Sunday, September 10, 2006

Breaking the Spell of Dennett

I finished reading ‘Breaking the Spell’ by Daniel Dennett last February and I wasn’t really too keen on mentioning it here. The main reason is that his book makes me feel ashamed to be identified as a scientist. Dennett has tried to write this book against religion and I can’t help feeling that his attempt was crude, ignorant, even laughable in its bad arguments and bad writing.

The first half of the book he tries to make a very precarious argument to show that religion will soon be disproved by scientific studies in hypnotism. Interesting but so far fetched and ridiculous that it sickened me. The second half was a general attack on religion. I was reminded of this when reading ‘The image of God in Man’ by David Cairns. He describes Freud’s attack on religion as follows:

“But there are certain evils which society cannot hold at bay; it can never defend man wholly from death and the elements. Therefore men undertook the task of humanizing nature; they created the gods. The gods are personal, we can come to terms with them, we can try to exorcize them, bribe them, appease them.”

This is almost exactly the same argument that Dennett uses in the last 150 pages of his book. It is so exact that I think he might have well have said – ‘read Freud, he will prove to you there is no religion’.

However, it gets worse. At the same time as this Dennett then resorts to something that I have never experienced before in so-called science – ridicule! At one point he explains how he thinks that Roman Catholics should submit the wine from Mass for scientific analysis to see if they can find the DNA of Jesus. I was shocked reading this, Dennett claims he did extensive research for this book that he interviewed 500 people.

I suspect this book was written incredibly quickly, possibly an afterthought. The writing is very bad, it is sloppy and awkward and gives the impression that he didn’t even stop to review his writing and make basic corrections.

It is true that we have a terrible problem at the moment with fundamentalist Christians and Muslims. We need to find some way to make them think about what they believe and to make them reconsider the idea of using violence to achieve their aims. This is not the book to do this. I suspect this book may even be counter-productive and turn people more strongly against science. Something which Dennett will ultimately regret.

Finally I am sickened by the media that review this book saying how well written it is and how he makes such a strong argument. This is anything but the truth. This is lazy journalists writing out the opinion of some other reviewer and it is book review based on page length rather than substance. This is something I have ranted about before and it is not something that you will find here. I can assure you that I read the book before I comment on it.

Dennett makes the claim at the start of his book that perhaps for religious people his book is too dangerous and that they should stop reading! This is laughable, he should have said that if you are a scientist you should stop because it will insult your intelligence and it will make you think that you can write a bad book and get away with it.

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