Does the love of heaven make one heavenly?

Why do find myself so attracted to articles about religion? I am not an adherent -religion does not stick to me- nor am I tempted to take the famous wager of the 17th century philosopher, Pascal: dare to live life as if God exists, because you’ve got nothing to lose if He doesn’t, and everything to gain if He does.

Perhaps I’m intrigued by the etymological roots that underpin the word: Religare (Latin, meaning ‘to bind’) is likely the original tuber of the word. But is that it -does it bind me? Constrain me? I’d like to think not, and yet… and yet…

Even many diehard atheists concede that religion has a use, if only for social cohesion -Voltaire was probably thinking along those lines when he wrote: ‘If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him’. Or Karl Marx: ‘Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people’.

And then, of course, there’s Sigmund Freud, an avowed Jewish atheist, who for most of his life, thought that God was a collective neurosis. But, in his later years when he was dying of cancer of the jaw, he suggested (amongst other, much more controversial things) in his last completed book, Moses and Monotheism that monotheistic religions (like Judaism) think of God as invisible. This necessitates incorporating Him into the mind to be able to process the concept, and hence likely improves our ability for abstract thinking. It’s a bit of a stretch perhaps, but an intriguing idea nonetheless.

But, no matter what its adherents may think about the value of the timeless truths revealed in their particular version, or its longevity as proof of concept, religions change over time. They evolve -or failing that, just disappear, dissolve like salt in a glass of water. Consider how many varieties and sects have arisen just from Christianity alone. Division is rife; nothing is eternal; Weltanschauungen are as complicated as the spelling.

So then, why do religions keep reappearing in different clothes, different colours? Alain de Botton, a contemporary British philosopher, argues in his book Religion for Atheists, that religions recognize that their members are children in need of guidance and solace. Although certainly an uncomfortable opinion, there is a ring of truth to his contention. Parents, as much as their children, enjoy ceremonies, games, and rituals and tend to imbue them with special significance that is missing in the secular world. And draping otherwise pragmatic needs in holy cloth, renders the impression that they were divinely inspired; ethics and morality thus clothed, rather than being perceived as arbitrary, wear a spiritual imprimatur. A disguise: the Emperor’s Clothes.

Perhaps, then, there’s more to religion than a set of Holy caveats whose source is impossible to verify. But is it really just something in loco parentis? A stand-in? I found an interesting treatment of this in a BBC Future article written by Sumit Paul-Choudhury, a freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of the New Scientist. He was addressing the possible future of religion.

‘We take it for granted that religions are born, grow and die – but we are also oddly blind to that reality. When someone tries to start a new religion, it is often dismissed as a cult. When we recognise a faith, we treat its teachings and traditions as timeless and sacrosanct. And when a religion dies, it becomes a myth, and its claim to sacred truth expires… Even today’s dominant religions have continually evolved throughout history.’

And yet, what is it that allows some to continue, and others to disappear despite the Universal Truth that each is sure it possesses? ‘“Historically, what makes religions rise or fall is political support,”’ writes Linda Woodhead, professor of sociology of religion at the University of Lancaster in the UK ‘“and all religions are transient unless they get imperial support.”’ Even the much vaunted staying power of Christianity required the Roman emperor Constantine, and his Edict of Milan in 313 CE to grant it legal status, and again the emperor Theodosius and his Edict of Thessalonica in 380 CE to make Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire.

The first university I attended was originally founded by the Baptists and, at least for my freshman year, there was a mandatory religious studies course. Thankfully, I was able to take a comparative religion course, but in retrospect, I would have liked an even broader treatment of world religions. I realize now that I was quite naïve in those times; immigration had not yet exposed many of us to the foreign customs and ideas with which we are now, by and large, quite familiar. So the very notion of polytheism, for example, where there could be a god dedicated to health, say, and maybe another that spent its time dealing with the weather, was not only fascinating, but also compelling. I mean, why not? The Catholics have their saints picked out that intervene for certain causes, so apart from the intervener numbers, what makes Hinduism with its touted 33 million gods, such an outlier in the West (wherever that is)?

It seems to me that most of us have wondered about the meaning of Life at one time or other, and most of us have reflected on what happens after death. The answers we come up with are fairly well correlated with those of our parents, and the predominant Zeitgeist in which we swim. But as the current changes, each of us is swept up in one eddy or another, yet we usually manage to convince ourselves it’s all for the best. And perhaps it is.

