Believing in Belief

Saturday, February 25th, 2006

Michael Shermer reviews Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell in Believing in Belief:

In a 1997 episode of the animated television series The Simpsons, Lisa Simpson discovers a fossil angel. Suspecting a hoax, she takes a piece of the fossil to the natural history museum where Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould (playing himself) analyzes it. The age-old conflict between science and religion then plays out in this ne plus ultra of pop culture. The town evangelical Ned Flanders bemoans: “Science is like a blabbermouth who ruins a movie by telling you how it ends.” When Gould announces that the test results are “inconclusive,” Reverend Lovejoy boasts: “Well, it appears science has failed again, in front of overwhelming religious evidence.” Marge counsels Lisa’s skepticism with motherly wisdom: “There has to be more to life than just what we see Lisa. Everyone needs something to believe in.” Lisa’s rejoinder is classic skepticism: “It’s not that I don’t have a spiritual side. I just find it hard to believe there’s a dead angel hanging in our garage.” The Scopes-like trial that ensues ends when the judge issues a restraining order: “Religion must stay 500 yards from science at all times.”

This is, in fact, Gould’s conciliatory solution he called NOMA (Non-Overlapping Magisteria), and it is the primary target of Tufts University philosopher Daniel C. Dennett in his latest book, Breaking the Spell. All restraining orders are off, as Dennett calls for “a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.” The spell to be broken is the taboo that science will render incapable “the life-enriching enchantment of religion itself.”

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