Chapter 1: The Casaubon Delusion

It is perhaps surprising that men come to regard the happiness which a religious belief affords as a proof of its truth. If a creed makes a man feel happy, he almost inevitably adopts it. Such a belief ought to be true; therefore it is true. ­ William James (The Varieties of Religious Experience).

It is said that when the writer Gertrude Stein was dying her companion, Alice B. Toklas, asked her urgently: "Gertrude, Gertrude, what is the answer?" To which Gertrude replied, very reasonably: "What is the question?"

Many people believe that the dead have access to knowledge which is not vouchsafed to us who are alive, and Alice's request to the dying Gertrude doubtless stemmed from the assumption that her friend, though not yet actually "on the other side", was near enough to it to be able to report from that vantage-point.

Alice's question was about the Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything. In Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy the supercomputer Deep Thought gives us the answer to such a question, which is "Forty-two". This may be about as far as we are likely to get with all-embracing questions about ultimate meaning, but many of us find it hard to accept. There seems to be something in the human mind that is always searching for totality answers, for all-encompassing solutions. But it is a perilous quest. It can even degenerate into a kind of madness.

The Casaubon delusion

In George Eliot's Middlemarch Edward Casaubon spends his life in a futile attempt to find a comprehensive explanatory framework for the whole of mythology. He is writing a book which he calls the Key to all Mythologies. This is intended to show that all the mythologies of the world are corrupt fragments of an ancient corpus of knowledge, to which he alone has the key. He is, of course, deluded. His young wife Dorothea is at first dazzled by what she takes to be his brilliance and erudition, only to find, by the time he is on his deathbed, that the whole plan was absurd and she can do nothing with the fragments of the book that she is supposed to put into order for publication.

In memory of Mr Casaubon, such attempts to find all- encompassing explanations might be called the Casaubon delusion. It is due to a pathological overgrowth of pattern-seeking behaviour, which pushes a normal function of the mind beyond its limits. Sometimes it takes the form of believing that the universe is constructed like a giant cipher, a cosmic intelligence test set for us by God which it is our business to puzzle out. Complete esoteric systems have been founded on this belief. Mr Casaubon was part of a long tradition.

For an example of a real-life Mr Casaubon one might take the late John G. Bennett (1897-1974). He was a man of great ability and intelligence, first chairman of the British Coal Utilisation Association, who spent most of his life pursuing enlightenment in one form after another, always hopeful but always more or less disappointed. His quest began when he was blown off his motorcycle by a shell in France in 1918 and spent six days in a coma, during which he had an out-of-body experience. This convinced him that we survive our bodily death. After the war he served as an intelligence officer in Turkey, which stimulated his interest in Sufism. There he also met G.I. Gurdjieff, the Greek-Armenian teacher and mystagogue, and his pupil P.D Ouspenksy. He became convinced that Gurdjieff knew many secrets and had the key to enlightenment, and he worked intensively with both these teachers between the wars.

For much of his life Bennett was affected by the belief that there is a secret organization of initiates, Masters of Wisdom based in Central Asia, which guides human affairs. He was convinced that Gurdjieff had made contact with these people and was in some sense their representative, and it was his ruling ambition to reach them himself. In 1945 he set up an establishment at Coombe Springs in Surrey, where he taught his own version of Gurdjieff's "System".

In 1962 he met Idries Shah, who was claiming to have made contact with the Guardians of the Tradition or what Bennett called the Hidden Directorate, the source of Gurdjieff's knowledge. Bennett was at first wary of Shah but soon became convinced that he was genuine. After some hesitation he prevailed on the Council which acted as trustees to give Coombe Springs to Shah outright, believing that Shah would use it to establish a Sufi centre. Shah promptly sold it at profit to a housing developer.

