In the second section—or “fit”—of Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark, the Bellman lectures the crew of his ship on the peculiar traits of the creature they have just crossed an ocean to find. There are, he tells his men, “five unmistakable marks” by which genuine Snarks may be known. First is the taste, “meagre and hollow, but crisp: / Like a coat that is rather too tight in the waist, / With a flavour of Will-o-the wisp.” Second is the Snark’s “habit of getting up late,” which is so pronounced that it frequently breakfasts at tea time and “dines on the following day.” Third is “its slowness in taking a jest,” evident in its sighs of distress when a joke is ventured and in the grave expression it assumes on hearing a pun. Fourth is its “fondness for bathing-machines,” which it thinks improve the scenery, and fifth is ambition.
Then, having enumerated the beast’s most significant general traits, the Bellman proceeds to dilate on its special variants:
It next will be right
To describe each particular batch:
Distinguishing those that have feathers, and bite,
From those that have whiskers, and scratch.
He never completes his taxonomy, however. He begins to explain that, while most Snarks are quite harmless, some unfortunately are Boojums, but he is almost immediately forced to stop because, at the sound of that word, the Baker has fainted away in terror.
The entire passage is a splendid specimen of Carroll’s nonpareil gift for capturing the voice of authority—or, rather, the authoritative tone of voice, which is, as often as not, entirely unrelated to any actual authority on the speaker’s part—in all its special cadences, inflections, and modulations. And what makes these particular verses so delightful is the way in which they mimic a certain style of exhaustive empirical exactitude while producing a conceptual result of utter vacuity.
Perhaps that is what makes them seem so exquisitely germane to Daniel Dennett’s most recent book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. This, I hasten to add, is neither a frivolous nor a malicious remark. The Bellman—like almost all of Carroll’s characters—is a rigorously, even remorselessly rational person and is moreover a figure cast in a decidedly heroic mould. But, if one sets out in pursuit of beasts as fantastic, elusive, and protean as either Snarks or religion, one can proceed from only the vaguest idea of what one is looking for. So it is no great wonder that, in the special precision with which they define their respective quarries, in the quantity of farraginous detail they amass, in their insensibility to the incoherence of the portraits they have produced—in fact, in all things but felicity of expression—the Bellman and Dennett sound much alike.
Dennett, of course, is a widely known professor of philosophy at Tufts University, a codirector of the Center for Cognitive Studies, also at Tufts, and a self-avowed “Darwinian fundamentalist.” That is to say, he is not merely a Darwinian; rather, he is a dogmatic materialist who believes that Darwin’s and Wallace’s discovery of natural selection provides us with a complete narrative of the origin and essence of all reality: physical, biological, psychological, and cultural. And in Breaking the Spell, Dennett sets out to offer an evolutionary account of human religion, to propose further scientific investigations of religion to be undertaken by competent researchers, and to suggest what forms of public policy we might wish, as a society, to adopt in regard to religion, once we have begun to acquire a proper understanding of its nature. It is, in short, David Hume’s old project of a natural history of religion, embellished with haphazard lashings of modern evolutionary theory and embittered with draughts of dreary authoritarianism.
I confess that I have never been an admirer of Dennett’s work. I have thought all his large books—especially one entitled Consciousness Explained—poorly reasoned and infuriatingly inadequate in their approaches to the questions they address. Too often he shows a preference for the cumulative argument over the cogent and for repetition over demonstration. The Bellman’s maxim, “What I tell you three times is true,” is not alien to Dennett’s method. He seems to work on the supposition that an assertion made with sufficient force and frequency is soon transformed, by some subtle alchemy, into a settled principle. And there are rather too many instances when Dennett seems either clumsily to miss or willfully to ignore pertinent objections to his views and so races past them with a perfunctory wave in what he takes to be their general direction—though usually in another direction altogether. Consider, for example, this dialectical gem, plucked from his book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: “Perhaps the most misguided criticism of gene centrism is the frequently heard claim that genes simply cannot have interests. This . . . is flatly mistaken. . . . If a body politic, or General Motors, can have interests, so can genes.” At moments like this, one feels that something has been overlooked.
