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Monthly Archives: January 2014

What Act of Killing tells us about our powers of self-denial

Imagine if the Nazi regime was still in power – perhaps with the leadership changed, perhaps slightly less murderous and more pragmatic – but with no reconciliation or recognition of former crimes. Imagine if the Holocaust was celebrated, with aging veterans of Auschwitz wheeled out for public adulation, to show their medals and tell stories of the killings.

That is the Indonesia that Joshua Oppenheimer shows in the remarkable documentary, Act of Killing, which will hopefully win the Oscar for Best Documentary this March.

In 1965, the Indonesian army and various paramilitary organizations reacted to a failed coup attempt by the Indonesian Communist Party by embarking on a massacre of suspected communists. It’s estimated that, in under two years, between 500,000 and 2 million Indonesian and Chinese suspected communists were murdered.

The massacre and reign of terror helped bring President Suharto and his New Order to power. And while Suharto may have died, that regime is still in power in Indonesia. There has never been any attempt to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice, or to achieve ‘reconciliation’ with the families of the deceased.

Oppenheimer lived in Indonesia, where he was working on a documentary about some workers’ struggles to put together a union. Many of them had lost relatives in the 1965 killings, and they would point out people in their villages who had taken part in the massacre. Oppenheimer went to interview the murderers, and discovered that they were only too happy to talk about the murders, and even to act them out. They were proud of them.

Eventually, his research brought him to an elderly and dapper gentleman called Anwar Congo, who was a gangster in the 1960s in North Sumatra, and who took part in the murders of perhaps 1000 suspected communists, in partnership with a paramilitary organization called Pancasila Youth.

Anwar was more than happy to talk to Oppenheimer about the murders. Early on in the film, he showed him a rooftop in Medan (a town in North Sumatra) where he and his mates carried out many murders. He shows how they wrapped chicken-wire around their victims’ throats and pulled, for a quick and easy kill, then dumped the bodies in a river. Then, he tells Josh, he would go out, take drugs and dance. He even performs a little cha-cha-cha for the camera there on the rooftop. ‘This is a happy man’, says a friend of his.

Anwar is feted for his heroic part in the genocide by the Pancasila Youth, which still has around three million members today. He’s invited on their TV show to talk about it, and congratulated for developing such efficient methods of killing. And yet, at night, he is haunted by nightmares, and as the documentary goes on, he begins to wonder if what he did was wrong.

The state as organized violence

Act of Killing is one of the most interesting and disturbing films I’ve ever seen. Two things particularly struck me when I watched it.

Firstly, it’s a brilliant picture of a modern gangster-state, of which there are many around the world (I lived in one, Russia, for several years – it’s also failed to address the mass genocides of Stalin). You get a picture of the hierarchy of thuggery, from street gangsters like Anwar, to paramilitary organizations like Pancasila Youth, run by a horrific little goon called Yapto Soerjosoemarno, to the businessmen who profit from their connections to the thugs, all the way up to the biggest thugs of all, the government.

The gangsters’ narcissism is so overwhelming, they have no idea quite how awful they appear. They display a casual sexism, for example, treating the women who run around them as sex objects, and one Pancasila elder even boasting of having raped 14-year-old ‘communist’ girls. ‘I would tell them: this will be hell for you, but heaven for me’, he cackles. In one scene, Yapto Soerjosoemarno visits a museum full of stuffed animals, including a display of a lion pouncing on a terrified gazelle. ‘Imagine that is a man and a woman’, he leers.

The gangsters take pride in their violence, their status as ‘big men’, their ability to extort money from little people. They take pride in being a gangster, which they insist comes from the English for ‘free man’. Words, and morals, seem to have slipped from their moorings. There is no longer any moral law, except the strong do what they want. ‘I feel like we’re at the end of the world’, says Anwar at one point, looking out on a black night lit up by lightning.

A scene from the Pancasila Youth’s TV station, celebrating the genocide

One former murderer, Adil, has a particularly Nietzschean view of things. He says he has no shame or qualms or regret about the 1000-or-so people he killed. We see him going round a shopping mall with his wife and daughter, looking slightly bored. Josh asks him if he is worried he might one day be tried for his crimes. Perhaps, he replies, the Geneva conventions won’t last anyway, perhaps they will be replaced by the Jakarta conventions.

