Fundamentalism, fanaticism, fights. Headlines in the press often cast religion in a bad light. In fact, the evidence suggests otherwise; all in all, the practices of faith tend to have positive effects on people’s lives.
The impact has been assessed across a number of metrics. For example, the likelihood that an individual will drink excessively or take drugs decreases significantly if they go to church, temple or mosque. Among Americans – where religiosity has been extensively studied – being actively religious means you are less likely to commit crime, get divorced, commit suicide or suffer from depression. You will probably also be healthier and live longer.
The upbeat message sounds clearly in positive psychology too, the discipline known as the science of happiness. Martin Seligman, the US psychologist who has put positive psychology on the map, argues that lasting levels of happiness can be influenced by changing your life. “Becoming religious” is in his top five things to do. These results are echoed by the economist, Professor Richard Layard, who advised the last Labour Government on well-being. In his 2005 book, Happiness: lessons from a new science, he presented evidence that having no faith had a more detrimental impact on happiness than losing a job, though not quite as bad as being widowed.
It reads as if the science was designed for advertising God. But the evidence becomes more complicated when a further, crucial question is asked. Just why is it that religion has positive effects? A range of possibilities are mooted, and hotly contested.
A first possibility assigns efficacy to the proscriptive character of religion. World faiths carry moral weight, which is to say that they encourage, if not insist, that faithful adherents do not do things like take drugs, commit crimes and practice infidelity.It is certainly the case that commandments, in the form of “thou shalt not”, are important. They set a tone, help sustain attitudes. But, as any honest believer will testify, commandments are often honoured in the breach. So the question needs to be asked: how it is that proscriptions actually work, in so far as they do?
The story of the founding of Alcoholics Anonymous is illuminating. In 1931, the psychologist Carl Jung was trying to treat an alcoholic, though Roland H’s craving for drink remained stubbornly strong. Then Jung had an idea. He recommended that Roland attend the meetings of an evangelical Christian movement which stressed submission to God. It worked. Roland had a conversion experience, which Jung interpreted as releasing a new source of energy from his patient’s unconscious, one more powerful than the desire to drink. Roland related the experience to another apparently hopeless alcoholic, Bill W, and it worked for him too. He founded AA, which today has more than two million members in 150 countries.
Research on the effectiveness of the 12-step AA programme is disputed. But it seems undeniable that the recognition of a “higher power” was crucial to the success it has had. In other words, proscriptions work not when they are perceived as persecutory commandments but rather when they are perceived as charting a path to a new way of life.
Speaking personally, I have a friend who regularly attends AA meetings, though he is not a churchgoer. But the language of conversion makes eminent sense to him. He pointed me to the literature of Narcotics Anonymous, which expresses it well. “For our group purpose there is but one ultimate authority: a loving God as he may express himself in our group conscience.” And yet, this only points to another knotty issue in the debate. It has to do with the significance of groups.
An alternative possibility to prohibitions being the secret of religion’s success is that individual well-being is boosted by the social support provided in groups – and not just religious groups, but family groups, common interest groups or therapeutic groups. Could the group aspect be what helps people at AA meetings and benefits people who go to church? As the psychologist Oliver James recently noted in The Guardian: “It is … plausible that the comradeship and feeling of belonging supplied by religious peers are a substitute for the buzz you get from substances.” James conceded, however, that social support does not provide an adequate explanation. He cited a large-scale study that tracked the lives of thousands of Americans and concluded that community was not a substantial mediator of inner strength.
There are other possibilities. Richard Layard has suggested that the benefits of religion have little to do with prohibitions or sociality but, rather, the issue is emotional habits. He argues that religious practices train individuals to control their feelings.
In his book on happiness, Professor Layard discussed The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, noting how the saint sought to nurture several attitudes that modern science has demonstrated are essential for well-being. Ignatius urged his readers to praise God, that is, to learn to be grateful. He believed that humankind was made to serve God, which had the effect of dissolving egoism by drawing attention away from yourself. As Layard also pointed out, Ignatius argued that salvation involves being indifferent to what happens to you, so while everyone has times of desolation, it is also the case that such experiences tend to pass. This too can help, by building resilience.
Resilience is a theme that interests Eric Greitens, an American humanitarian and social entrepreneur currently researching the virtue. Early indications of his work suggest that individuals who demonstrate resilience in the face of life’s difficulties cannot simply bounce back because their harsh experiences become part of them. Instead, they are able to live with the distress in such a way that they can ascribe meaning to it. The experiences do not demean them, but deepen their sense of being human.
Again, this is an attitude embedded in spiritual traditions. Julian of Norwich lived through the Black Death, one of the most devastating plagues in history, and yet she was still able to write, “All shall be well and all shall be well and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Many of the researchers in the positive psychology field are searching for ways of reformulating such religious attitudes for a secular age. They exhibit a desire to raid religious traditions for their wisdom, while removing the theological scaffolding that has traditionally supported them. One of the most articulate recent attempts is found in the latest book by philosopher Alain de Botton, Religion for Atheists, published earlier this year. In it, he agrees with the positive psychologists that religious practices provide useful techniques for everything from building humane communities to tending attitudes of kindness.
But reading de Botton’s book crystallised in my mind something crucial about religion that is overlooked. It will come as no surprise to believers that this something has to do with God. Positive psychology is characterised by its instrumentality. Alain de Botton puts it explicitly: “Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone.” What he misses, is that religions are good at building community and nurturing kindness because, paradoxically, they do not aim directly to do either. Rather, they aim to open adherents to that source of life, or spiritual sustenance, that is expansive of our humanity. They offer practices that, over time, transform the soul. It is variously called salvation, eternal life or enlightenment.
Goodwill and well-being may follow. They also may not. But when they do, they are happy by-products of the main task, which is not actually to have a successful life. It is to come to know God. The spiritual dimension has instrumental effects; but without the vertical striving, religious virtues come to feel empty. To whom are you expressing gratitude for life if not God? The blind mechanisms of evolution? Or, it might be noted that you do not become religious in order to be happy, and if you tried to do so the strategy would fail you.
It is striking that atheistic writers and researchers are coming to a new appreciation of religion. Going are the days when faith could simply be written off. Nonetheless, I suspect that their ideas will flounder because a basic and obvious question is being avoided, though as Oliver James remarked, it is one “no researchers have ever posited”. Might human well-being actually have something to do with God?