At various times in his life Bennett became involved not only with Gurdjieff and Ouspensky but also with Subud, Roman Catholicism, Hinduism, Sufism, and Transcendental Meditation. In fact, one gets the impression that there was hardly any major twentieth-century religious or esoteric movement that Bennett did not try. Towards the end of his life he decided that it was finally time for him to be a teacher in his own right, and he set up the International Academy for Continuous Education at Sherborne, in Dorset. It seems that in his last year he was trying to create a way of worship that would be suitable for people without a formal religious orientation. His followers tried to continue with his ideas at the Academy after his death but within a few years things fell apart.

Whether you choose to call extreme spiritual "seeking" of this kind delusional is, I suppose, a value judgement. Much hinges on whether you think there is something to be found. But even if it is delusional, it is merely an exaggeration of the inbuilt pattern-seeking tendency we all have, without which there would be no science or art.

The same pattern-making tendency can be seen at work if you are listening to people speaking an unknown language, especially if you are not attending closely. You may be startled by apparently hearing a word or phrase in your own language. It was not really there, of course. Your brain picked out certain sounds and mistakenly interpreted them as meaningful. A few years ago there was a vogue for claiming that the voices of the dead could be heard in the static picked up on the radio between stations. The same phenomenon was at work there. At a still more abstract level we instinctively seek for meaning in the events that happen to us, and the more important the events, the more we want to find meaning in them. It is difficult, for many people impossible, to accept that there is no ultimate meaning in our lives, our illnesses, our deaths.

The search for meaning is what gives rise to religions. This pattern-seeking capacity must certainly go far back in evolutionary prehistory. Whether as hunter or hunted, animals need to be able to pick out and identify meaningful patterns in their environment. The tiger looking for an antelope amid the leaves of the jungle, the antelope watching out for the tiger, or a bird trying to pick out a moth camouflaged against the bark of a tree ­ all these are seeking for visual patterns. We have to do the same thing when we cross a busy road; we won't last long if we fail to spot the pattern of an oncoming bus.

I lived at one time in a house which contained a lot of abstract paintings, many made with the artist's hands instead of a brush. I happened to be in a room where one of these works hung on the wall when a visitor arrived and stared at the painting. "I can't make anything out of this," he said. "Oh, it's easy," I said; "look, it's a garden in sunlight; there's the pattern of the leaves, there's a summerhouse . . . " and I went on to describe various things you could make out in the painting if you looked at it closely. The visitor was convinced and went away quite impressed. I myself was sure that these things were there to be seen, in a sort of pointilliste representation. But, talking later to the artist's wife, I discovered that the painting was purely abstract and none of the things I thought it represented were supposed to be there at all.

Religion and the Casaubon delusion

Many people tell you that their religion is the most important thing in their lives, yet if you accept some of the criticism of religion that has appeared in recent years you would undoubtedly have to conclude that all of it is an example of the Casaubon delusion. Writers including Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchen, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett have all, in one way or anot told us that religion is a delusion. In fact the title of Dawkins's most recent book on the subject is The God Delusion. If they are right, it follows that most of the world's population is deluded since the majority believes in one religion or another. And even in a secular society like that of Britain today there are plenty of educated people, including scientists, who say they are Christians. Are we to conclude that they are all deluded?

It may be helpful to put the matter in a slightly less emotional light by looking away from religion and thinking instead about some philosophical versions of totality beliefs. The great metaphysicians such as Plato and Spinoza have produced thought systems that are not religions but answer similar questions to those addressed by religions. As Stuart Hampshire acknowledges, they may even exceed the limits of human reason.

But one must also understand the motives of those who overstep these limits in pursuit of complete and final explanations [my italics], since these are the perpetual motives from which philosophy itself arises; and even the most critical may respect and enjoy the extravagant extension of pure reason in its furthest ambition.
Spinoza is particularly interesting because he occupies an equivocal position between philosophy and religion. In his own day he was reviled as an atheist; today he is often called a pantheist. He rejected revealed religion as superstition yet in his writing he frequently mentions God. But Spinoza's God is not personal, and you certainly don't pray to him. He is also not transcendent, not distinct from the universe. In fact, he is the universe. The phrase Spinoza uses to describe him (or it) is "God or Nature". From some points of view Spinoza might be called totally irreligious, which is what he seemed to his contemporaries, but from another he could be said to have isolated the true core of religious belief from its irrelevant superstitious encumbrances. That seems to have been what he thought himself.

