Tuesday, April 16 2013

Rob Bell on quantum physics

I spoke with Rob Bell yesterday, before his gig at Union Chapel, London. I asked him about his new book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God. About half the book riffs on modern science, and quantum physics in particular. So I started off, asking Rob about that. Here's the first part of my interview.

I first of all wanted to ask you about the science in the book, and I wonder what work the science is being asked to do, if that makes sense. The dominant view in science is that there just isn't a telos or end in science, and the Spirit of religion is very different from the energy of Einstein. I did a physics degree and I feel the pull of modern science, but there are these common slippages that do go on in the science/religion debate. Quantum entanglement is appealed to because it resonates with the sense we're interconnected, but it doesn't show interconnectedness at the human level. It is a powerful metaphor. And then a powerful metaphor slips into a semi-proof.

What I am not trying to do is: see, this is proof! Abraham Joshua Heschel said I don't ask for success, I ask for wonder. And in the book... to me there is great power in, wow! There's some weirdness here. Just the sense of reality: particles disappear in one place and appear in another without travelling the distance in between? This is a much more interesting universe than a lot of us were first taught.

So, one of the things that is a big debate in quantum physics is whether quantum physics has this incredible descriptive power that can make predictions, or whether it does that and tells us about the way world actually is in itself. It's a moot point. If you come from a certain persuasion that sees the interconnectedness anyway, then it's quite easy to run to quantum theory and rely too much on what's actually not clear in science at all.

I think you're phrase, 'if you come form a particular persuasion'... I have no illusions that you can lay out your case and people will go: oh my word, you're right! Do you know what I mean? Like, if you already think this, then you tend to have a lens through which you view things, especially when it comes to God. If you believe there's no God, then generally you're going to run all new external stimuli through that particular lens. Do you know what I mean? That is why I try in the book... to be honest with you, there's a degree of having fun with it.

OK, fair enough.

There's a degree of having fun, and also to me, a degree of... I-don't-know-if-you're-aware-of-it-but-there's-some-really-interesting-truths-about-the-universe. They took apart an atom and they discovered they could take it apart a little more, and then some more, and then when we got in there we found there are clouds of possibilities. That to me is about how the universe is far more interesting and complex, and perhaps you could use the word mysterious. While they even will say, from these clouds of possibilities and predictions, we actually can make microwave ovens and ipods and etc. So, while it's been harnessed for all sorts of good, it still creates to me a more accurate but a more interesting, lyrical, poetic, beautiful, mysterious view of the universe.

So that's the space for the poetry or the mystery of religion?

At some point - like Jeffrey Kluger, writing in Time magazine, about the Higgs boson just says, this is brushing up against the spiritual. Which is a mainstream American magazine saying, the search for the Higgs boson and the implications of this... Like I say in the book, I'm sure lots of quantum physicists would bristle at that, but you cannot talk about an energy that holds all things together or flows without: wow! I was taught, probably like you, that in the modern world there is this hard, cold materiality that we can study and we have repeatability, and there may be this other realm called God.

A reductionism.

There are certain rational people who say we have this - physics and biology and we do all that in school, and there may or may not be all this other religious stuff. But this hard materiality in its essence is just weird.

You point to that very well in the book. But what's the weirdness doing for you as a believer?

My experience around the dinner table with very smart agnostics is: come on! We have science and it's all pretty straightforward. But the problem is it is kinda not very straightforward. So there is a sort of dismissive... I'm speaking in the book in very general terms to the person who says, come on, we have all that. But the problem is that the thing you are trusting is way more interesting than you are giving it credit for and it leaves open all sorts of interesting possibilities.

And they say that all the bones of our ancestors could fit in the back of a truck. So we have these grand, hopefully accurate theories about where are origins are, and Lucy and all the bones and that. But if you see all the bones together, we haven't dug up that much. So I just think there is a fundamental thing that you and I were marinated in which is a master's story. We're the master's and just give us enough time and we'll sort this thing out.

The risk is, and I'm playing the sceptic here, is whether you're appealing to a God of the gaps, which I'm sure you don't want to, or whether you're appealing to a God that runs through all things, that underpins all that science can see, there's another depth that the eyes of faith or religious traditions can see. The risk is that you slip into the gaps argument rather than the deeper ontology.

I'm well aware of that, and I'm well aware of lots of people with far more educational experience writing about this much more eloquently, but I go back to: you're at the dinner table with your friends, and your one friend does the dismissive gesture, and I go, wait, wait, wait. I think it's a little more interesting than that. I'm not a scholar, or a biologist, or a scientist, but I do think at the most basic dinner party level, you can hold the door open for a number of people who would tend to close it. Particles do straight things.

More of the interview on wonder, Jesus and Christianity today to follow...

Friday, March 15 2013

Not immortality, but eternity

This piece has just gone up at The School of Life's blog...

It can come as something of a surprise to learn that western religions are not much interested in immortality. Take ancient Judaism, the Judaism of the Hebrew Bible. Immortality is hardly mentioned. Humans are said to go to ‘sheol’, a shadowy subterranean abode, or to 'Gehenna', an actual place outside Jerusalem of fiery discomfort. Upon arrival, individuals then drift into a half-life and fade away. The Hebrew Bible is, in effect, recommending life here and now, amongst the people of Israel. It is not suggesting that this life is but a foretaste of a life to come.

This much at least, the Hebrews had in common with other peoples of the ancient Mediterranean. The afterlife perhaps lasts a little longer for heroes, the ancient Greeks mused, but only because their life force resists inevitable death more strongly.

Only in the East, amongst the religions of India, is there a widespread belief in life after death, manifest in various forms of soul transmigration. Western thinkers like Plato toy with this possibility. In the dialogue called the Phaedo, he has Socrates present arguments for the immortality of the soul. Then, in the Apology, he has Socrates declare he doesn’t know what happens and anyway, if death is annihilation, then there’s nothing to fear because death is, well, nothing.

Ideas shift as BC turns to AD, when a hope of life after death becomes more prominent. But importantly, it is not immortality that is anticipated. Death is still regarded as death. Bodies clearly rot, and having a body matters. This is symbolically represented by the practice of burying corpses in contact with the ground, not in a coffin. Instead, there grows an expectation that death will be conquered. ‘He maketh death to vanish in life eternal,’ says an Orthodox prayer.

This is not about immortality, because if there was a soul that drifted off after death, untouched by the change of state, there would be no need to hope that death might vanish. Instead, what is prayed for is resurrection. There must be a discontinuity between this life and any next life, a radical break known in death. But there is a hope that God will make a new body, as indeed God made the old body, and that through the discontinuity some measure of continuity may be known too – which is to say, we might be recognisably the same person, in some way.

Difference between this life and the next is emphasized because it became clear to the Jews, and then the Christians, that this life needs redeeming. If the afterlife is just more and more of the same, then everlasting life would become by default an everlasting punishment. At the very least, exhaustion and boredom would set it. Immortality is a form of tragedy.

So instead of immortality, what is pondered is eternity. This is a state outside of time – if the word ‘state’ can even be used, since it implies a time-bound existence. And perhaps the notion of eternity gains ground because it feels as if eternity can be glimpsed in the here and now, at least from time to time.