Can you prove God exists? We began with the ways that believers have attempted to prove the existence of God, or not, examining cosmological and design, ontological and moral reasons for faith. What do they show? What do they fail to achieve? And why do people go on believing for all that no ‘proof’ convinces everyone?
Monday 23rd April
Why science and religion aren’t really at loggerheads. The relationship between theology and the natural sciences is often presented as a zero sum game: if you go with one, you must reject the other. In truth, though, the relationship between the two is much more intimate and it is only in recent years that a great divide has been proposed, one that is arguably narrowing again in our time.
Monday 30th April
Is the Bible true? Fundamentalism is a product of the twentieth century. It rides roughshod over the rich traditions of reading holy scriptures which perceive the truth of the text as in between the word on the page and the life of the believer. Interpretation is not an optional extra. The literal truth used to mean that which is true in life, not in a book. So what went wrong?
Monday 14th May
If God exists, why is there suffering in the world? The problem of evil, as it is called, the question of how an all-powerful, all-good God can allow suffering, is probably the number one reason that people find it hard to believe. And yet, for our forebears, it seems that the opposite was the case. Suffering led people to turn to God. ‘Religion is the wound, not the bandage,’ as Dennis Potter put it.
Monday 21st May
Is nature the new divine? Or to put it another way, is God green? Many increasingly think so. Ecological movements are some of the most energetic and imaginative spiritual movements thriving on the planet. So is traditional religion the enemy of the environment, or does it have resources within it to mobilise the masses of people required to save the planet?
Monday 28th May
Can you be good without God? Most people, these days, know an atheist who lives an inspiring moral life. The link between God and goodness seems to have be severed. Indeed, many would argue that it needs to be severed, for fear that morality might go the way of theology in people’s lives. And yet, is there any truth in the notion that without God, everything is permissible?
Monday 11th June
Can you be spiritual without being religious? Religion is a bad word in many people’s vocabulary. It conjures up memories of school chapel, flawed parish priests, or bloody crusades. Who wants to be tied to one tradition when there is meditation and yoga, shamanism and tantra to chose from, to learn from? Or maybe there are risks in a consumerist approach to spirituality?
Monday 18th June
Is the heart of all religions roughly the same? It’s called the perennial philosophy, the idea that behind all spiritual traditions lie timeless, universal truths. Often cited is the so-called Golden Rule. But what is the perennial philosophy, and how did it come about? And does it really stack up, or risk leaving you pursuing the spiritual dimension in a kind of religious no-man’s land.
In the spring of 399 BC, Socrates drank the hemlock and died. For most of his long life, he had been fortunate enough to live in a democracy. Athens had been an ideal home for a man whose trademark was to ask simple but unsettling questions. If what Plato tells us is right, he would ask politicians whether they really knew what they were talking about when they promised their fellows the good life. It turned out the politicians did not. Worse still, they believed their own rhetoric and were ignorant of their ignorance.
This troubled Socrates. What future for democracy, if it rested on such self-delusion? He felt it was vitally important to admit that the human condition is one of profound uncertainty, deep doubt. We are in between creatures. On the one hand, we are not ignorant and un-self-aware like most other animals. We can learn much. But on the other hand, we are not omniscient and all-seeing like the gods.
This is why the lust for certainty is a sin, as a former Archbishop of York put it, because certainty demands the eradication of doubts and imagining you are a god. Forget that life is enveloped not just by known unknowns but unknown unknowns and you will fall like Icarus from the sky.
Socrates became a philosopher, a lover of wisdom, which is to say someone who sought with a passion to understand what he lacked. He was unlike the politicians in that he knew he was ignorant about many things. It was for this reason that the Delphic oracle had declared that no-one was wiser than he. Wisdom can tolerate doubt.
A few of his fellow citizens took to this message. But it seems that most did not. It is not comfortable to have your ignorance exposed in the marketplace, where Socrates loitered with his unnerving questions. It is not pleasant to feel that being human is like treading water in oceans of untold depths. They said that speaking to Socrates was like being stung by a ray. Others saw him coming and darted down a side street to avoid an encounter.
And in 399 BC it finally came to a head. The first democracy found its greatest son guilty. The freedom to explore the uncertainties at the heart of human life was too much. The citizens lost faith in their new political adventure and in themselves.
I think the word faith is the right one to use, because to be able to doubt requires a kind of faith. It is the faith which tells you that tolerating doubt is worthwhile because amidst the anxieties of ignorance and uncertainty, something useful and valuable will be found. Faith might be defined as the capacity to see that doubt is troubling and meaningful.
To put it another way, a dislike of doubt in politics implies a loss of faith in politics. This does appear accurately to characterize our current condition, given falling membership of political parties and polling evidence on the widespread distrust of politicians.
This is a troubling problem for democracy, because democracy depends upon the goodwill of the people. When faith departs and doubts grow, crisis will follow. Government buildings will have to be surrounded by barricades and police, as has been seen in modern day Athens. Worse, a democratic deficit can become a political crisis from which tyranny may follow. Socrates’ death can be read as symptomatic of such a wobble. In the decade or so before his death, the young democracy had been overturned twice by oligarchs.
Mistakes can be made in responding to this predicament. One is to try to make up for this lack of faith, this not-doing-doubt, by pretending it doesn’t exist, by a kind of force of will. You see it exhibited in the faux-certainty of some political leaders. They affirm absolute confidence in their colleagues, until they are absolutely clear the colleague must go. No-one believes them.
Alternatively, you see the pretence that doubt doesn’t exist when politicians turn to the flaky certainties of evidence-based policy, as if the education of children or the rehabilitation of criminals could be decided by scientific fiat.
The scientists know that their research comes hedged with doubt. But then, there’s the headline. ‘Red wine causes cancer.’ ‘Pre-school children are too stressed.’ The researchers must bury their heads in their hands.
I don’t think there is much mileage in apportioning blame either. Candidates include the media, which has a severe intolerance of doubt, deepened by the 24 hour news cycle.
Or you might point a finger at the welfare state. The argument here is that an advanced welfare state, such as our own, unwittingly nurtures a litigious culture by over-promising on what it can deliver. Someone, somewhere should pay the price for what is, in truth, a humdrum risk of death in life. Or it creates an environment of suspicion in which it is thought that someone, somewhere is in the know about the perils of, say, avian flu. Something must be done.
