Daniel Dennett missed out on a career as a whodunit writer. But I, for one, am glad, because what he has to tell us is more important than what you’ll find in the average crime novel. He boldly storms onto the philosophical crime scene, takes every puzzle ever to have exercised the human mind, gives it a good rinse in what he calls Darwin’s universal acid, and leaves us with the solution to the meaning of life, the universe, and everything. You may not like the answers he comes up with, but you can’t help but admire the way he approaches his task. He outlines for us what the mystery is – just trifling ones like the origin of life, the physical basis of consciousness, stuff like that – and slowly and enticingly takes us through each step of his argument. Like watching an episode of Columbo, knowing whodunit at the start and that Columbo will find the answer doesn’t at all spoil the fun. Read his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Consciousness Explained, and you’ll see a true master at work. He may not have quite the same facility with language and colourful metaphor as his comrade in arms, Richard Dawkins, but his is a skill of a different yet equally impressive kind. In Dennett’s latest book on religion, you can still find some of the magic. The book as a whole, however, has to rank as a failure. Unlike his earlier work, it staggers from one poorly thought-through idea to another like – as Winston Churchill once put it – the men who stumble over the truth, but hastily pick themselves up and hurry on as if nothing has happened.
If you are at all familiar with Dennett’s work, you would probably buy this book expecting a thoroughly materialist, Darwinian and scientific account of the evolutionary emergence – and continuing appeal of – religion. Surprisingly, he refuses to provide it.