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PostFilling the God-Shaped Hole: Why Religion will Never Disappear (Nigel Jones, UK, 12/27/17 4:40 am)
I live in the county of Wiltshire. A few miles from where I write the ancient monument of Stonehenge pulls in thousands of tourists every day, and rubberneckers on the A303 cause such a permanent traffic snarl that the authorities are putting the road through a tunnel at enormous cost to alleviate the problem.
A short distance away, the spire of Salisbury cathedral lances the sky, proclaiming the glory of God in stone as it has done since the 12th century, and drawing similar myriads of day-trippers to its hushed Gothic cloisters. So what do these two structures have in common, and why do they continue to command our awed attention, even though the beliefs that led to one are lost in the mists of time, and the Faith that led to the other is in seemingly terminal decline?
They both--and the same is true of artifacts around the world from the Egyptian Pyramids to Cambodia's Angkor Wat temples or the mysterious Moai statues on Easter Island--bear mute witness to the persistence of religious belief in every human culture or civilisation that we are aware of, from pre-history to today.
Even though particular cults and doctrines have gone the way of all flesh (has anyone ever met a Muggletonian or a Fifth Monarchy Man, to name two of the myriad Christian sects that sprang up in 17th-century England?), the impulse to believe in a transcendent force or purpose behind our brief mortal span on this earth runs through the human story wherever it has been found.
Whether in the form of the multiple Gods and Goddesses of Egypt, Greece, Rome or Hinduism; the three monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, or the "Godless" religions of Buddha, Tao and Confucius, the quest for meaning and a divine order beyond shallow materialism is innate.
In the once Christian Western world, the decline of organised religion set in with the Enlightenment and the steady forward march of science. But many of the greatest scientists whose discoveries about how the universe really works were thought to have finally put paid to religious "superstition" were themselves fervent believers.
Most of Isaac Newton's writings were not about gravity or optics, but arcane theology about the literal interpretation of the Bible. James Clark Maxwell's piercing insights into magnetism and maths were matched by his simple Faith as an Elder of the Scottish Kirk, while Charles Darwin, whose theory of Evolution is the bedrock of modern biology, described himself as an Agnostic--or "don't know"--rather than an Atheist. Even Albert Einstein, who had no belief in a personal God or life after death, admitted the year before he died that "Science without religion is blind."
Darwin's most devoted disciple in our day, the geneticist turned anti-religious propagandist Richard Dawkins, propounds his aggressive Atheism with the fervour of an Old Testament prophet. Abandoning any pretense to scientific objectivity, he attacks religion for twisting the minds of those it indoctrinates, blissfully unaware of the irony that he too is spouting a doctrine as fierce and dogmatic as any fundamentalist sect.
Those states that have attempted to abolish religion in favour of official Atheism have, against their will, found themselves apeing the trappings of faith: the portraits of Lenin and Stalin born aloft like icons; the texts of Marx and Engels treated like Holy writ; the persecution of heretics dissenting from official orthodoxy--all attest to a search for a controlling stability beyond earthly chaos.
All the available evidence seems to suggest an unquenchable thirst for something for us to cling to, a celestial comfort blanket in an infinite universe in which we--flawed, wretched, and all too human--may be alone. An apparently ineradicable need to believe--a God-shaped hole--appears to exist in all of us, dismiss or deny it though we may, and even if there is no actual God out there or within ourselves to fill that gaping void.
Although attendance at traditional Church services in Britain are in freefall, this does not mean that belief and Faith themselves are dying. On the contrary. As nature abhors a vacuum, so alternative or rival religions are rushing in to fill the pews and command our obedience. These range from intellectuals embracing Zen Buddhism, to the inexorable spread of Islam. Humans seem to prefer a fundamentally flawed Faith to no Faith at all.
As we who have been raised in the Christian tradition prepare for Christmas, which--however commercialised or debased by cheap and crass consumerism--remains at the heart of our culture, we should perhaps console ourselves. Believers, doubters and even outright atheists, can take some heart in the fact that in the midst of dark times and an apparently dying culture, the sea of faith, ebbing for so long, will inevitably return.
JE comments: These (pre-)Christmas reflections from Nigel Jones got caught in the black hole of the email@example.com email account, which was blocked during my stay in Cuba. Hence the delay--but Nigel's deep insight on religion was worth the wait.
So what can we say about the God-shaped hole? It just so happens that this Wednesday's WAISing will focus on religion, with further comments from A. J. Cave, Tor Guimaraes, Richard Hancock, and others.
