Ben Chacko reads a remarkable journey to the heart of what we believe – and why
Towards a Science of Belief Systems by Edmund Griffiths (Palgrave Macmillan, £60)
THIS ambitious book from first-time author Edmund Griffiths seeks to open up a whole new academic discipline — through which the inner logic of the myriad beliefs human beings hold can be reconstructed and studied in a scientific manner.
Griffiths anticipates that his project will meet numerous objections. These may come from people convinced that those outside their own belief system are incapable of understanding it, perhaps because understanding is thought to rely on some form of revelation.
Alternatively there are certain schools which might claim to have the key to understanding why people believe what they believe already, whether through psychoanalysis, the Marxist theory of ideology or, in the tentative “meme” theory toyed with by biologist Richard Dawkins, through natural selection.
But the author makes a convincing case that, without dismissing any of these — indeed, in chapter 5 (Belief systems and historical materialism), he postulates that his “descriptive logic” methodology for understanding beliefs fits into the broader framework of the Marxist approach — none has provided an all-round science of belief.
Griffiths’s work might appear to have a heavy subject matter, but this is far from a dry academic text. His reconstructions of the rational and emotional content of belief systems as widely divergent as Charles Wesley’s Methodism, tales of alien abduction and the “conspiracy theories” surrounding the September 11 2001 terror attacks make fascinating reading.
Star readers might be particularly struck by his consideration of the explosion of such “esoteric” or hidden-truth beliefs in post-Soviet Russia among the millions who felt betrayed by the collapse of the socialist system and sought alternative, and often bizarre, explanations of events that seemed to them inexplicable.
The work is suffused with a light and humorous touch.
Beliefs are never mocked, but pretensions may be gently ribbed — as when he quotes the old Catholic Encyclopaedic Dictionary’s definition of freedom of worship (“the inalienable right of every man to worship God according to the teaching of the Catholic church”) or notes, following a review of Juche definitions from North Korea, that that belief system’s “relevant material is extensive, but not notably unrepetitive.”
Living in a society whose rulers explode with anger at any suggestion their ideology may be defective — witness the hysterical Establishment response to Russell Brand — a serious attempt to respect and understand beliefs that may be radically different from our own is certainly welcome, and may be of use in challenging the often lazy assumptions of Western liberalism and the “there is no alternative” propaganda of the market-worshipping ruling class.
The fact that Towards a Science of Belief Systems is a joy to read is an added bonus.
Sadly a cover price of £60 will deprive most of us of the opportunity to read it.