Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon

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Breaking the Spell
File:Breaking The Spell.jpg
Author Daniel C. Dennett
Country United States
Language English
Subject Psychology of religion
Publisher Viking (Penguin)
Publication date
ISBN 978-0-14-303833-7
OCLC 61240665
200 22
LC Class BL2775.3 .D46 2006
Preceded by

Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon is a 2006 book in which the American philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett argues that religion is in need of scientific analysis so that its nature and future may be better understood. The "spell" that requires "breaking" is not religious belief itself but the belief that it is off-limits to or beyond scientific inquiry.[citation needed]


The book is divided into three parts. Part I discusses the motivation and justification for the entire project: Can science study religion? Should science study religion? After answering in the affirmative, Part II proceeds to use the tools of evolutionary biology and memetics to suggest possible theories regarding the origin of religion and subsequent evolution of modern religions from ancient folk beliefs. Part III analyzes religion and its effects in today's world: Does religion make us moral? Is religion what gives meaning to life? What should we teach the children? Dennett bases much of his analysis on empirical evidence, though he often points out that much more research in this field is needed.

Dennett's working definition of religions is: "social systems whose participants avow belief in a supernatural agent or agents whose approval is to be sought." He notes that this definition is "a place to start, not something carved in stone."

Critical reception

Generally, the book was well received, with The Guardian's Andrew Brown[1] describing it as giving "a very forceful and lucid account of the reasons why we need to study religious behaviour as a human phenomenon". In Scientific American, George Johnson describes the book's main draw as being "a sharp synthesis of a library of evolutionary, anthropological and psychological research on the origin and spread of religion.".[2] Finally, in The New Yorker, H. Allen Orr described the book as "an accessible account of what might be called the natural history of religion."[3]

However, The New York Times, Leon Wieseltier called the book "a sorry instance of present-day scientism" and "a merry anthology of contemporary superstitions.".[4] Additionally, Charles T. Rubin, in the The New Atlantis, likened Dennett to "a tone-deaf music scholar", criticized his "unwillingness to admit the limits of scientific rationality" and accused him of "deploying the same old Enlightenment tropes that didn’t work all that well the first time around."[5]


Breaking the Spell has been translated into several other languages, including:

Language Title Translator/s Publication ISBN
Dutch De betovering van het geloof: religie als een natuurlijk fenomeen Hans Bosman Amsterdam: Contact 2006 ISBN 9025426875
Finnish Lumous murtuu: uskonto luonnonilmiönä Kimmo Pietiläinen Helsinki: Terra Cognita 2007 ISBN 978-952-5202-96-0
German Den Bann brechen. Religion als natürliches Phänomen Frank Born Frankfurt a. M.: Verlag der
Weltreligionen im Insel Verlag 2008
ISBN 978-3-458-71011-0
Greek Απομυθοποίηση Dimitris Xygalatas
Nikolas Roubekas
Thessaloniki: Vanias 2007 ISBN 978-960-288-198-9
Italian Rompere l'incantesimo. La religione come fenomeno naturale S. Levi Milano: Cortina Raffaello 2007 ISBN 978-88-6030-097-3
Polish Odczarowanie. Religia jako zjawisko naturalne Barbara Stanosz Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut
Wydawniczy 2008
ISBN 978-83-06-03138-6
Portuguese Quebrando O Encanto. A Religião Como Fenômeno Natural Helena Londres Rio de Janeiro: Globo 2006 ISBN 978-85-250-4288-0
Spanish Romper el hechizo: la religión como un fenómeno natural Felipe de Brigard Madrid: Katz 2007 ISBN 978-84-96859-00-5

See also


  1. Brown, A., (2006). Beyond belief. The Guardian. Available to: [Accessed 25/07/2015]
  2. "Getting a Rational Grip on Religion", Scientific American, December 25, 2005.
  3. "The God Project", The New Yorker, April 3, 2006.
  4. "The God Genome", The New York Times, February 19, 2006.
  5. "The God Meme", The New Atlantis 12 (Spring 2006).

External links