Who’s to say that there needs to be a winner? Religions fragment over time and so do societies; their beliefs, however sacrosanct in the moment, evolve and are in turn sacralized. And yet our wonder of it all remains. Who are we really, and why are we here? What happens when we die? These questions never go away, and likely never will. So maybe, just maybe, we will always need a guide. Maybe we will always need a Charon to row us across the River Styx…

A Predilection for Extinction?


There appears to be a lot of concern about extinctions nowadays -everything from spotted owls to indigenous languages pepper the list. Things around us that we took for granted seem to be disappearing before we even get to know or appreciate them. One has to wonder whether this is accompanied by furtive, yet anxious, glances in the mirror each morning.

Extinction. I wonder what it would be like -or can we even imagine it? If we could, then presumably we’re not extinct, of course, but our view of history is necessarily a short one. Oral traditions aside, we can only confidently access information from the onset of written accounts; many extinctions require a longer time-frame to detect… although, perhaps even that is changing as we become more aware of the disappearance of less threatening -less obvious- species. Given our obsessive proclivity for expanding our knowledge, someone somewhere is bound to have studied issues that have simply not occurred to the rest of us.

And yet, it’s one thing to comment on the absence of Neanderthals amongst us and tut-tut about their extinction, but yet another to fail to fully appreciate the profound changes in climate that are gradually occurring. Could the same fate that befell Neanderthals be forecasting our own demise -a refashioning of the Cassandra myth for our self-declared Anthropocene?

It would not be the first time we failed to see our own noses, though, would it? For all our perceived sophistication, we often forget the ragged undergarments of hubris we hide beneath our freshly-laundered clothes.

Religion has long hinted at our ultimate extinction, of course -especially the Christian one with which those of us in the West are most familiar- with its talk of End-of-Days. But, if you think more closely about it, this is predicted to occur at the end of Time; extinction, on the other hand, occurs -as with, say, the dinosaurs- within Time. After all, we are able to talk about it, measure its extent, and determine how long ago it happened.

And yet, for most of us, I suspect, the idea of extinction of our own species is not inextricably linked to our own demise. Yes, each of us will cease to exist at some point, but our children will live on after us -and their children, too. And so on for a long, long time. It is enough to think that since we are here, our children will continue on when we are not. Our species is somehow different than our own progeny…

Darwin, and the subsequent recognition of the evolutionary pressures that favour the more successfully adapted no doubt planted some concerns, but an essay in Aeon by Thomas Moynihan (who completed his PhD at Oxford), set the issue of Extinction in a more historical context for me, however.

Moynihan believes that only after the Enlightenment (generally attributed to the philosophical movement between the late 17th to the 19th century) did the idea of human extinction become an issue for consideration. ‘It was the philosopher Immanuel Kant who defined ‘Enlightenment’ itself as humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility. The history of the idea of human extinction is therefore also a history of enlightening. It concerns the modern loss of the ancient conviction that we live in a cosmos inherently imbued with value, and the connected realisation that our human values would not be natural realities independently of our continued championing and guardianship of them.’

But, one may well ask, why was there no serious consideration of human extinction before then? It would appear to be related to what the American historian of ideas, Arthur Lovejoy, has called the Principle of Plenitude that seemed to have been believed in the West since the time of Aristotle right up until the time of Leibniz (who died in 1716): things as they are, could be no other way. It would be meaningless to think of any species (even human) not continuing to exist, because they were meant to exist. Period. I am reminded -as I am meant to be- of Voltaire’s satirical novel Candide and the uncritical espousal of Leibniz’ belief that they were all living in ‘the best of all possible worlds’ -despite proof to the contrary.

I realize that in our current era, this idea seems difficult to accept, but Moynihan goes on to list several historical examples of the persistence of this type of thinking -including those that led ‘Thomas Jefferson to argue, in 1799, in the face of mounting anatomical evidence to the contrary, that specimens such as the newly unearthed Mammuthus or Megalonyx represented species still extant and populous throughout the unexplored regions of the Americas.’

Still, ‘A related issue obstructed thinking on human extinction. This was the conviction that the cosmos itself is imbued with value and justice. This assumption dates back to the roots of Western philosophy… Where ‘being’ is presumed inherently rational, reason cannot itself cease ‘to be’… So, human extinction could become meaningful (and thus a motivating target for enquiry and anticipation) only after value was fully ‘localised’ to the minds of value-mongering creatures.’ Us, in other words.

