"The source of life—what is it? No one knows. We don't
even know what an atom is, whether it is a wave or a particle—it is
both. We don't have any idea of what these things are. That's the
reason we speak of the divine. There's a transcendent energy source.
When the physicist observes subatomic particles, he's seeing a trace on
the screen. These traces come and go, come and go, and we come and go,
and all of life comes and goes. That energy is the informing energy of
all things. Mythic worship is addressed to that." ~ Joseph Campbell
Like a fascinating post-dinner conversation with your fabulously erudite uncle, The Power of Myth is a great survey of the spiritual stories humans have held to be self-evident throughout time.
2. DISCOVERING GOD
Author Rodney Stark set himself an ambitious agenda in Discovering God: The Origins of the Great Religions and the Evolution of Belief.
From primal belief during the Stone Age, through the so-called "Axial
Age" of the Buddha, Confucius, Plato, and Zoroaster, to modern
Christian missionaries and the rise of Islam, Discovering God
surveys every major form faith has taken in the last 2.5 million years.
Even more remarkably, Stark does so in under 400 pages, including maps
of various religions' births and images illustrating how belief was
reified by culture. Ultimately, the book even pushes beyond an
anthropological, historical, and sociological study into whether there
is, in fact, a there there.
"Thus we reach the fundamental question: Does God exist?
That is, have we discovered God? Or have we invented him? Are there so
many similarities among the great religions because God is really the
product of universal wish fulfillment? Did humans everywhere create
supernatural beings out of their need for comfort in the face of
existential tragedy and to find purpose and significance in life? Or
have people in many places, to a greater and lesser degree, actually
gained glimpses of God?"
Leaving no stone unturned in its quest to draw a map of mankind's belief, Discovering God will satisfy those looking for deep background on pre- and post-modern ideology, and everything in between.
3. THE BELIEF INSTINCT
Evolutionary psychologist Jesse Bering takes a very different tack with The Belief Instinct: The Psychology of Souls, Destiny, and the Meaning of Life, posing the salient question:
"If humans are really natural rather than supernatural
beings, what accounts for our beliefs about souls, immortality, a moral
'eye in the sky' that judges us, and so forth?"
Referencing the latest in cultural studies, neuroscience, and
psychology, this engaging exploration of faith touches on the
concept of an afterlife, whether animals too have existential needs,
and how the movie Being John Malkovich plays on a philosophical puzzle most succinctly formulated by Descartes. Read the full Brain Pickings review from earlier this year here.