Generally speaking, Dennett’s method in all his books is too often reminiscent of the forensic technique employed by the Snark, in the Barrister’s dream, to defend a pig charged with abandoning its sty: The Snark admits the desertion but then immediately claims this as proof of the pig’s alibi (for the creature was obviously absent from the scene of the crime at the time of its commission). And past experience perhaps caused me to approach his most recent book with rather low expectations. Even so, I was entirely unprepared for how bad an argument his latest book advances—so bad, in fact, that the truly fascinating question it raises is how so many otherwise intelligent persons could have mistaken it for a coherent or serious philosophical proposition.
The catalogue of complaints that might be brought against Breaking the Spell is large, though no doubt many of them are trivial. The most irksome of the book’s defects are Dennett’s gratingly precious rhetorical tactics, such as his inept and transparent attempt, on the book’s first page, to make his American readers feel like credulous provincials for not having adopted the Europeans’ lofty disdain for religion. Or his use of the term brights to designate atheists and secularists of his stripe (which reminds one of nothing so much as the sort of names packs of popular teenage girls dream up for themselves in high school, but which also—in its favor—is so resplendently asinine a habit of speech that it has the enchanting effect of suggesting precisely the opposite of what Dennett intends).
There are also the embarrassing moments of self-delusion, as when Dennett, the merry “Darwinian fundamentalist,” claims that atheists—unlike persons of faith—welcome the ceaseless objective examination of their convictions, or that philosophers are as a rule open to all ideas (which accords with no sane person’s experience of either class of individuals). And then there is his silly tendency to feign mental decrepitude when it serves his purposes, as when he pretends that the concept of God possesses too many variations for him to keep track of, or as when he acts scandalized by the revelation that academic theology sometimes lapses into a technical jargon full of obscure Greek terms like apophatic and ontic. And there are the historical errors, such as his ludicrous assertion that the early Christians regarded apostasy as a capital offense.
The prose is rebarbative, moreover, and the book is unpleasantly shapeless: It labors to begin and then tediously meanders to an inconclusive conclusion. There is, as well, the utter tone-deafness evident in Dennett’s attempts to describe how persons of faith speak or think, or what they have been taught, or how they react to challenges to their convictions. He even invents an antagonist for himself whom he christens Professor Faith, a sort of ventriloquist’s doll that he compels to utter the sort of insipid bromides he imagines typical of the believer’s native idiom.
In fact, Dennett expends a surprising amount of energy debating, cajoling, insulting, quoting, and taking umbrage at nonexistent persons. In the book’s insufferably prolonged overture, he repeatedly tells his imaginary religious readers—in a tenderly hectoring tone, as if talking to small children or idiots—that they will probably not read his book to the end, that they may well think it immoral even to consider doing so, and that they are not courageous enough to entertain the doubts it will induce in them. Actually, there is nothing in the book that could possibly shake anyone’s faith, and the only thing likely to dissuade religious readers from finishing it is its author’s interminable proleptic effort to overcome their reluctance. But Dennett is convinced he is dealing with intransigent oafs, and his frustration at their inexplicably unbroken silence occasionally erupts into fury. “I for one am not in awe of your faith,” he fulminates at one juncture. “I am appalled by your arrogance, by your unreasonable certainty that you have all the answers.” And this demented apostrophe occurs on the fifty-first page of the book, at which point Dennett still has not commenced his argument in earnest.
These are all minor annoyances, really. The far profounder problem with Breaking the Spell is that, ultimately, it is a sublimely pointless book, for two quite uncomplicated reasons. First, it proposes a “science of religion” that is not a science at all, except in the most generously imprecise sense of the word. Second, even if Dennett’s theory of the phylogeny of religion could be shown to be largely correct, not only would it fail to challenge belief, it would in fact merely confirm an established tenet of Christian theology and a view of “religion” already held by most developed traditions of faith.
The principal weakness of Dennett’s argument stems from his unfortunate reliance on certain metaphors, most particularly that of parasitism. Dennett most definitely does not wish to argue—as perhaps other, more functionalist evolutionary theorists of religion are wont to do—that the intellectual and social artifacts of human culture have evolved solely because of the benefits they confer on us or the contribution they make to our survival. Though he believes that those natural faculties that render us accidentally susceptible to religious belief have certainly been bred into us on account of the evolutionary advantages they bestow, religion in its developed form, he thinks, is something more on the order of a parasite whose only interest is its own propagation, even if that should involve the destruction of its host. This is the heart of his case, since he wants at all costs to avoid giving the impression that religion is in any sense—even evolutionarily—good for us. And to achieve his end, he finds it necessary not only to employ but also to treat almost as an established scientific fact the infinitely elastic and largely worthless concept of memes.