I sometimes felt a revulsion at the moral climate of Indonesia, and wondered (no doubt xenophobically) what an Asia-dominated world will look like. But the fact is, the West conspired to bring Suharto to power, turned a blind eye to the massacres, profited from his regime, and still profits from it. We depend on gangster-states like Indonesia for cheap goods.

Art as a mirror

The second thing that struck me about Act of Killing is what it says about the imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves.

Oppenheimer says the film is a new kind of documentary, which he calls a ‘documentary of the imagination’. It strives not for historical accuracy, but instead lets the participants act out their impression of events however they want. This, after all, is how our memories work through impressions and narratives and vivid scenes, the recreation of which is its own kind of reality.

And the ‘heroes’ of Act of Killing are well versed in the language of cinema – they were known, in the 1960s, as ‘cinema gangsters’, because they’d hang out outside cinemas selling black-market tickets, and modeled themselves on American stars. Anwar recounts how he’d come out of an Elvis movie feeling happy, and then happily go about his bloody work. They recreate moments from the massacres in various movie genres – there are cowboy sequences, film noir scenes, war movie scenes and even musical numbers. One of the gangsters, fat Herman, dresses up in drag (it’s normal in Indonesian theatre apparently), lending the scenes a particularly surreal quality.

The film gets across how we tell ourselves stories to aggrandize ourselves and deny our ‘shadow-side’. We are highly selective in where we point the camera and how we edit reality. And we’re always the heroes of our movies. The film even celebrates the exuberance and – dare I say it – surreal beauty of Anwar’s imagination. There’s one particularly batshit crazy scene, on a waterfall, where dancing girls sing ‘Born Free’, and two actors playing victims of the genocide present Anwar with a medal for his services to the state and for sending them to heaven. Is the film, then, simply offering a mass-murderer the chance to aggrandize themselves and increase their legend? ‘I never thought this would look so stupendous, Josh’, Anwar tells the director while watching the rushes.

Yet the film also shows how we’re not entirely in control of our imagination. The shadow returns, into our dreams, into our narratives. Banquo’s ghost appears at the feast.

Fellini explores this idea in 8 1/2, which is also about our imagination and its powers of self-denial. In one scene, the hero is being confronted for being a philander by his miserable wife. ‘How can you live with yourself?’ she asks. He smiles, and slips into a reverie, in which he imagines all his girlfriends living together in a harem, welcoming him home and pampering him. He lives with himself because he can weave a version of reality where he’s the hero. And yet his dream gets away from him – the girls start to bicker and accuse him, and he has to beat them back with a whip.

In Act of Killing, Anwar is haunted by nightmares, in which his victims return and accuse him. He says he is haunted by their eyes, staring at him. They recreate some of nightmares – hellish scenes where his head is cut off and a demon (played by fat Herman in drag) feeds him his own intestines.

He seems to have a troubled conscience. But his co-murderer, Adil, says he is weak for being thus troubled. ‘Go to a psychiatrist’, he advises. ‘They’re like nerve-doctors. They will give you vitamins for your nerves’. He takes refuge in a materialist amoral view of sin.

The question, then, is the one asked repeatedly by Plato: do we have an inner conscience, a daemon, which haunts our imagination and gives us an intimation of our fate in a moral universe? Or are morals merely conventions set by power, so we can do whatever we want as long as we’re in power?

And what is the role of art in this world-view? In Act of Killing, art initially seems to be a mirror in a narcissistic sense, in which the gangsters preen themselves. Yet when they see their past crimes reenacted, they are often struck not by their heroism but their ugliness and brutality.

In one recreation of a village massacre, a deputy minister comes along to lead the Pancasila Youth in a chant of ‘kill the communists!’ He stops the scene, saying it seems a bit bloodthirsty. But then he insists the scene go in the film, as he doesn’t want to admit their acts were in any way less than heroic. The gangsters’ own children act in the massacre, and one child continues to bawl after the cameras finish rolling. ‘Stop crying’, her father tells her. ‘It’s just a movie.’

We rarely get to see the other side of the story – what it was like to be a victim of these gangsters’ delusions of heroism. Just once, an actor admits that his stepfather was one of the victims, and he had to find and bury his body. He then plays a communist in a scene, being tortured, and the line between reality and art becomes blurred – he breaks down in tears, begs for mercy. The gangsters look on uncomfortably at this intrusion of genuine suffering in their epic.