But again, calls for action easily mutate into demands for certainty, where certainty is not to be had. Doubt-intolerance grows.
A better strategy may be to accept that doubt is a perennial problem for democracies. It was there at the start, with the death of Socrates. He was a victim of democracy’s group psychology, and groups are notoriously unable to bear doubts.
Eighty years after Socrates, Plato’s pupil Aristotle felt the force of that truth. Nationalistic Athens was whipped up again, this time by the democrat and orator Demosthenes, and Aristotle found himself on the wrong side. He left, going into self-exile, because he understood the logic of crowds. He didn’t want the Athenians to commit a crime against philosophy twice.
So much for the dark side. What more positively to do?
It is worth reflecting on the fact that doubt becomes more palatable when sweetened by good humour. Wit allows us to face the unknown with less fear. Sigmund Freud thought that jokes work by converting anxiety into pleasure. He recalled the jest made by the criminal being led to the gallows. It happened to be a Monday morning and so the villain cracked, ‘Not a good start to the week.’ He died more at ease, with a smile.
Socrates too is remembered for his irony. When he was asked what he thought might be a suitable punishment for his crimes, he replied, free meals for life.
To put it another way, Freud continues, humour eases doubt because it releases the energy that feeds the fear. ‘Look here!’, the joke says. ‘This is all that this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. A jest.’ It’s not really true, but for a moment we can feel safer and in that moment maybe learn something lasting about our feelings about doubt.
Satire is certainly part of a mature, democratic society – and it not only pokes fun at those with power. It aids citizens too. It prompts us not to demand faux-certainties from the powerful. It reminds us of their limitations and our own.
To achieve this double effect, it has to be performed in the right spirit - a spirit that prompts we citizens to reflect on ourselves as well has have a laugh at our masters. If satire only mocks the mighty, it may leave us with the comfortable delusion that the mighty are all to blame. If it makes us feel uneasy too, amidst the belly laughs and chuckles, then that might be because it is true to a degree at least, that we get the politicians we deserve.
On occasion, horror and calamity happens. Where there is doubt there is also the real possibility of mishap, error and failure. In the political sphere, Enoch Powell nailed it when he said: ‘All political lives… end in failure because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’
But there is hope in his remark too, for it seems to me that there are different ways of failing. One is to fail badly, raging and seeking revenge. The politician who fails in this way will rush to write self-justifying memoirs, instigate scorched earth policies as they leave office, or perhaps place a letter on the desk of their successor noting that there’s no money left.
But there is a good way of failing. I don’t mean a stiff-upper lip kind of failure that grins and bears it. Rather, it’s the good failure that paves a way for what follows.
It’s a subtle attitude, though one well understood in child psychology. The British paediatrician, Donald Winnicott, argued that a mother must fail her child in order that the child can make its way in the world. A perfect mother, who anticipated and fulfilled her child’s every need, would actually be a tyrant. Conversely, the primary-carer of a child must not fail the child too deeply or too often. If that happens, it suffers what Winnicott called impingements – experiences that leave the infant feeling under mortal threat, as if life itself might fail them.
It’s a balance, which Winnicott summed up in the useful phrase, the good-enough mother. The good-enough primary carer fails their charge well, so that the young child discovers a sense of its own agency, its own self.
The psychotherapist, Andrew Samuels, has proposed that this might be a handy notion to deploy in politics. In his book, Politics on the Couch, he argues that we need good-enough politicians. They will fail us because that is what politicians do, that is what life does. However, they might fail us well, so that as citizens their failure can encourage us to discover our agency, to be empowered – like the young child.
We might re-write Enoch Powell. It is not just that all political lives end in failure. Rather, the greatest political lives, knowing they will fail, strive to fail well so that others might live more bravely and better.
There would be benefits if voters could feel that they needed good-enough, not perfect politicians. It might curtail the poisonous cycles of doubt in politics – the apportioning of blame, the demand that something, anything must be done. It might lessen the idealization, when the politician promises the world. And then also the inevitable denigration, when the politician is subsequently belittled for failing to deliver the impossible.
The good-enough principle could be applied to the welfare state too, and the litigious culture that it risks nurturing. A health system that was good-enough would be there for us when serious impingements threatened. And it would also equip us to face up to the uncertainties of life and death. Similarly, an education system that was good-enough would ensure that all children had the basics. And it would also foster the energy, curiosity and pleasure that empowers the child to take the risks that lead to a deeper self-education too.
This might seem fantastical given our punishing political culture today. What politician would survive the mockery of the press were they openly to aim to be good-enough?
And yet, Andrew Samuels continues, perhaps there is a way to do it. What the good-enough politician might cultivate is not delusions of omnipotent power, the certainties that know no doubt. Instead, they could cultivate the energy inherent in the kind of politics that equips others to pioneer change. Such leaders position themselves as catalysts.
It is striking that this kind of politics copes well with doubt. In fact, uncertainty and failure appear to instill only more resolution and faith. Think of environmental politics. Failure presses in on every side, as talks collapse and international meetings fall apart. And yet, every setback renews the energy, inspires more creativity and imagination.
It might be in these arenas that we find lessons in the kind of politics with the faith to face life’s doubts, with the faith to tolerate uncertainty. What they have achieved is a rediscovery of soul. They manifest a kind of political spirituality, in the environmental case shown as a deep respect, a sense of the sacredness, of the earth. This generates a felt sense of aliveness - and so a well-resourced commitment, in spite of it all.
Doubt is before us. Though in truth it always was. We are the in between creature. To live well with doubt is to do well at being human, as Socrates tried to teach those first democrats.
In recent weeks, atheists and agnostics who are friendly towards religion have been filling the column inches. Editors, and perhaps readers, are weary of the so-called militant secularism evangelised by you know who. So kindly non-believers have been commissioned. But there is something paradoxical about their appreciation of "God".
I noticed it a while back when I read Mary Warnock's Dishonest to God. She is an atheist who has spent too much time at cathedral evensong. Her moral and aesthetic imagination would collapse without religious culture: "It seems to me that there is no possible argument for holding that religion is outdated, or that it can be wholly replaced in society by science or any other imaginative exercise." This atheist wants belief in "God" to persist, though it can't by her own logic.
