Friday, July 07, 2006

Non-fiction - "Breaking the Spell"

This book is a philosphy book, written by Daniel Dennett, about "religion as a natural phenomemon". The premise of the book is to begin the study of religion as a idea that spreads and "lives" amongst humans. How this idea came to be and why has it persisted for so long. Note that. although the author is an atheist, the actual question of existence of God is orthogonal to his discussion.

He begins by trying to define more precisely what religion is and is not. He also considers the question whether analysis and questioning of religion should be done at all. After all, we may not want to "break the spell" - just like a magic show might be ruined if you know how all the tricks are done.

The author uses little quotes at the start of each chapter. One that I particulary liked was describing the difference between religion and philosophy: Philosophy asks questions that cannot be answered. Religion provides answers that cannot be questioned.

The second part of the book is titled "The Evolution of Religion". Here the author talks about possible natural explanations of how the idea of religion came to be, how it survived and how it changed over the years. He proposed number of ideas, however all are just little more that pure speculation at this point. He acknowledges this - he would like the book to server as the beginning of scientific investigation of the phenomenon of religion.

In the final part, "Religion Today", he considers the question of whether religion is a force of good or bad and whether religion is necessary pre-condition for rise of morality. Although he remains fairly neutral on on goodness or badness question, he firmly believes that religion is not needed for humans to develop a strong moral sense.

I found the book quite fascinating, although frustrating at times. Frustrating because the author would describe some compeling ideas to explain some aspect of religion and then say "this is just my hunch, I could be wrong". Still, despite its faults I liked this book because it made me consider and think about questions I would not have come up with myself.

It's a true philosphy book - it asks questions, but provides no answers.


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