Memes, for those unfamiliar with them, were invented thirty years ago in an immensely popular book, The Selfish Gene, by Dennett’s fellow Darwinian fundamentalist, the zoologist and fanatical atheist tractarian Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene is not, I think it fair to say, an altogether logically consistent book, at least as regards human beings. Dawkins seems to argue simultaneously for and against a purely deterministic account of human behavior, and whether the introduction of the notion of memes alleviates or aggravates this ambiguity remains debatable, to say the least.
Whatever the case, for the purpose of understanding Dennett’s argument, it is enough to know that memes are culturally transmitted ideas, habits, behaviors, motifs, styles, themes, turns of phrase, structures, tunes, fashions, patterns, and in fact just about any other items or aspects of our shared social world, all of which, like genes, selfishly seek to persist and replicate themselves. That is to say, to take the obvious example, if most human beings believe in God, this has nothing to do with any sort of rational interpretation on their parts of their experience of reality. Nor is it even simply the influence of traditions that illuminate or confine their reasoning. Rather, the meme for God has implanted itself in their minds and has replicated itself through adaptation while successfully eliminating any number of rival memetic codes. We may like to think we believe because we have been convinced or awakened by—or that we have chosen or discovered—certain ideas or realities, but in fact our concepts and convictions are largely the phylogenic residue of a host of preconscious, invisible, immaterial agencies that have made our languages, cultures, and thoughts the vehicles by which they disseminate and perpetuate themselves.
This is, needless to say, a theory of absolutely preposterous pliancy, and few philosophers apart from Dennett have shown any enthusiasm for it. Of course, human beings most definitely are shaped to some degree by received ideas and habits, and copy patterns of behavior, craft, and thought from one another, and alter and refine these patterns in so doing. But, since human beings are also possessed of reflective consciousness and deliberative will, memory and intention, curiosity and desire, talk of memes is an empty mystification, and the word’s phonetic resemblance to genes is not quite enough to render it respectable. The idea of memes might provide Dennett a convenient excuse for not addressing the actual content of religious beliefs and for concentrating his attention instead on the phenomenon of religion as a cultural and linguistic type, but any ostensible science basing itself on memetic theory is a science based on a metaphor—or, really, on an assonance. Dennett, though, is as indefatigable as the Bellman in his pursuit of that ghostly echo. He is desperate to confine his thinking to a strictly Darwinian model of human behavior but just as desperate to portray religion as a kind of “cultural symbiont” that is more destructive than beneficial to the poor unsuspecting organisms it has colonized. And so memes, for want of more plausible parasites, are indispensable to his tale.
Dennett’s actual narrative of the genesis of religion is the most diverting part of his book, if only because it is so winsomely quasi una fantasia. He begins by considering the evolutionary advantages of the “intentional stance” the ability to recognize or presume agency in one’s surroundings—and the special advantages of language. From these he deduces the origins of primitive animism and the development of the earliest religious memes (such as the personification of natural forces).
From there he attempts to imagine how these vague apprehensions of the supernatural mutated—by associating themselves with the tendency of children to exaggerate the powers of their parents—into the idea of omniscient and omnipotent ancestor gods and how this idea was subsequently fortified by the invention of divination. He hypothesizes that those early humans who were most susceptible to hypnotic suggestion and the “placebo effect” were better able to survive severe illnesses because the ministrations of shamans would be more likely to take effect with them, and it is perhaps this mesmeric gene that is responsible for that part of our brain that is especially hospitable to the God meme.
Dennett also ponders the development of those rituals by which religious memes scaffold themselves in more-enduring social structures, and he reflects on the phenomena of mass hypnosis and mass hysteria, which help to explain how the contagion of religion spreads and sustains itself. He considers the transformation of folk religion into organized religion, especially as agriculture and urban society developed, as well as the kleptocratic alliances struck between organized religion and political power. Along the way, he contemplates how religions deepen their complexity and mystery, and how believers begin to take responsibilities for the memes that shape them, by producing ever more sophisticated rationales for their beliefs and forming allegiances to those rationales. And he describes the way in which “belief in belief”—a desire to believe, or a sense that belief is good, rather than actual conviction—becomes one of the most effective techniques for religious memes to render themselves immune to the antibodies of doubt.
