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A most unjudgemental, unfundamentalist, atheism

Royal Institution Christmas LectureI found this a most absorbing read, particularly because though I agreed with the rationale behind much of it I did also find myself arguing, enjoyably rather than angrily, as there are manifestations of `supersense’ which I believe he rather ignores, dismissing certain things which exist and there have been statistical studies on (e.g. telepathy)

Hood examines he reason why we are, as a species, prone to `supernatural’ thinking and have an inbuilt tendency, rather than just a cultural tendency, to the perception of `sacred’. Briefly, we are programmed to see patterns and connections. The world may be full of randomness, but we see patterns which connect some of that randomness and make it patternsmeaningful. We are a patterning, and a cause and effect species. We are a species which invests meaning. Hood does not quite say this, but it seems to me to make perfect gut sense that as a trade-off for our awareness of mortality, and perhaps an overwhelming felt sense of a random, uncaring universe, we make certain connections, and invest meaning, and benevolent design to our world.

I admit to being a `patterner’. I probably always was. However, curiously, now seeing patterns of benevolence rather than patterns of indifference, there is no doubt that this has had a profoundly positive effect on me as an individual and as an individual in society.

He shows how much all of us, even the most `rational’ are affected by `essential thinking’ – that is, an irrational investiture of some meaningful quality in both animate and inanimate object, which can be caught, or `infect’ a person in some way. A couple of interesting experiments are put forward to demonstrate this – would you knowingly wear the washed cardigan of a serial killer such as Fred West, and even if you would, do you have a frisson of discomfort at the idea? Would you without any qualms, take a photograph of someone infinitely precious to you – say, your young child, and stab scissors through the child’s eyes, on the photograph? If you can do this, because of course, the photo is not the child, were you able to do it without an initial feeling of horror at the idea. Most of us answer no, even those who are profoundly materialistic in their thinking and feeling.

There are a couple of points where Hood I think did not see beyond his own `these are the rules by which the world works, therefore anything which happens which does not accord with how the world works, and can’t fit into the theory, can’t exist’

Hood talks through how these feelings of meaning, essence, sacred, may have cohered us as a species, whilst he dismisses the real existence of `essence’ – however, he then tells a couple of stories which don’t quite bear out his `there is no such thing as essence’ thinking. One is the recounting of the choosing of the Dalai Lama – baby dalaitraditionally, the very young child demonstrates that he IS the new incarnation of the Dalai Lama by picking, from a group of very similar looking sacred objects, those that belonged to the previous Dalai Lama. No doubt the hardened sceptic would say that some fraud is being perpetuated by those who are searching for the new Dalai Lama, but as those devoutly wanting to find their spiritual leader believe most profoundly that it is the Dalai Lama who must reveal himself, and not them who must choose him, what is the selection of the right objects really proving?

The other is a final story linked to Fred West.

Homoeopathy (something of an open season for sceptics) comes of course under Hood’s dismissed errors of thinking, at best as `just placebo’ – whilst he does acknowledge the power of placebo. However, it does work with babies and with animals, and presumably the placebo effect cannot explain that.

What I particularly like about Hood is his ability, pretty thoroughly, to debate religion and spiritual beliefs, from the clear stance of an unbeliever and a rationalist, without the highly charged emotionalism which Dawkins brings to the arena. None of us escape our subjective view of the world, and how it colours what we experience, but Hood is pretty good at seeing, given the widespread belief in `the sacred’ that whether the sacred exists or not, the sense of meaning and sacredness has evolved for a reason, and must confer an evolutionary advantage.

I think this is an excellent book, for those of us who are meaningful patterners, and for those who dismiss the whole thing as hokum – Hood I believe will make both sides think.
Supersense: From Superstition to Religion – The Brain Science of Belief Amazon UK
Supersense: Why we believe in the Unbelievable Amazon USA

This is the same book, published with different explanatory subtitles, UK and USA, for reasons we can, I’m sure, imagine!

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