One problem with religion, says philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, is that we don't question it enough. Dennett's new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking), explores religion scientifically -- what it is, what it does, how it does it. Applying the Darwinian logic of natural selection, the Andover, Mass., resident and author of Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea also asks whether religion is actually good for us.
Was religion always as prominent in public affairs as it is today?
There was a time back in the Enlightenment, in the 18th century, when lots of well-informed and intelligent people thought religion would sort of evaporate. That hasn't happened, and that's one of the reasons I set out to write the book, to say, "Well, those people were wrong. They misunderstood religion. Let's try to understand religion better so we can see what the future is likely to hold."
You begin a book about religion with the image of a parasite driving an ant to self-destruction.
I wanted to give readers an immediate insight into the sort of unsettling perspective they were going to find.
Why do people resist Darwinian thinking about anything besides biology?
What the evolutionary perspective does is it sort of turns upside down the way of looking at the whole world of human culture. But we have to be able to understand the biological roots of human culture, which includes language, music, art, religion. If we just treat it as this amazing sort of miracle, we will misunderstand it badly.
In evolutionary terms, does religion provide a benefit?
But the benefit to what? It might be to the religion itself.
So religion is an organism that adapts to survive?
The Christianity of today is quite different from the Christianity of 1,800 years ago. Anybody who says everything is rock-solid just doesn't know the facts.
The "spell" of your title is the taboo against questioning religion.
One of the best adaptations that religions have for furthering their own survival and spread is these doctrines that convince people that they dare not abandon religion, because life will have no meaning. But that's manifestly absurd. I don't know any people anywhere that are more actively engaged, more wonderfully and morally engaged in the world, than a lot of my fellow atheists.
Do you shock people by professing atheism?
I think it simply surprises them to hear me say it so calmly and casually. Actually I think most people in this country are atheists. I think they're just reluctant to admit it. If you look at the most definitive study that I know of to date, the ARIS study of 2001, it gave people four choices: no religion, somewhat religious, religious and very religious. The majority of people are the first two categories. And I think anybody that says "somewhat religious" is probably a "bright" like me who is reluctant to admit it.
Why is religion so good at commanding allegiance?
It's been evolving for thousands of years, so it's picked up a lot of good design. Religions are exquisitely, cunningly contrived to command human loyalty, and allegiance and love, and you tamper with them at your peril.
Since the 2004 presidential election there's been more talk about mixing religion and politics.
If we look around the world we see that theocracy is not a good political system. When religious belief is made close to a requirement for holding public office, or for instance being appointed to a presidential commission, this is a bad sign.
Should liberals who think conservatives have hijacked religion show instead how it promotes their own values?
No. It is a panicky reaction, and I think that it simply surrenders to the religiosity move on the part of the Republicans. It's wrong for the same reason it's wrong for us to bend over backwards to placate the outraged Muslims over the publication of those cartoons. It's appalling that the people in America would not vote for an atheist for president, or senator, and moves like this just feed that. When most of the people in the country don't care [about religion], it's simply creating hypocrisy.
"I don't need religion, but it's good for other people."
It's tremendously patronizing.
What are some practical suggestions for "breaking the spell"?
The one that matters to me the most is my suggestion that we should teach more about religion in the public schools. I'm fascinated to see that for instance the editor of a Roman Catholic newspaper in San Diego who reviewed the book called this "totalitarian." It seems to me it's the height of freedom. Informed choice, informed choice -- c'mon folks, that's what democracy and freedom's supposed to be all about. And if your religion can't compete in the open marketplace of ideas, if you have to hide the alternatives from your children, then your religion doesn't deserve to survive.
What about sports fanaticism as a sort of crypto-religion?
Far from deploring the devotion of fans to their sports, I think that's a fine outlet for those emotional needs, and I think it would be great if religions turned themselves into great moral teams. They could vie with each other for how much good they could do on the planet. They could have different traditions, different songs, different rituals, different colors -- fine. And let's see who can end poverty in Africa better. But just leave the creed out of it. I don't think it'll ever happen, but it's a nice fantasy.