Out last night to hear Dan Dennett lecture, talking about his new book Breaking the Spell. A pretty terrific lecture. But the book is, in a word, disappointing. Which is not to deny that it’s full of intriguing insights and illuminating suggestions about e.g. the possible evolutionary sources of dispositions to religious belief. But the structure of the book is surely a little too meandering (I found the first 100 pages dragged), the writing too allusive, to get through to the wide audience he is aiming for. I can see why Dennett often pulls his punches. Full frontal assaults on the frankly dotty aspects of mainstream religious belief-systems would just produce an unthinkingly hostile response, while the cumulative effect of jokes, analogies, biological speculation, just-so stories, reminders of what we all know (e.g. about the variability of religious beliefs), etc., might just get under the defences of some of those he wants to reach, and give them serious pause for thought. I hope so. But the pace isn’t zestful enough, the points not pressed hard enough and clearly enough to really have the impact Dennett wants. In fact, I suspect he should have written two books: a punchier, shorter, less complex book for his desired wider audience and a more fact-strewn, more analytically complex book for those who want the whole story as Dennett currently sees it.
But we’ll see. And certainly, I’m all for his spell-breaking project (the spell he wants to release us from is the idea that we shouldn’t treat religion as a natural human phenomenon with its own biological rationale). Dennett is dead right that we can hardly overestimate the importance of understanding more about religion as a natural phenomenon.