Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Closing of the Western Mind: the rise of faith and the fall of reason

by Charles Freeman

Based on what I've written on this blog so far, you might think I only read fluff, with the occasional "serious" novel. Well, it's true that until two years ago I didn't read nonfiction unless I had to — and I haven't had to since I graduated college in 1995. (Am I seriously that old?) After my nonfiction awakening, however, I've gotten so in touch with my inner nerd that I've actually created booklists for people who want to read popular science.

That said, The Closing of the Western Mind is a bit, shall we say, dry. Terribly interesting, of course, but dryer than a day-old scone. I'd only recommend this book if you're fascinated by the early history of the Christian church(es) and/or the fall of the Roman Empire, or if you have insomnia.

I had imagined the book would be a bit more philosophical, or even more science-y. (The brain is the realm of reason, after all, and the intersection of metaphysics and neuroscience is fertile ground these days.) And, to be honest, as an atheist (and recovering Catholic) I had hoped the author would be more critical of the notion of faith.

What the author does instead — and does very well — is to catalog the social and political changes that shaped both the late Roman Empire and the early Christian church; to demonstrate how the disintegration of the former interacted with the consolidation of the latter; and, most importantly, to detail the evolution and enforcement of church doctrine and the consequent creation of the idea of faith: in a nutshell, the elements of doctrine were culled from so many sources, filtered through so many differing interpretations, and subject to so many non-religious influences (Roman politics, barbarian invasions, personal rivalries among bishops, &c.), and were therefore riddled with so many contradictions that at some point someone had to say "Believe it because I said so!"

So, OK, it is a pretty damning history of "faith" after all, if you manage to read the whole book, and as long as you aren't prone to see the invisible hand of god guiding everything all along. I guess next I'll have to read The End of Faith: religion, terror, and the future of reason.

No comments: