Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not

Why Religion is Natural and Science is Not by Robert N. McCauley is an exploration of how cognitive processes predispose us to religious thought and feeling, and make science very difficult for us.

I picked up the book after visiting the excellent Living with Gods exhibition at the British Museum. I find the psychology of faith, superstition and religion fascinating. McCauley’s book is not for the faint-hearted. This is a difficult read. The first half, where McCauley lays out the theories of cognitive processes that underpin his argument, is especially hard going. I don’t have much knowledge of the work in this area and I think it is quite hard to make it accessible to a layperson. Once you get through the theories of cognition, the second half of the book is relatively more digestible. I still found myself having to re-read most of it, but there were whole pages I could absorb in one go.

The argument is that, although some form of religious belief appears to be present in every society for which we have archaeological or anthropological evidence, there’s no specific thought process for religion. Instead it is a by-product of processes we use for much more mundane things like dealing with other people, not getting eaten by predators, and avoiding contamination. Religion comes from possessing a theory of mind and a tendency to ascribe agency to everything. Science, on the other hand, has only appeared in a few societies and requires writing and substantial expensive infrastructure to survive. It requires us to learn how to think in a way that is continually challenged by our natural cognition.

McCauley draws a distinction between everyday religion (what people actually practice) and theology, and a distinction between popular understanding of science and the practice of it by people who dedicate their lives to it. He also draws a distinction between science and technology, and gives many examples of where humans develop technology they can use without understanding how it really works. The argument also explains why we’re so fond of conspiracy theories, prone to ascribing intention to others without evidence, and why we make both science and atheism into a form of religion. Science requires us to be perpetually uncertain because even when there is a lot of evidence to support a theory there always remains the possibility that new information could change that. Human brains aren’t keen on uncertainty.

This is a very interesting book and I would recommend it, with the caveat that, unless you’re already working as a scientist, it’s a tough read. I do feel much cleverer for having read it, which is a quality I enjoy in a book.

 

The Thirst

At the moment I am mostly reading non-fiction, because I’m working on a novel and it seems to go better if I don’t get caught up in stories. However, I am reading a few novels and The Thirst by Jo Nesbo is one of them.

Jo Nesbo is one of my go-to easy reads. I know what I’m getting and I know I’m going to enjoy it. I’ll get swept up in the story, and it will be engaging without being hard work. The Thirst did exactly what I wanted from it when I bought it.

A rapist and killer that Harry Hole failed to catch in the past is now active again and seems to have raised his game. There are plenty of twists. The identity of the killer is known from fairly early in the book; he even has point of view chapters, but even so, Nesbo manages to cast doubt at various points, making the reader question what they think they know.

I like way the theme of addiction in the Hole novels. Hole is an alcoholic which is a cliche for detectives these days, but it is lifted by Nesbo with the parallel with addiction to his work. Is alcohol really Hole’s addiction? Or is it his coping strategy for his addiction to chasing serial killers? This has been present in all the novels, but becomes much more central in The Thirst. Harry has retired and is now a lecturer at police college. He doesn’t drink. His life is satisfying and orderly and things are going well. But the reappearance of this killer and his return to the chase throws everything into disarray. All the elements in his life that represent success are threatened.

I feel like it could have done with a bit of an edit. It was overly long in places. Even so, I enjoyed it and if you’re already a fan, it won’t disappoint. If you’ve never read any Jo Nesbo, I’d start at the beginning of the series.

The Sagas of the Icelanders

This is another of the books that has been sitting on my shelf unread for years because it’s too heavy to carry around on the train. The Sagas of the Icelanders, published as a Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, is a collection of some sagas and tales from the Viking age. Translated and edited by a number of scholars, it contains ten sagas and seven tales. With the maps, commentary and reference section it runs to nearly 800 pages and the deluxe edition is printed on thick rough edged papers. Which makes it very pleasing in the tactile sense, but pretty heavy.

Thanks to my new morning routine, I finished The Sagas of the Icelanders this week after months of reading. There are worse ways to start the day for sure. The Sagas selected are a small sample of the whole body of literature. The emphasis in this collection are on the Sagas that depict a realistic view of the lives of Icelanders – or at least the lives of the Chieftain class.

It starts with several very long sagas depicting the movement of significant families from Norway to Iceland, usually because of difficulties getting along with the earls competing to be kings but sometimes as a result of being outlawed for killing someone. They’re mainly set in 900-1000AD and were written down around 1100-1200AD which makes the writing of them contemporary with Chrétien de Troyes and slightly earlier than Chaucer and Dante. It also means that there is some uncertainty over the reflection of the spiritual practices of pre-Christian Icelanders and how much the writing down has sanitized the oral tradition.

On the cover of the book is a comment from Milan Kundera that if the Sagas had been written in a less isolated European country they would have had a much more significant effect on the development of the modern novel. In this selection the Sagas and, especially, the Tales do really read like modern stories, notably the thriller. They are stories of people navigating social expectations of honour and the power of reputation. My favourites were the Saga of Ref the Sly, which is about a man who would prefer to avoid conflict but is pushed into it by others who think it is weak to not fight, and Egil’s Saga, which is the story of Egil Skallagrimson and his family’s generational feud with the kings of Norway.