Would 2 plus 2 equal 4 even if the universe and time had never existed, you might ask? If it feels to you that it would, and it is contentious proposition, then perhaps to do mathematics is to touch something eternal. Or there are the aesthetic invocations of eternity that arise from mystical experience. ‘To see the world in a grain of sand… And eternity in an hour,’ contemplated William Blake.

In fact, I wonder whether eternity might be nearer to us than we think. I once spoke with the physicist Roger Penrose about the nature of light. He described how it seems that light does not ‘experience’ time, because that is part of the definition of travelling at the speed of light – and one reason why it is impossible to accelerate to the speed of light. That would make turning the lights on in the morning something akin to a mystical experience; to being bathed in eternity.

So although you can read and hear all manner of metaphors reaching for the afterlife in Judeo-Christian writings, and some appear to imply immortality, the official line is, no. Death is real. Theologians like Thomas Aquinas are so clear on this fact that he wrote, ‘My soul is not I’.

But perhaps, beyond a discontinuity, lies eternity. We could taste it now. We might know it ‘then’.

Thursday, March 14 2013

The heart: the 'most spiritual member' of the body, after all?

Excerpts from a feature in last week's Church Times. I think it's about a really quite striking development in understanding of the heart. Modern science, following Descartes mechanistic philosophy, regards the heart as a pump - a very fancy pump, but a pump. But new research suggests that all those old metaphors - heavy-hearted, lifting hearts, the heart as the seat of emotion, courage, insight - might have a physiological basis.

... We talk about being "heavy-hearted" or "downhearted", and, in fact, depression has long been correlated with an increased risk of heart disease. This is a result of many complex factors, including the effects of stress hormones and the suppression of the immune system by depression. But a new link is being made between heart-rate variability and low moods.

New research, pioneered by Professor Stephen Porges at the University of Illinois, in Chicago, suggests that heartbeat responsiveness is a good predictor of emotional health. The child who has a heart that can react dynamically to, say, a father's mocking, or a mother's criticism, is likely to be more emotionally resilient as an adult. In other words, a heavy heart - if by "heavy" is meant the felt sense of being emotionally unresponsive - has literally to do with depression.

This much is perhaps not so surprising. We all know that our heart races when we are shocked or excited. Taking a deep breath calms us down because it calms the heart. But consider the work of Professor Hugo Critchley and Dr Sarah Garfinkel at the University of Sussex. They have shown that individuals are better at recognising scary-looking faces flashing before them when their hearts are in the systole or contracting phase of beating.

Other research suggests that the heart helps to mediate the fine-tuning of various emotional capacities, such as empathy. Such findings resonate with the notion of "embodied cognition" - the evidence that our bodies as well as our brains are engaged in the generation and processing of thoughts and feelings (Comment, 1 February).

There is also an area of research being conducted by Professor David Paterson of Oxford University, among others. He studies what is coming to be known as the "heart's brain" - the network of neurons that surround parts of the heart. It seems that these neurons have autonomous processing power. They do not merely pass on signals from the brain. The implication is that the brain and the heart work in tandem, not as master and slave...

These new insights are emerging because the technology now exists to study more than just the musculature of the heart. It seems, at the very least, that the heart can recall and compute responses to its immediate surroundings, as well as cater for the needs of other parts of the body, such as the limbs.

When you remember that the human body is constantly awash with sensorimotor patterns and pulses - the heart itself, breathing, digestion in the gut, physical gesticulations, and locomotion - it starts to look plausible to think of the heart as the centre of a dynamic, interactive system that helps to make sense of things. If this embraces our emotional lives, then it includes our intellectual and spiritual lives, too, since these elements of understanding cannot easily be separated from one another...

Friday, March 8 2013

Is love biological? Is sex about breeding?

Was on Night Waves last night, talking about Love: All That Matters, and it demonstrated how widespread are the presumed conclusions of pop-evolution. So, one of my learned co-panelists described love as pretty simple because, well, it's biology. He was referring, I guess, to the idea that love is the illusion that evolution deploys to keep us together whilst we raise those gene-carriers we all the kids.

In fact, the origins of sexual reproduction are 'hidden in darkness' according to Richard Dawkins. No explanations are 'knock-down convincing'. The fact is that most living creatures do not reproduce via some kind of sexual exchange, and a supposed sexual selection when it apparently occurs actually fits uneasily with observed behaviour: the peacock with the fanciest tail does not always get the peahen.

In the book, I toy with the possibility that sexual congress does not serve a primarily reproductive function but a social bonding one. Sexual reproduction hitches a ride on the back of that, not the other way round. It is the spandrel. In short, love is not simple - not biological - if that is code for breeding. It is what take it to be: love.

Wednesday, March 6 2013

An apology that is transformative and healing is a rare thing

A piece on the art of saying sorry went up at the Guardian's Cif yesterday. It had a slightly tortuous hook, but here's the main point.

You will be able to recall a parent leaning over you and commanding you to say sorry – perhaps to Auntie Maude on the day you spilt blackcurrant juice over her white tablecloth. The truth is that you did not feel sorry at all. You were bored sitting in her front room. Nonetheless, you forced the S-word through your lips because you had no choice – and it was fury, not regret, that accompanied your muttering. Presumably such an upbringing led PG Wodehouse to make a personal note: "It is a good rule in life never to apologise. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them."

That's the trouble with demanding an apology. Intention is all, and when it is not given freely, the meaning becomes confused and probably lost.

Then again, if you were a smart child you probably learned to twist your apologies to your advantage. Most parents will have heard their loved ones treating the word sorry as a shortcut to getting what they want, as a get-out-of-jail-free card. "Sorry, Mummy. Can I go out now?" In this kind of scenario the power dynamics are reversed. Sorry becomes a too easy word to say because it gives apologisers the upper hand and enables them to redirect things to what they want. Oscar Wilde knew that trick: "I have invented an invaluable permanent invalid called Bunbury, in order that I may be able to go down into the country whenever I choose."

In fact, I wonder whether there is ever such a thing as a clear and genuine apology that is transformative and healing. A case that is discussed amongst therapists concerns a young girl who was hospitalised for various life-threatening psychological complaints. A nurse heard her murmuring, "Say you're sorry. Say you're sorry." In response, a doctor replied, "I am sorry. I am very, very sorry," and others in the room joined in with the refrain. The impact upon the child was remarkable and almost instantaneous. Within a week she had recovered.

It seemed to be a case capturing the magic of an apology. But a few years later, things again started going wrong for the girl, now a teenager. She was hospitalised and then spent several years as an outpatient until what was really troubling her was discovered. It turned out that the S-word served only to bury her problems more deeply.

Then again, a world in which no one ever said sorry is a bleak one to contemplate. Perhaps, then, a good apology is a temporary measure. It can relieve a tricky situation for a while by unfreezing things and allowing relationships some flow. The mistake is to believe that is the end of the story. What sorry might create is the time and space for considering more deeply what went wrong.

Friday, March 1 2013

Science and faith: a new dialogue

I think the relationship between science and religion is changing, as I tried to say in an article in the Church Times. A new dialogue seems possible not so much with the physical sciences, where the lines of engagement seem pretty fixed for good and ill, but with the human sciences.

