The Belief Trap

The evolutionary explanation of religion gets stuck.

On the face of it, there’s no reason not to dissect religion with the same tools used to pick apart animal behavior. Why can’t we ask how religion evolved? What’s wrong with trying to figure out whether cleaving unto God enhanced our ancestors’ chances of survival, or whether, on the contrary, religious belief occupied them like a parasite, sickening healthy minds with delusional notions?

And yet this approach to religion has long been perceived as a breach of intellectual protocol. Ever since the 18th century, when Immanuel Kant carved up the world between pure reason (science) and practical reason (morality), science has more or less kept to nature, while religion—the nonfundamentalist kind, anyway—has largely confined itself to ethics and the meaning of life. Raids by one party on the camp of the other have invariably ended in name-calling. “Reductionists! Imperialists!” the theologians cry whenever naturalists start making notes and drawing charts. “Relativists! Anti-rationalists!” the scientists retort upon encountering philosophers who wonder whether science is but one descriptive system among others and not the high road to truth.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett promises to break the impasse, or at least to map a course for research that would redraw the traditional boundaries between science and religion. Evolutionary theory, he says, can tell us why religion evolved and what it was meant to achieve, which means it can explain why the religious act the way they do. In an age of growing fanaticism, this seems a claim worth paying attention to. And Dennett seems the man to make good on it. A philosopher of mind—he has written acclaimed books on consciousness and evolutionary theory—Dennett knows how to argue about science and how to argue from within it. A militant atheist, he doesn’t promise to keep an open mind about religion. But in theory, at least, his frankness adds value to his opinions.

As Dennett knows full well, the biggest challenge for anyone who wants to put religion under the microscope is figuring out what goes on the slide. What is religion, anyway? How can you tell it apart from ideology or philosophy? How do you distinguish religion­s, with their quirks and presuppositions, from nationalities or professions, with their quirks and presuppositions? How is being Catholic different from being American, or being a human rights worker?

These may seem like small quibbles, but they have big consequences. We’d be foolish to single out religion for evolutionary investigation if there is nothing about it that is unique. If religions are just cultures, if religious rituals are functionally indistinguishable from other irrational habits, if a religious idea, or meme, Dennett calls it, is just one more way of interpreting the world, then we ought to be asking much broader questions, such as, why do humans have a penchant for peculiar rituals? Trying to explain religion through evolutionary theory would be as frivolous as trying to understand skateboarding by means of physics.

Dennett’s definition of religion, however, swats away all such complications with a satisfyingly commonsensical solution. Religions, he says, are “social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought.” Only one part of this statement is actually meaningful. All discernable cultural groups are social systems, and all coherent social systems evince some system of authority—their participants seek approval from somebody or other. What sets religion apart, then, is that its participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents. In other words, they aver belief in a God or gods.

Saying that the religious express belief in a deity certainly seems like the obvious way to describe them. But Dennett’s definition should give pause to anybody who has ever gone to church or synagogue without being sure why. How does Dennett account for all the people who practice religion without ascertaining whether or not they believe in God?

Dennett has foreseen the objection, which is why he makes “avow” the chief verb in his definition. People don’t have to believe what they’re saying when they utter prayers in order to be classified as religious. They just have to say the words. But Dennett can’t rely on this trick alone, because if everybody avowed belief without meaning it, we’d be back where we started. Religion would be made up of no more than the usual inexplicable cultural activities, like declaiming poetry or shunning dog meat.

So, Dennett has to invent another concept: “belief in belief.” He devotes an entire chapter to this troublingly attenuated notion. People who believe in belief, he says, believe that civilization needs myths to live by, so we mustn’t examine religious ones too closely. Belief in belief is the compromise formation of those who can’t bring themselves to evince a naive belief in a supernatural being but think religion is a useful construct that ought not to be toppled.