Near the end of these reflections, Dennett feels confident enough to assert that he has just successfully led his readers on a “nonmiraculous and matter-of-fact stroll” from the blind machinery of nature up to humanity’s passionate fidelity to its most exalted ideas. He has not, obviously. His story is a matter not of facts but of conjectures and intuitions, strung together on tenuous strands of memetic theory. Still, it is as good a story as any.
Unfortunately, all evolutionary stories about culture suffer from certain inherent problems. Evolutionary biology is a science that investigates chains of physical causation and the development of organic life, and these are all it can investigate with any certainty. The moment its principles are extended into areas to which they are not properly applicable, it begins to cross the line from the scientific to the speculative. This is fine, perhaps, so long as one is conscious from the first that one is proceeding in stochastic fashion and by analogy, and that one’s conclusions will always be unable to command anyone’s assent. When, though, those principles are translated into a universal account of things that are not in any definable way biological or physically causal, they have been absorbed into a kind of impressionistic mythology, or perhaps into a kind of metaphysics, one whose guiding premises are entirely unverifiable.
In fact, the presupposition that all social phenomena must have an evolutionary basis and that it is legitimate to attempt to explain every phenomenon solely in terms of the benefit it may confer (the “cui bono? question,” as Dennett likes to say) is of only suppositious validity. Immensely complex cultural realities like art, religion, and morality have no genomic sequences to unfold, exhibit no concatenations of material causes and effects, and offer nothing for the scrupulous researcher to quantify or dissect.
An evolutionary sociologist, for instance, might try to isolate certain benefits that religions bring to societies or individuals (which already involves attempting to define social behaviors that could be interpreted in an almost limitless variety of ways), so as then to designate those benefits as the evolutionary rationales behind religion. But there is no warrant for doing so. The social and personal effects of religion, even if they could be proved to be uniform from society to society or person to person, may simply be accidental or epiphenomenal to religion. And even if one could actually discover some sort of clear connection between religious adherence and, say, social cohesion or personal happiness, one still would have no reason to assume the causal priority of those benefits; to do so would be to commit one of the most elementary of logical errors: post hoc ergo propter hoc—“thereafter, hence therefore” (or really, in this case, an even more embarrassing error: post hoc ergo causa huius —“thereafter, hence the cause thereof”). In the end, the most scientists of religion can do is to use biological metaphors to support (or, really, to illustrate) an essentially unfounded philosophical materialism. When they do this, however, they are not investigating or explaining anything. They are merely describing a personal vision and will never arrive anywhere but where they began—rather like the Butcher in The Hunting of the Snark, with his mathematical demonstration to the Beaver that two added to one equals three (which starts with three as its subject and yields three as its result, but only because it is so constructed as always to yield a result equivalent to its subject). Dennett’s nonfunctionalist story of religion’s development is no exception to this. He may wish to argue that the principal beneficiaries of religion are not men but memes, but he still assumes that, to understand the essential nature of a thing, it is enough to know who benefits from it—cui bono?—which is, of course, the very thing he should be trying to prove.
In fact, in Dennett’s case, it becomes especially difficult to distinguish conclusions from premises. After all, he wishes to argue, first, that the most rudimentary religious impulses sprang from purely natural causes, which originally involved useful evolutionary adaptations, and, second, that most subsequent developments of religion have come about not because they make any useful contributions to the species but because certain memes have spun off into self-replicating patterns of their own and metastasized into vast self-sustaining structures without much practical purpose beyond themselves. Sadly, these claims render one another useless as explanatory instruments for evaluating the evidence Dennett would like to see collected. Wherever his primary premise proves inadequate as a predictive model for explaining the phenomenon of religion, he need only shift to his secondary premise—from genes to memes, so to speak—which means he has effectively insulated his results against the risk of falsification. If one proceeds in that fashion, all one can ever really prove is that, with theories that are sufficiently vacuous, one can account for everything (which is to say, for nothing).
