exist, but are not sure," and a mere 1% of Americans are "convinced" that God does not exist.
While about 65% of Americans actually belong to a church (which means a third do not), most Americans are not extremist, evangelical, or public advocates for religious causes. And a majority opinion on any subject doesn't validate that opinion. Not too long ago, most of the world believed not only that the planet was flat, but an array of other irrational beliefs now also recognized as absurdities.
It's one of the more mundane ironies of the 21st century that while much of the world struggles to reap the social and economic benefits of Western liberal democracies, Americans are forced to take one big banana step backwards, and re-argue the intent of the First Amendment. And this in a debate with people who never appear compelled to justify their beliefs and opinions in the open marketplace of free ideas.
President Bush, for example, recently vetoed legislation providing stem cell research funding approved by the US Senate and House. What was his logic for that decision again?
No one argues the right of believers to believe. The problem arises when an interest group claims policy ought be shaped to conform to religious belief - that America is somehow founded on the word of God, for example, or that symbols, Bibles, crosses, belong on display in public places, court houses or at public high school football games.
Or maybe someone believes that stem cells are equivalent to a 40-year-old diabetic man or woman, as a matter of faith, and stem cells therefore are prohibited to science. That believer, or group of believers ought to prove their assertions, shouldn't they? (He or she might even have the courtesy to save public time and resources by cutting to the quick and proving the existence of the God in which they believe.)
If they can't defend their assertions, then we (trained scientists, religious believers or otherwise) ought to make it perfectly clear that such 'faith-based' opinion enjoys no currency in the public marketplace of ideas.
Unfounded arguments ought to be dismissed as the nonsense they are, and let the chips fall where they may (much as has happened in the recent Dover Intelligent Design school board case in Pennsylvania) .
This growing US debate has a range of perspectives and opinions on both sides. On the philosophical high ground, here's what scientist philosopher Daniel C Dennett says about the believer's unsupported public 'piety' in his latest book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon: "Your declarations of your deeply held views are posturings that are out of place, part of the problem, not part of the solution, and we others will have to work around you as best we can." [p296].
Dennett, widely respected professor of philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, has joined the fray rather cautiously with Breaking the Spell, a work that calmly and deliberately frames religion's more preposterous claims.
He submits religion to the scrutiny of bioscience, an arduous task because much the research Dennett needs to move his case to the level of political relevancy (as opposed to empirical relevancy) has not been done (and likely won't be), while centuries of religious belief and indoctrination have 'socialized' most of the planet into apparently 'natural' spell of belief.
Dennett wants to present carefully reasoned arguments against religion to break this irrational lock on reason as it pertains first to the 'believer', and this strategy necessarily narrows his focus and slows the pace of argument, giving opponents plenty of room to tie him up in debate.
Dennett is first of all a man of science. His arguments build carefully and rarely drift beyond science, which amounts to 'baby steps' for the more informed readers; while on the other hand, it's doubtful non-academic 'believers' would even consider reading his book. That said, Dennett deals with fundamental arguments in a highly rational and articulate work which neatly frames and advances the 'faith v reason' debate, rather than resolving it.
Here's Dennett on the subject of "belief in the belief of God": "The belief that belief in God is so important that it must not be subjected to the risks of disconfirmation or serious criticism has led the devout to "save" their beliefs by making them incomprehensible even to themselves. The result is that even the professors don't really know what they are professing. This makes the goal of either proving or disproving God's existence a quixotic quest - but also for that very reason not very important." [p246]
I understand the possibility of a predilection toward 'believing' residing in the human brain; but I'm not sure what Dennett's statement means. Let's assume that suspension of disbelief is our natural post-socialized state of mind, or at least that it has been since Aristotle first articulated a process of disbelief in Poetics.  We humans are skeptics by nature who wait to be awed by the next great idea or experiential fact of science which clarifies a curiosity or calms some anxiety.
We all possess the capacity for belief in something which we assume through socialization to be the norm, and this capacity to believe might ultimately be reduced to a synaptic pattern in the human brain, or a function of neurochemistry. I don't understand what that process might be, but I'm willing to 'believe' that the progression of science, through exceptional scientists (like Dennett) has the potential to explain all of it to me at some point, even if not now.
I'm equally certain that there are clerics of every religious sect who could spin a story of such intrigue, delight, wonder etc., that I would suspend disbelief and accept a new idea about the unknown origins of life, or a theory of life after death, or more likely a new insight into human behavior. I doubt that I would 'believe' that story in the same sense as I would the advancement in science, however. I 'believe' in the wisdom and relevancy (not to mention humanity) of Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice, but that belief is quite different than my 'belief' in the US Constitution, or Darwin's discovery of natural selection.
