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“Breaking the Spell”

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel Dennett
Viking, 464 pages, 2006

Breaking the SpellIn 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.


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David Bentley Hart

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David Bentley Hart is a renowned theologian, philosopher, and cultural commentator. He's authored several books including "Atheist Delusions", which in May 2011 was awarded the Michael Ramsey Prize in Theology.

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