Recently, I came across an article discussing Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. I have not focused on Daniel Dennett’s work, but I wanted to respond to the discussion in the article, and will be adding more to this discussion as I read through the book. One of the largest issues is that Dennett’s position seems to be that Dennett, or at least the author of the blog article, seems to view religious behavior as being indistinct from non-religious belief: “from the meme’s-eye-view, there’s no difference between a Muslim who prays five times a day because he truly believes in Allah and the truth of the Koran, and a Muslim who prays five times a day because that’s what Muslims do.” The second issue is the view that religion perpetuates itself because there is a belief that religion is good.
Are these statement reasonable? I want to tackle the idea that there is no difference between actions taken because of religious belief and because of the idea that the behavior is just something that we do. While beliefs which have received heavy investment can be somewhat difficult to break, there are differences between religious and non-religious belief. That is a fundamental component of the unified psychological and anthropological model of religion that I have developed. Harris’ work on the neural correlates of religious and nonreligious belief are consistent with the theory that there is indeed a difference between religious and nonreligious belief and that the presence of a religious belief activates various parts of the brain related to emotion and identity. It makes no sense that the way people behave would be unaffected by whether or not they actually hold a religious belief relating to the behavior. Indeed, the working definition of belief that I used is “a learned peristant cognitive state which modulates behavior.”
In the discussion with the author of the article on the topic, I tried to explain this point by suggesting a very silly example of rituals arising purely out of tradition, and those backed by a religious belief:
Let’s consider a ritual where a person cooking a turkey breaks the legs off before putting it into the oven. Now suppose there’s another person that does the same thing. The first one just does it because “that’s how you cook a turkey.” The second one does it because “god said so.”
Now how do we break this ritual? In the first case, we can just show that there’s no point to it and that the ritual started because, let’s say the grandmother’s oven was too small so she had to do it to fit the turkey. Do you think the person will persist in the ritual? Probably not. Now let’s consider the second person, and we say that there’s no reason to perform the ritual. Of course the person is going to reject and state quite firmly that god commanded it. Now you either have to break the connection between the ritual and the god belief, or you have to break the god belief.
So even fro the “meme’s-eye-view” there is a difference.
Yes, the example is silly, but it does work as a useful thought experiment. We know that some behaviors are harder to adjust than others, and we see that it can be very difficult to alter rituals that are a result of religious belief. There is an entire additional variable that must be addressed. So the first idea promoted by the author, and possibly Dennett as well, seems to be contrary to our general understanding of the topic, and also neural imaging data. The second issue is just as problematic.
Perhaps the most extreme counter example to the claim that religion perpetuates itself through a belief that religion is positive is Religious Rejectionism. While it is not a critical element of the religion, the negative view of religion, possessed by Religious Rejectionists, and exemplified by those like Harris, Dawkins, et al., acts in opposition to the notion that religion is perpetuated by a positive view of religion itself. Additionally, not all cultures even have a concept of religion vs non-religion. The practitioners of Shinto do not view Shinto as a religion. The word “shūkyō” generally refers only to western conceptualizations of religion. Indeed, while religion has probably existed for well over a hundred thousand years, the concept of religion is fairly new. So in such instances at least, the idea that religion propagates due to belief in religion simply makes no sense.
Now, I admit that there are indeed people do often view their beliefs and practices as being beneficial, and indeed this does act as a motivation resulting in continuation of the cultural elements, but the view presented in Shem’s article is just too simplistic and in many ways counter-theoretical.