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Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Anglais) Broché – 25 octobre 2012

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Revue de presse

Ambitious . . . an accessible account of what might be called the natural history of religion. (The New Yorker)

How would a visitor from Mars dispassionately explain human religion? . . . My guess is that the result would be something like this crystal-clear, constantly engaging, and enjoyable new book. (Jared Diamond, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse

Rich and rewarding . . . the main business of the book is to give a scientific account of how religion may have developed among creatures such as us. . . . The product of an extremely bright mind. (San Francisco Chronicle)

An elegant, sharp-minded essay on the need to study religion in a dispassionate way. (The Economist)

Penetrating . . . a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion. (Scientific American) --Ce texte fait référence à l'édition Broché .

Présentation de l'éditeur

In Breaking the Spell Daniel C. Dennett explores how the great ideas of religion have enthralled us for thousands of years - and whether we could (or should) break free. What is religion and how did it evolve? Is it the product of blind evolutionary instinct or of rational choice? Is the only way to live a good life through religion? Few forces in the world are as potent as religion: it comforts people in their suffering and inspires them to both magnificent and terrible deeds. In this provocative and timely book, Daniel C. Dennett seeks to uncover the origins of religion and discusses how and why different faiths have shaped so many lives, whether religion is an addiction or a genuine human need, and even whether it is good for our health. Arguing passionately for the need to understand this multifaceted phenomenon, Breaking the Spell offers a truly original - and comprehensive - explanation for faith. 'Packed with a mass of intriguing detail and anecdote ... witty and clear prose'
  Observer 'He's the "good cop" among religion's critics (Richard Dawkins is the "bad cop"), but he still makes people angry'
  New Statesman 'Dennett writes with brio and humour'
  Telegraph 'Elegant, sharp-minded ... clear-eyed but courteous'
  Economist Daniel Dennett is one of the most original and provocative thinkers in the world. A brilliant polemicist and philosopher, he is famous for challenging unexamined orthodoxies, and an outspoken supporter of the Brights movement. His books include Brainstorms, Brainchildren, Elbow Room, Consciousness Explained, Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves.

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Format: Relié
Un livre essentiel, qu'il faut d'urgence traduire en français. Il serait temps qu'on se réveille en France pour faire face aux intégrismes prosélytes. Sommes nous "bright" de naissance ? Sinon mobilisons nous pour attraper le retard.
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I do not normally read books about atheism,not feeling any need of them. But I am very interested in finding out how this came about (Why religion?) and this book was presented as addressing that question.

There is, of course, no definitive answer to the question. Mr Dennett makes a tour of many hypotheses offered by people (Atran, Boyer, Wilson, Dennett himself et al.) who have studied the subject from the points of view of anthropology, sociology, cognitive sciences, philosophy and so forth. It seems to be quite a thorough tour.

The problem is that one comes away feeling that one has read a long series of what ifs, of conjectures, most of which are not very convincing. So finally, although it does seem somewhat more "reasonable" that religion has arisen everywhere where man has lived, one still does not understand why. All this in spite of Mr Dennett's heroic efforts to cover so many hypotheses.

Still, there are many interesting subjects brought up and it is a stimulating if, finally, rather frustrating read.
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Commentaires client les plus utiles sur (beta) HASH(0x9a051534) étoiles sur 5 283 commentaires
765 internautes sur 812 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9a07f0d8) étoiles sur 5 Fascinating how many of these reviews reinforce Dan's thesis 23 février 2006
Par Geoff Arnold - Publié sur
Format: Relié Achat vérifié
Reading these reviews, it's fascinating how many people attack Dennett for things that aren't in this book.

- "Science can explain everything". But the book isn't about everything: it's about psychology and sociology, which are sciences.

- "Dennett's an atheist". Well, yes, but he acknowledges that religion is pervasive; the book is about trying to understand why people act and think the way they do, not to change what they believe. (Unless you think that to understand religious belief is to destroy it - but you'd better be able to justify that.)

- "Dennett doesn't understand philosophy". A silly accusation to make of a distinguished professor of philosophy. Yes, Dennett dismisses traditional phil.of.relig. for this debate, but that's because it has nothing to say about the phenomenon of belief.

- "Dennett's account of religion is about as reliable as a Nazi's account of Judaism". I don't understand: the definition he uses is remarkably mainstream, and owes a lot to William James.