You’d have a hard time convincing a true believer that anything as second-order and instrumental as “belief in belief” constitutes belief. Dennett doesn’t really think so, either. He sees it more as a falling away from belief, a latter-day apostasy that doesn’t recognize itself as such. By the end of his chapter, having dismantled “belief in belief,” Dennett excludes from his definition of religion all cosmologies that do not require one to acknowledge the literal truth of the proposition that God exists, or at least gods who are “effective agents in real time.” Thus, for instance, he rules out deism, the view that God acts through natural laws, and incidentally Charles Darwin’s credo for much of his later life. “If what you hold sacred is not any kind of Person you could pray to, or consider to be an appropriate recipient of gratitude (or anger, when a loved one is senselessly killed), you’re an atheist in my book,” writes Dennett. “If, for reasons of loyalty to tradition, diplomacy, or self-protective camouflage (very important today, especially for politicians), you want to deny what you are, that’s your business, but don’t kid yourself.”

What kind of people don’t kid themselves, according to Dennett? People who practice folk religions, not theological sophistry. Shamans, not priests, imams, or rabbis. Real religion, according to Dennett, makes you do real things with real consequences (sacrifice an ox to ensure rain, for example). Modern religions only make you do inconsequential things, such as profess the proper doctrine. It makes no difference to a Catholic’s material well-being whether the wine he drinks during communion has turned into Jesus’ blood or not (though it may make a big difference to him psychologically).

But the distinction between folk religions and their opposites also crumbles the minute you try to apply it. How can Dennett be sure that adherents to folk religions believe in a more concrete way than, say, Episcopalians? Natives might pay lip service, too. They might not really believe that sacrificing an ox willbring rain; they might do it merely because it is done, or because they don’t know what else to do. With typical honesty, Dennett acknowledges the dilemma, quoting a prominent anthropologist who observed that he never knew, when asking informants about their religious practices, whether they told him what they thought they were supposed to say or what they really believed.

And so, in the end, Dennett gives up. When it comes to interpreting what people say about religion, he writes, “everybody is an outsider” (his italics), the natives and the anthropologists, the religious and the scientifically minded. Why? “Because religious avowals concern matters that are beyond observation, beyond meaningful test, so the only thing anybody can go on is religious behavior.” He closes his chapter and moves on. He does not seem concerned that he has just admitted the impossibility of distinguishing religion from everything else. Nor does he worry that this admission undermines the ambition of his book, which is to explain the biological rationale for religion, not to propose a grand theory of culture.

Dennett is not the first writer to find himself going around in this particular circle. As soon as travelers began returning from far-off lands with reports of aboriginal religions, philosophers grasped that the anthropology of religion had a definitional problem on its hands. Could Buddhism, whose God is synonymous with reality, be classed with Christianity, whose God descends to earth in human form? What percentage of pre-modern forms of worship involved religion (praying to God or gods) and to what degree could they be construed as proto-science (trying to control the elements)? Were non-Western creeds crudely nonmetaphorical, or did the white men who wrote about them know too little about their informants not to wrench their statements out of context? Ludwig Wittgenstein once mocked J.G. Frazer, author of the classic Golden Bough, for “narrowness of spiritual life,” because he turned the religions he anatomized into “stupidities” as arid as himself.

Faced with these dilemmas, philosophers concluded that there was only one way to tell religion from other apparent aberrations. Religion, they said, is what makes people feel religious. It puts them in touch with the Infinite or with what Freud called “the oceanic feeling.” Defining religion as an experience, however, puts us back into the old Kantian world in which science goes here and religion goes there. An experiential definition of religion renders it impervious to empirical observation. You can never prove that someone feels religious, so you can never prove that something is a religion. The philosopher Søren Kierkegaard took this idea even further, saying that the nonreligious could never understand the truth of religion, because religious experience could be understood only subjectively, not objectively.

Why didn’t Dennett try to wriggle out of the belief trap by basing his definition of religion on experience, as other philosophers have done? He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, because for him, consciousness is an illusion, and that position doesn’t leave much room for subjectivity, either. Religion is another illusion; that’s the spell he has come to break. You don’t banish a chimera by granting that it is real. You have to explain it away by revealing a) its nature and b) its purpose. And if you’re a hard-core evolutionist, as Dennett is, those can be only a) biological and b) survival. Whether the religious meme enhances our survival or its own—and what exactly it means to say that a nonbiological agent has the power to ensure its own survival—are two other enormous questions Dennett raises in this book. They deserve an essay of their own (and, sometime soon, will get it).