After spending several months in its pages, I have finally and fruitfully finished reading the American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett’s book: Breaking the Spell – Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Penguin Books, 2006).
As the title indicates, the book takes the view that religion is one of the most potent forces in the world: bringing comfort to people who suffer and inspiration that results in both magnificent and terrible deeds. The author seeks to uncover the origins of religion and discusses how and why different faiths have shaped so many lives, whether religion is an addiction or a genuine human need, and even whether it is good for your health.
Though he is not himself a man of faith, Dennett argues passionately for the need to understand this multifaceted phenomenon called religion. In my view, the book offers a quite original and comprehensive explanation of religious faith. Whilst Dennett is somewhat wary of providing a specific definition of religion, he offers clues and explanations that are only fully understood as the book unfolds to a point where he provides further directions to explore and basic viewpoints to those seeking platforms upon which to build their personal understanding, acceptance or critique. In this context, the following quotation may be helpful:
“What we usually call religions are composed of a variety of quite different phenomena, arising from different circumstances and having different implications, forming a loose family of phenomena, not a ‘natural kind’ like a chemical element or species.”
It will be immediately obvious that Dennett is not offering a traditional definition of religion. He bases his understanding not on a concept of God or other-worldly being, or revelatory scriptures, or individual human experience. On the contrary, his perspective is to be understood only as the reader understands what a phenomenon is. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary (is there a higher source?) a phenomenon is: “1. a fact or occurrence that appears or is perceived, especially one of which the cause is in question; 2. a remarkable person or thing; 3. Philos, the object of a person’s perception; what the senses or the mind notice.”
It seems, therefore, that Dennett is saying that religion is something that begins with human thought, understanding and experience. It is something internal, and not external, to a human being. God is a construct of the human mind, rather than a being with universal and eternal existence; or, as people have generally understood, a supernatural creator that is appropriate for us to worship; or, as Richard Dawkins has put what he specifically calls the God Hypothesis:
“There exists a super-human, supernatural intelligence whom deliberately designed and created the universe and everything in it, including us.”
Perhaps that is one reason why there are so many contrasting, if not contradictory, forms of religion and religious faith. It also may provide an acceptable explanation of why it is that religious belief has resulted in both the “magnificent” and the “terrible” deeds mentioned above. As Voltaire said:
“Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities.”
The explanation for these deeds is not some form of divinity existing in some inconceivable realm external to the universe, superimposing his/her will on the human creation, demanding loyalty and obeisance, if not love, and laying down sets of rules to be followed. No, the deeds, and the ideas that give rise to them (the ethics that flow from the philosophy) are products of the human consciousness, the evolution of the human animal and that being’s understanding of its existence, behaviour, desire; the revelatory and the remarkable; the perceivable and the personal; the awareness of the senses and the scientific.
In short, it may be said that religion as a phenomenon is the doctrine that appearances are the foundation of all our religious knowledge. Indeed, those who hold, as I suspect Dennett does, a “phenomenological” view of existence, that is, that all human knowledge is confined to the appearances presented to the senses, religion is just one of a number of appearances that appeal to the senses. The implications and consequences of this view of human existence are quite profound, both in terms of our understanding of human history and what will be the future of humanity.
That is a discussion for another time, with Dennett himself or with other authors (Richard Dawkins, Don Cupitt and Sam Harris are several who readily come to mind). However, if I have understood Daniel C. Dennett correctly, then it is an understanding that I would have wished to have become much more familiar with earlier in my life. Thankfully, it is never too late to realise new perspectives and permit them to affect understanding and behaviour.
It was with the above understanding of religion’s background that I listened to and read some of this past week’s news and enjoyed conversation with friends.
There was a “World Humanist Congress” in Oxford, held at a time when state education is being handed over to any person or organisation that feels it can have a go – including doctrinaire religious groups. The British secular state seems under threat.
Earlier this week I had a conversation with a group of friends I have known since, several decades ago, they were young adults. Knowing me to be a former minister of religion who became a (now retired) secondary school teacher of the Humanities (including Religious Studies), I was asked where I currently stood with respect to religion in general and belief in God in particular. Some members of the group seemed somewhat surprised when I answered that my present views would now classify me definitely as a secularist and, more than likely, even an atheist. (I would probably place myself at stage 6 of Dawkins’ seven-stage “spectrum of probabilities”, that is a de facto atheist – see his “The God Delusion“, pp,50-51, 2006).
A new minister of state for faith and communities (from where did they get that combination – they are certainly not indivisible?) has recently been appointed by the government. The minister, Eric Pickles in his latest government reincarnation, talks about “militant atheism”, as if atheists up and down the country are taking-up arms and advocating violence against persons of any religious faith persuasion. Come to think of it, I cannot remember the last time an atheist was anything other than simply argumentative in the defence of secularism.
It is a different story, however, when we look at religious faiths and their origins, for example, the Abrahamic faiths – Moses (the instructor for Judaism) on a mountain top; Paul (the formulator of Christianity) on the road to Damascus; Mohammad (the receptor for Islam) in his retreat cave.
Each of the Abrahamic faiths is a theistic religion (believing in a God who is real). Each of the foregoing historical figures (all containing an element of legend about them) were subject to private “appearances” which appealed to their senses, each went on to become the founder of a major world religion, each effectively given the status of infallibility within the religion they founded and the claim by their respective followers that theirs is the “one true religion”.
Even in non-theistic religions there is evidence of private appearances and appeal to the individual senses: Siddhartha Gautama (Buddhism) sitting under a Bodhi tree – a “tree of awakening”, and Confucius (Confucianism) being aware of and open to ethical and political, and later metaphysical and cosmological, streams in Chinese society.
In the view of Daniel C. Dennett, we live in an age when it is probably much easier to “believe in belief in God” rather than to actually believe in God. That being the case, and when the dangerously misplaced zeal of fundamentalist religion is, again, a major cause of conflict, it is timely to be reminded that religion has more to do with what is inculcated on the human mind – what appears and appeals to the human senses – than it has to do with what is innately present as a consequence of the existence of a universal and eternal God. Or, was Voltaire, again, nearer the mark when he said:
“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”.