I first encountered the name of Marilynne Robinson when I read her review of Richard Dawkins’ book The God Delusion for Harper’s Magazine in November 2006. I had heard about the book but hadn’t read it at that time and found her review annoying. It was not because she clearly did not like it, which I had already gleaned from the title of the review Hysterical Scientism, but because I did not get a clear idea as to what the main argument of the book was about, which you would expect to be a minimal requirement for a review. Instead she gives an extended tour of the things she thought Dawkins should have written about, written in a maddeningly obscure way.
I later learned that Robinson writes fiction as well as about how science and religion are compatible. She is a professor of creative writing and has won awards for her books so who am I to criticize her style? But I will anyway.
Like most sophisticated religious people who think they have a deep understanding of religion that is compatible with science, Robinson goes about it in an elliptical style that gives the appearance of profundity. They wallow in ambiguity and metaphor where their words can have any number of meanings and go on forever without seeming to say anything. Reading their prose is like walking through a thick brush where you have to fight for every step. They make me want to yell out, “Dammit! Why the hell don’t you just simply say what you mean?”
There is nothing wrong with metaphor. Good metaphors can greatly clarify difficult ideas. But for Robinson metaphors are ends in themselves, to be endlessly embellished until they become opaque and the original meaning obscured. Their metaphors do not clarify but obfuscate. Robinson likes to wander around in a fog of religious language that she herself generates, reminding me of the character Pig-Pen in the Peanuts strip who is permanently surrounded by a cloud of dust. As she wanders around in that mist, everything is gauzy and an endless source of wonder and mystery and awe. She seems genuinely puzzled as to why everyone else cannot see what she thinks she sees, that the shadowy ephemeral shapes that she finds so enthralling are unmistakably signs of god.
I think that this is an unavoidable problem for accommodationists because they have to, in George Orwell’s words, give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. For example, John Polkinghorne is a physicist-clergyman who writes well when it comes to science but switches to this kind of theospeak as soon as the subject turns to religion. People like Robinson and Polkinghorne do not believe in a traditional god so much as what I call a gosh (god of the scientific holes).
Robinson was interviewed on The Daily Show on July 8, 2010 and it was simply awful. Basically her point was that no one other than her really understands science and religion at their deepest levels, which is why there is a conflict. The conversation was so vacuous that Jon Stewart ended up making absurd statements that science is like faith.
The reason that I bring up Robinson now is she has a long article in the most recent issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled Reclaiming a Sense of the Sacred and it seems like sunlight has still not penetrated her cloudy world. You think I’m exaggerating? Take this bit about the soul. She loves to talk about the soul and thinks about it a lot. See if you can make out what she means by that word.
Modern discourse is not really comfortable with the word “soul,” and in my opinion the loss of the word has been disabling, not only to religion but to literature and political thought and to every humane pursuit. In contemporary religious circles, souls, if they are mentioned at all, tend to be spoken of as saved or lost, having answered some set of divine expectations or failed to answer them, having arrived at some crucial realization or failed to arrive at it. So the soul, the masterpiece of creation, is more or less reduced to a token signifying cosmic acceptance or rejection, having little or nothing to do with that miraculous thing, the felt experience of life, except insofar as life offers distractions or temptations.
Having read recently that there are more neurons in the human brain than there are stars in the Milky Way, and having read any number of times that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe, and that the mind is not identical with the brain but is more mysterious still, it seems to me this astonishing nexus of the self, so uniquely elegant and capable, merits a name that would indicate a difference in kind from the ontological run of things, and for my purposes “soul” would do nicely.
I think that what she is saying is that there is more to the mind than the brain and this extra something is the soul. If so, this is nothing more than warmed over Cartesian dualism, which modern neuroscience has convincingly disposed of. (See the first part of my 16-part series on free will for a brief discussion of Cartesian dualism.) She could have said that without all that science-y stuff about neurons and the Milky Way and the universe. But these people love to throw in modern science terms in order to hide the fact that their ideas are nothing more than the same old religious ideas.
That this is what she thinks the soul is becomes even clearer from an excerpt from an interview in the September/October 2010 issue of The New Humanist where she is asked once again about her favorite topic.
Q: You use the word “soul” in your book. What do you mean by this?
A: There is a very primary self, a companion self one answers to, intimate and aloof, keeper of loyalties, bearer of loneliness and sorrow, faithful despite neglect and offence, more passionate lover of everything one loves, the unaccountable presence of joy in quiet and solitude. Soul is one name for this self within the self, which I believe is a universal human possession.
What the hell? I have a companion inside of me that I answer to? Who knew? Well, I’m glad we cleared that up. I would have hated to continue neglecting and causing offence to my secret sharer.
Coming back to her latest effusion, take this paragraph:
We inhabit, we are part of, a reality for which explanation is much too poor and small. No physicist would dispute this, though he or she might be less ready than I am to have recourse to the old language and call reality miraculous. By my lights, fiction that does not acknowledge this at least tacitly is not true. Why is it possible to speak of fiction as true or false? I have no idea. But if a time comes when I seem not to be making the distinction with some degree of reliability in my own work, I hope someone will be kind enough to let me know.
So she can judge when fiction is not true but she has no idea why it is even possible to speak of fiction being true or false. Somebody please take her up on her invitation and let her know that the time has come to pack it in.