The same conundrum is generously explored in Richard Holloway's autobiographical, Leaving Alexandria: A Memoir of Faith and Doubt. It reads like a confession, the former bishop of Edinburgh writing in searingly honest terms about his limitations, failures and regrets. He was never a saint, or cut out to be one, though he knew some in the Gorbals of Glasgow and possibly at Kelham, his now closed theological college. Holloway passionately laments the cruelty of the institution in which he served for so long. He rehearses the troubling arguments on the problem of evil, the unlikelihood of an afterlife and so on.
And yet, his heart is still tugged by the possibility of the transcendent. When he now walks the Pentland hills, which he has known since his youth, he perhaps detects a divine whisper yet. We must keep religion's poetry, he concludes, because it consoles and humanises. We must purge religion of its prose, the dogmatic formulations that do so much damage.
But, of course, there would not be one without the other. Prose ignites poetry. Poetry inspires prose. So Holloway too seems to be condemned to a parasitic life, drawing on the faith of believers to sustain his doubtful belief. I understand. I've written about life as an agnostic too.
However, if Holloway and Warnock represent the zeitgeist, there is another voice to consider: the erstwhile atheist, now believer.
A few years ago, Roger Scruton penned a melancholic work of autobiography, Gentle Regrets. There he wrote: "By pondering my loss of faith I have steadily regained it, though in a form that stands at a distance from the old religion, endorsing it – but with its own reflected light." In his new book, The Face of God, the spiral into doubt has turned around.
I don't suppose there are many who can follow Scruton in all his convictions, but he achieves a rare thing these days: he writes as if philosophy matters. The Face of God is a densely argued book full of feeling that rewards careful reading.
The critical issue for him stems from a deep reflection on what it is to be human. We know ourselves in two mutually incompatible ways. One is as an object in a world of objects: the human individual is one case among the 7 billion or so that inhabit the planet. The other is as a subject, an "I" who looks out on the world with a distinctive and uniquely valuable perspective.
This fracture in our self-consciousness is felt in all manner of ways. Warnock's love of church music is easily understood by a subject: just go to evensong too. But the richness of that experience is no explanation in objective terms, a deconstruction that music triumphantly resists. More generally, Scruton explains, I have intentions as a subject, which means I can own my life and live responsibly. As an object, though, the human animal is a creature of instincts determined by biological laws.
It seems that we need both aspects to understand ourselves, or to put it in Holloway's terms, we need both the poetry and the prose. But can they be held together?
Scruton argues that this is one purpose of religion, manifest particularly in the concept of the sacred. Why, Holloway might ask, does he find consolation walking the Pentland hills? Are they not merely geological formations blind to existential regrets? It is because, Scruton might reply, the hills speak to you, as you speak to them in your walking, your pilgrimage. They are endowed with meaning when they are meaningful to you. In that moment, you do not treat them as rocks to be used and would be outraged if their beauty were spoiled. That would be sacrilege. And note: only what is held to be sacred can be so profaned.
In other words, the moment you feel the landscape offering you something, rather than being there for the taking, is the moment you sense the world as gift. Therein lies the consolation. Allow that sensibility to take hold and a glimpse of oneness with the cosmos may follow, which may reopen the possibility of God. Scruton writes: "It is an attempt to see our relation to the world as we see our relation to each other – as reaching through the tissue of objects to the thing that they mean … finding subjectivity enfolded, as it were, in the world around us. If there is such a thing as the real presence of God among us, that is how his presence must be understood."
Of course, such intimations are readily dismissed by logic. The language of objectivity is doomed not to comprehend them. But that is only like saying the artist, not the scientist, must be the one to explore the vibrancy of the colour red.
So does it boil down to this? Ours is an age whose conviction rests with the superiority of objective observation over subjective experience. It inculcates the habit of watching yourself living to the detriment of being in life, a problem Holloway movingly admits he has been haunted by. Therein, perhaps, lies the roots of the kindly atheism of our times.
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 2 2012, 14:56 - Journalism
I've a piece in this week's The Tablet on David Cronenberg's film about Freud, Jung and Spielrein - A Dangerous Method - thinking particularly about the meaning of the relationship between Jung and Spielrein, presumed sexual in a hanky-panky kinda way. A taster:
Such experiences have been called ‘profane spirituality’ by Andrew Samuels, the Professor of Analytical Psychology at the University of Essex. His touchpoint is Jung’s analysis not of sexual pursuits but alcohol abuse. Jung argued that alcoholism is a ‘spiritual quest that had gone off the rails,’ Samuels explains...
‘There is no birth of consciousness without pain,’ Jung wrote in an essay penned when he emerged from his creative illness – though with that darkness, or shadow, comes the promise of life. Jung later proposed that great spiritual innovators tread similar paths too, finding inspiration from their own confrontations with the unconscious. According to tradition, the Buddha was tempted by the daughters of the demon Mara, a story that Jung interpreted as conveying Siddhartha Gautama’s hard won insight into his psyche. Jesus of Nazareth was driven into the wilderness and confronted the forces that approached him there. That which would have destroyed his ministry he faced to resource it.
More generally, it might be said that sins are forgiven not to be forgotten but so that the individual might be freer to understand their deeper meaning for him or her, ‘to recognise the realities of the human psyche’, as Christopher Jamison puts it in Finding Happiness. The strategy of facing inner hatred, envy, lust and anger can be traced back to the early desert fathers. Jung re-describes the process for our psychologically-minded age. The shadow is fearful and disturbing, but makes for spiritual development and openness to the numinous.
He once asked why the injunction to care for those who trouble us in the outer world should not apply to what troubles us in our inner worlds. ‘That I feed the beggar, that I forgive an insult, that I love my enemy in the name of Christ – all these are undoubtedly great virtues,’ he writes. ‘But what if I should discover that the least among them all, the poorest of all beggars, the most impudent of all offenders, yea the very fiend himself – that these are within me.’ We should not condemn this fiend but converse with him and discover his message for us.
By Mark Vernon on Friday, March 2 2012, 14:07 - Journalism
I was on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves last night, talking about the new budget computer, Raspberry Pi. It's being billed not only as inspiring a future generation of computer programmers but also as a way for us all to become 'programmers not programmed'. I doubt that (about 30 minutes into the programme.)
