Breaking the Spell (Dennett book)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Breaking the Spell
AuthorDaniel C. Dennett
CountryUnited States
SubjectPsychology of religion
PublisherViking (Penguin)
Publication date
Media typePrint
200 22
LC ClassBL2775.3 .D46 2006
Preceded bySweet Dreams 

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a 2006 book by American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, in which the author 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.[1]


The book is divided into three parts. 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".

Part I[edit]

Part I discusses the motivation and justification for the entire project: Can science study religion? Should science study religion?

Part II[edit]

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[edit]

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.

Critical reception[edit]

The book has received differing reviews from various consumer, mass media outlets.

The Guardian[edit]

The Guardian's Andrew Brown describes it as giving "a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon".[2]

Scientific American[edit]

In Scientific American, George Johnson describes the book's main draw as being "a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion".[3]

New Yorker[edit]

In The New Yorker, evolutionary biologist H. Allen Orr described the book as "an accessible account of what might be called the natural history of religion".[4]

The New York Review of Books[edit]

In The New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson wrote:[5]

After Dennett's harsh depiction of the moral evils associated with religion, his last chapter, "Now What Do We Do?," is bland and conciliatory. "So, in the end," he says, "my central policy recommendation is that we gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives." This recommendation sounds harmless enough. Why can we not all agree with it? Unfortunately, it conceals fundamental disagreements. To give the recommendation a concrete meaning, the meaning of the little word "we" must be specified. Who are the "we" who are to educate the people of the world? At stake is the political control of religious education, the most contentious of all the issues that religion poses to modern societies. "We" might be the parents of the children to be educated, or a local school board, or a national ministry of education, or a legally established ecclesiastical authority, or an international group of philosophers sharing Dennett's views. Of all these possibilities, the last is the least likely to be implemented. Dennett's recommendation leaves the practical problems of regulating religious education unsolved. Until we can agree about the meaning of "we," the recommendation to "gently, firmly educate the people of the world" will only cause further dissension between religious believers and well-meaning philosophers.

From the religious community[edit]

The New York Times[edit]

Leon Wieseltier, former member of the editorial board of the Jewish Review of Books, called the book, in The New York Times, "a sorry instance of present-day scientism" and alleged it to be "a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions".[6]

The New Atlantis[edit]

A professor of a private, Catholic university and outspoken critic of the environmentalist movement, Charles T. Rubin, likened Dennett in The New Atlantis to "a tone-deaf music scholar", criticized his "unwillingness to admit the limits of scientific rationality" and accused him of "deploying the same old Enlightenment tropes that didn't work all that well the first time around".[7]

Philosophical reception[edit]

Thomas Nagel said that Dennett's book was 'beneath him' and Edward Feser has extensively critiqued his book, criticising his interpretation of theistic arguments, whilst maintaining praise for his passages on cognitive neuroscience.[8] Roger Scruton both praised and criticised Dennett's book in his book On Human Nature, endorsing his intellectual bravery and imaginative writing, yet criticising his reliance on the meme theory, and remaining sceptical of his view that all areas of human consciousness can be accessible through the neo-Darwinian human model alone.


Breaking the Spell has been translated into several other languages, including:

Dutch De betovering van het geloof: religie als een natuurlijk fenomeen Hans Bosman Amsterdam: Contact 2006 ISBN 9025426875
Finnish Lumous murtuu: uskonto luonnonilmiönä Kimmo Pietiläinen Helsinki: Terra Cognita 2007 ISBN 978-952-5202-96-0
German Den Bann brechen. Religion als natürliches Phänomen Frank Born Frankfurt a. M.: Verlag der
Weltreligionen im Insel Verlag 2008
ISBN 978-3-458-71011-0
Greek Απομυθοποίηση Dimitris Xygalatas
Nikolas Roubekas
Thessaloniki: Vanias 2007 ISBN 978-960-288-198-9
Indonesian Breaking the Spell. Agama sebagai Fenomena Alam Ninus D. Andarnuswari Jakarta: Kepustakaan Populer Gramedia 2021 ISBN 978-602-481-519-6
Italian Rompere l'incantesimo. La religione come fenomeno naturale S. Levi Milano: Cortina Raffaello 2007 ISBN 978-88-6030-097-3
Polish Odczarowanie. Religia jako zjawisko naturalne Barbara Stanosz Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut
Wydawniczy 2008
ISBN 978-83-06-03138-6
Portuguese Quebrando O Encanto. A Religião Como Fenômeno Natural Helena Londres Rio de Janeiro: Globo 2006 ISBN 978-85-250-4288-0
Serbian Razbijanje čarolije: religija kao prirodna pojava Milan Perić Belgrade: McMillan 2015 ISBN 978-86-80328-01-0
Spanish Romper el hechizo: la religión como un fenómeno natural Felipe de Brigard Madrid: Katz 2007 ISBN 978-84-96859-00-5
Persianشکستن طلسم: دین به عنوان پدیده ای طبیعیAmir ManieePublished online, 2019

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The University of Edinburgh (2009-02-10), Daniel Dennett: Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, archived from the original on 2021-12-22, retrieved 2018-04-24
  2. ^ Brown, A. (2006). "Beyond Belief". The Guardian. Archived from the original on 2016-05-18. Retrieved 2016-12-18.
  3. ^ "Getting a Rational Grip on Religion" Archived June 8, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, Scientific American, December 25, 2005.
  4. ^ "The God Project" Archived December 25, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, The New Yorker, April 3, 2006.
  5. ^ Dyson, Freeman (June 22, 2006). "Religion from the Outside" (PDF). The New York Review of Books. 53 (11).
  6. ^ "The God Genome" Archived August 12, 2015, at the Wayback Machine, The New York Times, February 19, 2006.
  7. ^ "The God Meme" Archived March 13, 2013, at the Wayback Machine, The New Atlantis 12 (Spring 2006).
  8. ^ "The New Philistinism — the American Magazine". Archived from the original on 2013-04-21. Retrieved 2019-01-12.

External links[edit]