Excellent Beauty

Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World

Eric Dietrich
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 208
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7312/diet17102
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  • Book Info
    Excellent Beauty
    Book Description:

    Flipping convention on its head, Eric Dietrich argues that science uncovers awe-inspiring, enduring mysteries, while religion, regarded as the source for such mysteries, is a biological phenomenon. Just like spoken language, Dietrich shows that religion is an evolutionary adaptation. Science is the source of perplexing yet beautiful mysteries, however natural the search for answers may be to human existence.

    Excellent Beautyundoes 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, completelypublictruths that constitute some strangeness in the proportion, revealing a universe worthy of awe and wonder.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-53935-7
    Subjects: Religion, Philosophy, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
  3. Author’s Note
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. XI-XII)
  5. Who’s in Charge of the World’s Mysteries?
    (pp. XIII-XVI)

    In 1633, when he was sixty-nine, Galileo was sentenced to house arrest for the remainder of his life by the Inquisition of the Roman Catholic Church. The imprisonment lasted until his death in 1642. History records that Galileo received this condemnation because he published his now famous bookDialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. The two chief systems were the heliocentric (sun-centered) view of the solar system and the geocentric view (Earth-centered). In hisDialogue, and using the best scientific evidence available (evidence to which he contributed), Galileo argued for the heliocentric view and against the geocentric view favored...

  6. ONE The Traveler to Excellent Beauty: Invited Rather Than Drafted
    (pp. 1-6)

    Spiritual journey soften begin unintentionally: the traveler isdrafted. Abraham and Moses were minding their own business when they got called into service by Yahweh.¹ Same with Joseph and Mary (though, for her, the call was a bit more personal and intrusive). But the reader’s journey need not begin unintentionally. This chapter, I hope, will function as your invitation. It introduces the reader to the sorts of things the demise of religion clears the way for. I present the invitation as it came to me.

    I have a scientist’s disposition. I am naturally drawn to science and fascinated by all...

  7. PART ONE Of Spiritual Journeys
    • TWO What Is a Religion?
      (pp. 9-15)

      First things first. So we can know what we’re talking about, we need a definition of the term “religion,” as well as the more general terms “spiritual journey” and “spiritual traveler.” The latter two are rather easy to define. I use the term “spiritual traveler” to include all religious people as well as those who define their spiritual journey more idiosyncratically or esoterically. And a spiritual journey is any seeking after a mystical or transcendent understanding of life.

      Spiritual journeys vary widely. A trip to Stonehenge, to Lourdes to Mecca, to Graceland, to Hollywood and Vine, to Cape Canaveral, to...

    • THREE The One Billion
      (pp. 16-27)

      The third most common religious preference among humans on planet Earth (after Christianity and Islam, respectively) isunaffiliatedornonreligious(people in this category list themselves as secular, atheist, agnostic, or simply nonreligious).¹ Well over one billion people classify themselves as unaffiliated. That’s over 16 percent of the world’s total population (which was, when these statistics were collected, a little under seven billion people). That so many people seem not to feel the tug of organized religion is an occasion for much rejoicing among many because they regard religions of all stripes as the source of profound pain and suffering....

    • FOUR The Traveler’s Dark Night of the Soul
      (pp. 28-48)

      One of the most well-known spiritual travelers of the twentieth century, the Catholic nun Mother Teresa, was also one of the most darkly conflicted. Though she labored long and hard for the cause of the sick and suffering in Kolkata (Calcutta), India, she herself was bereft of the spiritual presence of Jesus Christ. Her life was, shockingly, one long crisis of faith—the kind of deep crisis St. John of the Cross called thedark night of the soul. Mother Teresa wrote: “In my own soul, I feel the terrible pain of this loss. I feel that God does not...

  8. PART TWO The Biology of Religion, the Psychology of Morality
    • [PART TWO Introduction]
      (pp. 49-50)

      Approximately every two minutes, someone in the United States is sexually assaulted.¹ This is a profoundly distressing fact. You’d think it would be a life-changing one as well, for this fact is directly at odds with a certain widely and strongly believed conception of God. God is most often considered to be a being who knows about these sexual assaults, knows that all sexual assaults are morally wrong and so wants to stop them, andcanstop themeasily. So, why do they occur? That’s the not question, however. The real question is why when informed of the frequency of...

    • FIVE Justifying the Ways of God to Man via Evolution
      (pp. 51-68)

      The traveler’s long, dark night of the soul, a night full of horror, evil, fear, and trembling, resulted in our wondering whether travelers should take a different approach to justifying God’s and the other deities’ decisions and behaviors regarding humankind and all the other life on planet Earth. Instead of worrying over why the various gods of the various religions allow children to suffer and die of leukemia, of child abuse, and of war (to name just three evils), perhaps we should wonder why we believe in deities in the first place. Perhaps the gods behave as they do not...

