Brain Pickings

7 Fundamental Meditations on Faith

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What the magician Penn Gillette has to do with a ring of earth 700 miles north of the equator.

Belief lies behind the best and worst of human history. Faith in something larger than the self — or lack thereof — has shaped our societies for millennia, so we thought it about time to take a survey of the topic. (Perhaps you agree, since the BBC4 documentary The End of God?: A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion is one of Brain Pickings‘ most popular posts of all time.) Given the rich and faceted nature of the subject, it’s practically impossible to produce a list that is exhaustive, conclusive and universal, but we’ve narrowed it down to six absorbing and provocative books, plus one documentary, about the human quest for existential meaning.

THE POWER OF MYTH

The Power of Myth is considered a classic of the faith canon, and for good reason. In a 1988 six-part PBS series of the same name, host Bill Moyers and folklore and mythology expert Joseph Campbell place belief within the perspective of human history. The Q&A format makes for a fun read, and allows Campbell to weave a comprehensive picture of faith across cultures and from prehistory to the present moment.

From ritual sacrifice to the symbolism of Star Wars, the transcript of Moyers and Campbell’s sessions articulates fundamentals of our value systems so widely accepted as to be taken for granted.

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.

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.

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 highly 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 our full review from earlier this year here.

THE TENTH PARALLEL

The Tenth Parallel: Dispatches from the Fault Line Between Christianity and Islam takes you on a riveting tour across the real-life middle earth, with gorgeous language as a guide. Its author, award-winning investigative journalist and poet Eliza Griswold, spent the last seven years traveling along the eponymous tenth parallel — the latitude line 700 miles north of the equator — where more than 60 percent of the world’s 2 billion Christians and half the world’s 1.3 billion Muslims reside. The Tenth Parallel unfolds across the enormous canvases of Africa and Asia, in deserts and megacities, and shows how completely theology, culture and politics intersect. Griswold places faith into geographical context, or perhaps the other way around — her discovery being how much land influences what we think about how to live.

We pulled into the pastor’s village after true dark — the absolute profundity that occurs only when no city lights bruise the sky plum. He was waiting on the riverbank outside his small house, its windows edged in lace doilies. Heavy-headed marigolds bobed in the gelid breeze the river made. The churning water seemed phosphorescent; the pastor’s white eyebrows and hair seemed to glow against the darkness.”

If you want to understand the present and future of global geopolitics but prefer to read breathtaking prose over AP-style wire reports, The Tenth Parallel won’t disappoint.

GOD IS NOT GREAT

Tailored to those who prefer pugilism to poetry, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by famously devout atheist Christopher Hitchens excoriates every organized religion while also putting a range of historical figures, from Thomas Aquinas to Zen Buddhists, in their place. As an alternative, God Is Not Great proposes a “new enlightenment” with knowledge, reason and science at the center of human pursuits.

Not all can be agreed on matters of aesthetics, but we secular humanists and atheists and agnostics do not wish to deprive humanity of its wonders or consolations. Not in the least. If you will devote a little time to studying the staggering photographs taken by the Hubble telescope, you will be scrutinizing things that are far more awesome and mysterious and beautiful — and more chaotic and overwhelming and forbidding — than any creation or ‘end of days’ story.”

Written in the wake of the 9/11 attacks and with Hitchens’s signature passion and rigor, God Is Not Great makes a clear case for what’s wrong with keeping the faith, historically and today.

THE BUDDHA

We were thrilled to find that the 2010 documentary The Buddha: The Story of Siddhartha can now be viewed in its entirety for free online. Narrated by celebrity Buddhist Richard Gere, The Buddha is a biography of Siddharta Gautama, the Indian sage whom the stories say gained Enlightenment more than 500 years before Christ’s birth.

The chronological tale of his life takes us on a visually stunning journey matching Gautama’s travels, from his birthplace in present-day Nepal across the Gangetic Plain and back. Featuring interviews with The Dalai Lama, poet W.S. Merwin, and Uma Thurman’s father and Columbia professor Robert Tenzin Thurman, The Buddha both entertains and enlightens.