'The most exciting work in the future looks likely to be interdisciplinary,' explains Michael Welker, professor of systematic theology at the University of Heidelberg and one of the principle players in the field. Moreover, rather than considering general questions about how science and religion might relate to one another - whether they should be in conflict or alternatively operate as 'nonoverlapping magisteria', each looking at the world in different ways - it seems that focusing on specific problems is likely to bring experts in different fields into fruitful dialogue.

Take, for example, the issue of our continuity and discontinuity as persons - the difficulty of accounting for the fact that materially we are not the same biological creatures as we were even a few weeks ago, and yet life feels connected and everyone from your mother to a judge will treat you as the same person that you were even years ago.

Some of Aristotle's speculations about the nature of the human person, explored by Thomas Aquinas too, might be of use here. He argued that the soul is the 'form of the body'. It is a kind of dynamic pattern or animating basis to which the biological flesh conforms. Compare that with the understanding that is emerging in modern biology. 'What links us together is not matter itself but the continuously developing, almost infinitely complex, "information-bearing pattern" carried at any one time by the matter that then makes up my body', Polkinghorne writes Science and Religion in Quest of Truth. 'I believe that it is this information-bearing pattern that is the human soul.' The ancient notion looks not unlike the modern one. Hence the possibility of fruitful exchange...

In terms of the relationship between science and religion, this is a big change. No longer would theology be 'catching up' with scientific innovation. Instead, when faced with focused questions such as what it is to be human, the two would be on a level playing field. Both could contribute to the conversation, and both would have to recognize the inherent limitations of their insights. Such epistemological modesty neutralizes the fight over which discipline is the best arbiter of truth, and all in the interests of thorough and open-minded debate.

Thursday, February 14 2013

God of love?

This is a slightly longer version of the article that has gone up at the Guardian's Cif belief...

Religious and spiritual sorts tend to bang on about love. God is love, some say. Practice the art of loving-kindness, others commend. And I've found it hard to know what sense to make of these sentiments. They can so easily lose weight and meaning in a thousand repetitions. Or there is the claim that love reveals and is the fundamental truth of reality. What can be made of that in a scientific age?

Then, I started to read up on developmental psychology, whilst writing a book about love. It seems to me that the modern science illuminates the older, religious claims.

Psychologists and psychotherapists as diverse as Jean Piaget and Sigmund Freud, John Bowlby and Donald Winnicott seem to say that we learn about love in roughly three stages. Our first love is narcissistic - not an entirely pleasant thought, though behaving as if we were the only creature of importance in the world is necessary for our early survival. Freud talked of His Majesty the Baby.

Neonates are lovable and tyrannical. Winnicott showed that the good-enough parent is not perfect but is capable of being devoted to their child, especially in the early weeks. The aim is to instill a feeling that life can be trusted because, on the whole, it delivers what the child needs, physically and emotionally. A sense of wellbeing grows in the young body. It provides the basis for the kind of self-love that enables you to get over yourself and feel comfortable in your own skin. The myth of Narcissus conveys a similar insight. The problem the beautiful youth had was not that he loved himself too much, but that he couldn't love himself.

Narcissism might be called the love of one, and love between two follows next. It is a step into the unknown. It's frightening to awaken to the realization that you are dependent upon another - a parent, in the child's case; a partner, in the adult equivalent: romantic love. But the upside is that life expands. To be one of two promises deeper delights and wider horizons than narcissism can embrace.

There is an assumption that dyadic love, also called falling in love, is the pinnacle of lovely experiences. But it is only the midpoint of the story according to developmental psychology. The next step comes with a secure enough attachment, as Bowlby put it. Equipped with such trust, the child is able to explore the world - to take tentative steps away from the cosy twosome.

It can enter what has usefully been called a triangular space. There's me, there's Mum or Dad, and now there's something else - a third dimension known in the reality of siblings, friends, interests, goals, a current of life that runs independently of me, though I'm somehow part of it. Again, taking that step is alarming, possibly traumatic. However, if negotiated OK, life becomes richer again, and more risky, and the individual's perception of reality grows.

So what does this have to do with God and love? Well, first, consider Plato. He argued that love has an epistemological dimension because of the way it draws our perceptions up a ladder of illumination. We find ourselves on one rung, lower down, and spend some time steadying ourselves with the view. Then, having gained our balance, we are inclined to look up. There's another rung, and an urge to step up. It is an unsettling, possibly frightening, experience. It is more comfortable to stay where you are. But with the right support, another view is gained.

The process can repeat itself, Plato proposed, until a moment is reached when the view that appears is nothing less than a beatific vision. It is as if we have momentarily taken in all that life and reality are. Plato called it the beautiful and the true. Believers call it God. The point is that love resources the ascent. It is a dynamic view of love that is remarkably commensurate with developmental psychology.

A second way of thinking about this dynamic is more simply put. At each transition - from one to two, from two to the triangular space - the individual realizes is that love was already there waiting for him or her. Narcissistic self-absorption relaxes with the realization that I am held in the love of another. Lovers move from falling in love to standing in love, to recalled Erich Fromm's phrase.

The life of faith detects that there is a fourth dimension to add to this third, a divine love that is there waiting. It holds all because it is the source of the love that flows through all. Fear and uncertainty do not cease. Human love always feels a bit like that. But faith is the felt sense that love can be trusted because love is, in truth, the ground of reality.

Wednesday, February 13 2013

Not in praise of hyper-romance

A small collection of articles just online, because tomorrow is 14th February...

BBC Magazine - Viewpoint: Down with romantic love

Aeon Magazine - What is love?

Third Way - In defence of Narcissus

Wednesday, January 9 2013

Spiritual, but not religious? A dangerous mix

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif. I took part in a discussion about the same research last night on BBC Radio 3's Night Waves too...

People who are "spiritual but not religious" are more likely to suffer poor mental health, according to a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry. Michael King of University College London and his colleagues examined 7,400 interviews with folk in Britain, of whom 35% had a religious understanding of life, 19% a spiritual one and 46% neither a religious nor spiritual outlook. The analysis led to one clear conclusion. "People who have a spiritual understanding of life in the absence of a religious framework are vulnerable to mental disorder [dependence on drugs, abnormal eating attitudes, anxiety, phobias and neuroses]." The work supports evidence from other studies too.

All the usual weaknesses associated with asking individuals about religion are at play here, as the authors acknowledge. Nonetheless, the study prompts a number of speculations.

The spiritual itch is a deep one in the human psyche, for those who feel it. To scratch without the support of others might lead to an inner obsession that spirals out of control. It is possible, too, that personal crises drive people to seek spiritual solace that of itself does not address the underlying psychological distress. Then again, the resources of a healthy spiritual tradition, not pursued in isolation, should provide or point to the means of addressing psychological problems. The ground is then gradually cleared for genuine spiritual growth.

This raises another question, though. Do religious organisations in the UK today take enough notice of the insights of psychology and, conversely, do schools of therapy treat spirituality seriously? As the Cambridge psychologist and priest Fraser Watts explored in a recent talk, American therapists, for example, seem to be far happier talking about their clients' spiritual concerns than their British counterparts.

This must highlight broader cultural differences. In the US, religion tends to carry associations of freedom. I remember an American priest once saying to me, when I expressed amazement at the prevalence of religiosity in the US, that Americans came from Europe fleeing religious persecution. The two words "religion" and "freedom" naturally go together in the American psyche.

