Very early on in the book, (page 17 in my edition), Dennett explains the title of his book:
The spell I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, scientific, no-holds-barred investigation of religion as one natural phenomenon among many.
I’ll have more to say about this endeavor (which comprises the vast majority of the text) tomorrow, but let me say briefly here that I have no particular objection to this goal of Dennett. But now that he’s finished writing this book, I have a suggestion for a topic worthy of Breaking the Spell 2:
The spell I say must be broken is the taboo against a forthright, philosophical investigation of atheisms as one subset of metaphysics and ethics among many.
The book is not primarily about Dennett’s personal philosophy, and he may have written more about his beliefs elsewhere, but I was frustrated enough to dog-ear the page where he wrote:
In spite of the religious connotations of the term, even atheists and agnostics can have sacred values, values that are simple not up for reevaluation at all. I have sacred values–in the sense that I feel vaguely guilty even thinking about whether they are defensible and would never consider abandoning them (I like to think!) in the course of solving a moral dilemma. My sacred values are obvious and quite ecumenical: democracy, justice, life, love, and truth (in alphabetical order).
I have a great and abiding love for Alasdair MacIntyre’s Whose Justice? Which Rationality?, since you can get a pretty good sense of the thesis from the title. If I start to cudgel someone with a copy, it’s much clearer why I’m upset than if I had used MacIntyre’s After Virtue instead. The problem with Dennett’s comment is that, democracy excepted, almost everyone is in favor of the nouns he listed. The disagreements come when people start to define them (or break one down into four definitions).
Breaking the Spell isn’t pitched an apologetic for Dennett’s worldview, but it gives me the heebie-jeebies when people bring up their ethics without making them specific enough to actually have something to defend. I’m sure Dennett thinks something more detailed than this, but when this is the explanation he gives of his philosophy in his big book for lay audiences, he’s giving his readers license to be lazy. Even though these are Dennett’s most important values, the way he’s talking about them doesn’t help me improve my predictions of his behavior over my prior estimate for anyone I happen to meet.
This is why I blog (both pre and post conversion) about weird things like old timey sin-eaters and Sondheim and whatnot. They’re specifics (albeit uncommon specifics) that differentiate my philosophy from others. They point to parts of my philosophy that, like Dennett, I’d be really surprised to have to give up. But it’s cheating and unhelpful to say that your non-negotiable is The Good, which is essentially Dennett’s summation. It’s unfair to your readers, because you’re not giving them a fair shot at you, and it’s bad for you, because, when push comes to shove, you’ll have an easier time clinging to your non-negotiables if they’re a little less diffuse.