In one scene, Anwar plays the victim rather than the murderer. He is roughed up, threatened, and the old man (Anwar must be 70 or so) has to stop filming, he is so frightened and disturbed. He tells Josh that, for a second, he knew what it was like to be a victim. ‘It was much worse for them’, Josh says, ‘because they knew they really would be killed’. Anwar thinks. ‘It’s coming back to me’, he says. ‘I really don’t want it to, Josh.’

Perhaps, then, art can be a mirror in a less narcissistic sense, showing us and our societies not just as we would like to be shown (Rambo, Die Hard, all the Bond movies) but as we really are. Or perhaps our powers of self-denial and self-aggrandizement are simply too strong for genuine awareness. How many ‘gritty’ gangster movies merely ended up inspiring more gangsters? Will Act of Killing only further increase the legend of its stars?

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Lots of good links this week:

Here is a video from the Stoicism for Everyday Life event from last year:

Here is a New Scientist piece on epileptic seizures and how they apparently trigger religious experiences.

Here is a Radio 4 show by Andrew Brown that argues the Church of England is facing extinction for its failure to adapt to our country’s liberalism on issues like homosexuality. I suggested to Brown the Church should reform its attitude to homosexuality, but out of a sense of love rather than simple expediency to polling data (which is unlikely to persuade the faithful). Meanwhile, last Sunday Nicky Gumbel of HTB (one of the growing bits of the CofE) warned that churches can indeed disappear and that the church should become ‘famous for love’. But note (12 minutes in) he only refers to homosexuality obliquely as a ‘lifestyle choice’. It’s not. Who would choose to be gay in a country like Uganda, where it can cost you your life?

Here is a little interview I did with Harper’s Bazaar.

This week I read the astronomer Carl Sagan’s Gifford lectures on natural theology, called Varieties of Scientific Experience. The best and most persuasive book I’ve read by an atheist – his death was a big loss to the atheist movement, and to all of us.

The New Yorker writes up a new study from Ed Diener and others, which finds rich secular societies have higher levels of happiness, but poor religious societies have higher levels of meaning.

Daniel Dennett writes an intelligent disagreement with Sam Harris on the question of whether we have any free will.

Alain de Botton has launched a new book on the News, including a new online paper called ‘The Philosopher’s Mail‘, trying to use celebrity stories as vehicles for wisdom. Part of his broader campaign to bring more moral paternalism into free market liberal capitalism. Not sure it quite works, this time…

Here’s a review of Joanna Moncrieff’s new book on the chequered history of anti-psychotics.

This is old but awesome – two people on a canoeing trip happened to see an amazing ‘murmuration’ of starlings over a lake. I like how one of the girls says ‘shit!’ at 1.11. Probably what I’d say too.

That’s all for this week. If you want to donate to help support the blog, here’s the button below.

Jules



The New Atheists are actually transcendentalists.

How do you fit experiences of ecstasy, awe, wonder, the Sublime, or the Numinous into a materialist paradigm, without reducing or devaluing such experiences? With difficulty.

I’ve spent an enjoyable few days reading various works by the Four Horsemen of New Atheism – Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and Daniel Dennett. For Harris, Hitchens and Dawkins, the question of ecstatic or sublime experience is a key issue that New Atheism / materialism has to grapple with – and I’m going to briefly take you through their responses. My conclusion (to skip to the end) is that these writers actually have a deep sense of humans’ capacity for self-transcendence through art and contemplation, which is not entirely reconciled with their professed materialism.

Of the four, Sam Harris has perhaps thought most about this question  – indeed, he has a book out in September called Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, in which he attempts an answer. He distinguishes himself from his fellow horsemen by his willingness to use words like ‘spiritual’ and ‘mystical’ in a positive sense, to signify experiences of heightened awareness when the chatter of ordinary consciousness dies down, and a deeper, more nourishing consciousness emerges.

He says: “Although we generally live within the limits imposed by our ordinary uses of attention—we wake, we work, we eat, we watch television, we converse with others, we sleep, we dream—most of us know, however dimly, that extraordinary experiences are possible.”
Harris has had personal experience of such ‘self-transcending experiences’, as he cals them, which he’s reached through meditation (for a decade he was devotee of Buddhism, and at one point a body-guard for the Dalai Lama!), through chanting, and through psychedelic experimentation with LSD and MDMA.

He writes in The End of Faith:

The history of human spirituality is the history of our attempts to explore and modify the deliverances of consciousness through methods like fasting, chanting, sensory deprivation, prayer, meditation, and the use of psychotropic plants. [Such practices] are some of our only means of determining to what extent the human condition can be deliberately transformed.