Most of us are acutely aware of the difference between science and art. Even the act of making art (or propaganda) is subject to a similarly presumed neuro process of 'belief' in the human brain. This synthesis of the internal human capacity for science and art with the existential world is what makes the human being and evolution so logical in my view. There is simply no need, as indeed Dennett argues, for a God in this world.
To quote the Beatles in a distant context, "we can work it out."
The potential for morality (ultimately: ethical behavior) is rooted in reason and empathy, which are grounded somehow in the human brain, which is rooted in biological processes of development over time, which are rooted in the physical nature of the planet, which is rooted in the known universe. One can insert 'God' at any stage of the process, but clearly it's a human mind that will do the inserting.
Given the political and economic pressures of the world today, the more pertinent point (in my view) is not the comprehension of the human capacity to orchestrate a 'belief system' - which is where I think Dennett is of necessity beginning - but rather what it is one selects to 'belief in', and how one acts on those beliefs in the world.
If you believe in supernatural beings who interact on your behalf in life, that is your right. If you act on that belief in public, you may be open to the accusation that you are crazy; and that's okay, you're allowed to be crazy. But if you force your belief to be taught in a ninth-grade biology class, you have become unlawfully crazy and the judicial system will have to restrain you. It doesn't make any difference if you're a good person, or a member of any particular religion, does it?
If you believe in Jihad (by the sword), or the baby Jesus and you are contemplating blowing up a medical facility in Buffalo, you're obviously a lunatic, and we all need to publicly recognize you and your belief as such.
Here's Dennett's more insightful take on this menace: "The most pressing questions concern how we should deal with the excesses of religious upbringing and the recruitment of terrorists, but these can only be understood against a background of wider theories of religious conviction and practice. We need to secure our democratic society, the home base for this research, against the subversions of those who would use democracy as a ladder to theocracy and then throw it away, and we need to spread the knowledge that is the fruit of free inquiry." [p307]
Unlike philosophers and scientists (Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins, for example) who have lost patience with the believer and see religious faiths as "viruses of the mind" or "simply beyond the scope of rational discourse", Dennett takes the time to examine religion as a natural phenomenon arising out of the workings of the ordinary world, a world that is of course subject to science, if only one has the time and inclination, to pursue it. But who has the time or inclination besides academicians and clerics?
It's the "socialization" process of any religion (the creation of the target 'other', the appropriation and manipulation of human morals, ethics, the management of the human capacity for a 'spiritual' life - all the spiritual potentialities inherent in the species and recognized in law as an individual right to pursue happiness) which seem appropriated by religions, and this appropriation is the fundamental menace of religion to a sectarian society.
How this process occurs in culture is the first argument, and Dennett leads us to it. Through biology, history and psychology, Breaking the Spell traces the evolution of religion from anthropomorphic primitivism through pantheism, from shamanism in early agricultural communities to the mass marketing televangelical organizations of America's contemporary mega-churches.
Those American humanists (God believers or not) who consider spiritual decisions to be both individual and private, and view the question of faith and God as necessarily irrelevant to the public secular world, have only the law to insure that they are not overwhelmed by the socialization forces of religions, or the tyranny of any majority.
The challenge is also one for organized religion to rise to as well. As with all things in the natural world, if religion is to remain relevant, it too must evolve. Or more to the point, as Professor Dennett writes: "It is time for the reasonable adherents of all faiths to find the courage and stamina to reverse the tradition that honors helpless love of God--in any tradition. Far from being honorable, it is not even excusable. It is shameful. Here is what we should say to people who follow such a tradition: There is only one way to respect the substance of any purportive God-given moral edict. Consider it conscientiously in the full light of reason, using all the evidence at our command. No God is pleased by displays of unreasoning love, is worthy of worship."
This is one step in a long process of 'reasoning' an end to religious wars among the human species. Perhaps the public needs to recognize that all religions are created by human beings. All gods are one god, the product of the human imagination in pursuit of perfection and the unknowable. There is nothing to fear about human happiness and the fruits of the tree of knowledge. Man created God in man's image, and finding wonder in this process is where Dennett's work is ultimately most valuable.
1 This case was recently argued in federal court. The voters in Dover, PA, a small, conservative, religious community in rural Pennsylvania, voted its public school board out of office for directing "intelligent design" qualifying language be read to each high school biology class. A law suit addressing the issue was internationally reported. There has been no diminution
of religious belief in the town of Dover. The problem facing the community now is how to pay the resulting $1 million legal bill. Dover Trial Transcripts at: aclupa.org [Back]
2 See S H Butcher's translation or a biography of Aristotle [Back]