Down with music! Understanding scientific “attacks” on religion.

January 6, 2009 | By | 6 Replies More

Many of us who have advocated scientific examination of religions have experienced forceful push-back by those who are religious.   We scientific types don’t always understand that reaction; our attitude is often “We study everything.  That’s what we do.  It’s better to know than not to know.”  Folks who are religious often don’t buy these justifications.  They often consider a scientific study of religion to be . . . well, sacrilegious.

In his 2006 book, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel Dennett offers a provocative hypothetical. What is it like to have someone suggest to a believer that religion is bad, not good?  The title to the relevant section of Dennett’s book is “Is music bad for you?”  It begins on page 40.

Dennett’s hypothetical is to imagine how you would feel if you read in prominent scientific publication that music was bad for your health (that it was a risk factor for Alzheimer’s and heart disease, and it caused a mood disorder that impaired your judgment; that it was a factor that made you aggressive, xenophobic and weak of will)? Imagine further that the scientists concluded that listening to music made you “40% more likely to suffer serious depression, knocked an average of 10 points off your IQ, and nearly doubled the probability that you would commit an act of violence at some time in your life.”  Imagine, further that the scientific experts recommend that people restricted their music and stopped paying for the children to have music lessons. What would you think if you read such an account by prominent scientists? Dennett suggests the following reaction:

Aside from the utter disbelief with which I would greet a report of such “findings,” I can detect in my imagined reactions a visceral defensive surge, along the lines of “so much the worse for [the prominent scientists]! What do they know about music?” And “I don’t care if it is true! Anybody who tries to take away my music had better be prepared for a fight, because a life without music isn’t worth living. I don’t care if it ”hurts me, and I don’t even care if it ‘hurts’ others-we’re going to have music, and that’s all there is to it.”

That is how I would be tempted to respond. I would rather not live in a world without music. “But why?” Someone might ask. “It’s just some silly sawing away and making noise together. It doesn’t feed the hungry or cure cancer or . . .” I answer: “But it brings great comfort and joy to hundreds of millions of people. Sure, there are excesses and controversies, but still, can anybody doubt that music is by and large a good thing?” “Well, yes,” comes the reply. There are religious sects-the Taliban, for instance, but also Puritan sect of yore in Christianity and no doubt others-that have held that music is an evil pastime, a sort of drug to be forbidden

Dennett recognizes that many people react to attacks on their religion the way most of us would react to attacks on music. His suggestion is that we should nonetheless make scientific inquiry into anything so attacked.

Let’s subject religion to the same sort of scientific inquiry that we have done with tobacco and alcohol and, for that matter, music. Let’s find out why people love their religion, and what it’s good for. And we should no more take the existing research to settle the issue then we took the tobacco companies campaigns about the safety of cigarette smoking at face value.   .. . if I were told by credible people that music might be harmful to the world, all things considered, I would feel morally bound to examine the evidence as dispassionately as I could. In fact, I would feel guilty about my allegiance to music if I didn’t check it out.

For Dennett, music might be what Marx suggested of religion: “the opiate of the masses, keeping working people in tranquilize subjugation, but it may also be the rallying song of revolution, closing up the ranks and giving heart to all.”

Dennett reminds us that most of the research on music is like most of the research on religion. It takes these subjects for granted. Most research concerns music theory and musical techniques, but does not concerned why we create and enjoy music. The same thing goes for religion. It is a rare theology course, indeed, that questions the allegedly factual foundations on which all religious practice is based.  Was there really a Jesus? Can we trust the authenticity of the sacred writings such as the Bible?  And it is almost unheard of to foster vigorous skepticism as part of a religious service (though it has been done).

How deep should we delve on the question of why religion exists?  According to Dennett, as far as possible:

If someone asks: why does music exist? There is a short answer, and it is true, so far as it goes: it exists because we love it, and hence we’d keep bringing more of it into existence. But why do we love it? Because we find that it is beautiful. But why is it beautiful to us?  This is a perfectly good biological question, but it does not yet have a good answer.