Incidentally, there was also an interview with philosopher David Rothenberg. He was arguing that aesthetics is an additional principle of evolution, alongside fitness and sex, required to understand why whales sing or why bower birds must have blue nests, to the extent that they will kill to secure a blue feather. Hardly adaptive.
This struck me as rather like Simon Conway Morris' argument that mental niches might be explored by evolutionary processes, as much as physical ones.
Rothenberg also told of being round at Thomas Nagel's flat just recently. Nagel, Rothenberg said, knows that he is wrong in his famous essay What Is It Like To Be A Bat ?. That's a bit like saying you know Aristotle knew that he was wrong about final causation.
By Mark Vernon on Sunday, February 19 2012, 09:52 - Journalism
Night Waves had a discussion on forgiveness this week, which I took part in (last 10 minutes or so.) We were reflecting on a number of recent instances where the secular state has been exorted to forgive and yet seems unable - the Alan Turing case and others.
Whilst getting some ideas together, it struck me that forgiveness is something that goes on every day in churches, but the state finds it almost impossible to offer, having to hold to the law. I wonder if it's another ramification of the loss of the transcendent in public life. If there's nothing above the law, as it were, there's nothing to suspend the law, as forgiveness requires. In a religious setting, though, the divine is above the law and thus, as the good book says, everything is possible with God.
There is a long tradition in Indian religion that links human and divine love. Kama, as in the Kama Sutra, is India's Eros. Firing arrows of flowers, he made Shiva, the god of destruction, fall for Parvati, a tender consort. The myth speaks of how the aggressive and nurturing urges in the human psyche might be united. The life of the gods is our life too.
Related themes are touchingly portrayed in the miniature paintings called ragamala, which feature in a new exhibition at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in south London. They have a similar appearance to medieval book illuminations. Richly coloured, conveying a dream-like, archetypal feel, some show gods in icon form. Others convey intimate narrative scenes of devotion.
Ragamala imagery is also inspired by the musical modes known as raga. Each mode has a unique feel. One is bright and uplifting. Another, dark and melancholic. Each picture is a visual representation of the emotional mood associated with a raga. Though their precise function is contested amongst scholars, it seems fair to assume that listening to the right mode, or contemplating the right image, deepens insight. They offer a meditative, aesthetic therapy.
The most accessible ragamala in the exhibition reflect on the theme of love. We see a female lover walking in parkland, and then conversing quietly with an older and presumably wiser confidant – or perhaps a guardian angel. In one, she longs for her beloved. In another, she seeks shelter from the storms of passion.
Similar erotic themes are central to the Platonic theology of the Christian traditions. Again, the ups and downs of human love are imagined as a shadow of Eros's deepest longings: union with the divine. Or think of the Song of Songs in the Hebrew Bible. The different chapters in the story of human love can be taken as allegories of the spiritual quest. The woman in the ragamala is a lover and a human soul too.
The deployment of psychological moods to cultivate insight was a major theme of the Renaissance. Writers extensively explored the links between sound and soul, colour and spirit. "I often resort to the solemn sound of the lyre and to singing to raise the mind to the highest considerations and to God as much as I may," wrote the humanist philosopher, Marsilio Ficino.
Modern music therapies revive the tradition. In a recent article for the Lancet, Professor Martyn Evans explained that "when music works upon us therapeutically, it expresses, recalls, and even rekindles general features of our embodied experience and of our ordinary being." It nurtures "bodily and psychological fluency and vitality," he continued, adding: "[and tells] of our place in the universal order of things."
Love is more important to Christianity than reason or learning, writes Christos Yannaras, a leading Greek theologian. To be a believer is to embark on an erotic adventure because God is a "mad lover", he ventures. The human soul rises to the divine in the passion of ecstasy – passion being the operative word, as the journey is one of pleasure and pain because it necessitates a stepping out of yourself, an ek-stasis.
"The thirst for life is implanted in our very nature, in each tiny fold of our existence," Yannaras explains, in On the Absence and Unknowability of God, "and is an unquenchable thirst for relationship, that is to say for the reciprocity of self-abandonment and self-offering." Falling, as when falling in love, speaks of the collapse of the walls with which the individual protects him– or herself, though also isolates him– or herself too.
So also the spiritual struggle. The Sufi poet, Rumi, was another influence on the tradition of the ragamala and advised this: "Tend within to the opening of your heart." There's a message for Valentine's Day.
Werner Heisenberg, one of the founding fathers of quantum physics, once observed that history could be divided into periods according to what people of the time made of matter. In his book Physics and Philosophy, published in the early 60s, he argued that at the beginning of the 20th century we entered a new period. It was then that quantum physics threw off the materialism that dominated the natural sciences of the 19th century.
Of materialism, he wrote:
"[This] frame was so narrow and rigid that it was difficult to find a place in it for many concepts of our language that had always belonged to its very substance, for instance, the concept of mind, of the human soul or of life. Mind could be introduced into the general picture only as a kind of mirror of the material world."
Today we live in the 21st century, and it seems that we are still stuck with this narrow and rigid view of the things. As Rupert Sheldrake puts it in his new book, published this week, The Science Delusion: "The belief system that governs conventional scientific thinking is an act of faith, grounded in a 19th-century ideology."
That's provocative rhetoric. Science an act of faith? Science a belief system? But then how else to explain the grip of the mechanistic, physicalist, purposeless cosmology? As Heisenberg explained, physicists among themselves have long stopped thinking of atoms as things. They exist as potentialities or possibilities, not objects or facts. And yet, materialism persists.
Heisenberg recommended staying in touch with reality as we experience it, which is to say holding a place for conceptions of mind and soul. The mechanistic view will pass, he was certain. In a way, Sheldrake's scientific career has been devoted to its overthrow. He began in a mainstream post as director of studies in cell biology at Cambridge University, though he challenged the orthodoxy when he proposed his theory of morphogenetic fields.
This is designed to account for, say, the enormously complex structure of proteins. A conventional approach, which might be described as bottom-up, has protein molecules "exploring" all possible patterns until settling on one with a minimum energy. This explanation works well for simple molecules, like carbon dioxide. However, proteins are large and complicated. As Sheldrake notes: "It would take a small protein about 10^26 years to do this, far longer than the age of the universe."
