Friday, January 26, 2007

Peering into the twibright (a controversy continued)

A few years ago, Richard Dawkins wrote an article on being 'a bright' for the Guardian book review (The Future is Bright). In it, he argues that as language shapes perception, atheists need a friendly positive word to describe themselves, just as homosexuals adopted the word 'gay'. He adopts the suggestion of a pair of evangelical Californian atheists and uses the term 'a bright' - as in 'Mum, I'm a bright.' (As an aside - it's extraordinary for Dawkins to claim, as he does implicitly, that atheists suffer the same sort of persecution as gay men and women did until very recently in the western world, and still do in much of the rest of it. He regularly berates the public for not agreeing with him in print and on air, but still apparently feels marginalised.) Dawkins goes on to define 'a bright': "A bright is a person whose world view is free of supernatural and mystical elements. The ethics and actions of a bright are based on a naturalistic world view." In a phrase that reminds me of Mel Gibson's father, who proclaimed that Catholics had the pleasure of always knowing they were right, Dawkins proclaims that brights like him "rejoice in the real and scorn the false comfort of the unreal." (Any religious fundamentalist would claim exactly this.) However, the point I took issue with above all is his simplistic view of what constitutes a religion. I therefore wrote a letter, which the Guardian printed a week later. Here it is:

"Richard Dawkins points out our absurdly arbitrary picture of the world where north is up and we unthinkingly assume we are the norm. And yet Dawkins is himself guilty of something similar. Clearly his main targets are the various branches of Abrahamic monotheism, and Christianity in particular, but there are other ways of being religious. A Hindu would, I think, consider the gods to be part of the natural order, not above it or set against it. For exactly this reason, a Buddhist would argue that the gods need the Buddha dhamma as much as we humans. As for mysticism, Dawkins does not define what he means by this nebulous word, but if he means experiences of something supernatural, he can say nothing against religious or meditative experiences, which are not held to contradict the natural order. On the contrary, I might hold that they conform to an order in which, as Blake put it, everything that lives is holy.
So what shall we who hold a non-supernatural religion call ourselves? Brighter-than-thou, perhaps? "

Now, I apologise to any monotheists who feel I have misrepresented them here. I don't think all Christians, for example, would divide the universe into natural and supernatural either. However, I am not a Christian, so I leave defending their religion to them. (And I am myself less sure where I stand than when I wrote the above.) Anyway, onwards and upwards: the following week, the Guardian printed a letter that, in part, responded to my own. The relevant bit says:

"As for the "non-supernatural religion" referred to in ----'s letter - given that religion exists to attribute supernatural causes to natural events I cannot help but feel this is a good candidate for oxymoron of the week."

(I have blanked out my name here, because I'm a little bit paranoid. In fairness, therefore, I have also left out the name of this letter's author - I shall call him the Dr, as he seemed rather keen to bash everyone over the head with his weighty academic credentials.) I was drafting a reply to this when a very close family member died. At that moment nothing could have seemed less significant than a spat in a newspaper about religion. However, since then it has rankled that I never replied. Did the good Dr even read what I had written? The point he makes is actually answered in my letter. He puts his finger on the nub of it when he says "given that religion exists to attribute supernatural causes to natural events...". This is not by any means a given, and this is what annoys me about so much of the public debate around religion. What the Dr puts forward here is a theory of religion, and a problematic one. My beef? He takes his position as self-evident. He simply makes an ex-cathedra statement.

Personally, I think the sort of position adopted by Emile Durkheim is much more plausible - that religion is primarily a practice and not a set of beliefs. For example, I know a theologian who argues that Christianity consists essentially of performing the Eucharist, and does not necessarily involve belief in anything. For Durkheim, religious practices served as a social glue that bound a society together. Myself, I don't quite agree with this either, though it has a lot to be said for it. I think that religion is a term of convenience covering a wide range of concerns, beliefs and practices - ranging from social respectibility to political activism to mysticism (itself a nebulous catch-all word). If you start to think in this way, you begin to realise how loaded our vocabulary is: 'faith' has at least some relationship to belief, and therefore to religion conceived as commitment to a set of doctrines; 'worldview' implies a more or less coherent philosophy, an interpretation of the world, although it tries to be friendlier than 'dogma' or 'doctrine'. The popular alternatives to the word 'religion' always imply something of this sort.

If our language contains these biases, all the more reason to reflect a bit before making public forays on the topic. If I made sweeping generalisations about science with only the most superficial knowledge of the subject, Richard Dawkins as well as the good Dr would rightly condemn it. They do not, however, seem to feel any need to think before they open their mouths and spout off about religion. The irony here is that in political terms, I agree with a great deal of what Dawkins says - for example about the "chauvinistic nastiness of pledging allegiance to a flag", or the money grubbing of televangelists and their pernicious influence on US politics. I agree with Dawkins also about the strict separation of church and state. Come to that, I know committed Christians who would agree with Dawkins on most, possibly all, of these points. So has Dawkins become the thing he hates? Does his tone of voice - the self-assurance in his own views, the hectoring of others - sound like bigotry? I am afraid it does, and it is a great pity. A tolerant society depends on this thought: that we might be wrong. We need an eloquent, intelligent defence of secularism - a broad-minded and tolerant secularism. Dawkins could do it, if he was less concerned with sorting the scientific sheep from the religious goats.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

What's in a name?

The names alone of some books justifies their existence, in my view. They have either an inherent, inexplicable poetry, or they at least contain a good joke. Some such titles:

Invisible Cities (by Italo Calvino)
Time and the Hunter (also Calvino)
There are no Secrets (Peter Brook)
The Moment under the Moment (by Russell Hoban - which I discussed in a previous post)
Another Turn of the Crank (by Wendell Berry)
The Secret of this Book (Brian Aldiss)

Any other nominations?

Gnomic Wisdom

I have a lot of nonsense passing through my mind. Sometimes it gets stuck there, like scrap of paper caught on a nail. Here's a sample...

Heat burns. Cold freezes.

They that eat shall be eaten.

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

The Limited Reality Consensus

The novelist Russell Hoban says somewhere or other that ideas exist independently of people. At a certain time, an idea makes itself known to someone, but the idea has always existed and doesn't belong to anyone.

In Pan Lives, one of his extraordinary essays in 'The Moment under the Moment' (the title alone justifies the book's existence), he quotes the beginning of St John's Gospel: 'In the beginning was the word, and the word was with God, and the word was God.' He continues "I think that idea is in us independently of Christianity; I think it's simply in us and inexplicable." In another essay - which he cautiously titles with a spoonerism, Blighter's Rock - he expresses another idea which I think will always be with us for as long as there are human beings (possibly not long). He says "I think that mind is a consciousness not confined to the individual brain but shared by all of us; the brain is the organ that limits that consciousness so that we can carry on the business of every day in the consensual state we call reality. I think much, if not most, of the brain's function is repressive, holding back the accumulated contents of the mind as a dam holds back water ... If the dam ever broke we should drown in the vast chaotic roar of a flood that would sweep away our limited-reality consensus like a chicken coop."

I don't know if Blake expresses this idea directly, but something like it lies behind lines like "How do you know but ev'ry bird that cuts the airy way, / Is an immense world of delight, clos'd by your senses five?" (from Marriage of Heaven and Hell). August Strindberg, the great Swedish playwright, says something very reminiscent of Hoban in A Dream Play:
Poet: [...] what did you suffer from most down here [as a human being]?
Daughter: From - existing: to feel my sight made weak by an eye, my hearing dulled by an ear, and my thought, my bright aerial thought bound in the fatty labyrinth of a brain. You must have seen a brain ... such crooked paths, such secret ways ...

They suggest that we see the world the way we do out of habit. The surrealist painter de Chirico agreed. He asserted that madness is inherent in all great art, because it dislocates our habitual way of seeing.

That consciousness is universal, and that the brain restricts consciousness to manageable proportions seems just as plausible to me as the more common idea, that the brain in some mysterious way generates consciousness.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007


In the beginning a god spoke
but god himself is not the beginning
only the breath of the void a wind
in an empty nothing

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Man in his Time

Brian Aldiss turned 80 last year, and BBC Radio 7 just broadcast one of his short stories from the 1960s. Aldiss was part of the 'New Wave' of 60s science fiction, the time when the genre really grew up and became interesting.

'Man in his Time', the story in question, eerily evokes the consequences of a peculiar kind of time travel. The protagonist (called Westermark), an astronaut recently returned from Mars, has since his return been living 3 minutes in the future. Thus people hear him answer questions they haven't yet asked, and see him react to things that won't happen for three minutes. Those three minutes separate him from his wife, his children and the rest of the human race. Westermark, however, seems half in love with his separation. He finds the world perpetually new, as the objects of perception seem to glow from within.

The introduction calls the story an exploration of the consequences of space travel. I mention this because it begs a question: what is science fiction for (other than simple enjoyment)? To put it another way, if finally astronauts reach Mars, and they do not find themselves living three minutes ahead of Earth people, does Aldiss' story become worthless? How do we approach a story like 'Man in his Time' as literature, rather than futurology?

Put it another way: what does the story do? It explores a different state of consciousness. It makes us see the world in an unsettling new way. It makes us aware of consciousness itself in a new way. Against a rationalistic scientific background, it makes a Romantic vision. Westermark sees a transformed world -transformed by his changed consciousness of it. Wordsworth in space, sort of. This might sound flippant, but sf has a visionary strain. Think of Philip K Dick or JG Ballard.

Which leads me to my last point. Science fiction may be the first literature in the west to free itself from our Judeo-Christian heritage - some of it at least. Even the work of the most radical modernists - Eliot, Beckett, Brecht, Strindberg - becomes unintelligible without that heritage. They occupy the empty space left by the decay of Christianity, and they never escape it. Our Judeo-Christian heritage forms the background to all western literature of the last thousand years. 'Man in his Time' gives a glimpse of a new Eden, forever just out of reach three minutes into the future. It does this without reference to any of the religious baggage of Christianity. In fact it does it, astonishingly, on the back of the space race. The most hackneyed material of pulp science fiction - the conquest of space - itself becomes the food for visionary imagination.