It would surely be wrong to call Spinoza's system an example of the Casaubon delusion, yet great metaphysical systems do, as Hampshire says, go beyond the limits of our reason. But rather than label them delusive perhaps we could call them totality beliefs, a more neutral term, which I think can also be legitimately applied to religion.

This emerged in a debate about the existence of God between Bertrand Russell and the Jesuit Father F.C. Copleston which was broadcast in 1948. Copleston said: "An adequate explanation must ultimately be a total explanation, to which nothing further can be added." To which Russell replied: "Then I can only say that you're looking for something which can't be got, and which one ought not to expect to get."

The difference between Russell and Copleston could not be resolved by argument, because it came from a difference in temperament. As Hampshire says:

But perhaps, in the last resort, no one will fully under- stand and enjoy Spinoza who has never to some degree shared the metaphysical temper, which is the desire to have a unitary view of the world and of man's place within it.
We could say the same, I think, of religion. To appreciate it requires the "religious temper". It seems that some people demand totality explanations while others, while they may recognize and even feel the need for such explanations, will never be able to accept them. Most of us, I think, have both these tendencies within us to varying extents, and the argument is therefore internal as well as external. We may debate the pros and cons of religion in our own minds as well as, sometimes even more than, with other people. I know I have done so, and this book is largely an account of where that debate has brought me: a different destination from what I expected at the outset.

Of course, even religious believers don't usually regard all religions as equal and do think that some belief systems exemplify the Casaubon delusion. Undesirable belief systems of this kind are often labelled cults. The notion of cults is an interesting one. Cult is a four-letter word. There is no agreed definition of what constitutes a cult. I think myself that a cult is any religious or quasi-religious group that you disapprove of, which is why sociologists often prefer to use neutral terms such as "new religious movement" or "alternative religion". We have a religion, other people have cults. As David Barrett remarks in The New Believers, all religions begin life as cults. If you doubt what I have just written, ask yourself how you think about Scientology. Is it a cult or a religion? The chances are that if you are not a Scientologist you describe it as a cult; if you are, you describe it as a religion. Religion, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

What you cannot do is use the strangeness of their beliefs as the criterion for deciding which groups are cults. Anthony Storr refuses to label anyone as insane simply because of the bizarre beliefs they may hold. Almost all human beings, he finds, have unjustified beliefs of one kind or another, so what matters is not what they believe but how they function in the world and in society. He cites here the strange story of the late Dr John Mack, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard who shocked his colleagues by publishing a book in which he revealed that he took seriously the stories of his patients who claimed they had been abducted by aliens and subjected to unpleasant experiments, usually with a sexual element. Most of his colleagues thought he was himself deluded and he nearly lost his tenure as a result. But Storr does not regard him as psychotic, given the absence of other symptoms of mental disorder.

It seems that Mack's willingness to take these ideas seriously was part of a wider attitude of acceptance of the unorthodox and the spiritual. He said: "We are spiritual beings connected with other life forms and the cosmos in a profound way, and the cosmos itself contains a numinous intelligence. It's not just dead matter and energy." This way of thinking was linked with his experimentation with psychedelic drugs and with "holotropic breathwork", which was the brainchild of another psychiatrist, Stanislav Grof, and his wife. It is described as

a safe and simple way to trigger experiences of non-ordinary consciousness that open us to psychic depths and spiritual understanding. Lost memories from our personal history, experiences from our birth, and archetypal and cosmic phenomena that become available to us in holotropic awareness, helping us transcend the constraints of our ordinary thoughts and habits.
The training for teachers of holotropic breathwork sounds like a perfect recipe for the acquisition of totality beliefs. To become a certified teacher requires about 550 hours' residential training and takes at least two years, during which instruction is provided not only in abnormal psychology but also in numerous esoteric matters including world cosmologies, theologies, shamanism, astrology, alchemy, imagery in nonordinary states of consciousness, perinatal and transpersonal themes in art and culture, the psychological and philosophical meaning of death, psychic phenomena, and meditation.