And, of course, the emerging findings in geology and archeology helped to increase our awareness of the transience of existence. So too, ‘the rise of demography [the statistical analysis of human populations] was a crucial factor in growing receptivity to our existential precariousness because demography cemented humanity’s awareness of itself as a biological species.’

Having set the stage, Moynihan’s argument is finally ready: ‘And so, given new awareness of the vicissitude of Earth history, of our precarious position within it as a biological species, and of our wider placement within a cosmic backdrop of roaming hazards, we were finally in a position to become receptive to the prospect of human extinction. Yet none of this could truly matter until ‘fact’ was fully separated from ‘value’. Only through full acceptance that the Universe is not itself inherently imbued with value could ‘human extinction’ gain the unique moral stakes that pick it out as a distinctive concept.’

And interestingly, it was Kant who, as he aged, became ‘increasingly preoccupied with the prospect of human extinction…  During an essay on futurology, or what he calls ‘predictive history’, Kant’s projections upon humanity’s perfectibility are interrupted by the plausibility of an ‘epoch of natural revolution which will push aside the human race… Kant himself characteristically defined enlightening as humanity’s undertaking of self-responsibility: and human rationality assumes culpability for itself only to the exact extent that it progressively spells out the stakes involved… This means that predicting increasingly severe threats is part and parcel of our progressive and historical assumption of accountability to ourselves.’

So, I don’t see this recognition of the possibility of human extinction as a necessarily bad thing. The more we consider the prospect of our disappearance, the more we become motivated to do something about it. Or, as Moynihan points out, ‘The story of the discovery of our species’ precariousness is also the story of humanity’s progressive undertaking of responsibility for itself. One is only responsible for oneself to the extent that one understands the risks one faces and is thereby motivated to mitigate against them.’ That’s what the  Enlightenment was all about: humanity’s assumption of self-responsibility.

Maybe there is still hope for us… well, inshallah.
















The Problem of Freedom

The rough, shadowed texture of a log fallen across a meandering stream, the scattered sparkles of the water as it murmurs briefly to a rock it passes, the deep, barely moving green of the leafy tunnel that shrouds the gently dancing blue beneath -these are what I know of freedom: permission to imagine, permission to believe… Nothing else –nothing, at least, that matters more… As Voltaire said, Man is free at the moment he wishes to be…

I’m not sure what I’m supposed to envisage when the topic arises as it does sometimes in the office. I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say, or how I’m expected to react. Freedom is a charged word. A troubled word. It so often refers to an imaginary, or a that-which-is-not. It is contextually defined, and so often spiritually embossed. Like Goodness, or Happiness, it is something to which we are expected to aspire, and because we can never assure ourselves that we possess it, the search, like that for the end of the rainbow, is never done.

It is also a partitioned concept, like being freed from a cage that is locked in a closet that is locked in a room that is locked in a house… To escape from one thing is always to be imprisoned in another –the escape from the innermost Russian doll only to be trapped within the next in line. Freedom, I had always thought, is simply where and when you are; it is a frame of mind, not a frame of circumstance. But I’m not so certain anymore…

This problem of freedom surfaced one day in the office, although I didn’t recognize it at first. The more curious of my obstetrical patients often wax philosophical at unexpected moments. I didn’t think Thira was one of those, I have to admit, but pregnancy –especially the first- has a way of changing a person. Opening them up like the petals of a flower in the morning sunshine. And Thira was a flower. A thin, short woman, she was a Greek with smiling eyes, and spoke with an accent that enchanted me each time we met. I think I sometimes asked her questions just to hear her talk.

But occasionally, she felt it was her turn to ask, and one day, midway through her third trimester, when talk of contractions and labour occupied most of our time together, she suddenly turned serious and her iconic smile disappeared for a worried moment. “Doctor,” she said after I had listened to the baby’s heart beat, “What does the baby’s movement mean?”

I was busy entering in my measurements and the heart rate in the chart, so I didn’t even look up. “What do you mean, Thira?”