In Britain, though, it appears that many individuals view religion as an impingement upon their spiritual searching. Christianity, say, is felt to constrain life – perhaps because of the negative attitudes it projects about gay people and women; or because it presents belief as more important than growth; or because it looks more interested in sin than enlightenment. If that is so, the new research is a striking indictment of the failure of British churches to meet spiritual needs: individuals are not just not coming to church, some are becoming mentally ill as a result of religious failure.

Other results from the research are striking too, though similarly not determinative. People with no religious or spiritual understanding were significantly younger and more often white British, but were less likely to have qualifications beyond secondary school, perhaps challenging research purporting to show that atheists are more intelligent.

Another finding of this work was that those who were neither religious nor spiritual had just as good mental health as those the religious. This contradicts a notion widely held in positive psychology that religion is good for happiness (though that positive correlation typically derives from North American evidence.)

Finally, the research challenges the stance of those who are spiritual but not religious. It might be called the individualism delusion, the conviction that I can "do God" on my own. And yet, as the psychotherapist Donald Winnicott argued, human beings need to work through traditions to resource their personal creativity. Only in the lives of others can we make something rich of our own life. To be spiritual but not religious might be said to be like embarking on an extreme sport while refusing the support of safety procedures and the wisdom of experts who have made the jump before. Spirituality is like love: more risky than you can countenance when you're falling for it.

Friday, January 4 2013

The Most Despised Science Book of 2012 is … worth reading

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Comment is free...

Every year, I "give" an award to the Most Despised Science Book of the Year. The 2010 award went to Jerry Fodor and Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini for What Darwin Got Wrong. In 2011, Ray Tallis won with Aping Mankind: Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity.

My runner-up this time is Rupert Sheldrake's The Science Delusion, though in fact it had a strikingly decent reception for a book also critiquing scientistic dogmatism.

So the winner for 2012 must be Thomas Nagel, for his book Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False.

Steven Pinker dammed it with faint praise when he described it in a tweet as "the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker". Jerry Coyne blogged: "Nagel goes the way of Alvin Plantinga", which is like being compared to Nick Clegg. All in all, Nagel's gadfly stung and whipped them into a fury.

Disparagement is particularly unfair, though, because the book is a model of carefulness, sobriety and reason. If reading Sheldrake feels daring, Tallis thrilling and Fodor worthwhile but hard work, reading Nagel feels like opening the door on to a tidy, sunny room that you didn't know existed. It is as if his heart said to his head, I can't help but feel that materialist reductionism isn't right. And his head said to his heart, OK: let's take a fresh look. So what caused the offence?

Several things, but consider one: the contention that evolution may tend towards consciousness. Nagel is explicit that he himself is not countenancing a designer. Rather, he wonders whether science needs to entertain the possibility that a teleological trend is immanent in nature.

There it is. The t-word – a major taboo among evolutionary biologists. Goal-directed explanations automatically question your loyalty to Darwin. As Friedrich Engels celebrated, when reading On The Origin of Species in 1859: "There was one aspect of teleology that had yet to be demolished, and that has now been done." But has it? This is the moot point.

The scientifically respectable become edgy when approaching this domain. Read Malcolm Thorndike Nicholson's measured piece on the reaction Nagel's book sparked, published in Prospect. The possibility that the universe wants, in some way, to become conscious will "appear absurd" or "strange", he warns. But bear the anxiety, he doesn't quite continue, and consider the arguments.

I'm considering some of them with Rupert Sheldrake in a series of podcasts, if you'll forgive the plug. But it is striking that they can be aired in relatively kosher scientific circles too. A recent example is Paul Davies's bestseller, The Goldilocks Enigma. Davies argues that the refusal of natural teleology rests on an assumption that nature obeys laws that are written into the fabric of the cosmos. However, quantum physics offers every reason to doubt that this is so. The upshot is that Davies himself favours a universe that contains a "life principle".

So how come teleology is acceptable among cosmologists? It may be that they are used to the basic assumptions of their science being regularly overturned. Biology, though, has had a very good run since 1859. Questioning their science feels like a form of self-sabotage and dangerous. Hence, Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg, reviewing Nagel for the Nation, evoked the spectre of supernaturalism; and Simon Blackburn, reviewing for the New Statesman, jested that "if there were a philosophical Vatican, the book would be a good candidate for going on to the Index".

That was written tongue-in-cheek, but it is a purity argument no less. As Mary Douglas pointed out, secular societies still draw symbolic boundaries to keep the permissible in and threatening stuff out. Those who cross them risk expulsion. The media ritual of the public review offers a mechanism.

As Freeman Dyson recently wrote in the New York Review of Books, contemporary philosophers bow too low to science, mostly because they haven't done any, and have simultaneously lost touch with the elements that made their predecessors so great: the truths held by history, literature, religion. The 2012 award is well earned. We need those prepared to face the flak.

Tuesday, December 4 2012

A bit more about Stoicism

This piece just went up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

The earliest extended stoic text to survive the passage of time is a hymn to Zeus. It was written by Cleanthes, the second head of the school, in the third century BCE. The mighty god is summoned as "most glorious of the immortals, invoked by many names, ever all-powerful".

But it is not just a hymn of high praise. Within it threads the fundamental element of stoic thought that underpins the exercises and practices, psychology and cosmology celebrated this week by the organisers of Stoic Week. Without this thread, Cleanthes felt that stoicism makes no sense and, worse, might lead you astray.

It was called the logos – using one of those extraordinarily rich Greek terms that can be translated as word, discourse, reason, activity and principle. The logos, Cleanthes remembers, "moves through all creation". It is the wellspring of unity, direction, purpose. The wretched flee the logos, he continues, and their alienation from it is the cause of their suffering. Because they do not know the logos in their lives they instead seek fame, money, pleasure for pleasure's sake, all manner of passing things that sweep them along and actually destroy what human beings truly wish for. The result is a troubled life of ignorance. "If they obey the logos intelligently, they would have the good life," the hymn continues.

It is striking, then, that Stoic Week makes no reference to the logos (unless a moment of revelation has yet to come on the blog). Presumably that is because the philosophers and therapists behind the experiment feel either that the theological aspect is irrelevant today or that it would distract from the usefulness of the stoic practices that aim to build resilience, gratefulness and aspiration. But I think it is a vital issue to raise.

The ancient stoic training was an attempt to orient the whole of life to the logos. Chrysippus, the third head of the school and one of the most brilliant philosophers of the ancient world, used the metaphor of a cylinder rolling down a hill. Life is like that. There is nothing you can do to change it. What you can do is learn "to go with the flow", as opposed to resisting the bumps and shocks.

But why should you go with the flow, one of his young disciples might have asked? Because the flow can be trusted, Chrysippus would have replied. It is the action of the logos. It is mysterious, yes; often painful, yes. But ultimately benign. And if life were not providential, you are right: it would be more noble to resist it all the way.

In other words, the stoic notion of flow was a kind of devotion, an offering of yourself. Cultivating the right inner attitude was absolutely crucial to the good life stoicism promised. Practise stoicism for self-serving reasons, as instrumentally driven therapies and self-help might encourage, and you risk alienating yourself further.