The comon thread running through these critics is one of taboo: Dennett ought not to be investigating this stuff. Nobody offers an alternative theory, and in that respect the attacks feel a bit like Intelligent Design wedgies. The criticism is not of the idea, but the person. And (of course) nobody tries to justify the taboo.

As I wrote in the review on my blog at, the book has three sections:

- a careful definition and justification (over-cautious to an atheist like myself)

- a sample explanatory narrative, synthesizing much of the state of the art in this field, acknowledged to probably be mostly wrong, but comprehensively indicating the areas that future, better researched theories should address

- an optimistic but unconvincing plea for future dialogue.

Overall it is a solid step in the right direction.
242 internautes sur 257 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9a07f324) étoiles sur 5 The path forward for scientific study of religion 22 mars 2006
Par Todd I. Stark - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Dan Dennett essentially plays Toto in "The Wizard of Oz," by peeling back the curtain on the well-meaning but tricky wizard to reveal the embarrasing secret of his power. The wizard exploits human nature in the attempt to help people, similarly to the doctor who knowingly uses placebo treatments when he feels they are the best option. Dennett doesn't assume by any means that we knowingly exploit each other through religion, he also explores the question of how features of human biology might be utilized by human culture through a historical process not specifically guided by human wiles.

The character that does the unmasking is undoubtedly unpopular, which is why it was given to Toto rather than to innocent Dorothy or other likeable humanoid characters. Any surprise that a liberal university professor, professional philosopher, and outspoken atheist should take on the unmasking role?

Neither the sort of academic qualifications Dennett holds nor the theme of piercing the protective veil which enshrines religious belief is anything entirely new in the literature analyzing religion. What is new is the improvement of the tools for accomplishing the task and the improvement of the sort of questions we can ask. Dennett deftly and accessibly reviews the primary themes from a wealth of psychological, anthropological, and biological literature and along the way offers his own interpretation of each theme and identifies the directions he thinks future research should take.

As a result, this is a book that asks more questions than it answers. Its primary goal is to pull back the curtain of mystery with which we have enshrined religious belief, not to suggest final answers to all of the serious questions raised.

Dennett speculates that a critical point in the history of human culture was when we became stewards responsible for cultivating and protecting our own beliefs. Once the power of nurturing and protecting belief had been established, this could have become the basis of self-perpetuating industries, including but not limited to religious institutions.

The idea that units of culture can somehow be responsible for their own survival and reproduction may seem bizarre and at first, but Dennett's version is entirely plausible and consistent with current theories of gene-culture co-evolution. Aspects of human culture may have helped exploit human group behavior, which in turn helped shape the course of human evolution. This idea can potentially make sense of a lot of otherwise scattered social psychology data.

Dennett surveys several different variations on this co-evolutionary and cultural evolutionary theme, and in the end leaves a question mark on the idea of whether religious cultural elements tend to be "mutualists" with their human hosts, or "parasites" exploiting us for their own advantage. The latter idea is strongly implied by the popular metaphor of the "Virus of the Mind" favored by other theorists favorable to the concept Richard Dawkins called the "meme." Dennett is careful to leave the question open, rather than begging it as many other authors have done.

Dennett notably does not assume that such cultural units exploit us to our detriment, he just wants us to take the notion seriously of religion being a natural phenomenon and ask the resulting question of who benefits from its features.

This is a superbly accessible book because Dennett does not assume any foreknowledge of the voluminous literature he summarizes and explains so well and is very clear in his arguments. This book is less dense and scholarly than the bulk of Dennetts' previous work, but is as closely reasoned and well researched as any of it.

I'm pessimistic that Dennett's rhetorical goal will succeed. He seems to want to persuade more academics to take a naturalistic biological study of religion more seriously. I think this may be a long shot, in part because I suspect Dennett's speculation is very close to the truth: we have become zealous stewards and protectors of our most important beliefs, and they help establish our identity. We are legitimately concerned with protecting the wizard. Whether he is what he seems to be or not, he is still doing the job, and for many of us that is more important than knowing what is behind the curtain.

There is also a lingering problem that Dennett clearly recognizes but seems unable to get around, the fact that questioning religious beliefs seems intrinsically disrespectful to believers. In Dennett's terms, this is part of the protective mechanism for belief, but knowing that doesn't make it any less of an obstacle. Even some other well known scientists have bristled a bit at Dennett's treatment of religious belief in published reviews.

The fact that so many people seem honestly surprised that the "Darwin Fish" might be deeply hurtful to many Christians, or that the term "Brights" should seem to be so grossly arrogant rather than just being good clever marketing, seems to reveal a blind spot for the psychology of religion even among such good thinkers as Dennett.