In the Saga of Ref the Sly, Ref wants to avoid conflict, so pretends he doesn’t know what is said about him. Others consider this weak and push him into answering these slights. Ref fights successfully but is then outlawed which meant that Ref is considered a criminal and can be killed by anyone. Whoever kills him will gain honour. The Saga deals with what it means to spend your life in hiding.

Egil’s Saga spans 150 years and is largely set in Norway. The background is King Harald Fair-Hair’s merciless unification of the country of Norway. Egil’s grandfather and father refuse to swear allegiance to Harald and so go to Iceland and claim land there. The adventures of Egil reflect this stubbornness and inability to accept authority. He’s not an entirely likeable character but is very relatable. His sons are characters in their own Sagas.

The Sagas are probably more accessible than most medieval literature and I enjoyed reading them. I’d recommend them. Possibly in a smaller, more portable, version of the book.

The Queen of the Night

The British Museum has a series of small books focusing on a single object. One of these is on my absolute favourite object in the museum, the Queen of the Night plaque, from Babylonia.

The Queen of the Night by Dominique Collon spends a little time talking about where and when the plaque was found and its history with the museum. Most of the little book (they’re only about 40 pages) discusses what the plaque might represent. Given the location of the find the Queen of the Night is likely to be a goddess and there is some debate whether she is Lillith, Ishtar or Ereshkigal. The symbolism seems to point to the latter, but there’s actually no way we ever know what the plaque really depicted or what it was for.

 

The plaque has microscopic traces of paint on it and so a reconstruction of what it would have originally have looked like has been created. Which is very cool. I imagine it would be quite striking in a dark temple lit only by candles.

The Boy

I have a new morning routine, inspired by the Miracle Morning, which involves spending 25 minutes reading while having breakfast before I leave for work. Most of my reading is done on the train which means that I don’t like to carry any book too heavy or large. I have a stash of books that I’ve been wanting to read but not getting to because I don’t read that much at home. There are some lovely art books, some lengthy histories, and some epic sagas. Now I have my morning reading routine I can start to work through them.

One of those lovely art books is The Boy by Germaine Greer. It explores the young male nude as a subject of art throughout history. The conventional wisdom is that the female nude is the object drawn to be observed by the male gaze. Greer argues that this elides boys as an object and ignores women as both artists and patrons of art. It focuses on young males, boys rather than men, which were historically much more studied from real life, whereas female nudes were constructed from ideal proportions.

I really enjoyed it. I find art history a little hard going, mainly because I have scant knowledge to build on, but the pictures are wonderful to look at. I learnt something and started my days with some beautiful images.

Prisoners of Geography

It’s been a while since I’ve posted here. Let’s just say 2017 was a challenging year and leave it at that.

I’m starting with Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall, lent to me by a friend. The book looks at ten areas of the world and how the geography affects foreign policy and strategic interests. Tim Marshall is a foreign affairs correspondent with a lot of experience.

The book is wonderful to read. It’s engaging and brilliantly written. The content is interesting. Much of it was familiar to me but plenty was new, and the stuff I knew was presented in a way that opened up another level of understanding. It was crazy to think about how much of Russia is uninhabitable. I liked that Marshall considered both the historical effects of geography, such as how the Himalayas have kept India and China apart, as well as how technology might overcome those effects. What happens once one of those nations can realistically prosecute a war across the mountains?

The best chapter was the last one, on the Arctic. It was very enlightening, especially around the implication that some countries and corporations might want to see the ice completely gone.

Definitely recommend this one.

Earthwind

Earthwind by Robert Holdstock
Published by Pan Science Fiction in 1978

Humans have colonised many planets and on one, Aeran, something strange has happened. The colonists have de-evolved into a stone age culture. Elspeth Mueller has come to find out why. Her colleague warned against the madness the planet evokes if you stay too long so she keeps her trips to the surface short. Until the empire, in the form of shipMeister Gorstein, arrives and Elspeth is trapped.

Elspeth is conscious of losing her grip on her memories as the days go by. She begins to understand what is happening on the planet with the help of Peter Ashka, a seer, who is troubled by the effect that Aeran has on his relationship with his oracle. In Holdstock’s universe there is a uniting force that can give guidance in the form of oracles such as the I-Ching, an indication of what will happen if no action is taken, if one continues on the current path. It is understood that people can change their fate if they choose to act. If the prediction does not come about, it is because something changed or the interpretation was flawed. Aeran has its own oracle, the Earthwind, that is never wrong and the Aerani believe their fate cannot be changed. At first, Elspeth and Peter attribute this to the primitive nature of the Aerani culture but eventually come to believe that there is a fundamental difference between the two oracles.

Gorstein wants the Aerani to accept a mind-implant that will connect them to the other worlds because the empire is paranoid about rebellion. Elspeth opposes this for two reasons: the threat the empire poses to the Aerani culture, and because of the possibility that what has happened on Aeran might spread to other planets via the implant. The colonists themselves are divided and the debate ruptures the community. The longer Gorstein’s ship stays on Aeran the greater the risk they will all revert to stone age mentalities. Elspeth must seek the source of the Earthwind to discover what is happening to her.

It was nice to have a female protagonist of colour, especially as there was no reason for the character to be either of those things. It was just a choice, and it was refreshing that the author made it. I found this both thought-provoking and entertaining. It’s a good adventure story, with a mystery solved by Peter and Elspeth but not without cost. I think this one will stick with me for a while.