Think about it this way. It is often remarked that ancient stoicism is close to modern CBT. That undoubtedly offers people timely help. But only some, it seems. Longitudinal testing of CBT appears to be suggesting the benefits are short-lived. I wonder whether Chrysippus might help explain why: does CBT unwittingly encourage the delusion of living out of your own strength, he might ask?

Stoicism was the most successful of the ancient Athenian schools. What is perhaps not much appreciated now is that it is, in a way, alive and kicking to this day. When the first Christians searched for resources to try to understand what they had encountered in the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth, stoic insights made tremendous sense.

St Paul felt that his experience of the divine was like that of the stoics. "For in him we live and move and have our being," he taught, explaining he was quoting from stoic philosophers. St John was so impressed that he argued Jesus was the incarnation of the logos, celebrated in the opening line of his gospel: "In the beginning was the word." Practices such as saying grace before meals, or giving thanks for the day at night-time, are stoic.

Is it too cheeky to suggest that if you want to practise stoicism today, you might start in a church?

Sunday, November 18 2012

Are we living in a new axial age?

This is a slightly longer version of a piece that is up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

Are our centuries of technological innovation remolding us culturally? Are we becoming a new species, spiritually speaking, so that the inner lives of future generations will seem as strange and elusive as Paleolithic man's is to us? Are we living in a new axial age?

The question is posed in a collection of essays, edited by the American sociologist of religion, Robert Bellah. With his colleague, Hans Joas, The Axial Age and Its Consequences probes the implications of this thesis in the history of ideas, first named by the existentialist philosopher Karl Jaspers.

The first Axial Age, it is said, ran across the middle centuries of the first millennium BCE. It marked a transformative time in human experience, broadly accepted now by sociologists of religion, which can be summarized as an inward turn and a discovery of transcendence. So, in this period the Hebrew prophets declared that God was more concerned with attitudes of heart than with bloody rituals in the Temple. Not long after, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle - that extraordinary procession of master and pupil - "brought philosophy down from the heavens": they were gripped by the nature of the human condition. The Buddha probably lived at the same time as Socrates, attempting reform of the religions of India by his attention to human suffering and desire. Confucianism and Daoism were born too, creating between them a rich dialectic of humanist rationalism and spiritual non-rationalism in China.

"To generalize is to be an idiot," observed William Blake in a presumably self-conscious generalization. So duly warned, are ours axial times too?

Jaspers noted that in the period around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth blossomed "superstition in manifold guises, doctrines of salvation of the most extraordinary kinds, circles gathered round peripatetic preachers, therapists, poets and prophets, in an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion..." Sound familiar? Further, continued Jaspers, this riotous marketplace of ideas eroded the moral substructure of society: enjoyment was pursued for its own sake, and slaves, the poor and the vanquished were left to rot. It took Christianity to replace the chaos with vision and purpose - Christianity being one way of consolidating and operationalizing the Hebrew and Greek insights of the first Axial Age.

But if "an endless confusion of vogue, success and oblivion" marks our times too, then there seems to be no new Christianity to guide our way, observes Richard Madsen in his essay in the new book. Is there a contemporary faith that might refresh "the deep matrix from which we sprang", as Jaspers put it?

We need to be careful with the word "faith" here. It is not what the Canadian philosopher, Charles Taylor, calls "expressive spirituality", of which there is plenty today, based on the conviction that each one of us must create an authentic and individual source of consolation, dreams and self-realization. Expressive spirituality actually breeds dislocation and feeds the chaos. Even less is faith about being cognitively persuaded to adopt a creed: the head cannot reach "the deep matrix" and so its convictions, when they lack heart, feel empty.

Rather, the faith that can energize and organize people is what Jaspers defines as "the fulfilling and moving element in the depths of man, in which man is linked, above and beyond himself." It is for such a connection that Barack Obama reaches in his most soaring rhetoric, though he can't also help raise the question of whether it's enough to save the Union? Hence the suspicion that we need a new axial age. Madsen notes that the original axial movements emerged on the margins of powerful empires. Only at the edges of societies and institutions might you find the kind of balance between playfulness with inherited traditions, and respect for them too, that can re-tap the axial energy and transmit it in ways that are once again meaningful.

Examples do, in fact, abound Madsen avers. He highlights the emergence of forms of socially engaged Buddhism in Taiwan. The founder of one, Buddha's Light Mountain, has written: "I do not unconditionally follow tradition. I do not toy with the idea of emptiness and talk in vain about abstruse things. I do not consciously accept the opinion of the majority. Instead, I constantly review our tradition, observe, and think about the future of Buddhism. I keep on reappraising values as I grow."

In the Christian tradition, Madsen finds inspiration in South Korea and its "vigorous minjung (people's) Christian theology, which mixes some of the expansionist passion of evangelical Christianity with the concern for social justice of ecumenical Christianity." In the West, Madsen points to Taizé, the Sant'Egidio community and the Sojourners.

Practical wisdom and spiritual vitality is sought in these movements. They are flexible, unlike fundamentalist religious movements, because their way of life is orientated not around protecting doctrines but around the struggle to be faithful to the deepest principles of their tradition. They also strive imaginatively to communicate their "findings". And they engage in critical dialogue with other traditions, a dialogue energized more by the exchange of ideas than the claim to power.

Crucially too for plural times, axial movements recognise that truth ultimately lies beyond any one group. That is the insight of the transcendent turn from the first Axial Age. An axial faith holds things sacred and makes a genuine commitment to one tradition because of, not in spite of, the recognition that human beings are linked to that which is "above and beyond " all.

Friday, October 26 2012

Spirituality is not just another health tonic

This piece is now on the Guardian's Comment is free belief site...

Spirituality has always been associated with the quest for health. Camberwell in south London, I recently learned, derives its name from a healing well frequented by those who were "cambered", or physically disabled. But it is only a scientific age that would seek to distil causal links between a spiritual practice and its physical effects, and perhaps also be concerned to exorcise any metaphysical excess.

The discussion of the benefits of practices traditionally associated with religions is firmly on the secular agenda. The new edition of the Handbook of Religion and Health lists more than 3,000 published studies. Research on forgiveness and gratitude alone has increased by an order of magnitude since the turn of the millennium.

Robert Emmons, professor of psychology at University of California, Davis, has gathered evidence to show that gratitude has psychological benefits, sustains physical wellbeing and feeds human relationships. He also believes there is an important spiritual side to the virtue, as gratitude cultivates a sense of fulfilment in life by nurturing the sense of dependency on others and God.

Or consider forgiveness. A significant cultural reassessment of this virtue seems under way: it is now taken less as a sign of weakness and more of inner strength. "Genuine forgiveness is important in transforming relations, just as confession, apology and repentance are. Forgiveness is connected to other virtues, like empathy and justice," adds Charlotte vanOyen-Witvliet, professor of psychology at Hope College, Michigan. She is also keen to stress that forgiveness is not about forgetting the damage of the offence, but is interested in the wellbeing of the offender.

Researchers emphasise that the links between spirituality and wellbeing need much further study. "Do we really know what it is about what sort of religion, spirituality or belief that enhances health?" asks Stephen Post, author of The Hidden Gifts of Helping and moderator of a recent conference that addressed these issues, Spiritual Progress and Human Flourishing. His answer is no, but "progress is being made".

