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Book Review — Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief

Chapter 1 is entitled, “A Photograph of God? An Introduction to the Biology of Belief.” When you open up a book and you see those words, you understand immediately that you are dealing with authors who are willing to trade in hyperbole and unafraid of laying iron traps of materiality for God. Reading on, you find that what the chapter describes is the manner in which the authors scanned the brain of a subject named Robert, a Tibetan Buddhist, at the height of a meditative experience of oneness.

While the story is interesting, it is obvious that the authors have not taken a photograph of God.   They have taken a photograph of Robert’s brain.

Serious scientists and theologians, and in fact anyone with a teaspoon of common sense, knows this.  What exactly are the authors trying to prove?  For whom is this book written?

To tease that out, let’s begin with the observation that most people who believe in God understand that God is the ground of being. As a result, there’s no mystery or internal conflict in the observation that the experience of mind is inextricably linked with the vehicle called the brain.  As a Christian, this issue has already been fully explained and illuminated for me.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God;  all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.  John 1: 1-5 (RSV).

This passage is eloquently describes the relationship between God, conscousness and matter.  Religious people, who have wisdom literature like this at their disposal, don’t need to see scans of the brains of other believers to know that the experience of deity is real.  Hard scientists and unswerving atheists aren’t likely to be even mildly intrigued by Robert’s brain scans.  That leaves the floundering middle — neither reasoned believers nor scientific atheists — as the target of the book.  And I suspect that is also the camp to which the authors themselves belong.

That’s not to say that Why God Won’t Go Away doesn’t contain some entertaining and valuable insights.  I was impressed by its exploration of how myth and ritual are in fact practical survival instincts.  They do a wonderful job of explaining how the brain works in layman’s terms.  They provide a convincing scientific argument for the integrity of mind and brain, and this might be an eye-opening realization for someone looking for an escape hatch from the iron box of materialism.

And I think that’s the authors’ ultimate goal.  In the final chapters they finally come out and say it.

“We believe neurotheology provides the best source for developing satisfying mega- and metatheologies.”  (p. 176).

They are essentially positing the need to create some kind of new, common-denominator religion by starting with the brain and its chemistry.  Why would anybody want to do that?  Because the authors have bought into pop-culture history, atheist tropes, and all of the common snares and traps that snag the naive and hapless and seal them off from a universe filled with God’s wonder and beauty.  The final chapters are peppered with all of the old saws — that the church persecuted Galileo and is the enemy of science, that religion causes wars and strife, and so on. [If you believe this sort of foolishness, please read this.]

The authors believe we need a new religion that doesn’t do what the old ones do.  For those who are floundering in the same manner as the authors, this book may be a ray of light.  But once the light is seen, God awaits us in the great faiths of the world.  We do not need to reinvent the wheel, for in them we will see wheels withing wheels.

If you liked this article, there’s a good chance you’d like one of my books.  They’re available pretty much everywhere, but you can get most any of them in eBook format here.

Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief is by Andrew Newberg, M.D. Eugene D’Aquill, M.D., Ph.D., and Vince Rause.


Book Review: Eternal Life by John Shelby Spong

Eternal Life: A New Vision of Eternity by John Shelby Spong

Eternal Life: A New Vision of Eternity by John Shelby Spong

John Shelby Spong was the Episcopal Bishop of Newark before his retirement in 2000, and spent his entire adult life as a man of the cloth.  In this book he displays incredible bravery and honesty.

Imagine how hard it must be for him to look out into the world, into the faces of the hundreds of thousands of people to whom he has ministered over his long career, and say that he no longer believes in the literal truth of the Bible.  Not just in the literal truth of Heaven, Hell, and eternal life, but in the literal truth of any of it.  At all.

From page 44:

“Prayer, I would later surmise, was something like an experience of ritual hypnosis.  While everyone said the words, no one was expected to believe them. Religious rituals, I was beginning to learn, were defined as part of the human need to deny, to cope, and to pretend that all of these techniques are useful when reality presents us with something that is beyond our ability to manage emotionally.  At this point in my life I simply could not separate the human need to pretend from the human search for truth.  Organized religion would also forever fuzz over that distinction.”

His book is at once deeply personal and philosophical.  In the end, Spong’s viewpoint is, as the back cover suggests, a mystical re-interpretation of the Bible, Christianity, and indeed of Jesus.  And since it relates what amounts to his years-long ‘dark night of the soul,’ it is all at once a moving, inspiring, sad and uplifting book.

Every person of every religion should hear his words from page 185:

“The task of religion is not to turn us into proper believers; it is to deepen the personal within us, to embrace the power of life, to expand our consciousness, in order that we might see things that eyes do not normally see.”

I recommend this book to anyone, regardless of his or her religious or spiritual viewpoint.  If you want to put your spiritual childhood behind you and take a first step toward facing the truth about yourself, your religion, and the universe, go and get yourself a copy.  You won’t be disappointed.

Review: The Path by Richard Matheson

wpid-IMG_20130908_173117.jpgI really had high hopes for this one, it being written by a man whose fiction work (and work ethic) I greatly admire.  Unfortunately I was unimpressed, and I can’t give it my recommendation.

Richard Matheson’s The Path is technically fiction, but what it really is a very thin fictional story encircling the philosophical teachings of Harold W. Percival.  Percival was initially a Theosophist, but it seems he progressed through and beyond those teachings to arrive at a completely new and different cosmogony.

Percival founded the The Word Publishing Company in the 40s to make sure that his masterwork Thinking and Destiny would never go out of print, and in 1950, three years before his death at age 84, he founded The Word Foundation to “insure that his legacy to humanity would be perpetuated.”  Thinking and Destiny is the backbone of The Path.  In fact, I’d say that The Path is in essence a Reader’s Digest version of Percival’s original.