As a result, some scientists are proposing top-down, holistic explanations. Sheldrake's particular proposal is that such self-organising systems exist in fields of memory or habit. These contain the information required to make the structure.
Fearlessly, he extends the speculation to embrace a range of phenomena that many people experience. Telephone telepathy is one, when you are thinking about someone just as they phone. Or the sense of being stared at. The idea, roughly, is that our intentions can be communicated across mental fields that are like morphogenetic fields. They connect us – though in the modern world, with its ideological and technological distractions, we are not very good at noticing them.
Sheldrake has continually to fight his corner. In the new book, he records an encounter with Richard Dawkins, when the eminent atheist was making his 2007 TV series Enemies of Reason. Sheldrake suggested they discuss the actual evidence for telepathy. Dawkins resisted. "There isn't time. It's too complicated. And that's not what the programme is about," Sheldrake reports Dawkins saying, before himself retorting that he wasn't interested in taking part in another "low-grade debunking exercise". Dawkins reportedly replied: "It's not a low-grade debunking exercise; it's a high-grade debunking exercise."
I admire Sheldrake for his extraordinary good humour, given the decades of abuse he has endured. This manner comes across in The Science Delusion because, at heart, it is a passionate plea for the materialist worldview, finally, definitively, to be challenged.
Whether or not his own theories will stand the test of time is another question. In a paper published in the Journal of Consciousness Studies in November 2011, Fraser Watts examines them at face value and, broadly, finds them suggestive but wanting. For example, Sheldrake conceives of mental fields via the analogy of an amoeba: as an amoeba extends its pseudopodia and touches the environment around it, similarly telepathy and the like would be the result of "mental pseudopodia" extended into the world around us.
The analogy has the benefit of naturalising extrasensory perception, Watts notes. But it also raises problems. For example, how would it be possible mentally "to touch" objects that don't exist, as would happen when contemplating a centaur? Watts concludes: "An adequate account of the mind must encompass both first- and third-person description whereas the idea of a 'field', along with the other spatial descriptions that Sheldrake uses, seem to be exclusively third-person type descriptions." Oddly, this is a strikingly 19th century attitude to have.
Nonetheless, Sheldrake must welcome such serious engagement with his work. He may not be right in the details. But he is surely right, with Heisenberg, in insisting that the materialist world view must go.
The modern mind is inclined to think of the past as gone. Archaeologists dig the ground for it; others try to hold on to it with photos. "The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there," reflected the writer LP Hartley.
But isn't the past entirely present? Contemplate, for example, the deep past of our evolutionary inheritance. We have four limbs because our prehistoric ancestors did. We sing much like whales and birds, melodically speaking, thanks to the creatures that first strove to communicate with music.
Of course, novelty emerges in evolution too: we humans have opposable thumbs and Mozart. But appreciating this deep past can awaken Gaia-like solidarity and connect us more profoundly with the origins of life.
Another source of our selves is historical, in the culture and family that shapes us. Here the past may feel less comfortable to contemplate, for such factors highlight another dimension – the way the past can constrain us. Your family links you to particular people and places. You might have moved to an anonymous city or left the country of your forebears to escape such ties. You might desire a future free of the past. The past can feel wearisome or even frightening in a culture, like ours, that is inclined to sell dreams of being who you want to be, regardless of the past.
In truth, though, that is a delusion. As William Faulkner remarked: "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Further, it is when you attempt to turn your back on the past, and expend all that energy trying to ignore or delete it, that it becomes a drain and a burden. Paradoxically, it is then that you cannot put it away.
However, there is another way of thinking about the past; to consider it as a resource, one that's tailored precisely to you.
A better model for a happier relationship with the past might be the life of the artist. Their first task is to accept the constraints of their medium, the limitations of paint or the mere 12 notes of the scale. Only then can something wonderful occur. They develop a voice, they find a mode of expression. They become someone.
So with us too. The origins of our lives lie in the past. But this also means that the past is life's gift to you, painful though it can be. It is only within the constraints of life – having four limbs, singing a particular song, being of a time and place – that we can live, be transformed and free. The past is actually what makes us someone too.
There is a crucial element missing from Julian Baggini's Heathen's progress, his careful sorting of the differences between an atheistic and religious stance towards the world. It has to do with the body. Not only is the body fundamental to any understanding of religion but helps, I suspect, with some of the issues that have recurred in Julian's discussions; matters like the relationship between belief and practice.
To get at the issue, take a step back and consider a couple of strands of contemporary research. They draw links between our bodies and how we know ourselves and the world.
The first comes from cognitive science, or rather, a radical questioning of cognitive science as it has been construed. A diverse group of philosophers and scientists are now arguing that the dominant 20th-century view of cognition, as a capacity of brains or minds, is inadequate. The alternative is often called embodied cognition. It examines the evidence that our bodies play a vital role in how we engage with the world. According to this view, bodies are not just life-support systems for the brain or sources of sensory inputs. Rather, bodies are integral to human thought.
For example, it is noted how people use hand gestures when reasoning. "On the one hand," you might gesticulate, "But on the other hand too." It is proposed that we toy with possibilities in this way because the body enables us to symbolise complexity. As a result, we are able to hold on to ideas that a brain in a vat, or dare I say an analytical philosopher, would dismiss as incompatible. Bodies enable us to live in a cognitively richer world.
Then there are other researchers asking why Google is still so stupid. One answer is that, although vast databases feed the online search engine, it lacks one crucial thing. A living body. And this makes all the difference.
Try asking Google whether it is foggy outside. Nonsense is returned, though it's a simple question for us. We intuitively know about inside and outside, having an inside and outside of our bodies. We spontaneously look out of a window. In short, it seems that bodies are crucial for making the world a meaningful place too. (Conversely, a common feature of schizophrenia is not to have a clear sense of the inside and outside of your body. Commonsensical meaning departs. What's inside and outside becomes confused and alarming.)
Or again, there is the evidence coming out of neuroscience, so brilliantly discussed in Iain McGilchrist's book, The Master and His Emissary. It shows that the right hemisphere of the brain has far more neural connections with the body than the left. The result, when engaged, is a capacity for broad attention, drawing new links, and remaining open to the unknown and unexpected. Conversely, the left hemisphere only grasps what it knows. It is very good at being focused. It loves delivering the products of reason and is wary of imagination and affect, you might surmise.