This, though, may be the least of Dennett’s problems. Questions of method, important as they are, need not be raised at all until the researcher can first determine and circumscribe the object of his studies in a convincing way. And here it seems worth mentioning—just for precision’s sake—that religion does not actually exist. Rather there are a great number of traditions of belief and practice that, for the sake of convenience, we call religions but that could scarcely differ from one another more. It might seem sufficient, for the purposes of research, simply to identify general resemblances among these traditions, but even that is notoriously hard to do, since the effort to ascertain what sort of things one is looking at involves an enormous amount of interpretation and no clear criteria for evaluating any of it. One cannot establish where the boundaries lie between religious systems and magic, or folk science, or myth, or social ceremony.
There is not even any compelling reason to assume a genetic continuity or kinship between, say, shamanistic beliefs and developed rituals of sacrifice, or between tribal cults and traditions like Buddhism, Islam, and Christianity, or to assume that these various developed traditions are varieties of the same thing. One may feel that there is a continuity or kinship, or presuppose on the basis of one’s prejudices, inklings, or tastes that the extremely variable and imprecise characteristic of a belief in the supernatural constitutes proof of a common ancestry or type. But all this remains a matter of interpretation, vague morphologies, and personal judgments of value and meaning, and attempting to construct a science around such intuitions amounts to little more than mistaking “all the things I don’t believe in” for a scientific genus. One cannot even demonstrate that apparent similarities of behavior between cultures manifest similar rationales, as human consciousness is so promiscuously volatile a catalyst in social evolution.
Moreover, the task of delineating the phenomenon of religion in the abstract becomes perfectly hopeless as soon as one begins to examine what particular traditions of faith actually claim, believe, or do. It is already difficult enough to define what sort of thing religion is. But what sort of thing is the Buddhist teaching of the Four Noble Truths? What sort of thing is the Vedantic doctrine that Atman and Brahman are one? What sort of thing is the Christian belief in Easter? What is the core and what are the borders of these phenomena? What are their empirical causes? What are their rationales? Grand, empty abstractions about religion are as easy to produce as to ignore. These, by contrast, are questions that touch on what persons actually believe, and to answer them requires an endless hermeneutical labor—an investigation of history, and intellectual traditions, and contemplative lore, and so on and so forth—which ultimately requires a degree of specialization that few can hope to achieve; even then, the specialist’s conclusions must always remain open to doubt and revision.
Dennett, incidentally, is conscious of this “hermeneutical objection,” but he truculently dismisses it as an expression of territorial anxiety on the part of scholars in the humanities who fear the invasion of their disciplines by little gray men in lab coats. His only actual reply to the objection, in fact, is simply to assert yet more stridently that human culture’s “webs of significance” (in Clifford Geertz’s phrase) “can be analyzed by methods that critically involve experiments and the disciplined methods of the natural sciences.”
Well, if Dennett is going to resort to italics (that most devastatingly persuasive weapon in the dialectician’s arsenal), I can do little more than shamelessly lift a page from his rhetorical portfolio and reply: No, they cannot. This is not a matter of territoriality or of resistance to the most recent research but of simple logic. There can be no science of any hard empirical variety when the very act of identifying one’s object of study is already an act of interpretation, contingent on a collection of purely arbitrary reductions, dubious categorizations, and biased observations. There can be no meaningful application of experimental method. There can be no correlation established between biological and cultural data. It will always be impossible to verify either one’s evidence or one’s conclusions—indeed, impossible even to determine what the conditions of verification should be.
At one point in his argument, Dennett discusses cargo cults, those fascinating and troubling religions invented by Pacific islanders in response to their first encounters with visitors from the technologically advanced West. During the Second World War, for example, the construction of an American air base on the island of Efate and the subsequent arrival there of riches from the heavens understandably aroused the envy of the people of the island of Tana. So the latter built their own air base from bamboo, complete with warehouses, landing strips, and aeronautical icons, and devised religious rituals incorporating elements of American military pageantry, in the expectation that the same gods who had blessed their neighbors with such abundant cargo could be persuaded to visit Tana as well.
Dennett wants his readers to see these cults as specimens of religion as such, their evolution conveniently accelerated (almost as if in a laboratory) and so unobscured by any of the imposing venerability or mysterious antiquity of more established traditions. Obviously, though, these cults are far too anomalous, and local, and bound to a special set of conditions to tell us much about religion in general. And obviously, also, they are variations within traditions of cultic practice already long established in those islands and so pose the same hermeneutical problems as any other set of religious practices.
