Tuesday, May 23, 2006
Religion as a Natural Phenomenon - More on Dennett's Book "Breaking the Spell"
This book has now received extensive and varying reviews in both popular (New York Times Book Review, The New Yorker) and scientific (Science, Nature) magazines. Dennett and others argue that religion appeared because groups of humans that developed religious rituals replicated themselves more successfully than those that did not. The fact that human brains developed both self awareness and awareness that others are aware may have led us to have hyperactive agent detection capabilities that not only protect us, but also lead us to believe that rocks and trees are imbued with intentional minds or spirits. This is animism, which led to polytheism, and eventually monotheism. The values of religion to evolutionary fitness could include (from Shermer's review in Science) mythmaking (to explain the dangers and meaning of the natural world), morality (to regulate pro- and anti-social behavior), sociality (within-group amity and between-group enmity), and redemption and resurrection (forgiveness in this life and immortality in the next life). Dennett points out how US mega-churches cater to people's needs - they have a product that opens the wallets of their members as well as moral and social values "that lead to anti-abortion fanaticism, capital punishment, excoriation of gays and lesbians, and dangerous military excursions in the Near East." (from Ruse's Nature review). The religion "meme" continues to grow in the vast majority of humans alive today. (The term "meme" , coined by Richard Dawkins, refers to thoughts, songs, or rituals that replicate and propagate from one human mind to another. The idea is that memes underlie cultural evolution just as genes underlie biological evolution.)