Breaking The Spell

Daniel Dennett
0143038338, 978-0143038337
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Books in Canada

There are no atheists in foxholes, someone smugly told me when I was a kid, meaning that when the going gets tough, the tough turn to God. Well, having put childish things behind me, I’ve discovered that not only are there atheists in foxholes, but also atheistic scribes. Of course, they’ve mostly stayed out of the line of fire so far. But given the hordes of religious fanatics who are currently burning flags, effigies, cars, other people’s houses of worship, and ultimately, each other, the real question is: Is it time for atheists to poke their heads out of their foxholes and announce that God doesn’t exist? 
At least four authors of little faith think so. I’m not sure it adds up to a trend, but a quartet of relatively recent forays into territory where angels fear to tread is worth perusing. Here’s the reading list: Julian Baggini, Atheism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2003); Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (Norton, 2004); Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin, 2006); and Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (Faber, 2006). 
I think the tipping point came for me a couple of months ago when I was innocently watching the evening news. After the requisite items about the possibility of civil war in Iraq between Sunni and Shia Muslims, and a report on how a hundred or so Christians and Muslims slaughtered each other in Nigeria in the wake of the controversy over anti-Mohammed Danish cartoons, the broadcast closed with one of those “strange news” bits. 
It was about a fundamentalist preacher in the States who was leading his flock to protests at the funerals of American servicemen killed in Iraq. Aside from the really bad taste of assailing innocent parents, kin and friends in their moment of grief, this Christian sect, through scrupulous study of scripture, had discovered that God was blowing up American soldiers with Improvised Explosive Devices (IEDs) not because of the US’s dubious war in Iraq, but because-get this-God was punishing America for “harbouring” homosexuals! To make matters more zany, a motorcycle-mounted outfit calling itself the Patriot Guard, but who rather resemble the Hell’s Angels, were now roaring up to the ceremonies to protect the funeral-goers from the religious loonies by forming a flag-waving line between the grievers and the aggrieved. 
That may have been the tipping point, but there were lots of markers along the way. I thought of all those wide-receiving football players I’d seen in post-game TV interviews giving “all glory to Jesus Christ” instead of answering a simple question about catching footballs in the end zone. How come there aren’t any talking heads on the tube who, when asked about a new transportation scheme or a reform of the health care system, announce, ‘Well, since I don’t believe that God exists, I guess we’ll have to figure this out for ourselves’? 
Then I brooded over Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code selling like hotcakes, 50 million hotcakes, all drenched in a fantastic and syrupy account of Jesus’ allegedly carnal relations with Mary Magdalene. And now, to make matters worse, it’s reincarnated as a blockbuster movie. I even noted a review of a book making the case for moderate Islam against the extremist Islamists. Instead of being cheered by this bit of moderate sanity, I found myself thinking that while I’m glad there are moderate Muslims, moderate Christians, and moderate everything else, it would probably be more useful for everybody to read and hear that all this belief in God-moderate, extreme and just plain barmy-is irrational, without evidence, unjustified, deluded, and extremely unlikely to be true. 
That’s when I reached for Julian Baggini’s little primer on atheism, while keeping other sensible tomes by Harris, Dennett, and Wolpert close at hand. Baggini, a British philosopher and editor of The Philosophers’ Magazine, puts considerable emphasis, as do his non-believing colleagues, on the notion of evidence, either physical or conceptual. As developmental biologist Wolpert puts it, “I know of no good evidence for the existence of God.” 
The fact is, Baggini notes, not only is there simply no solid evidence for a God or anything else supernatural, there’s also quite a bit of negative evidence suggesting the absence or non-existence of God. On the positive side of Baggini’s case for atheism, there’s overwhelming evidence for the existence of the natural world and the mortality of human beings, and no evidence for anything else. The upshot may be a “tragic sense of life,” as Unamuno called it, but that may be better than piety in the sky. I’d recommend Baggini as the place to start because he’s level-headed, writes clearly, and tries to be helpful. 
Sam Harris’s The End of Faith is more of “a sustained nuclear assault” on organised religion, as one reviewer put it. Harris is good as hammering away at the mind-boggling absurdity of religious beliefs, from Catholic doctrines about the transubstantiation of Jesus’ flesh and blood into wafers and Burgundy, to the zanier fantasies of fringe groups who think we’ve sprung from alien ancestors. Harris is cranky about Islam, but he’s driven by the sense that the prospect of “dirty” bombs in the hands of devout maniacs means there has never been a more important time for a campaign on behalf of aggressive atheism. 
Perhaps because of Daniel Dennett’s prominence (he’s also the author of Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea), his entry into the theism debate has occasioned controversy, but his basic argument in Breaking the Spell that God is a phenomenon that deserves a cool eye, then “horseman, pass by” (as Yeats famously said), is not only sensible, but overdue. Given a faith-based president in the White House and rocket-fuelled mullahs hither and yon, it’s unlikely that reading a few books in favour of suspending belief will avert the coming clash of superstitions, but every bit of sanity counts these days. Trust me, Armageddon is a very bad idea. 
Stan Persky (Books in Canada)
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From Publishers Weekly

In his characteristically provocative fashion, Dennett, author of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University, calls for a scientific, rational examination of religion that will lead us to understand what purpose religion serves in our culture. Much like E.O. Wilson (In Search of Nature), Robert Wright (The Moral Animal), and Richard Dawkins (The Selfish Gene), Dennett explores religion as a cultural phenomenon governed by the processes of evolution and natural selection. Religion survives because it has some kind of beneficial role in human life, yet Dennett argues that it has also played a maleficent role. He elegantly pleads for religions to engage in empirical self-examination to protect future generations from the ignorance so often fostered by religion hiding behind doctrinal smoke screens. Because Dennett offers a tentative proposal for exploring religion as a natural phenomenon, his book is sometimes plagued by generalizations that leave us wanting more ("Only when we can frame a comprehensive view of the many aspects of religion can we formulate defensible policies for how to respond to religions in the future"). Although much of the ground he covers has already been well trod, he clearly throws down a gauntlet to religion. (Feb. 6) 
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