But, while they may not teach us much about religion in the abstract, they may help to explain the kind of thinking animating Breaking the Spell—for, in a sense, Dennett is himself a cargo cultist. When, for instance, he proposes statistical analyses of different kinds of religion, to find out which are more evolutionarily perdurable, he exhibits a trust in the power of unprejudiced science to demarcate and define items of thought and culture like species of flora that verges on magical thinking. It is as if he imagines that by imitating the outward forms of scientific method, and by applying an assortment of superficially empirical theories to nonempirical realities, and by tirelessly gathering information, and by asserting the validity of his methods with an incantatory repetitiveness, and by invoking invisible agencies such as memes, and by fiercely believing in the efficacy of all that he is doing, he can summon forth actual hard clinical results, as from the treasure houses of the gods.
Perhaps, though, all of this is inevitable. When one does not really know what one is looking for, the proper method to adopt is probably just to look busy. As the Bellman says to his men, “Do all that you know, and try all that you don’t.”
They sought it with thimbles, they sought it with care;
They pursued it with forks and hope;
They threatened its life with a railway share;
They charmed it with smiles and soap.
At the end of the day, it is the quarry that determines the manner of the hunt.
By the same token, perhaps it is inevitable that Dennett should defer the corroboration of his arguments to future research, as he constantly does. It is difficult to judge, moreover, whether this is simply a rhetorical ploy on his part or the vaguely messianic delusion it occasionally appears to be. At the end of Breaking the Spell, he provides a list of some of the “unanswered empirical questions” raised in its pages, as recommendations for future research. But they are almost all questions that are, quite clearly, unanswerable—or, rather, answerable in innumerable, imprecise, and contradictory ways—and Dennett seems unaware of this. His book abounds in such sentences as this: “We don’t have to settle the empirical question now of whether divination memes are mutualist memes and actually enhance the fitness of their hosts, or parasite memes that they’d be better off without. Eventually, it would be good to get an evidence-based answer to this question, but for the time being it is the questions I am interested in.” And he appears earnestly to believe that there truly is some question here—or some means of resolving it—that is in some intelligible sense empirical. This is worse than quixotic. A century hence, our knowledge of physics will have no doubt advanced far beyond what we can now conceive, but our knowledge of issues such as these (and of memes especially) will have advanced not a step, except perhaps in the direction of ever more inventive conjectures.
In the end, though, I am uncertain that Dennett actually believes much of what he is saying. In all likelihood, he harbors no more than a sort of wistful “belief in belief” with regard to it. I doubt it matters much to him whether future research on religious memes is a concrete possibility or not. I doubt even that he is really interested in the questions he raises, except insofar as they might induce salubrious doubts in his readers by appearing more probative than they are. Breaking the Spell is a thoroughly tendentious book and in a rather vicious way, for Dennett’s ultimate aim is to propose certain social policies of a distinctly dictatorial sort. For instance, he sympathetically cites the view of Richard Dawkins and others that religious indoctrination of children should be considered a form of child abuse, and he suggests that we might need to consider what measures our society should take to protect children from their parents’ superstitions. He also pompously proclaims that we cannot as a society tolerate certain Catholic or Mormon teachings.
This, no doubt, partially explains his devotion to the concept of memes, for it gives him license to indulge a small taste for the totalitarian without any undue stress on his conscience. If, after all, the only beneficiaries of memes are memes themselves, and if religious memes are an especially toxic strain, then surely it is nothing but prudence and benevolence to seek the extermination of these parasites, ideally by preventive measures. And it hardly matters that the argument by which Dennett reaches his conclusions is patently absurd. He can assume the credulity of a compliant journalistic class and the tacit collaboration of his ideological allies, and he is convinced of the stupidity of his religious readers. His book’s digressions and longueurs, its coarse jargon and fraudulent tone of authority, and its parodies of logic and science are all part of an immense and ponderous obfuscation, behind which is concealed a thoroughly authoritarian agenda. And behind that is concealed only ignorance and apprehension.