Teaching spirituality and health is also being promoted. In August, Oxford University Press published a textbook for public health professionals, The Oxford Textbook of Spirituality in Healthcare. Christina Puchalski of the George Washington Institute for Spirituality and Health, and one of the book's editors, argues that healthcare improvements have been driven by technology. "What is unfortunately missing is a relationship-centred compassionate approach," she argues, "and that's the foundation of spirituality in healthcare."

And the burgeoning interest raises theological questions too. Another book, published in September by the Templeton Press, asks whether healthcare risks turning faith into a medical commodity. Healing To All Their Flesh: Jewish and Christian Perspectives on Spirituality, Theology, and Health, worries that, while research on religion and health is now acceptable, it may be distorting. As Jeff Levin, one of the book's editors, writes in the prologue: "Religion is just more grist for the mill of structural-equation models, survival analyses, logistic regressions and the like."

In other words, there is a lack of theoretical and theological reflection in the field and that matters for two reasons. One is scientific. Levin continues: "A medical researcher would never conduct a study of the health impact of, say, environmental toxins or nutritional status or social support without first consulting an environmental toxicologist or a nutritionist or a sociologist who could expertly identify what questions to ask, what hypotheses to frame, and, once data were collected, how to analyse the data and then how to interpret findings. Yet, in studies of religion and health, this is done all the time; it is probably the norm. This is foolish, irresponsible and self-defeating."

Second, it matters at a human level. Could there be something cruel in "prescribing" a spiritual practice as if it were a pill because of the implications for the patient when the supposed "remedy" fails to work? What is not being asked is what religious traditions actually teach about the link between faith and health – a question that might then lead to others, like how the status of the spirit matters for the functioning of the body?

After all, it seems likely that the wellbeing gained from religious practices would be indirect. The believer who says grace at the start of a meal does not do so to be happy but to thank God. Alternatively, and reflecting on Julian Baggini's interesting article on atheists fasting, celebrating a newfound control of the appetites could confuse the means with the end: spiritually speaking, fasting is about expanding an individual's range of interests so that they can move beyond material concerns.

Spirituality and health are both great goods. But confusing the two brings risks. It might load individuals already anxious about their lifestyles with yet more burdens. And it could stymie the spiritual transformation of the person.

Wednesday, October 10 2012

Viewpoint: In defence of narcissism

The BBC Magazine has an edited transcript of my Four Thought on narcissism being broadcast this evening, at 8.45pm. Here's an excerpt from the edit...

Perhaps our understanding of ourselves has become too individualistic, too mechanical. We worry about autonomy more than connection, about freedom over commitment, about individual rights more than the common good.

It's as if the default image that the Western mind has of itself is the billiard ball. We jostle and bounce off each other for fear of touching and holding one another. Could the wariness of the word narcissism be because our culture is secretly, unhealthily, narcissistic? That's why we retreat from the word.

The quest for the perfect body repeats Narcissus's fate in that it's absorbed with the image on the surface. It's caught at the level of the ephemeral and becomes stuck in the shallows. Such an individual cannot see the depths of another's soul because they have never gazed into the depths of their own soul.

The Rowntree report concludes that claims made for interventions that can solve problems of self-esteem should be viewed warily. Short-term interventions are particularly suspect. It takes time, like the time it takes to raise a human child. Also, the kind of self-love that enables human beings to flourish cannot be demanded or programmed. It must be given to us as a gift, like the mother who gives her child the capacity to love others by loving her child herself.

Such love is empty if it's not a personal exchange. Manualised attempts at therapy, the kind that teach exercises and procedures like telling yourself that you are lovable, lack the very quality that is most needed and desired. Relationship matters.

So there's no easy way out of this predicament, though perhaps a more careful analysis of self-love provides some insight and hope. The work of Freud and the psychotherapists who have developed and critiqued his insights and methods provides a key resource. The story of Narcissus does too.

In the Narcissus myth, the flower first grew where the young man fell It appears to end badly. The beautiful young man realises that the image in the water is a reflection of himself. He then realises that he cannot break the habit. The only way out is to die.

But where the body of Narcissus had wasted away, a flower appears - a narcissus, a soft yellow bloom. What the myth suggests is that early narcissism must die and sink into the ground of our being where it can feed us like the soil does the flower. This happens when the young infant has a good enough parent. Our primary carers do at first comply with our illusion that we are His Majesty the Baby. But only so we can then take the risk to overcome the illusion.

Thursday, October 4 2012

COMING UP - Four Thought, on rehabilitating narcissism

Wednesday 10th October

Four Thought, BBC Radio 4

Mark Vernon, writer and former priest, says we should rehabilitate the concept of narcissism as a valuable form of self-love. "Love others as if they were yourself, yes. But also, love yourself so you can love others. Proper self-regard resources other regard."

Wednesday, September 12 2012

Night Waves on the good life

This week's episodes of BBC Radio 3's Night Waves are on the good life.

I was in on a discussion on Monday. Podcast here. It got quite lively...

Rowan Williams, we'll miss you

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Comment is free...

We will miss Rowan Williams when he is gone. Not because public life will be the poorer without that beard, those eyebrows: Boris Johnson's blond mop can fill the gap. Not because conservatives and liberals alike will lose a ready scapegoat: there will be others upon whom to load our discontent. But because he is, to my mind, the leading public intellectual of his generation.

I know that reading him can be like watching a jellyfish disintegrate in a jacuzzi, as one notable commentator memorably put it. My own version of that experience came after attending his lectures at university. During the series, I bumped into a friend on the high street and exclaimed: "why weren't you there?" After an excuse, they asked me what had been said. I stumbled and tried to explain before realising that the great man's words can seem like bright soap bubbles, bursting as they rise in the air. But of this I was sure: I wanted my friend to be there because it was obvious that something important was being aired, something unexpected would be said. Those words came from a place of vitality. Here is someone whom Aristotle would have called megalopsyche or "great souled". You want to sit alongside such humans on the rare occasions they come your way, which is presumably why even his biggest ideological opponents have done so.

It is always worth reading the archbishop for yourself, not how he is redacted in the press. Hoping you might agree, here is what I hear him saying in the new introduction to his collected lectures, Faith in the Public Square, crucial elements lost in the reports of last weekend's media.

He does criticise the way the economy is run when focused on growth for growth's sake. He does have a pop at his predecessor, Lord Carey, who has complained that Christians are being persecuted in this country. But what is missed in the headlines are the deeper, penetrating points. "We have been hearing a lot about the dangers of 'aggressive secularism'," he writes, but that noise obscures the fact that the notion of secularism does not describe where our society is at. (Keeping up the noise presumably suits the "aggressors".)

Most people do not live in a disenchanted world. Public rituals persist. I write as the Red Arrows fly overhead, celebrating the Olympics. Why do acrobatic jets suit the moment? Is it the roar? The colour? It is hard to say, which is partly why the ritual works. So if we are to progress crucial questions about how society can be organised around a diversity of beliefs, Williams continues, hadn't we better be clearer about where we are actually at?

The way he frames his interventions is striking too. To attempt to be a public commentator of any weight, he stresses, is to be doomed to failure. Some will accuse you of straying into their territory. Others will accuse you of platitudinous dumbing down. Others again will make the case for inscrutability. Williams knows he will fail. He signed up to that when he signed up to Christianity because Christianity recognises that failure is what human beings do. And yet, the recognition is not humiliating but liberating "because it delivers us from aspiring to mythic goals of absolute human control over human destiny".

