Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Loosening The Ties That Bind

The conflict between science and religion has undoubtedly had its fiercest battles in the realm of Christendom. It is irrelevant for most Buddhists, for instance, whether the universe was created by a supreme being (or indeed whether such a diety exists at all), and I can recall few Jewish scholars, at least in the mainstream, with a profound antipathy towards the idea of natural selection. Outside of the evangelical/fundamentalist nexis, it seems as though most Americans regard science and religion as separate, rather than conflicting, modes of thought. But one must be careful not to speak too much in generalities.

For my part, I have spent at least 30 years of my life exploring religion and spiritual traditions - from Islam to Eastern Orthodoxy, from Greco-Roman mystery cults to shamanism, and from Zen to Zoroastrianism. I delight in human inventiveness, in the rise and extinction of cosmologies, and in the stillness of contemplative discipline. Many interpret that stillness as the breath of God, because we have been conditioned through centuries of repetition to think in such terms. Unfortunately, despite these beautiful fictions, conditioning and habit are not truth.

In Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, Daniel C. Dennett laboriously explains such conditioning in terms of evolutionary biology. The little popping sounds you hear are the apopleptic fits running through the neural pathways of those who consider such an explanation as a hideous affront to their cherished beliefs (in his 1991 book, Consciousness Explained, Dennett caused similar consternation by demonstrating that the idea of a center of consciousness, the "soul", if you will, is, alas, illusory). With no strong grounding in evolutionary biology, I take Dennett's argument for what it is- an attempt to explain the origin and processes of religious thinking.

In the latter portion of the book, Dennett (to me, anyway) stands on firmer ground. Here there is a striking critique of why some of us continue to believe in religious systems when all evidence and rational thought point, at best, to agnosticism. Many of us are simply unwilling to cast aside our cultural conditioning in favor of what we believe to be the bottomless abyss of unbelief. Others, like Pascal, opt for the intellectually effete viewpoint that it's best to keep our bases covered for fear of missing out on the rewards of some glorious afterlife. Then there are those who relish the feeling of power that comes from the certainty that they are among God's elect - apparently immune to the hypocrisy inherent in such self-aggrandizement.

My only real complaint in this book is that Dennett takes such pains in the early chapters to appeal to those he will certainly offend. Better, I think, to just say what he means to say and let those who can't stand the heat leave the kitchen. This conciliatory tack seems pretty much abandoned by the end of the book, although Dennett still hopes that his work will stimulate a dialogue between believers and non-believers (the "brights", in Dennett's curious terminology) that will lead to a rational approach to religion. Now that's a leap of faith!

Accumulated Wisdom

"Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country."

Herman Goring
As told to psychologist Gustave Gilbert (Nuremberg Diary [1947])

Monday, May 08, 2006

I Have Always Been Here Before

"Call me Ismael...." "A screaming comes across the sky...." "He's got a head on him like a rabbit!"

Oh, how to start a new blog? What will it be about? Mostly, as the title suggests, about books that I am reading or have read, with an emphasis on books I consider obscure, but which most probably have huge underground followings. With a personal library estimated at 8000 - 10,000 titles, that should be easy enough. But also about politics, consciousness, and why I don't have pets. Greetings to anyone who stumbles onto this page. I will take a breath and collect my thoughts...Watch This Space.