In spite of the difficult obstacles faced, I think the kinds of questions this book asks and the sorts of explanations it emphasizes represent a new stage in scientific study of human culture, and I can only hope it will be taken up by courageous academics willing to pierce the veils of mystery and carefully draw back that curtain.

This book gathers up some of the best thinking in past scientific theories of religion and points the way boldly forward. Let's hope someone has the guts to follow it to knowledge.
803 internautes sur 872 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9a07f708) étoiles sur 5 Subject Religion to Scientific Scrutiny 7 février 2006
Par The Spinozanator - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Religion is commonly believed to be a stablizing influence in any society - but is it really? "Why not subject it to scientific scrutiny?" asks Daniel Dennett, director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. "Maybe it is just another bad habit." History has shown that science - despite wrong turns, egos, politics, jealousy, ambition - has a consistent record of being more correct than any other method of inquiry. Just ask anyone who bets their life on science every time they board a commercial airliner. Unique to religion, a theology's taboo against self-examination is brilliant. Guaranteed to cause controversy, Dennett addresses this issue and presents a plan.

Dennett surveys various theories of religion:

From Scott Atran - Religion is (1) a community's costly and hard-to-fake commitment (2) to a counterfactual and counterintuitive world of supernatural agent(s) (3) who master peoples' existential anxieties, such as death and deception (4) leading to ritualistic and rhythmic co-ordination of 1, 2, and 3; such as communion. This tendency to invent a supernatural agency is an evolutionary by-product - which involves exaggerated use of everyday cognitive processes - to produce unreal worlds that easily attract attention, are readily memorable, and are subject to cultural transmission, selection, and survival. Add a few hopeful solutions to the problems involving the tragedies of life, and you get religion.

From Pascal Boyer - Every religion has these common features:
(1) A supernatural agent who takes a specific ontologic form (animal, tree, human, etc.)
(2) There is something memorably different about this agent (the animal talks, the tree records conversation, the human is born of a virgin) which is an ontologic violation.
(3) This agent knows strategic information and can use it for or against you.

Fun to read and not as dense as his acclaimed "Darwin's Dangerous Idea," Dennett has addressed this book to the believer, who knows in his heart he is on the right path. "If you are one of these, here is what I hope will be a sobering reflection: have you considered that you are perhaps being irresponsible?...If it [religion] is fundamentally benign, as many of its devotees insist, it should emerge just fine; suspicions will be put to rest and we can then concentrate on the few peripheral pathologies that religions, like every other natural phenomemon, fall prey to."

Dennett clearly thinks God is made in man's image, as opposed to man's being a product of God's creation. In his view, the costs and benefits of religion need to be assayed with the scrupulous objectivity of science, and he outlines a plan to do just that.

I couldn't agree more.
118 internautes sur 126 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9a07f8c4) étoiles sur 5 Dennett's Dangerous Idea 16 février 2006
Par Stephen A. Haines - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Can religion be subject to scientific scrutiny? In this remarkable study, Dennett proposes that not only can be religion studied methodically, but that it should be. His suggestion will be stupefying to some, as he readily admits. Is your mind open to the notion that the vast repository of human values could be carefully examined? Then this book will provide many new paths for you to explore. He openly appeals to a wide audience, starting with his fellow countrymen. Dennett's ability to present complex issues, including those of social importance, in a clear and almost intimate manner should grant this book the wide readership he seeks.

The beginning chapter, "Opening Pandora's Box", reminds us that what was long considered inexplicable or mysterious can be revealed. He anticipates the criticism that "spiritual" things or "faith" aren't qualities that submit to analysis. The task, he acknowledges, is immense, but can be accomplished. Certain elements must be agreed upon, such as the definition of "religion". What we call religion, Dennett, contends, ought to exclude "spiritualism", fanatic devotion to secular items such as ethnic groups or idolizing sports figures. On the other hand religion is a dynamic and variable concept and tight demarcation is neither possible or desirable. Religion, then, is a social system incorporating supernatural agents that can reward or punish. Writers preceding him, such as Robert Atran, Pascal Boyer and Walter Burkert are acknowledged as good starting points. Dennett cites them often as contributors to his thinking. His distant, but highly influential, mentor is William James.

