Monday, February 23, 2009

God under the microscope

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
by Daniel C. Dennett.
Penguin Books.
Pages 447. £3.25.


Review by Kuldip Dhiman

WHEN science started making earthshaking discoveries by challenging ancient dogma, many felt that religion would not survive the rational onslaught for too long. Religion, however, is flourishing even in this modern age of space exploration, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology. It seems that there is something about religious belief which modern education and science are unable to shake off.

Religion is supposed to spread love and peace, yet if we turn the pages of history, we find that religion is the cause of many of the wars and atrocities committed on humans by humans. In this age of international religious terrorism, most of us have begun to wonder what religion is, why is it so important for so many believers, why is one religion so intolerant of others, and do we need it after all?

When such questions are tackled by Daniel C. Dennett, who is one of the most influential philosophers of our time, we ought to listen to his analysis carefully. He has written highly acclaimed books like Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Brainstorms, Consciousness Explained and Freedom Evolves. In the present volume, he tries to make an objective analysis of religious phenomena with philosophical and scientific rigour. Making use of the multi-disciplinarian Darwinian approach, he tries to explain the origins of religion, folk religion, group cooperation, ethics, social control and host of others concepts such as consciousness, intentionality, artificial self-replicators, memes. The issues that he deals with are too complex, technical, and varied to be discussed here. The reader ought to have some familiarity with philosophy and science to grasp the depth of the argument.

However, we can briefly say that Dennett's project is to study the all- pervasive phenomenon of religion scientifically. This might sound quite an impossible project because religion and science are seen as contradictory concepts. How can one study religion scientifically? To catch the stick from the other end, how would scientists react if someone tried to study science through religion?

Dennett is too thorough a philosopher to not foresee this objection. What does he mean when he says that religion is a natural phenomenon? Does he mean religion is a natural phenomenon like rain, wind, and lightning? By 'natural' he means that religion is not a supernatural phenomenon, and there are no miracles or magic involved in it. And even if miracles are involved, then the best way to show that to doubters would be to demonstrate it scientifically. Refusing to play by these rules, he points out, only creates the suspicion that one doesn't really believe that religion is supernatural after all.

"Notice that it could be true that God exists," argues Dennett, "that God is indeed the intelligent, conscious, loving creator of us all, and yet still religion itself, as a complex set of phenomena, is a perfectly natural phenomenon."

What is religion, after all? Dennett defines religions as "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is sought". The definition is not exhaustive; his concept of religion is quite constricted, and he himself admits that his idea of religion is largely based on Judeo-Christian tradition. But being an internationally influential philosopher, he should have studied other religious traditions in depth. Modern scientific method requires that no evidence be ignored or glossed over. Dennett does not appear know that there are religions which do not see God as someone sitting up there and controlling the affairs of the world, that there are religions that believe everything that we see is not separate from God, that there are religions that do not talk about God or soul at all, and that there are religions that might appear to be materialistic to us.

Coming back to Dennet's thesis, we might ask if it is possible to understand through a materialist standpoint something that purports to be totally non-materialistic and subjective? Dennett thinks that it is possible, and he feels it is important that religious beliefs that have been taken for granted for thousands of years be questioned thoroughly. Why? Because he believes that it is very important to break the spell of religion to show that we could live a good life even without religion. He is right here. There is a widespread fallacy that religion makes us good human beings, that it gives meaning to life. In fact, most atheists are good people and they do not feel that life is without meaning. All the misery wrought upon the world is not by atheists, but by people who kill, loot, and torture in the name of God.

Dennett has done an excellent and thorough job from a materialist viewpoint, but we must remember this viewpoint has its own limitations. The kind of proof the scientist or materialist philosopher needs cannot be given. But we might ask, if scientific proof is the only kind of proof admissible in a rational inquiry.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist to the core, was once asked what he would say if after his death he found himself confronted with God. He replied that he would say, "God, why did you make the evidence for your existence so insufficient?" Believers on the other hand say that whatever we see around us makes it eminently clear that God exists. Logic is used by both parties to prove the existence and non-existence of God.

The fight continues.