toxic thought waste site

Theological whimsy, metaphysical larks, and other spiritually radioactive waste products.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Breaking the Spell: Chap 01 - Breaking Which Spell?

I first read Daniel Dennett's "Breaking the Spell" when it originally came out. Since reading "The Mind's Eye" which he co-edited with Douglas Hofstadter, he has been one of those authors that I have to get a hold of everything he writes. Unfortunately (well mostly fortunately, actually) my son had just been born about the time this book came up in my queue so I was seriously sleep deprived and time constrained when I read it. Since then I've had the nagging feeling the last year or so that I didn't give it the full attention it deserved and there was a lot in there that I really wanted to absorb. So even though my reading time is at a ridiculously high premium these days I'm re-reading a book. Shocking, I know.

One thing that really bugged me when reading this book the first time is the seemingly condescending tone as he tried to keep the hypothetical religious audience engaged. I'm not getting that vibe this time through, so I've either modulated my expectations or it wasn't as bad as I had remembered. Any way on to the book.

There are two "spells" to consider. The first spell is the taboo against studying religion in a scientific way. The second is the actual spell of experiencing religion. It is this first type of spell that he wants to break. It is interesting to consider that if the second type of spell has some real value and it is impossible to attain once the first spell is broken then we could be doing something genuinely awful by studying religion this way. Of course the catch is we don't know until we start looking.

Religion is a learned natural phenomena like language. We don't need to assume there is no supernatural component to study the observable properties and interrelationships. It striking how boring this observation is to me whereas I can imagine this could cause great stress for certain believers.

While I don't find the book as condescending as I remember (actually I find it pretty respectful of religious sensibilities) I do have a yearning for the book just a few doors down from this in idea space that was written for the skeptic and not as a invitation to believers. I'm sure someone will write such a book in the near future, but this book is close enough for now. In any case I'm really happy to be reading this book again and will do my best not to completely degenerate into fanboy-ism.



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