CFI’s Celebration of Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell

Andy Norman

In early December 2011, the Center for Inquiry–Transnational held a fascinating conference on the scientific study of religion in Amherst, New York. I was fortunate enough to attend, and I would like to share what I learned with readers of Free Inquiry,.

The conference was, among other things, a tribute to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Published in 2006, the book called for a thoroughly naturalistic understanding of religious phenomena. The conference was, in essence, a series of dispatches from the front lines of the effort to develop such understanding. In what follows, I recount seven highlights of the event; the picture that emerges should be of interest to freethinkers of all stripes.

Dynamic young psychologist Azim Sharif kicked off the conference by arguing that religion played a vital role in human evolution. By helping to solve the free-rider problem, religions helped to stabilize the social units that would prove biologically successful. He cited studies showing that, on average, religious communes survive much longer than secular ones, as well as studies showing that verbal and written religious “cues” have psychological effects that tend to deter cheating and increase trust. Parochial gods and the spirits of ancestors helped promote social cohesion in pre-agricultural societies, but the larger social constellations made possible by agriculture necessitated a shift to the “big,” universal, all-seeing gods of the Abrahamic faiths.

Pascal Boyer, author of Religion Explained, offered a more complex picture. If we examine hunter-gatherer tribes, it becomes clear that creedal, supernaturalist religion is not a cultural universal. Religious thoughts and behaviors, however, are found in all cultures, so it is these that we must study to understand the underlying cognitive and emotional systems. Belief in a universal, supernatural god is not a biological inheritance but a cultural innovation that solved a “branding” problem faced by larger social organizations with monopolistic aspirations. Religions are best understood as social “cartels.” We should not regard them as “pro-social” (no more, presumably, than we should commercial cartels).

Psychiatrist and researcher James Thomson presented fascinating evidence that ritual can stimulate the release of sociality-boosting neurochemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin, and serotonin. Song, dance, prayer—even synchronized activity of the most elementary sort (like walking side by side or marching in lockstep)—can increase pain tolerance, create a fervent sense of togetherness, and induce a kind of euphoria. Human touch can quiet the brain, improve focus, and create trust. Thomson then performed an unusual experiment: he had about one hundred ardent secularists link arms, sway back and forth, and sing Amazing Grace. A quick “after” poll indicated noticeable changes in people’s moods, attitudes, and pain thresholds. Why, we were led to wonder, do secular humanists make so little use of rhythm, ritual, and touch? It is seculars, not the religious, who are outliers here.

Wesley Wildman, cofounder of the Institute for the Biocultural Study of Religion, argued against an aggressive secularism. The concept of religion has morphed into something that makes naturalized religion seem a strange notion, but in fact, religions without supernatural trappings have a long and distinguished history (Buddhism, Confucianism, and Unitarianism, for example). Religious communities have real power to bind people together, to afford moral guidance, and to add depth and meaning to our lives. Collective wisdom on these matters is not served by pugnacious secularism: on Wildman’s view, gentle, noncoercive engagement holds more power to promote understanding and raise consciousness—on both sides.

Helen De Cruz of the Research Foundation Flanders then argued that no account of religion as a “natural” phenomenon can do justice to the artifice involved. Religions are cognitive “technologies”—tools that harness and extend natural capacities in ways that vary from culture to culture. Everywhere we look, religions involve deliberate practices (prayer, dance, ritual), imaginary beings (gods, spirits), and material objects (holy objects, iconography, temples) to induce valued—and very real—“placebo effects.” Religion, she concluded, is not a natural condition but a deliberate construct.

Freelance researcher Gregory Paul left no doubt as to why MSNBC labeled him “public enemy number one” of the nation’s churches. Using demographic data, Paul showed that American atheism is on the rise and poised for further dramatic growth. He also pointed to strong correlations between religiosity and societal dysfunction. Religions thrive when and where anxiety caused by economic inequality, injustice, and insecurity runs high. The way to move beyond religion, he argued, is to build just societies. Not content to let the slow arc of justice do all the work, Paul went on to develop a novel twist on the age-old argument from evil. According to science, about one hundred billion humans have lived on our planet, and about half of them died in childhood. Believers in a benevolent god, Paul argued, should be confronted with the fact that at least fifty billion children have died, many of them horribly, of diseases God presumably created without ever encountering Christian teachings or having the option of choosing Jesus Christ as their savior. What kind of god, asked Paul, would allow such a holocaust of suffering?

Daniel Dennett concluded the conference with an admirably compassionate Darwinian analysis of the plight of ministers who have lost their belief in God. Just as a biological cell must capture energy and protect its inner workings from disruption, long-lived social institutions—or “social cells”—must harvest participants (money, resources) from their environments and sustain permeable “membranes” to keep out disruptive entities. The Internet, however, is making it nearly impossible for churches to keep faith-undermining information from the priests they recruit. Collaborator Linda LaScola has been interviewing closet atheists from various ministries, well-intentioned men honest enough to admit their doubts but trapped by the expectation that they will not share those doubts lest they undermine the faith of others. How widespread is the phenomenon of disbelieving clergy? How widespread will it become? Can an anonymity-preserving online meeting place for nonbelieving clergy help to ease their isolation?

All told, this was a fine conference. The talks were engaging, informative, and thought-provoking … enough to warrant a ten-year retrospective on Dennett’s book in 2016!

Andy Norman

Andy Norman is professor of philosophy at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) and director of CMU’s Humanist Initiative. He is working on a book titled Unhinged: Faith, Ideology, and the Ethics of Belief, Boosting Mental Immune Response in the Ideological Animal.


In early December 2011, the Center for Inquiry–Transnational held a fascinating conference on the scientific study of religion in Amherst, New York. I was fortunate enough to attend, and I would like to share what I learned with readers of Free Inquiry,. The conference was, among other things, a tribute to philosopher Daniel Dennett’s Breaking …

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