From Stephen Toulmin’s Cosmopolis i learned that the open-mindedness and liberality of Montaigne and Henri IV’s century was abruptly destroyed by the religious morass of the Thirty Years War and replaced in a panic by Descartes’ stubborn certainty and the Westphalian notion of an absolutely sovereign state. Luckily for us, the first of those modern follies is already ceding ground…
Having arrived at the end of his career, Prof. Dawkins became so distraught at his failure to achieve his life’s goal — totally eradicating all religions — that he finally resorted to consulting someone on the matter.
Someone: What are these religions you want so desperately to eliminate?
Prof. Dawkins: Those that are poisoning the world with their outdated moralities and destructive certainties! Those that brainwash children and the weak minded into believing in some future paradise, so they will blow themselves up for a stupid lie. Those who preposterously claim to know all truth about everything because it was written down ages ago in some book. The preachers who tell stories about God creating the universe six thousand years ago, and who will end up destroying it sooner than that with their pointless wars!
Someone: I see your problem.
Prof. Dawkins: What is it? Tell me!
Someone: You are fighting the wrong battle; religion is in fact much more pervasive and pernicious than even you realize. These movements you speak of are already old and dying; the kind of religion you should be worrying about has already moved on and found a new, much healthier host!
Prof. Dawkins: I don’t see what you mean.
Someone: The new religious attitude is much more sophisticated, and already so deeply entrenched that few can recognize it any more, though some may discern it when the right parallels are drawn. This higher form of religion has no morality at all; it claims that such is not its business. Neither does it make much by way of specific predictions about the future — and yet it still gives people the means to blow themselves up, millions at a time! It also claims to be the source of all truth, its adherents supposedly possessing the one and only method for accessing that truth; while its preachers tell stories about how the universe and life began, adding a few zeroes and despair to the older religions’ tales. And now it, too, finally appears poised to transform our planet into a rather inhospitable place.
Prof. Dawkins: But science is true, and scientists can’t be held responsible for what engineers and politicians do with their discoveries!
Around two o’clock in the night three ancient Greek scholars were leaving a symposium on love. The director was mostly carrying the main speaker and his young protégé, keeping the former upright and the other out of trouble. They had fallen to discussing the Eleusinian mysteries, and the youth now flicked his blond curls in the dying moonlight, declaiming:
— Perhaps the whole mystery of Demeter’s cult is that there is a secret to her tale, though every initiate is left in the dark as to what it is!
The old man snorted:
— ‘want to know an ugly secret, my boy?
— Maybe the fasting, the potion, the raised stalk of grain only mean you must forever dig deeper…
— Digging deeper, eh?
The director broke into a fit of laughter:
— You’ll have to find some old initiates and ask them!
— But that’s the point: there is no one who could tell me! It’s the one secret i can only discover absolutely on my own!
— Anyway, we seem to have arrived, muttered the ancient wise-crack, and I don’t fancy you penetrating any mysteries on your own just now.
The rites of old might have long predated their mythical narratives. I imagine they arose in lock-step with the processes they mirrored, serving as mnemonic devices or initiations into practices which the participants couldn’t otherwise explain to one another. Fertility ceremonies and the delicate art of planting would thus both have evolved through a helpful dialectic, advances in one gradually informing changes in the other.
The attendant myths would only have emerged in retrospect, once people had vaguely understood what it was they had been trying to do all along.
Dawkins was having a late breakfast with his friend D. and told him about a recurring dream that had been troubling him:
I have just finished an event for my new book at a local shop and we are sitting with some friends in a pub close by when a stunningly beautiful woman walks up to our table, asking if i would sign the book she has just bought:
“I’m sorry i was late and missed your talk, but would you be so kind as to sign this for my husband? He is a great fan of yours and has faithfully read everything you’ve published. A perfectly rational and logical person — and you are his greatest influence!”
Seeing a large cross dangling from her bare neck, and perhaps because i have just downed a pint on a mostly empty stomach, i retort:
“That must make things difficult in your couple!”
Not skipping a beat, the woman invariably replies:
“Oh, not at all. We are quite happy. I always offer him just enough data for his mind to arrive at a desirable conclusion.”