May 22 2008

May 2008 Newsletter

Published by under Newsletters

Sea of Faith                         Newsletter       



    Dunedin                                            May 2008

Dr Greg Dawes, who has one foot in the Religious Studies Department of the University of Otago, and one foot in Philosophy, will talk to us on:


Why Would Anyone Believe in God?

In explanation, Greg wrote:
The belief in gods, demons, and other supernatural agents is a persistent feature of human culture, which cries out for explanation. In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, thinkers such as Marx, Durkheim, and Freud attempted to offer natural explanations of religion. But their theories were often speculative and were subject to serious criticism. In the last twenty-five years, a number of cognitive scientists, such as Pascal Boyer, Justin Barrett, and Todd Tremlin have offered more sophisticated theories of religion, which draw upon a significant body of empirical evidence. I will survey these more recent theories in an effort to answer the question, “Why would anyone believe in God”?




There is a short [18 minute] video talk by Karen Armstrong – an appeal for a world-wide movement in support of compassion – easily accessible on the Internet. It is at

Page 2

Speaking of Karen Armstrong – several of our programmes recently have been devoted to her book, “The Great Transformation”. I think there are many nuggets to be mined from it.
Here are a few of the thought-provoking quotes I marked as I read it:

“All the sages [of the period 900-200 BC] preached a spirituality of empathy and compassion; they insisted that people must abandon their egotism and greed, and their violence and unkindness”. [p. xiii]

“In the West, people gravitated towards science and logos, and were less spiritually ambitious than the sages of India and China. Instead of making the heroic effort to discover a realm of transcendent peace within, the Hellenistic philosophers were prepared to settle for a quiet life. Instead of training the intuitive powers of the mind, they turned to scientific logos. Instead of achieving mystical enlightenment, the West was more excited by a more mundane illumination. The Western genius for science eventually transformed the world, and in the sixteenth century its scientific revolution introduced a new Axial Age. This would greatly benefit humanity, but it was inspired by a different species of genius. Instead of the Buddha, Socrates and Confucius, the heroes of the second Axial Age would be Newton, Freud and Einstein.” [p. 356]

“Centuries of institutional, political and intellectual development have tended to obscure the importance of compassion in religion. All too often the religion that dominates the public discourse seems to express an institutional egotism: my faith is better than yours! ….. All the world’s religions have seen the eruption of this type of militant piety. As a result, some people have concluded either that religion itself is inescapably violent, or that violence and intolerance are endemic to a particular tradition. But the story of the Axial Age shows that in fact the opposite is the case. Every single one of these faiths began in principled and visceral recoil from the unprecedented violence of their time.” [p. 393]

“The sages were not utopian dreamers but practical men; many were preoccupied with politics and government. They were convinced that empathy did not just sound edifying, but actually worked. Compassion and concern for everybody was the best policy. We should take their insights seriously, because they were the experts. …. They spent as much creative energy seeking a cure for the spiritual malaise of humanity as scientists today spend trying to find a cure for cancer. We have different preoccupations. The Axial Age was a time of spiritual genius; we live in an age of scientific and technological genius, and our spiritual education is often underdeveloped. [p. 397]

“The Axial Age needed to craft a new vision because humanity had taken a social and psychological leap forward. People had discovered that each person was unique. The old tribal ethic, which had developed a communal mentality to ensure the survival of the group, was being replaced by a new individualism. This is why so many of the Axial spiritualities were preoccupied by discovery of the self. ….
Today we are making another quantum leap forward. Our technology has created a global society, which is interconnected electronically, militarily, economically and politically. We now have to develop a global consciousness, because, whether we like it or not, we live in one world. Even though our problem is different from that of the Axial sages, they can still help us. They did not jettison the insights of the old religion, but deepened and extended them. In the same way, we should develop the insights of the Axial Age.” [p. 397]

Chairman: Geoff Neilson – Phone 489-6727 – Email: Geoff
Newsletter Editor: Donald Feist – Phone 476-3268 – Email: Don

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