Dennett, needless to say, has no curiosity regarding any actual faith or its intellectual tradition. His few references to Christian history make it clear that his historical consciousness is little more than a compilation of threadbare eighteenth-and nineteenth-century caricatures. In the six spacious pages he devotes to the question of whether there is any reason to believe in God (or, really, devotes mostly to quoting himself at length on why the question is not worth considering), he does not address any of the reasons for which persons actually do believe but merely recites a few of the arguments that freshmen are given in introductory courses on the philosophy of religion. Even then, his mental sloth is so enormous that he raises only those counterarguments that all competent scholars of philosophical history know to be the ones that do not work.
The world of faith is all a terra incognita to Dennett; the only map he knows of it is, like the map used by the Bellman, a “perfect and absolute blank!”—though, in Dennett’s case, bearing a warning that “Here there be dragons.” Or, perhaps, “Here there be Boojums”:
beware of the day,
If your Snark be a Boojum! For then
You will softly and suddenly vanish away,
And never be met with again!
All Dennett knows is that something he dreads haunts the world, something intolerant and violent and irrational, and he wants to conjure it away. This, of course, raises the now quite hoary-headed question of how, in the wake of the twentieth century, the committed secularist dare wax either sanctimonious toward faith or sanguine toward secular reason, but Dennett is not one to pause before doubts of that sort. He is certain there is some single immense thing out there called religion, and that by its very nature it endangers us all and ought as a whole to be abolished. This being so, it is probably less important to him that his argument be good than that, for purely persuasive purposes, it appear to be grounded in irrefutable science-which it can never be.
All of this probably matters little, because-again—the most crucial defect of Breaking the Spell is its ultimate pointlessness. Let us assume there is far greater substance to Dennett’s argument than I grant. Very well. Dennett need not have made such an effort to argue his point in the first place. Of course religion is a natural phenomenon. Who would be so foolish as to deny that? Religion is ubiquitous in human culture and obviously constitutes an essential element in the evolution of society, and obviously has itself evolved. It is as natural to humanity as language or song or mating rituals. Dennett may imagine that such a suggestion is provocative and novel, and he may believe that there are legions of sincere souls out there desperately committed to the notion that religion itself is some sort of miraculous exception to the rule of nature, but, in either case, he is deceived.
For one thing, it does not logically follow that, simply because religion as such is a natural phenomenon, it cannot become the vehicle of divine truth, or that it is not in some sense oriented toward a transcendent reality. To imagine that it does so follow is to fall prey to a version of the genetic fallacy, the belief that one need only determine the causal sequence by which something comes into being in order to understand its nature, meaning, content, uses, or value. For another thing, no one believes in religion. Christians, for instance, believe that Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead and is now, by the power of the Holy Spirit, present to his Church as its Lord. This claim is at once historical and spiritual, and has given rise to an immense diversity of natural expressions: moral, artistic, philosophical, social, legal, and (of course) religious. Regarding “religion” as such, though, it is in keeping with theological tradition to see it as something common to all societies, many of whose manifestations are violent, idiotic, despotic, superstitious, amoral, degrading, and false. The most one can say about religion in the abstract is that it gives ambiguous expression to what Christian tradition calls the “natural desire for God,” and to a human openness to spiritual truth, revelation, or grace. Dennett may imagine that, by gravely informing us that this natural desire for God is in fact a desire for God that is natural, he is confronting us with a conceptual revolution, but, in fact, all he has produced is a minor modification of syntax.
These are rather elementary points, really, and rather obvious too. After all, the marvelous strength and fecundity of modern science is the result of the ascetical rigor with which it limits the scope of its inquiries. In the terms of Aristotle’s fourfold scheme of causality, science as we understand it now concerns itself solely with efficient and material causes while leaving the questions of formal and final causes unaddressed. Its aim is the scrupulous reconstruction of how things and events are generated or unfold, not speculation on why things become what they are or on the purpose of their existence. Much less is it concerned with the ontological cause of what it investigates: It has nothing to say regarding being as such, or how it is that anything exists at all, or what makes the universe to be. This is not to say that it has somehow disproved the reality of these other kinds of causality, or even entirely dispensed with formality or finality (at least as heuristic devices). But, still, such causes lie mostly outside the purview of modern science, and one believes in them, if one does, for reasons of an entirely different order.
