An ant climbs a blade of grass, over and over, seemingly without purpose, seeking neither nourishment nor home. It persists in its futile climb, explains Daniel C. Dennett at the opening of his new book, "Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon" (Viking), because its brain has been taken over by a parasite, a lancet fluke, which, over the course of evolution, has found this to be a particularly efficient way to get into the stomach of a grazing sheep or cow where it can flourish and reproduce. The ant is controlled by the worm, which, equally unconscious of purpose, maneuvers the ant into place.
Mr. Dennett, anticipating the outrage his comparison will make, suggests that this how religion works. People will sacrifice their interests, their health, their reason, their family, all in service to an idea "that has lodged in their brains." That idea, he argues, is like a virus or a worm, and it inspires bizarre forms of behavior in order to propagate itself. Islam, he points out, means "submission," and submission is what religious believers practice. In Mr. Dennett's view, they do so despite all evidence, and in thrall to biological and social forces they barely comprehend.
Now that is iconoclasm — a wholehearted attempt to destroy a respected icon. "I believe that it is very important to break this spell," Mr. Dennett writes, as he tries to undermine the claims and authority of religious belief. Attacks on religion, of course, have been a staple of Western secular society since the Enlightenment, though often carried out with far less finesse (and far less emphasis on biology) than Mr. Dennett does; he refers to "the widespread presumption by social scientists that religion is some kind of lunacy."
Mr. Dennett understands, too, that iconoclasm, with its lack of deference, can also give offense. But not even he could have imagined the response to the now notorious Danish cartoons that have so offended Muslims around the world, leading to riots, death and destruction. It was as if the problem of religious belief in the modern world had been highlighted in garish colors. If Mr. Dennett's attack is a premeditated spur to debate, the Muslim riots shock with their primordial force. Together, they leave us with a tough set of intertwining questions: Can religion — with its absolute and sweeping assertions — make any claim on a society whose doctrines require it to defer, in part, to all, even to blasphemers? Can religion be as dramatically shunted aside as Mr. Dennett desires? If not, what sort of accommodation is needed?
Mr. Dennett would like the coolness of reason to replace the commands of faith. The riots, though, show that at the very least, reason alone is insufficient. They are not just metaphorically iconoclastic in their challenge. They are literally iconoclastic: attempts to destroy any trace of forbidden images or inspire fear in any who might object. They are the latest manifestations of battles that once took place within the West, particularly during the eighth century, when iconoclasm got its name. At that time leaders of the Eastern Church, perhaps inspired by Islamic and Judaic prohibitions against images, objected to religious icons as a form of idolatry.
Iconoclasm (from the Greek, meaning the "breaking of images") was adopted as doctrine by Emperor Leo III (680-741) and his successors, and, for a century, led to the destruction of art, massacres, torture of monks and attacks on shrines, decisively widening the schism in the Church between Constantinople and the papacy.
The Iconoclasts of the eighth century and their successors during the Reformation were like the Taliban or rioting Muslims of the 21st. Except that that older violence occurred within a religion, inspired by theology. Today's Iconoclasts want to oppose all attempts to display forbidden images, whatever their provenance. And for a variety of reasons, many in the West readily defer. Last fall, for example, Burger King withdrew its ice cream from restaurants in Britain after receiving complaints from Muslims that the swirling illustration on the package resembled the name of Allah.
Of course, to a certain extent, the recent riots also reflect a struggle for internal power. Rage was deliberately churned up with supplementary drawings reportedly created by some radical Muslim leaders and presented along with the original group of 12. One, crudely offensive even to this infidel's eyes, replaced the political cartoonist's gibes with the preoccupations of a pornographer, showing a dog mounting the Prophet. The militants who created and distributed these cartoons displayed a willingness to violate any principle, to increase their earthly power — a sentiment that some original Iconoclasts must have shared.
What response is possible to such attacks? Many commentators have been surprising deferent, describing the original 12 images, almost apologetically, as insensitive. But look more closely: the subject of many is not really Muhammad himself, but the act of drawing Muhammad and the responses it might inspire. A cartoonist is shown anxiously leaning over his sketch of Muhammad, sweating profusely, looking over his shoulder in fear. In another, two Muslim avengers, their scimitars drawn in fury, are about to seek retribution for an offensive drawing when their superior, looking at it closely, advises them to "relax," it's just a sketch made by a Dane.
Some of these cartoons are not iconoclastic offenses against religious belief at all. Instead, they are about iconoclasm and anticipated confrontations with it. The fear and drawn swords the cartoons portray turn out to be depictions of the very reaction they inspired. They are expressions that is, of anxiety. In the West, Mr. Dennett's iconoclasm is absorbed, but Muslim iconoclasm cannot be.
What other possibilities are there? At a recent conference at Columbia University, "Religion and Liberalism," organized by Andrew Delbanco and the American Studies Program, there were some fascinating attempts to try to imagine something other than iconoclasm in the relationship between secular politics and religion once eighth-century tactics are left behind. Speakers, including E. J. Dionne Jr., Mark Lilla, Alan Wolfe, Todd Gitlin, Mary Gordon, Susannah Heschel and Elisabeth Sifton, distanced themselves from the kind of attack on religion that Mr. Dennett proposes, while trying, too, to pry religion away from its contemporary association with conservative politics and fundamentalism. For some it seemed an attempt to "save" religion for liberalism, while still keeping a safe distance.
The issues, though, remain intractable and unrelenting. But it may be that the United States has already offered one kind of an answer, creating a society in which faith and reason continually cohabit in uneasy proximity, and iconoclasm is as commonplace as belief.