A naturally enchanted universe

In a recent column in New Scientist magazine, physicist Lawrence Krauss argues with those who claim that the scientific world view disenchants the universe.

Krauss is absolutely right to challenge this highly offensive critique of reason, and his appeal to the natural wondrousness of the cosmos shows how creative and imaginative the naturalistic mindset can be. The atheist polemicist Richard Dawkins has also commented in similar fashion, though it is easy to overlook the more poetic passages in his writings, lost as they are in the relentless and all-too-necessary attacks on organised religion and superstition in general.

But Krauss makes a serious mistake in generalising his critique of religious thinking to an attack on myth as a whole. If I’ve understood him correctly, Krauss has failed to understand the nature of the mythical imagination, and how this connects with the social, economic and class-based nature of religious ideology.

“If this poetry of nature does not change the way we view our place in the universe, providing not mere facts but new meaning, then we are truly spiritually bereft. Yet too many people feel that they must invent alternative realities to justify human existence.”

I cannot argue with Krauss’ first sentence above, but there is something seriously wrong with the second. People very often create alternative realities as informal, loose-fitting mental models to help them make sense of their existence and experience of the world around them. They are not necessarily about justifying existence.

Among educated and relatively free peoples, such “alternative realities” are more often than not fictional narratives that serve to unlock the poetic imagination. And in the modern age they are almost universally understood to contain metaphorical rather than literal truths. They need not, as Krauss claims, detract from the “real-world thinking” required to solve “real-world problems”.

I say that Krauss has failed to understand the dynamic that turns mythical imagination into religion, but he did in his essay make brief reference to Barack Obama’s statement that some people turn to religion for refuge from the inequalities that abound in modern America. Krauss would do well to explore this further, and contemplate the nature and persistence of religion as a means of social control. Religion – whether it be militant Islam or tea and biscuits Anglicanism – is intimately entwined with political ideology.

Karl Marx wrote that to call on people to give up their illusions is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. It is not enough to argue against religion from an epistemological perspective, as Lawrence Krauss and other promoters of scientism appear to be doing.