Harris believes ‘a kernel of truth lurks at the heart of religion, because spiritual experience, ethical behavior and strong communities are essential for human happiness’.  The atheist movement’s neglect of the value of spiritual experience (he says here) ‘puts us at a rhetorical disadvantage, because millions of people have had these experiences, and many millions more have had glimmers of them, and we, as atheists, ignore such phenomena, almost in principle, because of their religious associations’.

Yet, Harris insists, ‘these experiences often constitute the most important and transformative moments in a person’s life. Not recognizing that such experiences are possible or important can make us appear less wise even than our craziest religious opponents.’

What Harris wants to do, in his forthcoming book, is show how we can cultivate states of altered consciousness without reaching after unproven metaphysical concepts like God, karma, the afterlife, the soul and so on. Indeed, his project for the last decade and a half has – in keeping with his Quaker ancestry – been to strip religion of all irrational myth and superstition and leave just the bare ‘kernel of truth’, which would be something like ‘utilitarian ethics + spiritual experiences + skeptic-humanist-rationalist community’.

Which is fine. And I look forward to reading the book. But I’d raise three questions, that I hope his book answers:

Firstly, why do all the contemplative masters, whose findings he respects so much, insist that these mystical practices tell us something not just about the mind, but about metaphysical reality? If Harris is going to grant them such respect and authority, shouldn’t he be more open to the conclusions they reach on their inner journeys?

Secondly, what, as a materialist-determinist, does Harris mean by ‘self-transcending experience’? Does he think we can deliberately transcend our ordinary self? How can we do that, if we don’t have some sort of conscious choice? If self-transcendence happens involuntarily, it’s not really self-transcendence, is it? You wouldn’t say that a flower unfolding or a caterpillar turning into a butterfly was ‘self-transcending’…would you? Those are automatic and involuntary processes. Does he think spiritual experiences are similarly automatic and involuntary?

Are spiritual experiences voluntary or involuntary?

Harris has suggested that deep meditative states support the view that we don’t have free will – something I know Susan Blackmore also thinks. I have never properly practiced meditation, but I confess to not understanding how contemplative states reached by intense and deliberate practice over many years can be used as evidence for our lack of free will. Perhaps, as Blackmore suggests, such experiences and the training that lead to them are the natural unfolding of the cosmos, like buds opening in the spring…Though my sense of spiritual experiences is they’re not entirely involuntary, they usually involve some sort of voluntary submission of the will to a Higher Power.

Thirdly (this is more of a criticism than a question), Harris’ impatience with myths, rituals and any other superstitious paraphernalia suggests an impoverished understanding of the human mind, and of the power of symbols, images, rituals and stories to convey us into altered states of consciousness.

Harris once, revealingly, said that if you removed all the irrational myth and symbolism from religion, you could present the insights of mystics and contemplatives in a book as bare and factual ‘as a manual for operating a lawn mower’. This isn’t true at all. Look at the great mystical literature – at the poetry of Rumi, at the parables of Jesus, at the Upanishads. They never state their claims about the nature of reality in bald and scientifically-testable facts, like a lawn-mower’s manual.  Rather, they gesture towards truths about the spiritual world with parables, paradoxes, images or metaphors. And the reason their teachings work, the reason they give us an intimation of the spiritual realm, is partly because of their poetry and beauty (unlike a lawn-mower’s manual). I’ll come back to the power of metaphor and aesthetic pleasure later.

Christopher Hitchens and the Numinous

Hitchens also had a powerful sense of the value of ecstatic experiences, or what he called ‘the Numinous’. He was once asked, in a debate on religion with Tony Blair, what he thought was best about religion, what bit of it he would most miss if religions did indeed disappear. He replied:

I’m a materialist…yet there is something beyond the material, or not entirely consistent with it, what you could call the Numinous, the Transcendent, or at its best the Ecstatic. I wouldn’t trust anyone in this hall who didn’t know what I was talking about. It’s in certain music, landscape, certain creative work, without this we really would merely be primates. It’s important to appreciate the finesse of that, and religion has done a very good job of enshrining it in music and architecture.

In a conversation with the other horsemen, shortly before his death, Hitchens says if he’d make one change to the whole New Atheist movement, it would be to distinguish the Numinous from the supernatural more clearly. That, he says, ‘would be an enormous distinction to make.’