Of course, one is free to regard formal and final causality as fictions (though they will always tend to reassert themselves, even if only subtly), and one may dismiss the question of being as meaningless or imponderable (though it is neither). But one should also then relinquish ambitions for empirical method it cannot fulfill. This applies to every discourse that aspires to the status of a science. If one wants to pursue a science of religion, one should know from the first that one will never produce a theory that could possibly be relevant to whether one should or should not believe that, for example, the transcendent God has revealed himself in history or within one’s own life.
Certainly the Christian should be undismayed by the notion that religion is natural “all the way down.” Indeed, it should not matter whether religion is the result of evolutionary imperatives, or of an inclination toward belief inscribed in our genes and in the structure of our brains, or even (more fantastically) of memes that have impressed themselves on our minds and cultures and languages. All things are natural. But nature itself is created toward an end—its consummation in God—and is informed by a more eminent causality—the creative will of God—and is sustained in existence by its participation in the being that flows from God, who is the infinite wellspring of all actuality. And religion, as a part of nature, possesses an innate entelechy and is oriented like everything else toward the union of God and his creatures. Nor should the Christian expect to find any lacunae in the fabric of nature, needing to be repaired by the periodic interventions of a cosmic maintenance technician. God’s transcendence is absolute: He is cause of all things by giving existence to the whole, but nowhere need he act as a rival to any of the contingent, finite, secondary causes by which the universe lives, moves, and has its being in him.
In the end, nothing of any significance is decided by talking about religion in the abstract. It is a somewhat inane topic, really, relevant neither to belief nor to disbelief. It does not touch on the rationales or the experiences that determine anyone’s ultimate convictions, and certainly nothing important is to be learned from Daniel Dennett’s rancorous exchanges with nonexistent persons regarding the prospects for an impossible science devoted to an intrinsically indeterminate object. If Dennett really wishes to undertake a scientific investigation of faith, he should promptly abandon his efforts to describe religion in the abstract and attempt instead to enter into the actual world of belief in order to weigh its claims from within. As a first step, he should certainly—purely in the interest of sound scientific method and empirical rigor—begin praying. This is a drastic and implausible prescription, no doubt, but it is the only means by which he could possibly begin to acquire any knowledge of what belief is or what it is not.
As Peter Heath observed some decades ago in his wonderful book The Philosopher’s Alice, Lewis Carroll was not a writer of nonsense but rather an absurdist, and a Carrollian character is absurd precisely because he does not blithely depart from the rules but “persists in adhering to them long after it has ceased to be sensible to do so, and regardless of the extravagances which hereby result.” When Carroll’s characters assume the authoritative tone, the opinions they express are invariably ridiculous, but those opinions “are held on principle and backed by formal argument. . . . The humor lies not in any arbitrary defiance of principle, but in seeing a reasonable position pushed or twisted by uncritical acceptance into a wholly unreasonable shape.”
I would hesitate to say that Breaking the Spell is, in this sense, entirely absurd, as I doubt that it is tightly reasoned enough to merit the description. What does seem clear, however, is that, in its general form, the book’s argument is one that strives (not always successfully) to preserve the shape of reason, logic, and method, even though that shape has been largely evacuated of all rational, logical, or empirical content. To put the matter bluntly, no one could mistake it for a genuinely substantial argument who was not firmly intent on doing so before ever reading the book. Viewed impartially, Dennett’s project leads nowhere, and its diffuse and flimsy methods are altogether unequal to the task of capturing the complex, bewildering, endlessly diverse thing they are designed to subdue.
Dennett sets out with perhaps a pardonable excess of ambition—in the words of the Butcher,
In one moment I’ve seen what has hitherto been
Enveloped in absolute mystery,
And without extra charge I will give you at large
A lesson in Natural History.
But it soon becomes obvious that Dennett has no lesson to impart. He is, when all is said and done, merely hunting a Snark, and in some sense he can hardly avoid sharing the Baker’s fate. One need only read Breaking the Spell and then attempt to apply it in some meaningful or illuminative way to the terrible and splendid realities of religious belief to confirm this, because, once one has done that, one will immediately discover that the book’s entire argument has “softly and suddenly vanished away.” And this, to the reflective reader, should come as no surprise, really, given the nature both of Dennett’s quest and of the quarry he has chosen to pursue—“For the Snark was a Boojum, you see.”
David Bentley Hart is an Eastern Orthodox theologian and the author of The Beauty of the Infinite.