Illustrated by beautiful animations,The Buddha is a meditative and thought-provoking tour through one remarkable man’s life.

THIS I BELIEVE

Eighty essays comprise the book This I Believe: The Personal Philosophies of Remarkable Men and Women, based on an NPR series of the same name. The anthology spans nearly 60 years and contains incredibly intimate observations from famous figures including Albert Einstein ( ), Temple Grandin (), Martha Graham, and Helen Keller. We get the personal reflections of Kay Redfield Jameson: “intense experience and suffering instruct us in ways less intense emotions can never do;” and the searching doubt of Eleanor Roosevelt: “I don’t know whether I believe in a future life. I believe that all that you go through here must have some value; therefore, there must be some reason.”

A rare opportunity to glimpse the innermost thoughts of prominent people, This I Believe constantly reminds the reader of the vast range of belief which inspires our every action.

We must learn to know ourselves better through art. We must rely more on the unconscious, inspirational side of man. We must not enslave ourselves to dogma. We must believe in the attainability of food. We must believe, without fear, in people.” ~ Leonard Bernstein

And if you enjoy the many ideas on display in This I Believe, there’s also a second volume of 75 more essays.

As society grows increasingly interdependent, understanding each other’s existential positions has never been more important. Whatever your own spiritual orientation, we hope the selections here provide insight into the plurality of faith and provoke deeper thought into your own beliefs.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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The Dawn of Computer Music: A PBS Segment from 1986

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A brief history of MIDI, or what the dawn of digital sampling has to do with air pressure.

The question of whether technology dehumanizes people, as MoMA’s Paola Antonelli convincingly argues, humanizes objects isn’t new. In fact, it’s at the heart of this vintage PBS segment (I II III) on computer music recorded in 1986, at the dawn of CDs, synthesizers and other “new” music-making machines, voicing the inevitable question that every technological innovation brings:

Is high technology depersonalizing music or, instead, is music serving to humanize the machine?”

From how computers must recreate the complex waveforms of physical instruments to what role the composer’s choice plays in technology-assisted music to the intricacies of the then-emergent art of digital sampling, the segment, featuring legendary music historian Max Matthews, encompasses some early concerns about man and machine as collaborative creators, many of which have endured through waves of technological innovation to remain at the forefront of our philosophical and practical concerns today.

It’s been predicted that the personal computer will soon replace the piano as the primary instrument on which children learn music.”

(Alas, in classic digi-douchery fashion, the uploader has disabled embedding — catch the three parts here: I II III.)

Sound is a series of vibrations transmitted by air pressure. A computer hooked up to an amplifier and speaker can create sound merely by switching on and off, causing a vibration in the form of an electrical current. If these on-off vibrations are frequent enough, they sound like musical notes.”

Published the following year and of equal fascination is Foundations of Computer Music — an excellent primer on the profound shifts in music consumption and production that took place in that era, mixed in with a healthy dose of paleofuture amusement.

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Ordering the Heavens: A Visual History of Mapping the Universe

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From Copernicus to Ancient Korea, or what the Chinese concept of change has to do with Aztec astrology.

The love of maps is a running theme here at Brain Pickings, from these 7 must-read books on creative cartography to, most recently, BBC’s fantastic documentary on important medieval maps. Humanity’s long history of visual sensemaking is as much a source of timeless inspiration as a living record of how our collective understanding of the universe and our place in it evolved. It seems like the farther from the known mapmakers’ imaginations traveled, the more fascinating their maps became. And hardly does the unknown glimmer with more alluring sparkle than the cosmos. Explaining and Ordering the Heavens is a fantastic online exhibition from The Library of Congress, examining over 8 centuries of humanity’s evolving views of the universe, from ancient Buddhist cosmological maps to Galileo’s seminal work in astronomy to Persian celestial globes and more. Gathered here is a curated selection of images from the exhibition, alongside the original caption text accompanying them.