Mack's adoption of the beliefs of his patients was no doubt influenced by such ideas, as he said himself, but this does not mean that he was insane. "One man's faith is another man's delusion."

Not all religions or cults are equal, of course. A few are like black holes, totally destructive for those who have the misfortune to be captured by them. Once you come within their event horizon you are drawn inexorably inwards until you are torn to pieces by the overwhelming strength of their belief system. The Jonestown massacre, the Waco siege, and the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack in the Tokyo Underground are just some examples of how this can end.

Most of us find no difficulty in saying that these belief systems are dangerous, but surely the same is not true of the mainstream religions? Yet some critics, such as Richard Dawkins, unequivocally condemn all religions. Dawkins says that to indoctrinate a child with any of them is equivalent to child abuse! Having myself had such an indoctrination and come out the other side without, as far as I know, suffering any long-term adverse effects I think this may be a bit excessive. But I understand why he says it. I enjoy reading the books of Dawkins and similar critics of religion and agree with much of what they say, but I am drawn temperamentally towards the somewhat more measured critical approach of atheists such as Marghanita Laski, Iris Murdoch, and Taner Edis. These writers reject the truth claims of religion but still recognize that to dismiss all of it out of hand as a delusion is too sweeping and misses out much that is important. As Murdoch has written: "God does not and cannot exist. But what led us to conceive of him does exist and is constantly experienced and pictured." I think this is correct. It seems to be hard to escape from religion.

The persistence of religion

For quite a few years I have been publishing book reviews on my website. There are well over 300 of them now and they are useful, at least to me, as a kind of mental travel journal, a diary of my reading and therefore of my thinking over many years. What surprises me about this is the large number of books about religion that I have read. Currently there are over 60, which is more than in any other category. I should not have expected this, because for many years now I have not thought of myself as a believer. But evidently I am not indifferent to religion.

There has in any case been a shift in public attitudes. For much of the last century it was reasonable to think that religion was on the decline, at least in most modern technologically-based societies. True, it was still active in the USA, but in Europe ever fewer people went to church and population surveys showed most people to be only mildly interested in religious questions. Some still believe this trend will continue. Steve Bruce, for example, is a sociologist who thinks that the decline of religion in Western liberal democracies is irreversible. But many people still describe themselves as "spiritual", whatever they may mean by this, and I am less confident than Bruce that the progress towards secularism is irreversible.

The Theos website currently (March 2008) has a discussion about this, based on a survey they carried out. While this may not be a neutral source of information, some of their findings are intriguing. They found that 57 per cent of those surveyed thought that Jesus had been raised from the dead, with over half of these believing it was a bodily resurrection. Forty per cent thought Jesus was the Son of God, and bizarrely this included 7 per cent of the 250 atheists interviewed! But if the atheists were confused, so, too, were quite a few of the church-going Christians; most (79 per cent) believed that Jesus had been bodily resurrected but only 42 per cent of these believed that they themselves would be resurrected, though this is what the Church teaches.

