Today in New Delhi, India
Dec 14, 2018-Friday
New Delhi
  • Humidity
  • Wind

Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

Let coolness of reason replace commands of faith. Edward Rothstein finds out more.

india Updated: Feb 27, 2006 14:09 IST

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon
Author: Daniel C. Dennett
Publisher: Viking
Pages: 448
Price: $25.95

'An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb,' explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, manoeuvres the ant into place.

Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this is how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea “that has lodged in their brains”. That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behaviour in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means “submission,” and submission is what religious believers practise. In his view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.

Now that is iconoclasm. “I believe that it is very important to break this spell,” Dennett writes, as he tries to undermine the claims and authority of religious belief. Attacks on religion, of course, have been a staple of Western secular society since the Enlightenment, though often carried out with far less finesse than Dennett does.

Dennett understands, too, that iconoclasm, with its lack of deference, can also give offence. But not even he could have imagined the response to the now notorious Danish cartoons that have so offended Muslims around the world. If Dennett’s attack is a premeditated spur to debate, the Muslim riots shock with their primordial force.

Dennett would like the coolness of reason to replace the commands of faith. The riots, though, show that reason alone is insufficient. They are the latest manifestations of battles that once took place within the West, particularly during the eighth century, when iconoclasm (from the Greek, meaning the “breaking of images”) got its name. The iconoclasts of the eighth century and their successors during the Reformation were like the Taliban or rioting Muslims of the 21st. Except that that older violence occurred within a religion, inspired by theology. Today’s iconoclasts want to oppose all attempts to display forbidden images, whatever their provenance. And “for a variety of reasons, many in the West readily defer”.

Of course, to a certain extent, the recent riots also reflect a struggle for internal power. Rage was deliberately churned up with supplementary drawings reportedly created by some radical Muslim leaders and presented along with the original group of 12. What response is possible to such attacks? Many commentators have been surprising deferent, describing the original 12 images, almost apologetically, as insensitive. But look more closely: the subject of many is not really Muhammad himself, but the act of drawing Muhammad and the responses it might inspire. A cartoonist is shown anxiously leaning over his sketch of Muhammad, sweating profusely, looking over his shoulder in fear.

Some of these cartoons are not iconoclastic offences against religious belief at all. Instead, they are about iconoclasm and anticipated confrontations with it. They turn out to be depictions of the very reaction they inspired. They are expressions of anxiety. In the West, Dennett’s iconoclasm is absorbed, but Muslim iconoclasm cannot be. It may be that the US has created a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief.

First Published: Feb 27, 2006 12:31 IST