He practises the risk he preaches. In the interview he gave at the weekend, he floated the idea of a president of the Anglican communion to relieve the next archbishop of his global duties. He is undoubtedly right that the job is impossible and will become more undoable. That solution, though, would surely sink the church into further division and squabbles. Can you imagine the power struggle that would ensue in the selection of such a figurehead?

In the book, Williams continues: "The best thing to hope for is that at least some of the inevitable mistakes may be interesting enough (or simply big enough) for someone else to work out better responses." Which professional politician would and could express such mitigated optimism? Actually, I suspect Boris conveys a not dissimilar stance and that is part of his appeal. Maybe the hair does matter.

Sunday, August 19 2012

Rowan Williams and Francis Spufford on being a Christian

This piece on two new books, plus one not quite so new, has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif Belief...

What is it like to be a Christian? Not what do Christians believe or how many superstitions do they quietly excuse before breakfast? But what is faith as experienced?

It is an important question because, as Rowan Williams notes in his new book, The Lion's World, people might think they know what faith is about when, today, they perhaps don't, never having been there. Subtitled "A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia", the book is partly about CS Lewis. But it is also a chance for the archbishop of Canterbury to convey what Christianity means to him. This is difficult to do, not only because contemporary Britons lack Christian experience but because, as titular head of the established Church of England, Williams recognises a need to "rinse out what is stale in our thinking about Christianity – which is almost everything".

The elusory character of Christianity is also on the mind of Francis Spufford, the historian and science writer. The subtitle for his new book, Unapologetic, is "Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense". A central worry for him is not that the rational justification for belief has been undone. Faith is not about that anyway: as Coleridge noted, the best argument for Christianity is that "it fits the human heart". Rather, it is that so many of the secular alternatives to Christianity only work because they "depend on some tacky fantasy about ourselves". They are in flight from what is truly difficult about life; what is hardest to stomach about ourselves. Take John Lennon's anthem Imagine, which had such a prominent place in the closing ceremony of the Olympics. Spufford labels the lyrics the "My Little Pony of philosophical statements", with its monstrously deluded assumption that the default state of human beings – psychological, cultural and social – is one of peace.

Instead, Spufford likens the experience of being a Christian to listening to the adagio of Mozart's clarinet concerto. This "very patient piece of music" has been described as conveying the sound of mercy because its quiet beauty does not deny the horrors of life but admits they exist and yet insists there is more too. It is as if, running through the mess, there is an infinite kindness, or gentle forbearance, or what Dante called a love that moves the sun and stars. Reason cannot decide whether that is true. The feelings that deliver closer, insider knowledge of human experience can.

Williams reflects extensively on the nature of mercy as well. He portrays it as an unsentimental though humane experience, again because it means facing up to the truth about what you have done and who you are. The theistic insight is that this truth can only be seen when you are confronted by the divine. To meet God – or Aslan, as Lewis has it in the Narnia stories – is "to meet someone who, because he has freely created you and wants for you nothing but your good, your flourishing, is free to see you as you are and to reflect that seeing back to you".

In other words, to see yourself as others see you might be discomforting but it will also always be skewed by the distorting lens of their self-interest. To be unmasked as God sees you is painful because purgative, but is also a path to true liberation. It is merciful because without it we are left in a citadel of self-deception, life's energies being sapped and wasted on bolstering self-regard.

None of this proves the existence of God in the way a science would demand because its evidence arises from the inner lives of individuals. It does, though, reflect a strand in the philosophical discussion of God, often forgotten today. Pascal drew attention to the problem God has in revealing himself to creatures he has made to be free, because if God were to offer irrefutable evidence then that would force a relationship of coercion, not love. God's solution, Pascal proposed, is to "appear openly to those who seek him with all their heart, and [to remain] hidden from those who shun him".

The philosopher Paul Moser calls the demand for such proof "spectator evidence" in his more academic recent book, The Evidence for God: Religious Knowledge Re-examined. And being a spectator of life will not take you into life or reveal the ground of life to you. It separates the individual from both. Rather – and as Williams and Spufford stress – what is required is a transformation of the individual, akin to the transformation that occurs when someone falls in love. It happens not because there is a hardening of the evidence but because there is an unhardening of the heart, softened in relationship. Only then might we see as we are seen.

Friday, August 10 2012

Visions of a new heaven and a new earth

I had this piece in last week's The Tablet, on ecological spirituality...

A quiet revolution is underway in hundreds of women's religious communities across the United States and Ireland. Its followers have been called "Green Sisters" by Sarah McFarland Taylor, professor of religion at Northwestern University, in the title of her book length study. These nuns, she writes, are some of the best educated women in America. They are committed to an ecological spirituality, building new "earth ministries" and reinvigorating religious life.

It will find expression in the 2012 assembly of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious (LCWR), meeting next week in St. Louis, Missouri. The keynote speaker is Barbara Marx Hubbard, cofounder of the Foundation for Conscious Evolution. Her website highlights endorsements from new age figures including Deepak Chopra and Neale Donald Walsch.

An insight into the movement can be gained from one of its key texts, published in the early 1990s by the late theologian and Passionist priest, Thomas Berry, and the cosmologist Brian Swimme. It was entitled, "The Universe Story: From the Primordial Flaring Forth to the Ecozoic Era – A Celebration of the Unfolding of the Cosmos." It tells a scientific story of the evolution of universe, from the big bang to the emergence of human self-consciousness, and does so as a new sacred myth.

We live in period during which human consciousness is rapidly evolving to a fuller realisation of its place in the universe, the book explains. It is a process described as the universe "attempting to be felt." Appreciating the insight leads to a new experience of the numinous defined as, "being shocked by the splendour of existence."

Gordon Lynch, Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology at the University of Kent, has called it "progressive spirituality". The progressive element refers to the ethics and politics that the cosmic spirituality inspires. Followers of the universe story are highly ecologically aware. They champion the rights of women. Such convictions spring directly from what the science appears to be telling human beings about their place in the universe. The key word is relationality. We are literally linked to the stars in that we are made of stardust. We are entangled with one another like quantum particles. This sense of things leads to a rejection of the hierarchical and patriarchal assumptions implicit in so-called dominion theology, the belief that God gave man dominion over the natural world. In its place comes a green sense of custodianship and care.

Relationality also implies that we are creatures with all sorts of possible tomorrows like the non-determined states of quantum physics. Unlike a subatomic particle, though, we can and must take responsibility for those tomorrows because we have emerged into self-consciousness. And the key test of the decisions we make is environmental. In another book, The Great Work: Our Way Into The Future, Berry writes: "The [ecological] devastation taking place cannot be critiqued effectively from within the traditional religions or humanist ethics... Our ethical traditions know how to deal with suicide, homicide, and even genocide; but these traditions collapse entirely when confronted with biocide, the extinction of the vulnerable life systems of the Earth, and geocide, the devastation of the Earth itself."

Diarmuid O'Murchu, a member of the Sacred Heart Missionary Order who spends much of his time travelling and lecturing on themes related to the universe story, put it like this: "It seems to me that if we humans are to begin to live more sanely, and humanely, and creatively on the planet and within the cosmos, then we have a huge task of letting go. We need to let go of power and of our dominance."