Abandoning all belief systems feels risky, like deciding to do without a safety net if you are a trapeze artist. Most people don't want to do it. In a BBC programme called Beyond Belief the psychologist Susan Blackmore said she had practised Zen meditation for over thirty years though she does not call herself a Buddhist. Another of the speakers remarked that it was difficult to keep up the practice of meditation if it was not done in a religious context, and that the function of religion was to provide a sense of purpose in life on the basis of belief. Susan profoundly dis- agreed. She said:

I don't know if I am different from everybody else, but when I get to a point where something awful has happened ­ when I'm asking: "what's the point of it all?" ­ I find it so reassuring to say "there is no point." . . . But it's diametrically opposed to what you get in the major religions.
The other speakers found this nihilistic and depressing, but I am with Susan here. All the same, she is right in thinking she is unusual in not wanting to immerse herself in a belief system. There seems to be a widespread idea, particularly in the USA, that religious belief is, in principle, a good thing, and the more firmly held, the better. I am unpersuaded. Politicians are often accused of lacking beliefs, yet when they do act in accordance with deeply-held beliefs the results are not always happy. Pragmatists probably do less harm.

Some time ago I heard a discussion on the radio about cults. Those taking part were generally rather dismissive of them, but one made a remark that has stayed in my mind ever since. Speaking of some fairly innocent if irrational cult, he said that those who believed in it might be deluded but "at least they believe in something". This struck me as a curious position to adopt. Is it really preferable to believe in something, anything, rather than to suspend judgement? Shall we not then find ourselves in the situation of the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass, forced to believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast?

The psychology of totality beliefs

Many people remain quite happily enclosed in their totality belief and find indeed that it gives them a sense of security. But others experience doubt in varying degrees, usually because of what has been called cognitive dissonance. The term was introduced by Leon Festinger in 1957, to describe the psychological discomfort we experience when there is a conflict between two sets of beliefs. Festinger's original example concerned a UFO doomsday cult. When the prophesied destruction of the earth failed to occur the members of the group experienced dissonance between their belief in the prophecy and the fact of its non-fulfilment. Many of them resolved this by accepting a new revelation - that the earth had been spared by the aliens for their sake.

Cognitive dissonance does not occur only in a religious context but it may become particularly acute in that setting because of the importance of the issues involved. Not everyone seems to feel it, but those who do will naturally try to reduce or eliminate it, because it is uncomfortable. There are three main ways of doing this.

1. Denial - try to ignore the dissonance. This is usually the first solution tried and it will work for a time. How long it does so will depend on how great is your tolerance for dissonance and on the degree of mutual support you get from fellow-believers. If everyone round you seems to be untroubled by apparent discrepancies in the belief system you may decide there is nothing to worry about. Sooner or later, however, you will probably find that you move on to one of the other solutions.

2. Reinterpret parts of the belief system. It is often possible to decide that some of the components of the belief system don't mean what they seem to mean, or perhaps there is a hidden meaning below the surface which can modify or even completely contradict the surface meaning. This is a very useful recourse. It reduces the cognitive dissonance, certainly, but it does more than that. Because you are able to discern the hidden meaning you feel superior to those who fail to do so. You become part of an in-group within an in-group. This provides an extra level of privileged esotericism. The process can go further, with successive layers of esoteric belief or initiation.

Semi-secret societies such as Freemasonry exhibit this behaviour. Within some versions of Islam we find the same idea: each verse of the Koran is said to have four levels of significance. Sometimes the exoteric or surface meaning is compared to the shell of an egg, which protects the delicate yolk (the esoteric meaning) from the eyes of the uninitiated. This kind of esoteric interpretation reached its greatest intensity in the mediaeval Ismaili Caliphate in Cairo.

3. Abandon the belief system. If none of these solutions work you may have to call it a day and give up the belief system completely. Ceasing to believe does resolve the dissonance but it has its own cost. You have to admit that you have been fooled - or have fooled yourself, which is probably worse. And there are other costs too, including loss of friendships among fellow-believers and possibly financial loss as well, if you have been a member of an esoteric group that demands contributions from its members. Ceasing to believe in a comprehensive belief system can feel like the end of a love affair or a marriage, and can take equally long to get over. Some people never do get over it fully and continue to feel a sense of loss and betrayal for years after the end of the affair. So perhaps becoming involved in such belief systems is something to avoid at all costs?

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