A sacred balance

Book cover - The Shaman's QuestNevill Drury: The Shaman’s Quest

The Shaman’s Quest, first published in 2001, is a quartet of stories converging in a shorter final scene. Each of the first four imaginatively reconstructs the initiation and training of a shaman in a different culture (Inuit, Central Australian Aboriginal, Japanese and South American) and the finale brings the initiates together in a mystic meeting place beneath the world where “the Song of the Great Spirit spoke of … how the sacred earth had been spoiled and tarnished by the wrongdoings of the people … [but now] the world would be reborn, and new life would flow through its veins … and the poisons which now choked the land and oceans would be cleansed and washed away.”

The language and imagery are beautiful but, reduced to its barest bones, Nevill Drury’s message here is that we have messed up the world but we don’t actually need to do anything because the Great Spirit will fix it up for us. I couldn’t help thinking of a caustic movie review I read a little while ago: “Its heart is in the right place, but where is its brain?”

Rachael Kohn, of ABC Radio’s The Spirit of Things, is quoted on the cover as saying that The Shaman’s Quest is a perfect spiritual companion to Suzuki’s The Sacred Balance. There is indeed a connection but Suzuki is factual and practical as well as ethical.

Drury has apparently written forty books on shamanism and visionary consciousness, some of which are thoughtful studies of New Age religion, but this one is pure wishful thinking. The irritating thing is that it doesn’t need to be: for goodness’ sake, how hard would it have been for him to have his Song of the Great Spirit tell the four shamans to return to their people and inspire them to start repairing the damage? This aspect of The Shaman’s Quest exemplifies the worst failing of New-Ageism, its retreat from reality.

Religion as such is not the problem, however. A few minutes online will find literally millions of sites about religious approaches to caring for the world – Christian, Buddhist), Islamic (crosscurrents.org/islamecology and others), Baha’i (search), Taoism (search), Hinduism (search) and many more.

That’s not to say that all religious people are conscious of their responsibility for the environment (wish they were!), but that environmentalism is in complete accordance with the central teachings of all the major religions.

The Magic of Reality

Book cover imageRichard Dawkins: The Magic of Reality – how we know what’s really true
Illustrated by Dave McKean
Bantam, 2011.

Richard Dawkins made himelf famous decades ago with The Selfish Gene (1976) and famous all over over again with The God Delusion (2006), a merciless attack on religion in general and Christianity in particular. Between those two he wrote a string of popular science books, mostly about evolution but including Unweaving the Rainbow (1998) which was a reply to those who said his hard-line scientific approach took all the pleasure and poetry out of life. He argued in that book that there was as much pleasure and as much magic in science as in art or mythology, with the significant bonus that science was really true.

The Magic of Reality is a combination of The God Delusion and Unweaving the Rainbow, but for younger readers. The first and last chapters are ‘What is reality? What is magic?’ and ‘What is a miracle?’ Reality, he says, is what we can perceive with our five senses, aided if necessary by extensions such as telescopes and microscopes. Magic, he says, is slipperier but can be divided into ‘stage magic’, which tricks people into believing things which didn’t actually occur, ‘poetic magic’, the feel-good magic of a starry night or great painting, and ‘supernatural magic’, the magic of fairy stories and J K Rowling, which he rejects outright, saying, “we all know this kind of magic is just fiction and doesn’t happen in reality.”

The outer chapters bracket Dawkins’ examination of the standard Big Questions – the origins of animal life (including ourselves) and the universe – and the causes of such natural phenomena as rainbows and earthquakes. Each of them begins with myths ‘explaining’ the answers, which the author counters with the scientific answer. The myths come from people all around the world – Maori, Japanese, African, American Indians, Jews … yes, Judaism and Christianity are in there on an equal footing. The science, in reply, is genuine but lucid and nontechnical.

His next-to-last chapter, structured the same way, is ‘Why do bad things happen?’ and he discusses demons, angels and original sin before explaining chance and evolutionary necessity: ‘bad things’ happen because ‘things’ happen, and life is a constant struggle for survival which some of us, inevitably, lose. That leads naturally into his discussion of miracles. He argues, of course, that the universe doesn’t care about fairness or mercy and that miracles don’t exist, saying that anything that looks like a miracle is a natural event which we can’t yet explain but should work on understanding, or something that didn’t really happen in the way people thought, i.e. the observers were mistaken, or reports were exaggerated.

Summarised as quickly as this, The Magic of Reality is transparently an attack on religion and celebration of science – on this side, science; on that side, superstition; which side are you on? That is, indeed, what the book does but the young reader is unlikely to be fully conscious of it because my summary doesn’t accurately reflect the space given to the issues in the book. In reality, those first and last chapters add up to barely 40 pages with 220 between them.

In its favour, the writing is lively and direct, the information is accurate and brilliantly presented and the illustrations are colourfully inventive. But The Magic of Reality left me slightly uneasy.

Why? Because of a gap which Dawkins doesn’t acknowledge and (for all I know) may not even be aware of: art, mystery, magic and religion do have functions which do not conflict with the functions or discoveries of science and yet cannot be addressed by science. If we teach our children to throw them out, we impoverish our civilisation. Morality and ethics? Science says nothing, but hints that Darwinian survivalism is the only rational rule. Art? Science says nothing but seems to suspect that it is a delusion or a mating ritual. And so on.

Science is so strictly focused on objective observational evidence that it is deliberately blind to anything that happens behind the eyes and between the ears of every one of us. Love and hate, generosity and compassion, ambition and lust, joy and despair – science doesn’t want to know about them. But they are intrinsic to our make-up and if we don’t somehow learn about them we have no way of understanding them.

I find myself applauding the book for its many good points but hoping that readers balance their diet. The Magic of Reality is food for the growing brain, but we do need food for the heart and (dare I say it) the spirit as well.