Posts in God
The supernaturalism of everyday life

When I was six, my best friend Joe and I could give ourselves head-rushes by contemplating the size of the universe. We let our imaginations rise from the Earth, to the Solar System, to the Milky Way, and then stretched our imaginations as far as they would go to comprehend the universe. Then we’d wonder what was beyond that, and for a second we’d feel a sort of dizziness at the mystery in which we found ourselves.

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Gods, voice-hearing and the bicameral mind

A few months back I was giving a philosophy workshop in a mental health charity. It was one of my less popular events - only one person turned up, a Romanian man who had recently moved to the UK and was finding it tough. We talked about Socratic philosophy, about the idea of engaging your inner voice in a rational dialogue, and the man (let’s call him Anghel) quietly told me that he heard voices.

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At play in the fields of the Lord: John Muir's ecstatic naturalism

I was up in east Scotland on New Year's Day, and found myself walking along a path called the John Muir Way. A few days later, a book I was reading mentioned a famous naturalist called John Muir, so I looked him up. It turns out John Muir was a father of modern conservationism, and the founder of many of California’s national parks. He is also a perfect specimen for my research into ecstatic experiences in nature.

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Beware toxic fatalism, in its atheist and theist forms

This week I met a charming young man who had recently dropped out of university. He was writing an undergraduate dissertation on free will, read Sam Harris’ book on the subject, and came to the conclusion that free will does not exist, therefore there was no point finishing his dissertation. So his university gave him a ‘pass’ and he’s now wondering what to do next (not that he has any choice in the matter).

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Robin Carhart-Harris on psychedelics and the unconscious

When Dr Robin Carhart-Harris finished his masters in psychoanalysis in 2005, he decided he wanted to do a brain- imaging study of LSD to see if he could locate the ego and the unconscious. That might have seemed an impossible dream, considering he had no neuroscientific experience and there had been no scientific research into psychedelics in the UK for over three decades.

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When going to a New Age orgy, be careful who you take home

Last weekend I had a glimpse of the future. I spoke at a New Age festival in Holland, a country where just 39% of people belong to a religion. According to the British Social Attitudes Survey released this week, that’s where we’re heading too. Thirty years ago, 68% of Brits said they belonged to a religion. Now it’s just 52%, of which less than half are Anglican. We are about to become a post-religious society. So what does that look like?

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Materialism, spirituality, and the three C's

Steven Pinker, the Harvard cognitive linguist, would not make a very good ambassador. In his latest diatribe, he attempts to reassure humanities scholars that science is not their enemy. Science is good, and humanities scholars should stop complaining about 'Scientism'. Unfortunately, he says this in such a tactless and, er, Scientistic way that it’s guaranteed to annoy not just humanities scholars, but no doubt many scientists too.

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The science of prayer

Around a quarter of the world's two billion Christians now sign up to the Pentecostalist or neo-Pentecostalist belief that God talks to them. That includes some educated people like, say, the Archbishop of Canterbury. How is this possible, in an era of rising education and living standards? Is the world going mental? One social scientist who has looked into the question deeply is Stanford anthropologist Tanya Luhrmann, who brought out an excellent book last year called When God Talks Back.

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The varieties of spiritual experience

I’ve just re-read William James’ Varieties of Religious Experience, which he gave as a series of lectures in 1902. It is a marvelous book, in which James attempts to take a pragmatic and empirical approach to religious experiences, remaining open to the question of where such experiences come from, and evaluating them by looking at their impact on people’s lives. In other words, he looks at the fruits, not the roots, of religious experience.

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Mad Max: Escape From The Iron Cage

Imagine, if you will, the scene. The Enlightenment has defeated Religion, and its various champions meet to carve up the vanquished enemy’s territories. Philosophy takes the chair: ‘Right then, settle down everyone. Thank you. Now, let’s see...Religion used to offer ethics and laws.

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Simon Critchley's Politics of the Sacred

Simon Critchley, an English philosopher at the New School in New York, has suggested that all philosophy is an attempt to deal with two disappointments: religious disappointment, or the loss of faith; and political disappointment, or the search for justice. In his most recent book, Faith of the Faithless: Experiments in Political Theology, he attempts to put these disappointments behind him, and work out a relationship between religion and politics.

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