I refuse to dissect Percival’s philosophy.  He seems to have been a genuinely caring and humble man, and clearly Matheson, one of the greatest writers of all time, found great inspiration in his work.  I haven’t written anything approaching the genius of What Dreams May Come, and I can only fantasize that my occult writings will ever get the recognition of Thinking and Destiny.

So you’ll have to do the reading and judge for yourself.  All I can say is that, although I found Percival’s view somewhat dated and quaint by modern standards, The Path leads toward a positive, decent and caring way of living.  And there’s nothing at all wrong with that.

Book Review: I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive by Steve Earle

wpid-IMG_20130903_064656.jpgSteve Earle is a singer and a songwriter, a multi-instrumental musician with three Grammy awards and fourteen nominations.  I love Steve’s music and I sympathize with his politics and his sensibilities. 

But Steve’s primary focus isn’t writing.  I didn’t hold out much hope that his novel I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive, which came out two years ago at the same time as the record of the same name, would be that good.  The record turned out to be one of my favorites, one of those CDs that you can put it in and hit play without having to skip a single lame track.  I had the feeling that there was no way anybody could put write a solid novel while putting together a record that good, that somehow the book and the CD were too closely timed, that the book might have been put together in a hurry for promotional purposes.  Steve wouldn’t do that though, would he?  So I put off reading the book.

I shouldn’t have doubted him. 

I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive isn’t a good book, or a solid book by an outsider.  It is a great book by a writer who knows his craft.  In fact, I have to say that it’s the best fiction book I’ve read in recent memory.

Steve’s protagonist is Doc Ebersole, the physician who gave Hank Williams the morphine shot that killed him on New Year’s Day 1953.  An addict himself, Doc has lost his medical license and, ten years later as the book opens, is feeding his habit by stitching up bullet wounds, treating the clap, and providing abortions to hookers on the South side of San Antonio.  Haunted by Hank’s ghost and living from one shot to the next, Doc’s life is on the slow slide to oblivion until the day a Mexican gangster drags a poor girl named Graciela into his office — a table at the back of the local saloon — for an abortion.  As it turns out, Graciela is more by far than what she seems.

You will find ghosts and saints and spirits in this book aplenty, curanderos and priests, pushers and thieves, hookers and pimps.  But you will find no stereotypes, no tropes, and no easy answers.  There is only religion and redemption.  Not the holier-than-thou-bible-thumping kind, but magic and beauty of a sort that only a person who’s seen dark days can relate with perfect truth.

The secret to a great painting is not the light but the dark, the spaces between and behind, the chiaroscuro that pushes the figures into the super-real forefront.  This book is a painting by Goya, a dark canvas with bright figures shining.  




Two Ways to Get Free Stuff

Ghilan Cover final sizeWant some free stuff?  I have two promotions currently running:

#1 : If you’re one of the many people who’ve read Ghilan, you can still win the signed working draft of the novel by answering this question:

What is Sellie’s father’s name?

Answer in the comments below.  I’ll get in touch to arrange shipping.

Wisdom of the Raven: The Mystic Way of Cabal Fang


#2: And this offer is still running also — write a review of any of my four books and get free stuff!  Write a review (preferably on Smashwords.com, but I’m not picky) and post a link in the comments here.  I’ll send you a grab-bag full of zines, books, and other free stuff written and produced by yours truly.

Book Review: “How Non-Violence Protects the State” by Peter Gelderloos

As a martial artist and advocate of self-defense, violence and non-violence are subjects of great interest to me.  So when I was gifted a copy of “How Non-Violence Protects the State” I devoured it in two sittings.

What I liked:

The gyst of Gelderloos’ argument is that pacifism doesn’t create real change and that the iconic examples of passive resistance are either fantasies, fabrications, or distortions.  In an interesting and convincing way, he provides a thought-provoking counterpoint to the pacifist’s view.  I’m not an expert on the history of struggle, so I can’t promise you that Gelderloos’ history is any more accurate than the popular one but it sounds earnest.  Factual or not, it’s good for us to criticize our idols — even MLK, JFK, and Gandhi.  I’m a believer in the axiom that we are each our own heroes, and this book’s gears mesh okay with that.  It’s a hole-punching good time for anyone who enjoys a good paradigm roast.

What I didn’t like:

Although Gelderloos says activists must embrace all tactics in the struggle for change, I got the distinct impression that he thinks pacifists are pie-in-the-sky ninnies who don’t have the stones to do wet work.  I can’t help imagining that behind the page lurks a slightly less twisted version of  G. Gordon Liddy in a t-shirt with a giant “A” on it.  I hope I’m wrong.

My personal view on the subject of resistance:

Patriarchy goes back to the development of agriculture, when humans started slapping around Mother Nature.  We gave up hunting and gathering, raped Her with a plow, and started taking our food by force.    From this original abuse grew the patriarchal division of labor, patriarchal religions, governments, laws, and all the rest.

As long as rape is the way we feed ourselves, civilization will be patriarchal to the core.  We humans are always imposing our will on Nature.  We’re addicted to the shopping, the T.V., and the carbs.  It’s how we roll.

Democracy, Communism, Fascism, Socialism, etc., are all just different tires on the same old car.  Resistance, violent or non-violent, is only tire slashing.  It’s great to stop the car for a bit.  It’s better than nothing.

But things won’t really change — permanently — until we have the guts to ditch this clunker and go to rehab.  Until then we’re ridin’ dirty.