Plausible first guesses

In his book, Miracles, C.S. Lewis describes what we might call the “default setting” for human religion: the belief in a vague, impersonal spiritual force that pervades all things. Lewis uses the term “Pantheism” to describe this belief, but it is perhaps more familiar to us today as “the religion of the Mind, Body and Spirit section in the bookshop”.

“Pantheism is congenial to our minds,” Lewis suggests, “not because it is the final stage in a slow process of enlightenment, but because it is almost as old as we are.” He makes a comparison with atomic theory, and while I think he exaggerates the influence of Democritus’ atomic theory in the pre-scientific era, his basic point still holds as regards the disjunction between our “natural” mental picture of atoms and that presented to us by modern science:

[T]he sort of atoms we naturally believe in are hard little pellets – just like the hard substances we meet in experience, but too small to see … [W]e feel at home with atoms of that sort – we can picture them.

However, science has now destroyed this comfortable mental picture of atoms as little billiard balls stacked on top of one another. “The real atoms turn out to be quite alien from our natural mode of thought”, and as a result the modern scientific picture of atoms lacks “the immediate plausibility and obviousness of the old atomic theory”. As Lewis continues:

The old atomic theory is in physics what Pantheism is in religion – the normal, instinctive guess of the human mind, not utterly wrong, but needing correction. Christian theology, and quantum physics, are both, by comparison with the first guess, hard, complex, dry and repellent … You must not expect Schroedinger to be as plausible as Democritus; he knows too much. You must not expect St Athanasius to be as plausible as Mr Bernard Shaw: he also knows too much.

In the light of this, it’s not surprising that this “pantheistic” impulse resurfaces so regularly. Nor that reheated attempts to show that the “concrete, choosing, commanding, prohibiting God” of Christianity is dead and buried prove so repeatedly popular. What is more surprising is the way that:

…by a strange irony, each new relapse into this immemorial “religion” is hailed as the last word in novelty and emancipation.

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