Book Ends

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It’s the end of another year of reading. Since Goodreads keeps track of my booklist, I see by their accounting I finished 95 books in 2014. The final day of the year seems an appropriate time to reflect on those that made the greatest impact on me. Starting at the beginning, Jacques Berlinerblau’s The Secular Bible immediately struck me as a book of high importance. In an era when religion is constantly considered irrelevant, Berlinerblau gives this trite brushoff the lie. Likewise Jeff Kripal and Sudhir Kakar’s Seriously Strange opens questions that must be addressed if we ever hope to find the truth. Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist and Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s Sex at Dawn both raise, in fundamental ways, the question of what it means to be human. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty is essential to understanding the current crisis in higher education. Edward Ingebretsen’s Maps of Heaven, Maps of Hell is a roadmap through the genre of horror and its importance to society. The Miracle Detective by Randall Sullivan again highlights the question of what counts as reality. Nonbeliever Nation by David Niose shows the importance of separating politics from religion. Dean Radin’s The Conscious Universe brings science to bear on unanswered questions.

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Books specifically concerning religion also deserve some highlighting. Karen McCarthy Brown’s Moma Lola is crucial for comprehending, in a sympathetic way, voudun in a major city. Patricia Tull’s Inhabiting Eden makes a clarion call for religions to pay attention to the needs of the environment. Going Clear by Lawrence Wright is a good introduction to Scientology, while Jon Krakauer’s Under the Banner of Heaven serves a similar function in regards to Mormonism. Sam Harris’s Waking Up shows the need even atheists have for spirituality, complicating the sharp divide we are offered most of the time. Religion for Atheists, by Alain de Botton, also demonstrates the continuing usefulness of religion in a secular age. Vincent Bugliosi’s Divinity of Doubt calls both theists and atheists to task. Spirit Unleashed by Anne Benvenuti allows animals to have souls.

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Fiction always makes a part of each year’s reading as well. This year found me reading several ponderous tomes, but I very much enjoyed the lighter fare by Ransom Riggs, in Hollow City. James P. Blaylock’s Homunculus and K. W. Jeter’s Infernal Devices slaked my steampunk thirst temporarily. John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita were both difficult to read as a father, but important literature nevertheless. All of these books and more have individual posts dedicated to them on this blog. I always feel compelled to make clear that I find the books I read, whether highlighted here or not, one of the most rewarding aspects of my year. The long daily commute I normally endure would be torture without my books. Each year, each day I’m thankful for those who write them, and I look forward to an equally stimulating 2015 spent with my face buried in books.

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Apes and Atheists

Bonobo&AtheistFrans de Waal is among the sanest of popular science writers. I’ve been following his non-technical work since Our Inner Ape through The Age of Empathy to The Bonobo and the Atheist. As de Waal himself explains, he tended to leave religion out of his earlier works since, for a scientist such topics are generally taboo. His direct address to religion in The Bonobo and the Atheist is refreshing and enlightened. As he notes, de Waal does not believe in God, but he doesn’t believe in the abolition of religion either. This sets him against his fellow biologist Richard Dawkins, who is so bright that the rest of us are burnt out dimmer bulbs by comparison. As de Waal soberly asks: what does science offer in place of religion? What is the point of taking away something that has evolved from our early primate days without offering anything to fill its spot? Even an ape would object.

What makes The Bonobo and the Atheist so engaging, apart from de Waal’s writing, is the openness of his outlook. De Waal suggests that the origins of morality and empathy can be glimpsed in apes and monkeys. He cites the reaction of chimpanzees to rain storms and even waterfalls that hint at early religious development. As I’ve suggested on this forum before, religion may even be allowed to animals. Their experience of religion is certainly not the same as ours, but there is evidence of both thought and feeling. When these are brought together they form religious belief in Homo sapiens. Why not in our ancestors and fellow animals? No, animals don’t develop elaborate doctrines or precious rituals. They do, however, reverence the powerful, ponder death, and feel emotion. Some of our great thinkers are ready to cast all that aside in the name of progress. More humbly, and circumspectly, de Waal considers that evolution is telling us something. And when evolution speaks, its children should pay attention.

Descriptions of reactions and behaviors that we consider unique to humans among the animal world draw me to de Waal’s books. As a scientist de Waal has to draw logical conclusions, and those conclusions point to an inner world that is not so much unique in humans as it is evolved. Religion, I believe, is one of those traits. If animals show some of the early stages of religious development, including a basic form of ethics, how does that devalue our human efforts to explain our universe? Religion is in good company, along with opposable thumbs and basic language comprehension. Looking at how we treat each other, I consider being related to animals a compliment most of the time. Without a doubt some of the ethics Frans de Waal illustrates among the bonobos exceed those I’ve experienced at the hands of many who think of themselves as made in the image of God.

Evolving Morals

CNN recently interviewed Frans de Waal about his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism among the Primates. Of course the book immediately went on my “to read” list. I’ve followed de Waal’s non-technical work for years and I have come to trust his judgment. As director of part of Yerkes Primate Research Center, de Waal knows apes better than most of us know our neighbors. He has been exploring the origins of altruism and empathy in the great apes and has come to some amazing conclusions. His past work has shown that much of what we have attributed to special revelation has actually arisen in people through regular evolution. The apes, particularly the bonobos, but also chimpanzees, show startlingly human reactions to moral situations. In the interview, de Waal notes the implications for religion. In his opinion, morality predates religion since the former is seen in other primates while the latter is not.

As much as I trust de Waal’s judgment, the unanswered question remains: what exactly is religion? Animals display rudimentary religious behaviors, but in human-speak religion is often intertwined with belief. In watching a recent episode of Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole—“Is There Life After Death?”—it was clear that while scientists tend to stand on the “no” side of this divide, in the end it comes down to a matter of belief. Not all religions, however, are tied to belief. Some religions assert that what you believe is not important, but rather, what you do. In such religions morality is much more like our primate kin’s version of religion. As Freeman points out, you really can’t know what another person believes. You can ask, but if you believe their response is always an open question. Here is the dilemma of religion as a matter of belief. Even Jesus putatively said, “by their fruits you will know them.” Morality here sounds like religion.

Frans de Waal suggests in his interview that morality differs from religion by being earlier in the evolutionary scale. If, however, religion evolved—which it surely did, as we can continue to observe its evolution today—it may be of a piece with morality. We object to suggesting animals have religion; this suggestion would knock humanity off its pedestal as the only species to which an incredibly human-like god revealed (as it is said) himself. What de Waal has gone beyond proving in his previous books is that much of what qualifies as religion is found among the great apes. De Waal doesn’t put it in those words, but as a lifelong student of religion I have observed the connections first-hand. A scientist may not feel qualified to define religion, just as a religionist is not qualified to correct a scientist. I eagerly await the chance to read The Bonobo and the Atheist, but I already know that I will find much of what de Waal writes to be beyond question, and we may all be much closer to the origins of religion than we realize. Even our great ape kin.

Michelangelo's muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)

Michelangelo’s muse? (Photo by Greg Hume)