The main point of Breaking the Spell is that we should give serious scientific study to all phenomena, including religion, even though many believers might claim that such a study is somehow off-limits.  Nothing should off-limits to serious study.  As he suggests in his Introduction (page 17) “the fervor of their belief is no substitute for good hard evidence . . . “


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Category: music, Psychology Cognition, Religion

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (6)

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  1. What an interesting thought experiment! That's very similar to the kind of thing I try to do when I ask believers to imagine what it would be like if there were no God and non-believers to imagine there is.

  2. Niklaus Pfirsig says:

    The "music is bad" arguments made me recall part of the controversy surrounding the Columbine shootings. It appears that the shooters were fans of the music of the East German metal band "Rammstein", and one explanation was that the "demonic influence" of the their song lyrics made them do it.

    I have several issues with this. First Rammstein performs almost all of their songs in German, and many of the English translations of their lyric are somewhat inaccurate. For example, the Rammstein son "Du Hast" is about a man who changes his mind about marriage when the priest ask the "Do you take this woman..", however many English translations of the lyrics report "Du hast Mich" as "You hate me" instead of "You have me"

    Second Rammstein's music videos usually are unrelated to the lyrics. The music video for "Du Hast" is a tribute to Quentin Taratino's "Reservoir Dogs".

    So instead of thinking that maybe the boys listened to Rammstein because thay believed the bad translations of the lyrics suited their negative world view, the religious church-goers assumed that there must be some demonic influence.

    In 1985, in Nevada, two teenage boys made a mutual suicide pact. After several weeks of preparation "getting their affairs in order" and exhibiting many classic warning signs of suicidal behavior, the two young men got drunk and hig on beer and marijuana while listening to the music of the band Judas Priest. Then they went to a nearby church yard and shot themselves with an 18 gauge shot gun.

    Some people just can't take responsibility for anything.

  3. Chris Schoen says:

    It's astonishing–and telling–that Dennett believes that the question "why is music beautiful?" is a biological one. Of course, in a banal way, the answer will be biological in the sense that it can't contradict the history of evolution. In that sense every question about humanity is biological. But that's not what Dennett means. He means that biological answers supervene on aesthetic and ethical answers. He means that the answer will come in the form of adaptationist logic (which is to say, tautology, for here we are, with our music.)

    More generally, Eric, it's fallacious to equate theology with more objective forms of religious discussion, like anthropology or sociology. (Dennett makes the same error in BTS, calling for the first steps in a research program that is already almost two centuries old.) Of course theology doesn't (generally) question its own foundations, any more than computer science or dentistry does–though they all have responded to challenges and criticisms mounted from outside their disciplines. To imply as Dennett does with his tobacco lobby analogy that all scientific study of religion of the last two centuries is corrupted by a pro-sacred bias is simply ahistorical. Neither Frazer, Dewey, Malinowski, Muller, Durkheim, Tylor, Marett, W. James, or Freud (just to name a few) ever advocated quarantining certain religious beliefs and practices from scrutiny. Even Eliade, who popularized the distinction between the sacred and the profane, never argued that the sacred should be protected from examination. He wouldn't have had much of a career if it were.

  4. Vicki Baker says:

    Chris, excellent point. Here's William James in "The Varieties of Religious Experience" circa 1902:

    Scientific theories are organically conditioned just as much as religious emotions are; and if we only knew the facts intimately enough, we should doubtless see 'the liver' determining the dicta of the sturdy atheist as decisively as it does those of the Methodist under conviction anxious about his soul. When it alters in one way the blood that percolates it, we get the Methodist, when in another way, we get the atheist form of mind.

    Also, it's actually untrue that "it's a rare theology course" that questions the "authenticity of sacred writings such as the Bible" if by "authenticity" one means "inerrancy" or a failure to recognize that such texts are human artifacts collected, written, and altered by humans, often for the sake of favoring one political faction over another. It would certainly be a rare theology course at the Harvard School of Divinity, the Berkeley Graduate Theological Union, or any similar institution, which started from any other premise.

    Isn't at least an attempt to review the existing literature a foundation of good scholarshp? By making such sweeping generalizations about 2 centuries of scholarship, Dennett only makes himself look stupid. But it plays well with the Bildunsphilister.

  5. Erich Vieth says:


    Thank you for taking the time to respond to my post on Daniel Dennett’s thought experiment.

