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Pullman Interview

2002-12-18 14:39:18+00 by Dan Lyke 14 comments

More Like This comes through again with a link to: Thirdway, a magazine which bills itself as "the modern world through Christian eyes", interviews Philip Pullman, author of His Dark Materials[Wiki], which comprises Northern Lights[Wiki], The Subtle Knife[Wiki] and The Amber Spyglass[Wiki], and who has been described as "the anti C.S. Lewis".

[ related topics: Religion Books History ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment made: 2002-12-18 18:53:04+00 by: Pete

I've read the entire series recently and offer an unreserved endorsement. Good stuff.

#Comment made: 2002-12-18 20:43:01+00 by: Jerry Kindall

The first book is called "The Golden Compass" in the U.S.

I didn't really care for them. I had, from the reviews I'd read, expected something rather darker. There is certainly more moral ambiguity than you usually find in chlidren's books, but they're definitely still children's books. A thirteen-year-old would probably love them, however.

#Comment made: 2002-12-18 21:20:32+00 by: Pete

Give or take a yeah few decades, yeah, exactly.

#Comment made: 2002-12-20 00:11:59+00 by: Dan Lyke

If I'd been paying attention I'd know better what particular perspective Mark Hershberger was coming at the world from, but Mark has an interesting Christian response to the Pullman interview, specifically a response to Pullman's statement: "But when it no longer became possible to believe, a lot of people felt despair."

The phrase that gets me is "when it no longer became possible to believe". Now, obviously, it is still possible to believe, but perhaps not in the same way that we believed before. To borrow a line, this belief has to "put away childish things" like a comprehensible God.

And I think this shows up the difference between at least one believer and me: If it's not comprehensible, then I cannot believe it. Because to me, belief is a tool, I believe in things when those beliefs give me the ability to build conceptual models of the world that give me results. It became impossible for me to believe in a god when I found that that belief was no longer helping me understand the effects of my actions on reality. For me, belief is not an option, many things would be easier if I could believe, and I understand the solace that spirituality and ritual offer, but deep down in my core I don't "get" the value of an incomprehensible god.

I'd rather chalk it up to chaos or entropy than a capricious being.

#Comment made: 2002-12-20 16:54:02+00 by: Dan Lyke

Addendum: I want to make clear to Mark that I offer this not in a "how could you believe?" sense, but as a way of exploring the differences of our philosophies and understandings of reality. More and more I've come to understand that there are strong biological foundations to aspects of our thinking, perhaps even to the point that atheists and believers are born, not made, and since both classes (and those in between) fear persecution, more understanding is a good thing.

#Comment made: 2002-12-21 19:30:48+00 by: Shawn

Dan; I'm curious to hear what has brought you to this belief in a biological base? For myself, I'm firmly on the Nurture side of the Nurture vs. Nature fence.

#Comment made: 2002-12-22 01:48:51+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

Sorry I missed this. I've been busy. I need to implement comments. I should credit you with finding the interview (though I did find some other stories, too.)

Of course, I don't think that "true believers" are "born" or "made". I do recognize some cultures are more prone to "religiousness" -- a friend of mine moved two hours north to Hattisburg, MS and found almost everyone went to church, for example. But I also know people who do not believe but were raised in Christian home. And I have friends who've been Chrismated who were raised in completely humanistic households. Is belief a recessive gene?

Anyway, "comprehensible" isn't a very good word. What I meant is that we cannot have a comprehensive understanding of God. It has been conventional Western Christian thought that God is rational. That he somehow obeys the rules of logic. G.K. Chesterson (late 19th century convert to Catholicism and apologist for Catholic/Christian thought) wrote as much in his Father Brown series.

Eastern Christianity is much more comfortable with a trancendent God, but at the same time, a God who cannot or will not interfere with our will. He controls all except you and I. We will not be able to fit Someone who is truly trancendent into our rational system for the world. It isn't possible since He trancends us.

And Pullman admits as much in his interview but he refuses to accept the consequences of what he states. He says his knowlege is the "tiniest pinprick" but he refuses to acknowlege (what I would say is) the inevitably trancendent God.

I guess it should be obvious by now that I don't see belief as a tool. I'm not a functionalist or a materialist. So rejecting belief because I don't see a benefit seems strange or even silly. I do see a benefit (and it isn't simply fire insurance), but I do not believe because there is a benefit. I believe because He is. To deny that He is simply because I don't see the benefit right now for belief would be silly because, whether I believe or not, He still is.

And, Dan, just to point this out. Compare and Contrast these two statements you made:

I believe in things when those beliefs give me the ability to build conceptual models of the world that give me results.

many things would be easier if I could believe

#Comment made: 2002-12-22 02:48:29+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

More thoughts....

What Pullman says is true for many people. For many people it is no longer possible to believe. But why? Because the culturally-accepted set of "first principles" has changed.

It used to be that God was assumed. Now, scientific principles are assumed. Because of this cultural change, many people can't get from first principles to God. If science explains everything (it doesn't, but many people assume that what is not now understood will be shortly) then why do we need God. As you've said, Dan, we don't.