On another occasion he elaborated:

I, think everybody has had the experience at some point when they feel that there’s more to life than just matter. But I think it’s very important to keep that under control and not to hand it over to be exploited by priests and shamans and rabbis and other riffraff..I’m absolutely not for handing over that very important department of our psyche to those who say, “Well, ah. Why didn’t you say so before? God has a plan for you in mind.” I have no time to waste on this planet being told what to do by those who think that God has given them instructions.

Hitchens was by far the most aesthetically-cultivated of the Four Horsemen – much of his writing is book reviews, and he spent his last days writing about the poetry of GK Chesterton, one of his favourite poets apparently. Indeed, before 9/11 turned him into the bristling bulldog of atheism, he was considering giving up political journalism to write a book on Proust (a rebuttal of Alain de Botton’s How Proust Can Change Your Life – alas that we never got to read Hitchens on de Botton!)

If he were still alive, I would try to ask him what he meant by the Numinous (it’s a term from Rudolph Otto’s book, The Idea of the Holy, in which it refers to the irrational and awe-inspiring aspects of religion) and what he means by saying our experiences of the Numinous are ‘not entirely consistent’ with materialism. How then does he account for such experiences – are they, like religious experiences, mere delusions or malfunctions of the brain? Does he really think that our hunger for the Numinous, and our incredible experiences of it, are just a by-product of blind evolution?

As he would have known, many smart minds – Plato and Kant among them – thought our hunger for the Sublime or the Numinous was an intimation of a transcendent realm beyond materialism, and evidence of our spiritual connection to this transcendent realm. This was why Kant made an accommodation between Christianity and his own Enlightenment free thinking. Hitchens, by contrast, is so keen to strip priests, rabbis and mullahs of their power, that he makes the Enlightenment mistake of throwing the baby of the Numinous out with the bathwater of the priesthood.

Hitchens was once asked, in 2007, if he was a strict materialist. He dodged the question, replying that the rabbi he was debating (Julia Neuberger) was definitely wrong to claim she knew the mind of God and could tell us His views on sexuality. But that didn’t answer the question about his own views. At another time, he told a Unitarian minister he was not a ‘vulgar materialist’, that we have a ‘need for the transcendent’. He was not, then, a strict materialist. He was a transcendentalist, just one with a particularly virulent hatred of organized religion.

Richard Dawkins and the wonder of poetry

Despite the stereotype of Dawkins as an arid rationalist, he does in fact have a profound sense of beauty, wonder and even ecstasy  – indeed, he calls the first volume of his autobiography An Appetite for Wonder. He describes, in that book, his love of poetry, particularly the poetry of Keats, Blake, Shakespeare and that uber-mystic W.B Yeats (Hitch was also a big Yeats fan). He ends his book, Unweaving the Rainbow, with a particularly ecstatic quote from Keats’ Ode to a Nightingale:

Now more than ever seems it rich to die,
To cease upon the midnight with no pain,
While thou art pouring forth thy soul abroad
In such an ecstasy!

We read also in his autobiography of his deep love of music – his favourite experience at Oxford was being a member of a dining club which sang music hall songs together, and he says he became convinced of God’s existence as a teenager after discovering Elvis Presley was a believer (I think Elvis is a perfectly valid reason for believing in God – argumentum ad Elvisam). He says in passing that he has considered taking LSD, but was talked out of it by his uncle – a psychiatrist who has specialized in studying LSD. Perhaps we should start a petition to give Dawkins the best trip of all time, with a cast of thousands including perhaps a full orchestra and ballet company, to see whether we can nudge his world-view.

Dawkins seems genuinely aggrieved, in Unweaving the Rainbow, at the common view that science is somehow the enemy of poetry. He insists that ‘the impulses to awe, reverence and wonder which led Blake to mysticism are precisely those that lead others of us to science’,  and adds ‘our interpretation is different but what excites us is the same’. Why, he wonders, did Blake and other Romantics denigrate Newton and other Enlightenment scientists? Why do they attack materialism? If only they had sung the wonders of evolution or atomism , as Lucretius had. In the last line of his book he imagines a marriage of science and poetry – ‘A Keats and a Newton, listening to each other, might hear the galaxies sing’.

He reminds me, in fact, of CS Lewis ( a writer he quotes throughout the book), but Lewis before his conversion, when he felt like his mind was split into two hemispheres – Reason and Imagination – and he despaired of marrying them. It is not easy, for any of us, to marry the intimations of our aesthetic sense with the logic of our rationality.