A quick comment on Stonehenge and Salisbury Cathedral. How many of the ancient monuments/tourist attractions are of a purely secular origin? Almost none come to mind, with the exceptions of Rome's Colosseum, China's Great Wall, and an aqueduct or two.
Filling the God-Shaped Hole; from Gary Moore
(John Eipper, USA
12/27/17 2:57 PM)
Gary Moore writes:
Nigel Jones’s essay on religions (December 27) was so clearly written and comprehensive
that I’m moved to write—though I’ve yet another take (and varying from A. J. Cave and
Tor Guimaraes in their posts as well) on what Nigel intriguingly dubs “the God-shaped hole”
in human understanding.
To wit: The mystery might be easier if either believers in beyond-reason creeds or non-believers
were obviously smarter. But both groups contain some people of stellar intelligence
(Nigel mentioned the classic case of Newton and his Bible literalism, though I didn’t know
about Maxwell). This would seem to mean that the reasoning non-believer can’t explain
belief as resulting from failure to be able to reason. So what is belief? Why would Newton,
who could single-handedly order human knowledge, believe in the literal existence of
Adam and Eve? Of course, only a non-believer would ask that question. Believers know
the answer through personal experience. The answer is to just believe. Our rational understanding
of ourselves would seem to be so primitive, or flawed, that we can’t even functionally define
this basic process—“the leap of faith”—that sets our two worlds apart. And no one creed’s
definition can work in this question (what is belief?) since there is the refutation that goes
beyond any quibbles about superstitious miracles—that is, that all the creeds contradict,
each one’s existence seeming to refute all the narratives told by the others.
But here we stray toward possibility: that some sort of enforced narrowing of view (as in
not considering each creed in turn), may be part of the answer as to why one can believe in
any one of the choices.
But wait, O Ye Believers, and know that I glimpse the thinness of this work-around, too--for facile talk about narrow-mindedness hardly explains the rich organicity and range of vision
that many believers know, through personal experience, to be part of the equation.
So is it that narrowness is inherent in all cognition, and only the degree varies, creating a spectrum
of cognitive selectivity which, at one end, can tighten and tighten until finally you’ve got, say,
the English Reformation, where a woman was burned one year for saying Jesus is not literally
present in the consecrated wafer, and then a year or so later another woman was burned, after
orthodoxy veered, for saying he is present in the same kind of wafer—and the second one
told her inquisitors straight out about the craziness of the precedent...and they burned her
Does an answer glimmer here—a possible bridge between the worlds—if belief is
viewed as an individual variant in cognitive discriminatory process, which only on the
far end tightens into fanaticism and elves and fairies (the pitfall which by common consent,
even among popes, overtook the medieval Church), but in lesser degree might provide a
workable way to deal with life’s fundamental inscrutability? Alas, my disowned mendacity
increasingly peeks from its cover here. For even to seek this answer excludes the believer.
But disingenuous as it may be, I’d be relieved if I could just narrow the focus enough to find
an answer that works for me personally. And this blows my cover completely. Would I
have ever tried to build this bridge if I lived in World Number One? Would I need to?
JE comments: Earlier today Tor Guimaraes pilloried me for citing from Jared Diamond's 2012 The World Until Yesterday, but I'll try again. Diamond argues that the more far-fetched a specific religious belief set appears to outsiders, the more fervently the faithful cling to it. Hence Mormons are less likely to stray from their dogmas than, say, Episcopalians or Unitarians. Speaking in tongues among the Pentecostals would be another example.
Is this related to what you're saying here, Gary?
Clinging to "Ridiculous" Religious Beliefs; from Gary Moore
(John Eipper, USA
12/28/17 11:38 AM)
Gary Moore writes:
JE asked me to comment further, re Nigel Jones’s “God-shaped hole” in the divide between
skepticism and belief, on the assertion (as I understand it from JE) in Jared Diamond’s 2012 book The World Until Yesterday, that assertion being that the more ridiculous a religion’s beliefs are, the more likely are believers to cling to it (John offered possible candidates for ridiculousness as the Mormons
and the Pentecostals).
By rephrasing it like this I may be telegraphing my punch, but I’d like to be sensitive and restrained about this: Sounds to me like best-selling crap, written by an astute performer with a sure ear for what may sound clever to a target audience.
Or in other words, ridiculous to whom? Is Pentecostal glossolalia (tongue-speaking) and
Mormon underwear and Indian lore any more ridiculous than, say, the Episcopalian Holy Trinity?