“Well, she used to be so predictable. She’d kick after I ate dinner and then start rolling around about ten o’clock when I was in bed. Like she sort of knew what I was doing and was signalling me to say hello. Showing off…”

I looked up for a moment from the chart and smiled. “But you said, ‘used to’…”

The worried look resurfaced. “Well, last night she didn’t stop. She just kept rolling and kicking all night. At first I thought maybe it was the way I was lying in bed, but she kept it up no matter what I did. The kicking even got worse when I got up.” She took a deep breath and looked at the floor. “Okay if I ask you a silly question?” I nodded reassuringly. “Well… I keep thinking she feels trapped in there. I mean, it’s a pretty small space and she’s growing… Wouldn’t it be like being trapped in a small elevator when the electricity and the lights go off?”

I’d never actually considered whether a fetus would –or could- feel imprisoned before. My first thought was to wonder whether the baby, rather than feeling trapped, was actually feeling stressed for some reason –an accident with its umbilical cord, for example, or maybe a change in the placental circulation. I molded my facial expression into neutral so as not to alarm her. “Well, I would think that the uterine cavity space and the darkness is all she’s ever known, Thira. She must be used to it by now, don’t you think?”

She shrugged and painted an anxious smile on her lips. “I suppose… But what if she’s panicking because she’s just discovered she’s trapped? That after all this time, she realizes she’s not actually free?”

I said that before we assumed something like that, it would probably make sense to be sure the baby wasn’t telling us it was in trouble. I reassured her as best I could and sent her right over to the hospital for a non-stress test (NST) to assess the baby’s heart rate in response to its environment; its own movements for example would be the equivalent of someone doing exercise and should raise the heart rate briefly. If there was no change in the rate, or worse, a fall in the rate, it would be unusual and unexpected at the very least. It might signify fetal distress.

The NST was fortunately completely reassuring, as was a bedside ultrasound we did to visualize the umbilical cord and the amount of fluid around the baby. Thira still seemed concerned, though. “I still think she was telling me something, doctor.”

I sat down on the bed beside her. “Well, we can’t find anything wrong, so what do you think she is trying to tell you, Thira? What does she want?”

A weary smile appeared from nowhere. “Freedom, doctor. She wants her freedom.”

I was struck by Thira’s use of the word ‘freedom’ all the time. She didn’t appear at all surprised that there didn’t seem to be any problem we could find with the baby: no umbilical cord around its neck, no decreased amniotic fluid around it, no worrisome changes in the NST. And when I once again reassured her about the findings, she responded with another shrug.

“How can any of your tests measure the need for freedom, doctor? I’m sure most prisoners have normal heart rates, normal responses to exercise…” She stopped talking and looked in my eyes for a moment. “It’s only when you look in their eyes you can tell something is missing. Freedom can’t be tested, I don’t think…”

I had to process that for a moment. “But…  But you’re only 34…” I had to look at the chart I was holding. “34 weeks and 4 days pregnant. Your due date isn’t until 40 weeks… Surely your baby is far too young to appreciate such an abstract thing as Freedom.” I was proud of that response; I thought I had her.

Her face wrinkled in curiosity at my explanation. “I can calm my baby down by talking to her. She seems to respond if there’s music in the room… That’s pretty abstract, don’t you think?”

I blinked. I couldn’t think of another response. But I wondered if this was really cause and effect, or maternal attribution.

“When do babies start to think anyway?” she asked and scrutinized my face. Then she paused for a moment. “Only as soon as they’re born –freed?” she continued after she could see I wasn’t able to answer. “And what about the increasing number of studies showing the abstract conceptual abilities of even young babies?” I must have had a blank look. “Have you read that book: The Philosophical Baby, by Alison Gopnik…?” I hadn’t, actually. “There are others, too,” she said, reading my expression.

“But…” I shook my head slowly in -what? Desperation? Frustration? Or maybe in fascination at something about which only a mother could be convinced.

“If babies only a few months old can demonstrate a sense of injustice or fairness in the studies researchers do with them; if they can be seen reacting to things that seem to them to be unusual or unacceptable, then why would it be so hard to believe they could also have a simple concept of Freedom?”

I have to admit that I didn’t have an answer for Thira, although she certainly opened up a few questions that still trouble me -a Pandora’s box. Is the desire for Freedom innate –like curiosity, the desire to learn, or the impetus to find and create Beauty? Is it so abstract that it doesn’t even exist outside the mind as I said at the start? And is it so integral to our existence, that we need to manufacture it when we don’t think it’s there? There is a problem with Freedom I think: knowing what it is… and where. But maybe Robert Frost got it right: ‘You have freedom when you’re easy in your harness.’  Maybe it’s as simple as that.