I was enjoying a spirited discussion with my study group recently. The topic was not so much Dennett's Breaking the Spell as it was the concerns that book raises in the minds of liberal but religious thinkers. My memory and paraphrasing could not possibly do justice to the range and depth of the discussion but one thought sticks with me like a warm mitten on a cold day.
More or less, the discussion had come to the question of whether or not, despite his disclaimers, Dennett had an agenda to deconstruct religion and just leave it in pieces. The concern was that analyzing the mind and probing religious experience with the expectation of finding only Darwinian workings might succeed [we all doubted that such investigation had a usable body of data to work with] and would then give a basis to discount all the comforting internal transformations that some people work upon their experiences as they practice their religion. In other words the prospect of a mechanistic rationalization of religious experience , whatever the benefits of that experience, posed the much greater risk that the frankly emotional connection that some people sense between themselves and their world could be shown to be illusory in some way, their awe a misapprehension that would evaporate, even from the minds that had taken comfort in the illusion.
With some abstentions, we were roughly of two points of view about this. Some considered the risk real or perhaps that the risk was not so high but the proposed rationalization was a slightly obscene attempt to lay bare in generalizing theories what was always intensely personal...and the attempt would fail to do anything but annoy. The faction in which I found myself was more sanguine. Our experience has been that understanding refraction does not cause us to cease admiring rainbows. Our experience has been that working out F=GM1M2/r2 has not stopped us from staring with a curious longing into the night sky where Mars has predictably come into alignment with Jupiter. Wonder is not so frail nor do we sense that probing the complexity at work beneath the surface of beauty tarnishes the beauty. Perhaps it all comes down to what we each make of awe and whether, when struck by the beauty of something, our very next thought is a kind of gratitude or a kind of curiosity. If you see no beauty in the world, why imagine a god? Just to have someone else to blame?
I consider those of us who trust there is irreducible beauty in this world to be the lucky ones.
I dearly love and revere each mind in that study group. They often lead me into the realms where I suspect no one has, or could have, the knowledge to settle a matter absolutely. I would not seek to change any mind that is so willing to level with mine and speak respectfully and plainly. I need differences of thought and experience so much more than I need another me.