#Comment made: 2002-12-23 18:13:51+00 by: Dan Lyke

In the past few years I've become extremely aware that there are a lot of people who know that they behave in irrational ways. People who know that they have to accomplish something, who know the steps they have to take to do that, and who, for some reason, can't bring themselves to execute those steps. People who take copious notes, appear to understand a process, and yet later get hung up on the simplest part of the task and have to call me to, essentially, point out their notes to them. People who step through a logical argument, say "yes, I agree", and then take action counter to that argument. I could go all day with examples. Heck, I've become aware of ways that I don't behave rationally, that my reasoning processes are affected by what I've had to eat or how tired I am.

And given how mutable some of these effects are, it's plain to me that cognitive processes are heavily depending on some serious effects of environment and biology.

Living in Marin, I see lots of people who need, in the strongest sense of that word, a sense of spirituality and spiritual questing, even if they're otherwise materialist atheists. I've seen people who've rejected a god for all of the problems that belief in a god causes go searching around for that spiritual sense of ritual. And while ritual is fun for me, it's not a deep need.

Almost a year ago I linked to Searching for the God Within, an article which talked about research on the idea that perhaps the difference between those who need sprituality and those who don't was biological. This made perfect sense to me.

Mark's idea that science is the default also falls flat to me. I was raised with religion. The school I went to through 7th grade was strongly anthroposophic, a philosophy which derives a lot from Christianity, my father's parents were extremely involved in their Methodist church, and when we didn't make the long drive over the Berkshires to synagogue we celebrated the Jewish holidays at home.

Perhaps it wasn't a specific god as the default, but the idea of a god was the default.

I also know atheists who reject much of science. A god doesn't make sense to them, but neither does the idea that the collective knowledge of a large group of people expressed through peer reviewed journals and repeatable experiments is truth, especially when it conflicts with their own experience of the world.

To cast everything into my own perspective, I think that looking at ways that an organism or culture's belief in god(s) could have evolutionary advantages is the best way to understand religion. Nature is a violent place, belief in a common god gives a culture the justification for killing, reasons to not kill within the tribe, a place for the shamans and others who see visions who'd not have a place in a strictly functional structure, see the previous note about not killing within the tribe, a sense for hierarchy, solace and reassurance in the face of the unexplained. These are all thing that could help a culture triumph over a culture without those beliefs.

What intrigues me about Mark's beliefs is that so often it seems that "man creates god in his own image". The struggles of gods are the struggles of men cast on a celestial scale. Gods are petty beings, and often trying to juxtapose that behavior with some sense of greatness, leaving aside for the moment concepts like "all-powerful", leads to difficult questions. Pushing the concept of a god out to something that a person knows they've experienced, but can't cast in human terms, much like some variants of Buddhist atheism, seems to me like the perfect fusion of those "irrational" (remembering that I acknowledge many of those behaviors too) biological processes I noted in the first paragraph with a desire to go beyond a petty spiteful god.

#Comment made: 2002-12-23 18:15:01+00 by: Dan Lyke

(And, wouldn't you know it, MSNBC doesn't keep their archives around. Bastards.)

#Comment made: 2002-12-23 18:45:09+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger [edit history]

Partly related, see this Real Live Preacher for the struggles of a Preacher with Faith.

"Searching for the God Within" was a Newsweek article. Copies abound. Here is one I found through Google.

Response to the article: Measuring the shape and function of a mature brain doesn't tell us anything about how the brain got that way. Experience shapes the brain.

#Comment made: 2002-12-23 19:39:59+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger [edit history]

I would have to agree that many people see a god in their own image. No doubt my own understanding of God is colored by who I am and my culture. That's pretty inescapable. I would seriously doubt the self-knowlege of anyone who claimed differently.

And, while I see that the functional view of religion is attractive to a non-believer, why should that understanding of religion sway a beliver. Yes, there are some functional aspects to organised religion. So?

From my perspective, God is and any organisation that claims to represent Him -- while being convenient and providing community -- is irrelevent. Your view, Dan, seems to be that the existence of God is irrelevent -- it is the religious organisation that is relevent.

And re: your description of how people anthropomorphize God. Of course they do. We relate anything we don't know to what we do know. (Christianity makes it even easier to anthropomorphize God since that's who Jesus is.)

When I look at people like St. Francis of Assisi or Menno Simons, I don't see someone who's concept of God was a petty, spiteful being, nor do I see people who are simply trying to move beyond such a concept of God. Their lives and the movements they started often put a spanner in the works.

#Comment made: 2002-12-28 17:22:55+00 by: Dan Lyke

"God is and any organization that claims to represent Him... is irrelevant". This is why I could believe that there is a biological difference between believers and non-believers. I don't have the experience of a god, despite putting in some heavy attempts to do so in my younger years. I propose that there's some fundamental difference by which you experience god and I don't. Perhaps it's a "chosen people" thing, perhaps it's some brain structure, but the only evidence I see of gods in the world are the acts of the followers of those gods.

#Comment made: 2002-12-28 18:01:25+00 by: Mark A. Hershberger

(Posting from dialup in the Ozarks... What fun!)

I'm a little confused about how much you want to talk about this and what to say here. I'm sure I'll be posting more on my own weblog at some point.

Anyway... For what its worth, I don't believe in "chosen people" -- thats an idea that gained traction post-Reformation. I used to, but it falls apart.

Probably not in the same sense you meant it, but I would say that the best evidence of God is the action of those who worship him.