    • SIX Does God Want You Dead?
      (pp. 69-81)

      Beyond explaining what is unexplainable, or what needn’t or shouldn’t be explained (for example, coincidences), the other important job of any religion is binding a group (tribe, community, and so on) together. This requires controlling in some way the behavior of the members of the group—at least to some large extent. A religion does this by laying down rules of conduct. In short, a religion supplies or backs themoral rulesof a community, a group, a tribe, a nation. How religions do this, and whether or not it is right that they should do this, is the topic...

    • SEVEN Good Without Gods
      (pp. 82-90)

      The connection between religion and morality is tight, at least many humans think so. And, for most of these people, this connection isfelt: one just cannot be a good person and not religious. After filling out a job application many years ago and writing “atheist” in the box labeled “What is your religion?” the interviewer asked me, quite nervously, if I still believed in, and if I could still tell, right from wrong. I assured him I did and could. He was dubious. (But not overly dubious; I got the job.)

      The point of this chapter is to explore...

  9. PART THREE The Journey in Tatters
    • EIGHT Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion
      (pp. 93-96)

      The two most important things to explain about religion are why there are tens of thousands of religions today on planet Earth and why all of them are so resistant to the refuting evidence. The answer: religions are part of the human blueprint, just like speaking a language. Humans are religious because our ancestors who were religious reproduced more successfully than our ancestors who weren’t. This is the only explanation that works and is satisfying.

      But now we are faced with a shocking conclusion: there is no such thing as any religion. There is no such thing as Christianity, Judaism...

    • NINE The Janus-Faced Hominid
      (pp. 97-112)

      Our journey is in tatters. It has been checked by science and rationality. We don’t need religion for morality. We don’t need gods to explain why unexpected good or bad things happen. And religious feelings are perfectly natural, like our ability to speak a language or our love of sweets. Finally, we see that religions are illusions, illusions that cut to our very core as human beings, but illusions nonetheless.

      So, if we insist on being religious, we would have to be nontraditionally religious. For starters, morality requires that we be openly accepting of gays and lesbians and so on;...

  10. PART FOUR The Heretic’s Way:: Into the Mysterious Realm
    • [PART FOUR Introduction]
      (pp. 113-114)

      On september 30, 2011, the United States closed its mightiest atom smasher, the Tevatron collider at Fermi National Laboratory in Batavia, Illinois. The Tevatron was, in fact, theworld’shighest energy collider… until it was surpassed by the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, Switzerland, which came online March 30, 2010. During its time, the Tevatron was one of the most important and complicated machines humans had ever built. More importantly, the Tevatron did some of the deepest physics ever. Its chief accomplishment was the discovery of thetop quark, a fundamental particle crucial to proving correct theStandard Model(the...

    • TEN Some Strangeness in the Proportion
      (pp. 115-146)

      We are janus-faced. This is quite a strange fact about us. We owe our successful evolution in part to our religious proclivities, yet these same religious proclivities may kill us. So, for many of us, our two sides are at war (see chapter 9)—not only over the evidence for our religions, but over the moral problems religions create. One wonders if our evolution was worth the trouble. But this question is moot, now. We are here and we are going to be around at least long enough to utterly alter Earth and ourselves.

      However, our being Janus-faced doesn’t mean...

    • ELEVEN The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand
      (pp. 147-154)

      Religions are completely natural illusions. All their alleged depth and mystery are chimerical. We can finally set them aside as sources of mysteries not worth taking seriously. We are now free to embrace the real mysteries, the ones worth taking seriously, the ones science reveals, the ones that haveexcellent beauty.

      However, the reader might agree that the mysteries discussed in chapter 10 are indeed strange, yet disagree that they are beautiful. So, in this chapter, I make the case that chapter 10’s mysteries and all the others like them indeed possess excellent beauty: they are beautiful, profound, and unnerving,...

    • TWELVE The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God
      (pp. 155-166)

      So what?there are things that are genuinely and objectively mysterious and that are beautiful….So what?Of what possible use could such mysteries be toHomo religiosus?The mysteries of chapter 10 are notbeings. The mysteries cannot proscribe certain behaviors; they cannot be the author of and enforce morality; they cannot comfort the suffering, provide succor for the afflicted, protect the innocent; they cannot be worshiped, they cannot inspire worship; they cannot create ex nihilo; they cannot love or be loved. Perhaps chapter 10 was interesting; perhaps even enlightening, but what deep meaning could the realm of the...

    • THIRTEEN Summa Mysteriologica
      (pp. 167-170)

      In his last decade, the Catholic priest St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225–1274) labored steadily on hisSumma Theologica(Summary of Theology). He never finished it. Yet it is his most famous and important work, and it summarizes a sizable portion of Christian theology at the time. A significant part of its fame rests on its five arguments for the existence of the central Christian deity we’ll just call God.¹ It has always puzzled me that one would have to argue for the existence of God (or any other deity, for that matter). A being of the magnifi cence of...

  11. Notes
    (pp. 171-182)
  12. Bibliography
    (pp. 183-188)
  13. Index
    (pp. 189-191)