But Dawkins’ attempt to marry the two does not quite work. He seems to think it’s simply a question of presenting poets with the facts of scientific materialism, and asking them to sing from that hymn sheet. If only, he wonders, Michelangelo or Bach had received their commissions from someone other than the Church, we might have had great symphonies to atomic materialism. I’m not so sure. The only aesthetic hymn we’ve had to atomic materialism, after two millennia, is Lucretius’ De Rerum Naturae, and even that veers off into a hymn to Venus. I think it’s no accident that, in age where atomistic materialism has become the ruling paradigm, great poetry has dried up.

Blake’s Newton

Romantic poets’ antipathy was not, I’d suggest, to science, but rather to scientific materialism. And the reason for that is partly their sense that the creative process is not chemical or neurological but spiritual. Most of the great poets believed their inspiration was from the spirit world, in one form or another (the Muses, the White Goddess, the spirits of Nature, God). Their inspiration felt like it was something beyond rationality, beyond ordinary consciousness, beyond their control – in that sense, it felt like a gift from beyond.

Hitchens once spoke of this: ‘I can write and I can talk and sometimes when I’m doing either of these things I realize that I’ve written a sentence or uttered a thought that I didn’t absolutely know I had in me… until I saw it on the page or heard myself say it. It was a sense that it wasn’t all done by my hand.’ This is why poets often feel a reverence and debt to the spirit-world (in one form or another).

In the Romantic poets beloved of Dawkins, this sense of the spiritual gift of creative inspiration is tied to a transcendental philosophy, found in Kant, Coleridge, Schiller, Emerson and others, which believes that the imagination enables humans to transcend beyond phenomenal appearances, beyond the limits of material determinism, and give us intimations of a transcendent or spiritual realm, which the Romantics in their more orthodox moments call God.

The strange thing is, Dawkins – like Hitchens, and perhaps like Harris – sometimes suggests something not so very far from this Romantic transcendental philosophy. He wonders why it was that human consciousness should have gone so exponentially beyond the consciousness of other species on Earth, why it gives us the unique ability to resist the tyranny of our genes, reflect on our experience and make relatively free choices about how to live. And he speculates that the answer may lie in our capacity for metaphor and symbolism:

I wonder whether the ability to see analogies, the ability to express meaning in terms of symbolic resemblances to other things, may have been the crucial software advance that propelled human brain evolution over the threshold….However it began…we humans, uniquely among animalkind, have the poet’s gift of metaphor, of noticing when things are like other things and using the relation as a fulcrum for our thoughts and feelings…Perhaps [the imagination] was the step from constrained virtual reality, where the brain simulates a model of what the sense organs are telling it, to unconstrained virtual reality, in which the brain simulates things that are not actually there at the time…We can take the virtual reality software in our heads and emancipate it from the tyranny of simulating only utilitarian reality. We can imagine worlds that might be, as well as those that are.

This, it seems to me, is a transcendent and even redemptive vision of the imagination. It is much more inspiring to me than the metaphor Dawkins is most famous for – the metaphor of the Selfish Gene, in which humans are merely robotic vessels for our replicator genes. Dawkins and Dennett (whose thoughts on ecstasy I’ll have to leave for another day) have both tried to extend the self-replicating logic of genes into the world of culture, with their theory of memes. The theory is that memes  – ideas, concepts, fashions – also use humans as hosts and seek to replicate themselves and spread, like viruses. This is not a very good theory, for various reasons – the most obvious being that ideas aren’t discrete entities like genes, and my idea of God, say, may be very different to your idea of God. The meme theory does not do justice to our individual capacity for creation, adaptation, improvisation and play.

But in his more exalted moods, Dawkins talks about culture in far less mechanistic and deterministic terms. Culture is the supra-material realm in which humans can transcend our genetic determinism, can escape the tyranny of the mundane and utilitarian, and delight in free play, spontaneous improvisation and moments of expanded consciousness. Art is a window beyond materialism, a ladder to transcendence.

That is a vision of human nature that I can share, even if I’d disagree with Dawkins about the origin of our capacity for transcendence and what it says about the nature of the universe. And, of course, one’s experience of ecstasy will be very different if you think it is either an evolutionary by-product in an indifferent universe, or the re-connection of your soul with the divine cosmos. Neither is necessarily better or worse, they’re just clearly different.