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The Secular Mind-Robert Coles

  • Title: The Secular Mind
  • Author: Robert Coles
  • Released: 1999-03-01
  • Language:
  • Pages: 200
  • ISBN: 0691058059
  • ISBN13: 978-0691058054
  • ASIN: 0691058059

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Robert Coles employs a gestalt method for describing contemporary spirituality in The Secular Mind, a memoirish meditation on the replacement of religion by science as the determining force of Western intellectual culture. The book offers a wide range of reflections on its eponymous topic, inspired by conversations Coles had with such figures as Paul Tillich, William Carlos Williams, Dorothy Day, and Walker Percy--all of whom felt conflicted about feeling comfortable living in both the secular and sacred realms. Coles also offers lively readings of the Bible, Darwin, Kierkegaard, Freud, and others, to demonstrate ancient and modern definitions of secular culture.

Coles's basic historical point is not very controversial: "Once an alternative to entrenched religious life ... secularity became an aspect of individualism, as societies became less and less dominated by church life, more and more capitalistic in nature." More interesting are his thoughts on the future of secularism. He predicts that the mind's curiosity will ultimately master the brain's most complex functions (including emotion and creativity). Yet for all his confidence in the power of psychopharmacology, Coles avers that the scientific victory will never be complete. There will always be need of "an 'otherness' to address through words become acts of appeal, of worried alarm, of lively and grateful expectation: please, oh please, let things go this way, and not in that direction." This "introspective, moral pause," Coles writes, is the secular mind's "very own kind of sanctity." --Michael Joseph Gross

From Publishers Weekly Coles, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and social ethics and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Children of Crisis, is one of those rare writers who can gracefully combine intellectual rigor with the idiom of spiritual quest. Here, despite the title, Coles is concerned not just with the secular mind?the mind that exists and exerts its will in the contentious world?but with the blurry intersection of the secular and the sacred. "I try," he writes, "to explore this matter of two minds, secular thinking and its constant search for moral, if not spiritual, sanction." Over the years, Coles has interviewed notable theologians, psychiatrists, novelists and poets, juxtaposing their clinical and aesthetic takes on the psychology of the human soul with experiences of ordinary people. He discusses the writings of Freud, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, William Carlos Williams and Kierkegaard, among others. Throughout the book, Coles meditates on the paradox that it is as a scientist that he approaches questions traditionally deemed religious or spiritual. It's a paradox that, as Coles notes, manifests in many ways: Freud, who despised religion, became an object of "secular idolatry" as his work displaced the interior spiritual world that "had been the territory of religion." Coles also includes the not-at-all-famous, such as an Italian immigrant woman who realized the high cost of her Americanization: "When I prayed to God, I used to talk to Him, now I talk to myself." Finally, Coles assesses the impact of technology, including the possibility that science, in the form of neurology or genetics, may discern?and eventually mediate with drugs?human qualities, such as "goodness" or "badness," that once were in the realm of the spiritual. The brevity and conversational style of the book is deceptive; this is a potent and powerful work readers will think about and return to again and again.
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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