Although Dennett's atheism is well known, this book is anything but a call for the abolition of religion. Quite the reverse. He acknowledges the pervasive place of religion in human society. He asks how that came to be and thoroughly examines the various elements that comprise the makeup of a religion. Beginning with the concept of invisible "agency" as the explanation for unusual or unexpected phenomena, ideas about these agents became memes passed through and accepted by society. "Memes", a concept popularized by Richard Dawkins, are the mental equivalent of biological genes. Memes are ideas that replicate and expand through a population. In the case of religion, Dennett suggests, answers to the mysterious might be offered by society's older and wiser members. When such elders died, their transformation into agents themselves. It was almost inevitable, then, that human-like deities arose to be consulted and advise society on courses of action and behaviour.

Once established, and with such powerful agencies underlying them, religions mounted a defensive barrier against inquiry. This "wall" which ranges in firmness from mild disapproval to vigorous hostility, has prevented science from posing rational questions about religion's tenets. Dennett counters that religion should not be excluded from the range of topics that can be investigated. Language research has demonstrated that something seemingly too amorphous to clarify meaningfully can reveal a wide spectrum of human endeavours. He sets out a number of areas to investigate, such as the distinction between belief in a god and the "belief in belief". The latter is part of the glue of social cohesion and common purpose. Can we learn how that works? Dennett's earlier work on "intentional objects" is invoked to discuss how gods are perceived by believers. What will the deity do in a given circumstance? What must the believer do to condition response? These are all plausible questions for enquiry and Dennett seeks to have them pursued.

His final chapter is an outline of research paths that could be followed to investigate religion. He proposes a theory, which all readers are asked to challenge. He presents many commonly-held practices that are taken for granted, asking for explanations of why they exist and reconsideration of their value or impact. Should children receive religious instruction before they understand the issues? Is it "mental child abuse?". Should the practice be banned or is there another option? For this and other questions, evidence must be compiled and presented, along with countervailing theories, if they can be formulated. The only thing unacceptable is finding the quest itself unacceptable. Religion, Dennett notes, is too important to be beyond inquiry.

This book is rich with questions we should be asking ourselves, if we aren't already. Review them in this excellent call for explanations for an overlooked subject. Dennett knows that enquiry alone will not destroy religion. If it should, then religion's thrall on humanity was false to begin with. Dennett notes that if enquiry results in clarification and honesty, religion would emerge in a healthier condition. Whichever you wish or hope to achieve by investigating religion, it's clear the task must be undertaken. There are endless opportunities for research careers in the topics he lists for further exploration. Read this and find out where you might help take up the challenge. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]
494 internautes sur 549 ont trouvé ce commentaire utile 
HASH(0x9a07fad4) étoiles sur 5 That Rarity: A New and Important Idea 8 février 2006
Par GrazziDad - Publié sur
Format: Relié
Dennett's take on religion will seem polemical to some, but it's very nearly the opposite. Rather, it posits that Religion, as a sub-realm of anthropology, can be viewed as a natural phenomenon -- rather like language, custom, emotion, espression, etc. -- and as such should not be off-limits to the methods of science. He takes issue with Gould's "magisteria", in which Science illuminates the inert and Religion the 'transcendent' (or whatever it's supposed to do that Science cannot). In some sense, his analysis is very much in line with the evolutionary psychology movement, wherein the Mind is viewed as the product of evolution and human activity a product of the Mind. It's a materialist view, but, as Dennett painstakingly shows, It Works for an enormous variety of phenomena; why, of all artifacts and actions, should human religious practice be shrouded from the light of scientific inquiry?

The central thesis of Dennett's book is *not* some warmed-over pastiche about how religion improves our fitness -- a point he makes with pinpoint clarity and that many commentators on evolution (and his book specifically) managed to miss. In a recent talk, he asked the simple question "how does the common cold improve our fitness?" The answer is simple: it doesn't. Rather, for IT to survive, it needs a fresh set of susceptible hosts; all that matters is that it increases its *own* fitness and reproductive success. We are a vessel for its transmission, and that is all we are, from its perspective.

"Dennett's Dangerous Idea" suggests that religion, suitably defined (and this is a difficult issue to which much of the book is devoted) spreads not because it makes us stronger, faster or more cohesive -- its track record on the last is clearly mixed -- but because it hijacks us for its own propagation. This idea is subtle, akin to Dawkins' memes. Dennett backs it up in spades, and you'll simply have to read the book to take in his bravura performance. Which you should. It's terrific: sprawling yet closely argued, entertaining, brimming with 'the telling detail' and writerly vim.
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