Breaking the Spell

There was a time when religion didn’t exist. Was it before the first of the homo sapiens ever walked on earth? Or was it before the invention of agriculture and domestication of animals? Do the developments of language and culture predate the invention of religion? We don’t know for sure. But we do know that most of the religions that we see today came into existence in not-so-distant past (biologically speaking) — when their fundamental truths were revealed by God to somebody, who then passed it on to other mortals.

Once religion (or a proto-religion) came into existence, it evolved. It became more organized and structured to keep up with the humans who were becoming culturally more advanced and psychologically more complicated. But where did this proto-religion come from?

Daniel Dennett argues in his daring, insightful and marvelous book Breaking the Spell, that initially there was folk religion. And it metamorphosed into organized religion in the same way as folk music turned into organized music. The pre-historic developments of religion was perhaps unintentional – like the development of language. “Extrapolating back to human prehistory with the aid of biological thinking, we can surmise how folk religion emerged without conscious and deliberate design, just as language emerged, by interdependent process of biological and cultural evolution” writes Dennet.

But then where did the folk religion came from? The answer to this probably lies in the hyperactive agency detection device. We humans have a unique proclivity to assign agency to events. Our belief in gods is rooted in our “disposition to attribute agency — beliefs and desires and other mental states — to anything complicated that moves.” Quoting David Hume:

We find human faces in the moon, armies in the clouds; and by a natural propensity, if not corrected by experience and reflection, ascribe malice and good-will to everything, that hurts or pleases us. [From The Natural History of Religion]

Today when we speak of angry or benign intent of the rain clouds, or refer to a river’s desire to merge into the ocean, or curse at our computers as if they can hear (and respond to) our urges, we don’t do it entirely seriously — we don’t really believe that the rain clouds are literally angry with us and hence causing droughts. But there were times when we humans took these phenomena so literally and seriously. This practice of attributing intentions (or agency) to moving objects in the environment can in turn make us believe that there are “secret puppeteers behind the perplexing phenomena” in nature. It is easy to comprehend how this belief of unseen or spiritual agencies must have arisen in prehistoric times; and once that belief was born, man would have naturally extended it to the meaning and purpose of his own existence. Once you believe that things happen for a reason or purpose, a belief in a Creator and a Caretaker is not so far away. (We are the seekers of depth and profundity.)

There are other profound and important questions that Dennett passionately explores in his well-argued and balanced book. Through interdisciplinary arguments and reasoning Dennett delves into the theories about “how religion evolved from folk beliefs and how these early ‘wild’ strains of religion were then carefully and consciously domesticated.”

Given the importance, the spread, and the effects of religion in our times I can’t think of any more important subject than objectively studying, investigating and evaluating religion. There are people who believe that religion (or rather, their own religion) is the best hope for peace, and there are others who believe that religion is a major cause of conflict and violence in the world (that religion may increase co-operation within but not among groups). Dennett ends the last chapter of his book with a hopeful (wishful?) note:

So, In the end, my central policy recommendation is that gently, firmly educate the people of the world, so that they can make truly informed choices about their lives. Ignorance is nothing shameful; imposing ignorance is shameful. Most people are not to blame for their own ignorance, but if they willfully pass it on, they are to blame. […]

Let’s open our minds to calm and open discussions about religion – its holy traditions, claims (like religion is the foundation of morality), and beliefs (in God, soul, afterlife and such). Let’s change the climate of opinions that holds religion to be above discussion (especially scientific), above criticism, and above challenge. Let’s remove the “protective veneer of mystery” so that religion can be better understood.  Let’s get the “culture of credulity” to evaporate. Let’s break the spell.


While on the subject of the evolution and history of religion, let me share this cool image. The subtitle reads: “Monotheism is in turn doomed to subtract one more God and become atheism.”


4 responses to “Breaking the Spell

  1. Pingback: Breaking the Spell « A Blank Slate

  2. Nice post and good use of the image

  3. Pingback: Tweets that mention Breaking the Spell « A Blank Slate --

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