    I posted on Dennett’s comparison between music and religion because, for me, this comparison helped me to understand the push-back that scientists so often experience when they dare to look long and deep at why people are religious.

    You’ve suggested that Dennett is wrong to suggest that the roots of the enjoyment of music (and the craving for religion) are biological. You’ve then accused Dennett of tautologically arriving at an answer to the “why” of religion. But Dennett, a philosopher, painfully strived throughout BTS to make the point that science has not yet done much work on religion. His main point is that the work has only just begun. Yes, Dennett’s preferred lens is biology, but he clearly writes that the scientific exploration of religion should involve the approaches offered by all of the potential disciplines of science, not just biology (p. 34):

    In the 20th century, a lot was learned about how to study human phenomena, social phenomena. Wave after wave of research and criticism has sharpened our appreciation of the particular pitfalls, such as biases in data gathering, investigator-interferences effects, and the interpretation of data. Statistical and analytical techniques have become much more sophisticated, and we have begun setting aside the old over-simplified models of human perception, emotion, motivation, and control of action and replacing them with more physiologically and psychologically realistic models. The yawning chasm that was seen to separate the sciences of the mind from the natural sciences has not yet been bridged securely, but many lines have been flung across the divide. Mutual suspicion and professional jealousy as well as genuine their radical controversy continued to shake almost all efforts to carry insights back-and-forth on these connecting routes, and every day the traffic grows. The question is not whether good science of religion as a natural phenomenon is possible: it is. The question is whether we should do it.

    You’ve also suggested (here, and at your own blog) that Dennett is arguing that religion is best understood through the lens of reductive science. It’s important to note that Dennett is not advocating “greedy reductionism.” Dennett clearly understands that there are multiple levels of understanding, some of them work better than others on various types of phenomena. Dennett would be the last person on Earth to suggest that scientists could best understand religion by studying atoms. Consider this passage (from page 71):

    [There is] a familiar presumption among researchers in the social sciences and humanities, who often deem it "reductionistic" (and in very bad form) even to pose questions about the biological bases of the biological and important phenomena. I can see some cultural anthropologists and sociologists rolling their eyes in disdain–"oh, no! Here comes Darwin again, butting in where he isn't needed!"–while some historians and philosophers of religion and theologians snicker at the philistinism of anybody who could ask with a straight face about the evolutionary underpinnings of religion. "What next, a search for the Catholicism gene?" This negative response is typically unthinking, but it isn't foolish. It is supported in part by unpleasant memories of past campaigns that failed: naïve and ill-informed forays by biologists into the thickets of cultural complexity. There is a good case to be made that the social sciences and humanities—the Geisteswissenschaften, or mind sciences–have their own "autonomous" methodologies and subject matters, independent of the natural sciences. But in spite of all that can be said in favor of this idea (and I will spend some time looking at the best case for it in due course), the disciplinary isolation it motivates has become a major obstacle to good scientific practice, a poor excuse for ignorance, and ideological crutch that should be thrown away.

    You write that “It’s fallacious to equate theology with more objective forms of religious discussion, like anthropology or sociology.” But Dennett didn’t engage in this fallacy. He equated theology with traditional study of music, which (for the most part) involves history, rhythms, harmonic structure, but not the deep question of “Why do we pursue and enjoy music?” Dennett is equating the deep questions that could be aimed at both music and theology, but usually aren’t addressed. Instead, most music (religion) classes, most of the time, consider the surface issues of how these practices are exhibited rather than deeper questions of why we pursue them at all. This reminds me of a time (about 20 years ago) when I had the opportunity to talk with Leonard Slatkin, then the distinguished conductor with the St. Louis Symphony. I asked him why, in his opinion, people are drawn to music at all. Slatkin, a brilliant conductor, admitted that he hadn’t really given any thought to that question. Over my life, I’ve spoken to many dozens of people who are highly trained in theology. It has been a rare bird among that specialized group who had any passion for understanding religion through the lens of science.

    Do theology courses sometimes touch on the issue of why so many people are religious (versus traditional theology topics)? Sure they do, for a moment or two; it’s called lip service. A scan of the courses offered by the Harvard School of Divinity doesn’t suggest much interest in putting religion under the microscope of science.

