When you write a summary and response to a book that is decades old, that’s a book report. When you write a summary and response to a book that’s a few years old, that’s a review. But what is it when you write about a book that is 15 years old?
I read Darwin’s Dangerous Idea ages ago. That is a really good book. As with all really good books, there’s quite a lot of it that I simply don’t understand. I’m not a biologist! Although I was lead to Dennett’s writing back then by other atheists, Darwin’s is not inherently a book about religion. It was puzzling to me at the time that Dennett was heralded as such a figurehead for atheistic thought, and that the book I labored through was almost entirely dedicated to defending a long dead and widely accepted biologist.
Of course, Breaking the Spell is the book I was really looking for, and I have to say that I understand almost all of it! Of course, Dennett wasn’t really writing Darwin’s for me, the armchair philosopher, he explicitly tells us that Breaking is aimed at a different demographic. This had the duel effect of making me pay more attention to his endnotes and appendices while also making me feel really stupid.
I felt stupid right on through to the end, because even as I finished the book’s very manageable 339 pages I wasn’t quite sure I had read his thesis statement. We go from several chapters of Dennett apologizing for writing this book to apologizing to us readers for making us read it, through several well constructed chapters tracking the evolution of religion, right on through to an examination of religion as it effects modern life, right up to… endnotes, appendices, and a bibliography. Was this all preamble to another volume I had failed to purchase? Did I miss a crucial rhetorical turn in some previous chapter? I rifled back through the chapter endings which are helpfully marked with short abstracts about the preceding and following chapters, a writing tool which again made me pay more attention and also feel very stupid.
Perhaps it was this feeling of stupidity that first blinded me to his real conclusion, which is: we should research and write more about religion. In trying to make myself feel smart, I assumed his thesis would be smarter, but it isn’t. It’s pretty simple, and a little stupid. Or at least it is self-evident, because I don’t think there’s a lot of debate generally about whether we should know more or less about things in the world.
Of course, that’s what the title of the book even means: there are those who would argue that we shouldn’t know more, at least not in an empirical way, about the religion we practice. It is simply too mysterious, too important, and too self-evident (from our sacred texts and historical traditions) to mess with in the ways that scientists like to mess with things. They can’t even tell me if butter is good for me or not! How many carbs should I be eating? Science is too unreliable to trust to so insecure a practice.
I’ve never read a book which spends not one, not two, but three chapters apologizing for its own existence. I think most authors assume that readers so generally hostile to their writing wouldn’t pick up the book in the first place, and maybe Dennett is a little foolhardy to think he’s addressing people who need to hear his apologetics. For us skeptics and empiricists, it just reads as wheel spinning, but then so does his entire point. We want to know more about religion! We want to understand it like we understand everything else in the world. These are not controversial statements for materialists. I forget, of course, how many people are not materialists, or empiricists, or skeptics, or atheists, and so maybe Dennett is more inclusive than I. In his way, he’s even compassionate and empathetic to the plight of the believer who might be encountering his words and be truly moved by them. He takes great pains to protect someone reading this book who has their “spell broken,” that is, their theological worldview shattered, from the existential despair that might bring; he repeats several times how this could ultimately lead them to a better life or understanding of the universe. I just can’t buy that anyone who holds such a fragile spell as truth even picked up this book in the first place.
Dennett puts his research where his writing is, so to say, as in his writing with Linda LaScola about doubting clergy leaving the church. That sort of social science is of great value to understanding modern religion, and his pleas to conduct more of that type of research are well made. In fact, as a bibliography alone this book is invaluable, and his synthesis of myriad studies, historical writers, anthropological findings, cultural trends, and the like really belie the simplicity of his thesis. I find the tracking of religion from the meme’s perspective, and his logical and thoughtful tracking of the historical and cultural trends towards religion fascinating and even life changing. Darwin gave us a powerful investigatory tool in the question Cui Bono?, and Dennett’s examination of historical religious trends is truly insightful.
I just wanted a few more chapters maybe? Maybe on topics that Dennett simply writes off as too under-researched to properly address. Or maybe on topics too harrowing for his hypothetical spellbound reader to accept. It is a good problem to want more of a book than what was written and in Dennett’s case he’s proven that there’s more to be said on the topic. I wish there was more of that research available to put into this book, but there isn’t yet, and that’s why his thesis is as simple as it is.