All this chimes with research into human development too. Here, it seems increasingly clear that what we take to be true or false, trustworthy or doubtful, is first and foremost an activity of the body.
The story begins young, very young, when an infant – a word that means "without speech" – is trying to make sense of the world. A wide range of studies suggest that it does so by what it takes into its body and what it rejects. Good food is deemed good because it nourishes the child both physically and psychically. When a child turns away from the bottle or breast, it is not only having trouble feeding but trouble trusting too.
This early experience looks like it provides a grounding for adult convictions, an echo of which is carried in our language. Hence, when you don't trust some belief, you will resist being "taken in" by it, like the infant who didn't take in the food. Alternatively, when you have a strong conviction, you might say that it becomes "part of you", like nourishing food. "Drink the waters of wisdom", invites the Psalmist. He was not deploying a metaphor.
Hold on to those thoughts, and consider a second area of research, now historical. The insights here revolve around the beginning of the modern period, when a profound shift occurred in the way the body and belief were conceptualised.
One crucial moment was the discovery of the circulation of the blood in the 17th century. After that, the body was regarded as a closed system. Doctors became increasingly preoccupied with infection and contagion, what should and should not be allowed into the body. This clearly makes great sense in terms of medicine. But it has knock-on, epistemological effects too.
Consider, say, the tradition of British empiricism which developed at the same time. It deploys a similar logic in that it is sceptical about what comes into the body via the senses. That "data" must tested to see whether the beliefs it implies can be allowed to inhabit the mind. Similarly, knowledge that can claim objectivity, a validity independent of the body, comes to be valued more than subjective knowledge, which is gained by introspection, turning inwards.
The upshot is that the modern sceptic is suspicious of subjective convictions. They fixate on the many ways in which individuals can be self-deluded, and forget that they can also be wonderfully discerning. They miss truths that can only be known by acquaintance, which is to say, by letting them in.
Alternatively, the modern atheist may admit that going to church can be tremendous and saying prayers valuable to cultivate thanks. But they will ensure that these activities remain contained – quarantined, you might say – by interpreting them as of strictly aesthetic or instrumental merit. They must not be allowed to become processes by which the individual becomes porous to the divine.
The new cognitive and historical insights have further implications for the understanding of religion. For example, if religious narratives are to do with seeking patterns of meaning and a holistic view, the spiritual searcher will gain most from embodied ways of engaging with life. I suspect that this is why meditation can be so revelatory. It trains the attention towards aspects of embodiment like the breath. It exercises neurons that people never knew they had. Expansiveness is the result.
Or again, if a religious sensibility needs an embodied foundation, this would explain why spiritual directors advise individuals to make pilgrimages, to experience liturgies and rituals, and to discipline and pattern their lives. These are activities that are about letting go, which is also a letting in. Something opens up to a new experience of life. Illumination is gained. Faith known first in the body may be the result.
Of course, that faith may well seek creedal expression too, though reason best serves the experience, discerning and deepening it. "Excarnation" as the poet Yves Bonnefoy has called it, is "wrong-headed religion."
So, it is this embodied dynamic that, for me, Julian's reasoned articles have missed. As Pascal had it, the heart has its reasons. The new research appears to be confirming that the old insight is quite true.
Greek Philosophy: Thursday 19 January 6.30pm – 7.30pm
In this enthralling class, author and philsopher Dr Mark Vernon will teach the basics of Greek philosophy. You will learn who Socrates was and what he taught, as well as get the low-down on the philosophical schools that followed him: the Stoics, Epicureans, Sceptics and Cynics. You'll also gain an insight into everyday life and politics in Ancient Athens, and how the dialogues of Ancient Greece are strikingly relevant to issues that concern us today.
By Mark Vernon on Wednesday, December 28 2011, 17:06 - Journalism
I've a piece on the Guardian's Cif belief about money and faith - not there titled as above, but above captures the main source and drift. Here's the piece:
No one expected the steps of St Paul's to become the epicentre for a nation's debate about money. But it is not surprising that faith should be so entwined with the prevailing anxiety of 2011, and no doubt 2012 too. After all, the Judeo-Christian tradition provides us with the language by which we express that anxiety.
The worry about the impossibility of serving both God and mammon is a thorn in the side of the collective consciousness. Or there is the fear that it is indeed easier for a camel to enter through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven, to recall another of Jesus's witty, devastating lines. He also advised his disciples to render to Caesar the things that are Caesar's, and to God the things that are God's, apparently dividing the worldly from the spiritual.
You do not have to believe in God or the kingdom of heaven to understand what he was driving at. It is surely no coincidence that in this year Jessie J's song, Price Tag rode high in the charts of a dozen countries. It urges us to forget about the price tag and remember the music, for which read: what do you stand for, soul or money? The challenge is straight out of the Bible.
And it is true: money has a dark side. "Follow the money," we say, meaning that it'll expose the questionable motivations behind people's actions. It's an old idea. Money for Charon would take you into the underworld.
Or there is the way money is associated with all manner of alarming predicaments. We fear "being broke" or "ripped off". Economically, we face "depression", years of "low interest". The metaphors that fill the newspapers remind us daily of psychological as well as financial nightmares.
But the matter can be pressed more subtlety. Rather than insisting on a choice, a split, it is possible to examine how money leads from the material to the spiritual, and vice-versa; how the divine might mingle with mammon.
The psychologist James Hillman, who died this year, wrote about money as a "psychic reality", by which he means a third state between the material and the spiritual. It sits at the centre of our efforts to unify many opposing forces in life. This is why it causes us so much trouble, though is a trouble that we cannot avoid if we want to live.
St Paul's itself embodies this struggle. The life of the soul is sustained within its marble walls, though psalms could not be sung without the material means to maintain, light and heat it. Alternatively, descend into its airy crypt and beneath the high altar you find, not the bones of a saint, but the tomb of a hero, Nelson. At the cathedral's heart is a memorial that tries uneasily to unify the political and religious.
Alternatively, think of the links between money and love. Hillman points out that the word "spent" has both a genital and monetary meaning. Or there is the notion of security, that can relate to the way people think about money and their personal relationships. In fact, an individual who avoids intimacy may well also say that money means nothing to them. Another person who is demanding in love may express that fear by also being the kind of person who counts the pennies. Arthur Schopenhauer had a resonate definition of money as "frozen desire".