    Dennett never suggested that no one has ever before attempted to see religion through a naturalistic lens. As you point out, that has happened repeatedly through history (Dennett discusses the writings of many of the people on your list in BTS). As Dennett suggests in the above passages, though, the techniques for really digging in are just beginning to be available to scientists. In the meantime, most modern day lay people (and many scientists) still remain uncomfortable with the notion that the basis for religion could ever be the subject of scientific study. It makes many people angry to think that scientists would ever be so arrogant as to sit at a table with the theologians when religion is being discussed. It is this predominant view against which Dennett further scientific exploration. This point is central to Dennett’s entire book. Is he suggesting that the scientific approach will satisfy everyone? "Compared to what?" Dennett would ask. It has not yet been tried with vigor and modern-day techniques.

    BTW, I took some time to read some of your posts at Underverse— You’ve written a long slate of thoughtful posts—I’ve added your site to my favorites.

  6. Chris Schoen says:


    Thanks for your gracious reply to my comment.

    Dennett obviously believes that the social sciences’ efforts to understand religion up until now have been inadequate, and that we’ve only just begun to study religion properly. I think this is dismissive of the painstaking work that has come before him. But my point is rather that whether or not the anthropologists and philosophers and historians of prior centuries did good or bad science, or good or bad philosophy, one cannot accuse them wholesale (as Dennett does) of being cowed by a taboo against scientific exploration of religious belief. He writes:

    [s]ince religion matters so much to so many people, researchers have almost never even attempted to be neutral; they have tended to err on the side of deference, putting on the kid gloves.”

    A citation demonstrating this deference would have been helpful. I think Dennett’s remark would come as a surprise to people actually familiar with the disciplines of religious anthropology, psychology, philosophy, and history. Of course there have been partisans (just as today there are “science” books written by cranks among several disciplines) but to generalize from these examples is just bad scholarship. Dennett makes it sound as if a reasonably objective inquiry into the origins of religion is just beginning, which is nonsense, though it has the benefit of seating Dennett in the hero’s saddle, calling bravely for the challenging of entrenched taboos.

    You quote my remark that “it’s fallacious to equate theology with more objective forms of religious discussion, like anthropology or sociology,” and reply: “But Dennett didn’t engage in this fallacy.” Perhaps, but I wasn’t quoting him, I was quoting you:

    Dennett reminds us that most of the research on music is like most of the research on religion. It takes these subjects for granted. Most research concerns music theory and musical techniques, but does not concerned why we create and enjoy music. The same thing goes for religion. It is a rare theology course, indeed, that questions the allegedly factual foundations on which all religious practice is based.

    You make a leap from “research on religion” to the “rare theology course” that I don’t follow, since there has been abundant research on religion in the secular sphere for scores of decades. It’s a bit of a red herring to complain about what does or doesn’t happen at divinity school (though as Vicki notes in her comment, it’s not nearly as rubber-stampy there as you might expect.)

    Finally, when it comes to the question of whether we may not only study, but also judge the value of religions, Dennett makes an appeal to democratic values (one of five “sacred” values he explicitly allots himself):

    Eventually, we must arrive at questions about ultimate values, and no factual investigation could answer them. Instead we can do no better than to sit down and reason together, a political process of mutual persuasion and education that we can try to conduct in good faith. But in order to do that we have to know what we are choosing between, and we need to have a clear account of the reasons that can be offered for and against the different visions of the participants. Those who refuse to participate (because they already know the answers in their hearts) are, from the point of view of the rest of us, part of the problem. Instead of being participants in our democratic effort to find agreement among our fellow human beings, they place themselves in the inventory of obstacles to be dealt with. (my emphasis)

    This is an interesting rhetorical move. It uses the language of equality, understanding, and democracy, but at the same time only allows that the “process of mutual understanding” can proceed on Dennett’s own terms; namely, by demanding, up front, the very thing—the “breaking of the spell”—that the two sides are supposedly “reasoning together” to discover the wisdom of. Of course the results are predictable. One party gets to walk away declaring moral victory for the cause of the sacred value of taboo-breaking, and the other for the sacred value of sanctifying, but has any real communication taken place?

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