Are Unitarians, by this measure, the least ridiculous of all because they avoid the miracle
fireworks—or the most ridiculous, because they cling to the story even while rejecting its
elements? And this is still not getting into Diamond’s specific charge, that ridiculousness equals
strength of belief. Luckily, our society prescribes few tests, like thumb screws, for who clings
most fervently to a challenged belief. And even so, once Diamond had rated relative ridiculousness,
how would he then devise a scale to rate relative clinginess? Could it be that he is indisputably
wise enough, having made a lot of money off this stuff, to himself be the test? But if so, and
even if we admit ridiculousness and clinginess as measured by his inner radar, how do we
correlate the two?
True, maybe the ability to believe that the air is filled with invisible demons, and that special underwear will ward them off, might suggest some kind of approach toward contrary evidence. But this seems not to be the same as what (as I gather it) Diamond is saying, and anyway is not exactly news. For comparison, the Fort Mims massacre of 1813 in southern Alabama was part of a continent-wide Native religious war launched by Tecumseh/Tenskwataway in JE’s back yard, and the 250 or so settlers, slaves and mixed-bloods massacred at Ft Mims by Creek Red Sticks, allied to Tecumseh’s brother Tenskwataway, “The Shawnee Prophet,” sent the frontier into a panic.
But few in the fleeing wagon trains remarked that the massacring band was using a local acolyte of their own, an Alabama apostle of the Indiana Prophet, so to speak, who was a mixed-blood sometimes called, with Longfellowan grace, Paddy Walsh. Paddy helped win Ft Mims by using magic. It was decided that four warriors would rush the fort first, distracting the militiamen inside, while vast numbers of other Red Sticks took the flank. The idea of picking who were to be the four was facilitated by Walsh’s magic, for he performed a ceremony, and all four became invulnerable to bullets. This was quite a relief, until three were immediately shot down. But one apparently did survive—enough for plenty of later apocrypha, had not Horseshoe Bend and northern battles greatly reduced desires to inscribe the prophecy for the ages. Invulnerability to bullets is one of the timeless relics, seen not only in the Ghost Dancers of the West, but in child guerrillas in the Congo, who say it comes from amulets around their necks, constructed, with all due ceremony, from old shower plugs.
Is this more ridiculous than saying a cracker is God (or Richard Dawkins’s remarkable superstition
saying, in effect, that science proves there is no mystery in life)? And as to clinginess and the Red Sticks,
I don’t know if Paddy Walsh sanctified future warriors after Ft Mims, but perhaps not, since 100 or so slaves were captured alive from Ft Mims, and were used, in lieu of magic, as human shields at the last stand at Horseshoe Bend (Andrew Jackson’s troops apparently shot them down quickly to get at the Creeks).
Will future ages ask whether Jared Diamond’s assertions can be measured in ridiculousness by the ardor with which he clung to the profits? Surely this is superstition; he’s got the money no matter what.
JE comments: Neither Jared Diamond nor Yours Truly described any religion as "ridiculous." (I said, perhaps insensitively, far-fetched...to outsiders.) Diamond referred specifically to religions that require the biggest sacrifices from their adherents. Specifically in the case of Mormons, this would be tithing (handing over 10% of your income to the Church). Perhaps we can explain the resultant "clinginess" as the psychological effect of one's sunk costs?
- Salisbury Cathedral; Armstrong's "A Short History of Myth" (John Heelan, UK 12/27/17 3:11 PM)
Nigel Jones (27 December) mentioned Salisbury Cathedral. My father--a life-long artilleryman--used to recount that when stationed on Salisbury Plain, he and his gun team would use the spire of the Cathedral as a sighting aid! Luckily they never fired any shells at it!
As an agnostic and despite my Roman Catholic schooling and subsequent indoctrination for two or three decades, I enjoyed Nigel Jones's comments on Man's attempts to fill in the "God-shaped hole" we apparently need. Nigel might like to consult A Short History of Myth by the ex-nun Karen Armstrong (2006). Its discussions and definitions ranging from Neanderthal to modern times indicates such a need for Man and his antecedents to rationalise the irrational and inexplicable. Armstrong's book on monotheistic and other religions highlights the differences between mythology and the various religions that it has subsequently spawned.
JE comments: Another inspiring spire for artillerymen: the British in WWI believed that the side which finished off the "Leaning Virgin of Albert" (Belgium) would lose the war. I'm sure Nigel Jones can give a better rendition of this narrative.
- Salisbury Cathedral; Armstrong's "A Short History of Myth" (John Heelan, UK 12/27/17 3:11 PM)
- Clinging to "Ridiculous" Religious Beliefs; from Gary Moore (John Eipper, USA 12/28/17 11:38 AM)