Should the tools of science be used to study the phenomenon of religion? Or should the domain of the sacred remain a shrouded enclave, shielded from the prying eyes and profane proddings of anthropologists, sociologists, economists, and evolutionary biologists?
That is the striking question at the heart of an important book by Dan Dennett entitled Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. Dennett, a self-described “bright”—the stylish neologism signifying a person of the atheist persuasion that he and Richard Dawkins began to promote in twin op-ed essays in 2003—comes out squarely in favor of scientific scrutiny of the origin and nature of religious faith:
It is high time that we subject religion as a global phenomenon to the most intensive multidisciplinary research we can muster, calling on the best minds on the planet. Why? Because religion is too important for us to remain ignorant about. It affects not just our social, political, and economic conflicts, but the very meanings we find in our lives. For many people, probably a majority of the people on Earth, nothing matters more than religion. For this very reason, it is imperative that we learn as much as we can about it. That, in a nutshell, is the argument of this book.(1)
Religion has, of course, been studied previously, both from the inside by theological scholars as diverse in viewpoint as Augustine, Emil Durkheim, and Mircea Eliade and from the outside by pioneering investigators such as William James. But only recently have the sophisticated techniques of modern science—statistical analysis, investigatory methodologies developed in the fields of sociobiology and evolutionary psychology, and methods used to associate genetic patterns with particular categories of behavior—been deployed in order to put religion under the microscope of objective, unbiased scientific analysis. Only now, in fact, do we possess the tool kit—especially the computational techniques—that will allow scientists to develop sophisticated models of the evolution of religious culture, analogous to dynamic software models of linguistic evolution and viral mutation.
The approach advocated by Dennett—forthright demystification of a domain of human experience whose very essence is mystery, irrationality, and faith—has provoked predictable opposition, some of it from surprising quarters. In a review of Breaking the Spell published in The New York Review of Books Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson, forthrightly conceding his own pro-religion bias, chided Dennett for wearing his atheistic prejudices on his sleeve:
My own prejudice, looking at religion from the inside, leads me to conclude that the good vastly outweighs the evil. . . . Without religion, the life of the country would be greatly impoverished. . . . Dennett, looking at religion from the outside, comes to the opposite conclusion. He sees the extreme religious sects that are breeding grounds for gangs of young terrorists and murderers, with the mass of ordinary believers giving them moral support by failing to turn them in to the police. He sees religion as an attractive nuisance in the legal sense, meaning a structure that attracts children and young people and exposes them to dangerous ideas and criminal temptations, like an unfenced swimming pool or an unlocked gun room.(2)
But the whole point of Dennett’s thoughtful book—regrettably obscured by anti-religious rhetoric that would get him stricken from any jury empanelled to adjudicate the merits of his argument—is precisely that the origins, developmental pathways, and internal dynamics of religious communities and belief systems should be subjected to intense scientific investigation, not shunned mindlessly as pathologies associated with the consumption of dangerous and outmoded cultural opiates. To argue otherwise—to either dismiss the societal value proposition of religion ab initio or to agree with the late Stephen Jay Gould that religion and science are separate “magisteria” that should be contemplated in utter isolation and remain forever separated by a rigid cordon sanitaire—is not only literally irrational but also profoundly at odds with basic lessons of history.
As I pointed out in my book Biocosm:
The overlapping domains of science, religion, and philosophy should be regarded as virtual rain forests of cross-pollinating ideas—precious reserves of endlessly fecund memes that are the raw ingredients of consciousness itself in all its diverse manifestations. The messy science/religion/philosophy interface should be treasured as an incredibly fruitful cornucopia of creative ideas—a constantly coevolving cultural triple helix of interacting ideas and beliefs that is, by far, the most precious of all the manifold treasures yielded by our history of cultural evolution on Earth.(3)
In his classic Lowell Lectures delivered at Harvard in 1925, British philosopher Alfred North Whitehead put forward an intriguing explanation for the curious fact that European civilization alone had yielded the cultural phenomenon we know as scientific inquiry. Whitehead’s theory was that “the faith in the possibility of science, generated antecedently to the development of modern scientific theory, is an unconscious derivative from medieval theology.”(4) More specifically, he contended:
The greatest contribution of medievalism to the formation of the scientific movement [was] the inexpugnable belief that every detailed occurrence can be correlated with its antecedents in a perfectly definite manner, exemplifying general principles. Without this belief the incredible labours of scientists would be without hope. It is this instinctive conviction, vividly poised before the imagination, which is the motive power of research—that there is a secret, a secret which can be unveiled.(5)
Whence this instinctive conviction that there is discoverable pattern of order in the realm of nature? The source of the conviction, in Whitehead’s view, was not the inherently obvious rationality of nature but rather a peculiarly European habit of thought—a deeply ingrained, religiously derived, and essentially irrational faith in the existence of a rational natural order. The scientific sensibility, in short, was an unconscious derivative of medieval religious belief in the existence of a well-ordered universe that abides by invariant natural laws which can be discovered by dint of human investigation.
If Whitehead is correct, religion is not at all alien to scientific thought but bears an ancestral relationship to the set of intellectual disciplines that define our concept of modernity. Western religion, in short, is the father of Western science. What could be more fitting, then, than for science to focus the lens of skeptical inquiry on issues relating to its own dimly understood paternity—that is to say, on religious belief, the historical source of scientists’ boundless faith in the discoverable rationality of the cosmos.
Reprinted, with permission of the publisher, from The Intelligent Universe © 2007, James N. Gardner. Published by New Page Books, a division of Career Press, Franklin Lakes, NJ. 800.227.3371. All rights reserved.
1. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 14.
2. Freeman Dyson, “Religion from the Outside,” The New York Review of Books (June 22, 2006), 6.
3. James Gardner, BIOCOSM, 226.
4. Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (New York: Free Press, 1967), 13.
5. Ibid., 12.