The ancient world understood this link. The origins of the word "money" are associated with a goddess, Moneta. Her temples were treasuries. She was the mother of the muses, and so it might be said that money is the great enabler of the imagination. It forces the spiritual into contact with the material because the imagination can only be made real when facilitated by the means bought with money. There is no shame that the Renaissance could not have flourished without the money of the Medici.
In fact, the Christian tradition understands that money enables life, too. It is not money per se that is condemned. Rather it is luxury, which might be defined as money without imagination, as the material without soul. To put it differently, money must serve life, though it will try to make us its servant. Jesus's thought was that you cannot serve both God and mammon.
David Cameron would not have had to assert that Britain is a Christian country if the matter were beyond dispute. The worry is that we have embarked on a journey of moral drift in this particular sense: it is not that Christian morality makes all things good – far from it – but it has the capacity to bring all things to account. To put it in more philosophical terms, theistic ethics can sustain an objective quality – something recognised by ethical thinkers as diverse as Friedrich Nietzsche and Pope Benedict.
Again, it's worth reflecting on what is meant by objectivity. It is not that rights and wrongs become self-evidently clear. Even so-called divine command theory – right is right because God decrees it is right – urges believers to engage in the arduous task of discerning just what God decrees as right. This is because God's moral law cannot be read off the page, in spite of what some might tell you, but can only be comprehended by those who have undergone a lengthy process of training and transformation. As Saint Augustine prayed: "Lengthen my days for the study of your law's inner meanings. Open the door to them when I knock on it. You had a purpose in causing the Scripture to contain so many pages dark with obscure meaning." Light comes when the individual's will is aligned to God's will, a lifelong task for which even the saint had to ask more time.
So objectivity in ethics is valuable not primarily because of what it might tell us to do, but because of where it suggests we might be heading. It is a view of morality that stands over and above the human frame. Only an ethic not of our own making can truly call us to account; and further, only an ethic not of our own making can remake us and surprise us. (I can't help but feel that this is what really offended Christopher Hitchens about Christian morality: it told him he was not a god and then, adding insult to injury, that he needed God.)
Iris Murdoch, the novelist and philosopher, made the case for such a transcendent view of morality in her book The Sovereignty of Good. The middle chapter, On "God" and "Good", pays re-reading. She calls it having an eye for a wider horizon. It draws the individual's inner gaze towards goods that are beyond their imagined concerns, though might be of concern to them because the wider horizon promises a flourishing that humanity, of itself, could never divine.
Think of the life of the artist, Murdoch suggests. The greatest artists are not self-aggrandising but other-attending; they don't use their imagination to pursue agendas but to open reality. The great test is whether the artist disappears in their art or whether they stamp themselves all over it. "The greatest art is 'impersonal'," Murdoch says, "because it shows us the world, our world and not another one, with a clarity which startles and delights us simply because we are not used to looking at the real world at all."
The moral life springs from that sight because it is fundamentally a question of attention, not action. It is about what you focus on before what you decide to do. This explains why moral heroes often tell of a striking event that etched itself on their mind. Desmond Tutu writes of seeing the white bishop, Trevor Huddleston, doffing a hat to his mother. In an instant he glimpsed a different world, a wider horizon. Such moments cannot be contrived, though they are presumably all around to those with the eyes to see.
I sense that this is why so much of what passes for moral philosophy today feels like it misses the point. Take the oft-discussed "trolley problem". It proposes thought experiments featuring runaway trolleys and innocent bystanders some of whom must die, depending on what you decide. But do such scenarios model moral life at all? They treat ethics as an isolated event, as a calculation: "The agent, thin as a needle, appears in the quick flash of the choosing will," Murdoch writes.
In truth, though, the moral work of our lives is done continually, collectively and over time. It emerges in the shape of our personality and temperament, habits and character. Prayer and meditation are more likely to nourish the good in us than reason or dispute. The religious sensibility understands that deeply, too, another reason it might be valued by those who have a concern for the moral life of our times.
1. Descartes and the birth of modernityMonday 9 January, 6.30pm
He stands on the threshold of a new way of being in the world, now called being modern, turning doubt on itself to see what can be known for certain, and controversially concluding ‘I think therefore I am’. But Descartes is widely misunderstood as responsible for mind/body dualism. In this Symposium we will look at what it means to be modern and try to set the record straight.
2. Bishop Berkeley and the empiricist/idealist divideMonday 16 January, 6.30pm
After Descartes two different attitudes towards the world took root. Empiricism claimed that only the senses could be trusted as a source of knowledge. Idealism argued that our mental construction of the world must come first. Bishop Berkeley is a fascinating figure in this debate, the man who caused Samuel Johnson to kick a stone, refuting the non-existence of matter.
3. Immanuel Kant and what it is to be enlightenedMonday 23 January, 6.30pm
Kant is the towering figure of the Enlightenment, writing a series of Critiques in which he attempted to outline the limits of human knowledge. He also wrote a seminal essay on what it is to be enlightened, arguing that it is ‘daring to know’ and kicking off the shackles of received authority. He is a tough read, but full of ideas to engage with by us, children of the Enlightenment.
4. David Hume and the philosophy of religionMonday 30 January, 6.30pm
Sometimes known as the greatest philosopher who wrote in English, Hume was famous as a historian of England during his lifetime, but since then his philosophy, particularly of science and religion, has come to the fore. His refutation of miracles and arguments against design in the cosmos are important skeptical statements, and can very interestingly be challenged.
5. Michel Foucault and the philosophy of the selfMonday 6 February, 6.30pm
In this symposium, we cast an eye towards what is known as continental philosophy, which is generally as interested in questions of how to live alongside those of analytic philosophy’s how can we know. Foucault provides a stimulating entrée into this different world. A disciple of Nietzsche, and theorist of the self and sexuality, his ideas have percolated very widely.
6. Karl Popper and the philosophy of scienceMonday 13 February, 6.30pm
Modern science is indisputably one of humankind’s most powerful inventions, but just what it discovers and how it works is widely contested. Popper is a crucial figure in this debate, with his measure of falsifiability. He also wrote very well about history and Darwinism. We will also consider Thomas Kuhn, and the notion of paradigm shifts, and other contemporary interpretations.