Inspiring tales of self-consciousness emerging from the primordial fireball can sound esoteric though they have very practical outcomes. Green sisters run numerous training programmes. A pioneering centre is the Genesis Farm in Caldwell, New Jersey, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Dominic. Courses and lectures for the autumn of this year focus on "earth literacy" and the transition movement, the global network that sponsors a shift in western patterns of life away from heavy consumption.

Lynch believes that in much the same way as the charismatic movement of the 1980s started out on the margins of the church and is now mainstream, so the universe story, and related new scientific sacred myths, will head the same way. But does the universe story make sense and how does it relate to orthodox theology and, for that matter, generally accepted science?

The theology has been called pantheistic by some, though the movement does not seem to have much occupied the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith when it recently censured the LCWR. Thomas Berry was heavily influenced by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit paleontologist who extended St. Paul's notion of the cosmic Christ to link spirit and matter, eternity and time. He was reprimanded by the Vatican for "serious errors", though in 2009, Pope Benedict, who has also been called the "green pope", appeared to revise official reception of Teilhard's ideas. Benedict praised him for his "great vision" of the cosmos as a "living host". In short, the theological jury on the universe story is still out.

When it comes to the science, it seems easier to offer critique. The universe story is heavily tied to twentieth century physics. The difficulty here is that the physics is changing. Take the big bang. Many cosmologists are now questioning it, proposing instead that the universe fluctuates in massive cosmic cycles. If that were the case then it would complicate claims such as the universe is "attempting to be felt". It would imply that the universe has made many such attempts, many times before, only to have to begin again and again. These eternal returns might erode the ethical urgency behind the green spirituality. Perhaps climate change on planet earth is cyclical too. If it weren't human beings causing it, some other natural process would.

In response, proponents of the universe story argue that we are only beginning to understand our connection with the cosmos, as scientists are only beginning to understand the nature of the universe, so we should positively expect the theology to change and develop in line with the science.

A deeper criticism is that proponents of ecological spirituality are somewhat picky about the science of which they make so much. So, whilst quantum physics is routinely cited to express the interconnectedness of all things, by way of analogy with the phenomenon of quantum entanglement, advocates of the universe story do not much consider the destructive energy embedded in, say, the so-called quantum vacuum. To put it bluntly, life for a subatomic particle is, on the whole, colossally violent. It seems that most of the universe, much of the time, is engaged in countless acts of creation followed by more or less immediate destruction.

There is also the tricky issue of how events at the subatomic level relate to phenomenon on everyday scales - the so-called "measurement problem". This means that it is far from clear how quantum entanglement could have anything to do with the experiences of human beings.

It is also possible to question the appeal to evolutionary science. The difficulty here is that spiritual conceptions of the evolution of consciousness require evolution to be progressive. It must lead, by a gradual unfolding and emergence, to the complexification of life. However, the implication of such directionality in natural selection is a highly contentious proposition in mainstream science.

When I approached the physicist Paul Davies, who is also the writer of best-selling books such as The Mind of God, for his thoughts on the universe story, he was resistant. He said: "There is a lot of flaky stuff in this area, where people present quantum physics in a mystical light and then draw all sorts of dubious ‘spiritual’ conclusions. I am reluctant to get involved because the field is so vague."

And yet, the new physics is radically changing our view of the natural world. Many will read about it in popular science books, or gaze in awe at the latest pictures from NASA on the television, only to continue with their lives as if everything were the same. It is easy to pick holes in the way green religious movements appropriate the science. The theology often seems questionable too. But at least these women are seriously trying to live by what they take the science to be saying. They are finding much needed sources of spiritual inspiration in the face of apparent climate disaster. If that powers a striving to be transformed and to respect the sacred in nature then the quest deserves to be respected.

Friday, August 3 2012

Richard Dawkins: an end to mythmaking?

This piece has just gone up at the Guardian's Cif Belief, responding to the complaint against Jeremy Paxman who called myth "hogwash" during an interview with Richard Dawkins.

Richard Dawkins is a master myth-maker. His best fiction is that of the selfish gene. His great book of that title, published over 35 years ago, described human beings as lumbering robots driven by immortal genes. It even had a brilliant, final twist. Sometimes, the myth promised, we can overcome the tyranny of the biological imperative inside us.

Inevitably - though perhaps more quickly than many anticipated - his myth is going the way of the world. It spoke powerfully of what was taken to be truth for a time. But subject to the inexorable shifts of human knowledge, the myth is now starting to look outdated.

A crucial moment came in August 2010, when Martin Nowak, Corina Tarnita and Edward O Wilson published an article in Nature. They argued that the mathematics behind the idea that Dawkins had so successfully popularised doesn't stack up. It was wrong, Wilson insists - and he should know as one of the few people who originally did the maths. He now prefers evolutionary theories that speak about altruism, based upon group selection. The next generation awaits a myth-maker of Dawkins' stature to tell us this new story about life. Now, I know what you are thinking. Is it not overly provocative to refer to the selfish gene as a myth, though it seems quite precise: my dictionary includes definitions such as 'false belief' and 'fictitious thing'? It will be thought inflammatory because, unfortunately, naming something a myth carries these pejorative overtones in our times. It is as if myths are straightforwardly untrue, and those who believe them are ignorant and foolish.

Ironic, then, that following complaints made to the BBC because a conversation between Dawkins and Jeremy Paxman caused some people offence, that the BBC Trust excused Paxman's use of the word "hogwash" because he said it of myths rather than religion.

Much to his credit, Dawkins was strikingly fulsome about myths in the interview. He confessed to finding Aztec myths amusing and loving the myths that begin the book of Genesis. A tremendous writer, he understands their power. All successful popularizers of science do. His latest book, which prompted the Paxman interview, trades on the genre in its very title: The Magic of Reality. The book describes many myths, religious ones as well as scientific. Myths are so powerful because they fire the imagination, encourage play and make great poetic stories. They can only do so when there is something true in them.

There are, of course, differences between scientific and religious myths. For one thing, scientific myths are far less long-lived than religious ones. The great faiths of the world daily turn to myths that are thousands of years old and find truth leaping off the page as they read them. Scientific myths, on the other hand, do well if they last more than a century. Who today reads Newton? Both kinds of myth seek evidence in their support. The difference here is that scientific stories seek empirical evidence - and when the empirical evidence fails, the myth fails too, which is what appears to be happening to the selfish gene.

Conversely, religious myths seek proof of a more personal kind. These myths work when they speak in their details about the truths of life.

Take a myth like that of Narcissus. It tells the tale of a beautiful man whose looks made him the centre of attention. Everyone fell for him and, as a result, his heart became swollen with pride, his demeanor hard and aloof. He became lost, then alone, and eventually died.

Such is the troubled life of the narcissist. But the proof of the myth is not established by trying to find a man called Narcissus and seeing whether his heart became empirically swollen and his visage literally hard.

Everyone knows that. So why is it that many religious people are as wary of myths as Paxman appears to be? Is it because they agree with Paxman that the scientific accuracy of millennia old myth can be readily knocked down? Don't they see that saying that is like saying Shakespeare should not be taught in schools because Romeo and Juliet never existed?

Religious people should be masters of myth, like Dawkins, for the greatest myths convey the truth of things to us, be that spiritual or scientific.

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