Columbia University Press, 2015
Reviewed by Marian Van Eyk McCain
The rather odd title of this book is taken from a statement by Sir Francis Bacon (1561-1626) that: There is no Excellent Beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.
The strangeness which this book describes is reflected in its intriguing subtitle. How, one wonders, can religion possibly be ‘natural’ when it is something that emerges from the human mind’s imaginings? And how could the world itself—that supremely natural planet—be described as its opposite?
After all, have we not always been led to believe that religion is the purveyor of mysteries and all that is supernatural rather than natural? And have we not learned that science destroys mystery by discovering truth? In fact, as Dietrich—professor of philosophy at Binghamton University—so thoroughly and competently explains, religion is actually a biological phenomenon, a property emerging from the process of human evolution. Shared beliefs bind a community together, bound together communities have better survival value and the mechanisms of natural selection do the rest.
Meanwhile science, we have all discovered, is what destroys our mysteries and reveals to us all that is real about the world. Dietrich tells a simple story from his own childhood: his discovery that there is no Santa Claus, and how that discovery saddened him, even though, in some deeper part of his being it was as if he had always known the truth. Another name for truth, he reminds us, is the ‘cold, hard facts.’ The facts are cold and hard because warm, soft fancies of the imagination are destroyed. Yet no-one who has heard—and marvelled at—the Universe Story or who has had their mind boggled by the latest discoveries in quantum physics or astronomy can deny that science is in fact the source of the deepest and most wondrous mysteries of all.
Furthermore, the truths of science, unlike the many and varied—and often conflicting—claims of the world’s multitude of religions, are publicly displayed, repeatable and verifiable by anyone who cares to try. As the publisher says: ‘Excellent Beauty’ undoes our misconception of scientific inquiry as an executioner of beauty, making the case that science has won the battle with religion so thoroughly it can now explain why religion persists. The book also draws deep lessons for human flourishing from the very existence of scientific mysteries. It is these latter wonderful, completely public truths that constitute some strangeness in the proportion and reveal a universe worthy of awe and wonder.
There have certainly been many battles between science and religion, from the days of Copernicus and Galileo to our own century’s fundamentalist holdouts against the evolution. But spirituality, that is a different matter entirely. For to let go of the props and talismans and dubious comforts of religion and instead to walk naked, awestruck and open-minded towards the majesty of the night sky, the mysteries of the Universe, the puzzle of human consciousness and the everyday miracles of Nature, is to embark upon a profoundly spiritual journey. It is, as Dietrich himself points out, a kind of modern ‘Pilgrim’s Progress.’
I found this a deliciously mind-stretching book, challenging in its concepts and yet easy to read and understand and seasoned with a delightful dash of humour here and there. Definitely recommended.