06 October 2006



Two recent news items have triggered off some slight thoughts on psychology.

First there was Dr Bruce Hood, of the University of Bristol, speaking at the
British Association festival in Norwich, who challenged the assumption that belief in the supernatural was spread by religions in gullible minds. "Rather, religions may simply capitalise on a natural bias to assume the existence of supernatural forces" he said. "It is pointless trying to get people to abandon their belief systems because they operate at such a fundamental level that no amount of rational evidence or counter evidence is going to be taken on board to get people to abandon these ideas."

The story was reported as "religion will never die" in both the
Telegraph and the Times.

On his claim that people "recoil from artefacts linked to evil as if they are pervaded by a physical essence", it seems to me that this is a projection of his own received religious thinking. I say that the old idea of "association of ideas" is an adequate explanation, and the recoil a rational one, since it helps to keep ideas in our minds apart, distinct, and in useful order.

Second there was Richard Dawkins's interview with Jeremy Paxman in which he expressed his bafflement at how some scientists could be christian believers. He thought they must somehow be able to keep their science and religion in different compartments.

I wonder instead if the problem is that they do not keep their science and religion in different compartments. Many religious thinkers, and some secular ones, place a lot of emphasis on "integrity" or "integration" or "oneness" or "wholeness" and so on. But logical thinking depends on splitting things up into clearly separate parts. One result of this desire for "unity" is the profusion of paradoxical statements that issue from the mouths of mystics. One classic is the Zen notion of "the sound of one hand clapping".

Mary Midgley in a review in the New Scientist of Dawkins' new book The God Delusion cites the scientist Freeman Dyson describing himself as "one of the multitude of Christians who do not care much for the doctrine of the Trinity or the historical truth of the gospels". But what then is a "Christian"? The term becomes meaningless. She says, referring also to statements by Einstein: "Dawkins declares flatly that they cannot mean what they say." I think they do mean what they say, but it has no meaning, it just expresses a euphoric feeling of paradoxical oneness.

Stephen J. Gould famously advocated that religion and science are "non-overlapping magisteria" (NOMA). But this would considerably reduce the scope of religion by barring it from many areas in which it traditionally treads. And future scientific developments, for instance in neuroscience, are likely to delimit its domain much further. It is in any case unclear where the boundaries between religion, ethics and philosophy lie. Much that used to be the domain of philosophy is now science.


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