The Emperor's Astronomy

Petrus Apianus. Astronomicum Caesareum. (The Emperor's Astronomy). Ingolstadt, Germany: 1540.

The 'Emperor's Astronomy'(dedicated to the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) elegantly depicts the cosmos and heavens according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth. By means of hand-colored maps and moveable paper parts (volvelles), Petrus Apianus (1495-1552) laid out the mechanics of a universe that was earth- and human-centered. Within three years of Apianus's book, this view was challenged by Copernicus's assertion that the earth revolved around the sun, making this elaborate publication outdated.

Popular Sixteenth-Century Scientific Work

Petrus Apianus and Gemma Frisius. Cosmographia, Petri Apiani. additis euisdem argumenti libellis ipsius Gemmaa Frisii. (Cosmographia of Petrus Apianus,carefully corrected and with all errors set to right by Gemma Frisius.) Antwerp: Arnoldi Birckmanni, 1564.

Cosmographia (1524) by German mathematician Petrus Apianus (1492-1552) provides a layman's introduction to subjects such as astronomy, geography, cartography, surveying, navigation, and mathematical instruments. In this popular edition with changes by another noted mathematician, Gemma Frisius (1508-1555), movable paper instruments (volvelles) enabled readers to solve calendar problems and find the positions of the sun, moon, and the planets. Apianus depicted the cosmos according to the 1400-year-old Ptolemaic system, which maintained that the sun revolved around the earth, a theory challenged by Nicolas Copernicus (1473-1543) in Apianus's lifetime.

A Heliocentric Cosmos

Nicolaus Copernicus. De Revolutionibus Orbium Coelestium, Libri VI. Nuremberg: Ioh. Petreius, 1543.

This volume is the first edition of the work that set forth evidence that the earth and other planets revolve around the sun. Written by Polish astronomer, Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543), and published just before his death, the work was met by tremendous opposition because it contradicted religious beliefs of the time. The Copernican views provided the basis for the later work of Johannes Kepler (1571-1630), Galileo (1564-1642), and Isaac Newton (1642-1727).

Ancient Chinese Concept of Change

The Astronomical Phenomena. (Tien Yuan Fa Wei). Compiled by Bao Yunlong in the 13th century. Ming Dynasty edition, 1457-1463.

The book is an explanation of the 'Ba Gua' used in the Yi-ching (I Ching or Classic of Changes, also known as the Book of Divination). According to this Chinese world view, the universe is run by a single principle, the Tao, or Great Ultimate. This principle is divided into two opposite principles--yin and yang. All phenomena can be understood using yin-yang and five associated agents, which affect the movements of the stars, the workings of the body, the nature of foods, the qualities of music, the ethical qualities of humans, the progress of time, the operations of government, and even the nature of historical change.

Earth-Centered Universe View

William Cuningham. 'Coelifer Atlas' from The Cosmographical Glasse. London: John Day, 1559.

This illustration from William Cuningham's The Cosmographical Glasse (1559) represents Ptolemy's conception of the universe. Atlas, dressed like an ancient king, bears on his shoulders an armillary sphere representing the universe. In the center of the sphere is earth, made up of the elements of earth and water. Surrounding the earth are two more elemental spheres, for air and for fire. Other bands represent the spheres of the planets, the firmament of fixed stars, the crystalline sphere, the primum mobile, and the signs of the zodiac. Below Atlas are lines on cosmological themes from Virgil's Aeneid.

Descartes's Mechanical Philosophy

René Descartes. Principia philosophiae. Amsterdam: Apud L. Elzevirium, 1644.

According to French philosopher René Descartes (1596-1650), the universe operated as a continuously running machine which God had set in motion. Since he rejected Newton's theory of gravity and idea of a vacuum in space, Descartes argued that instead the universe was composed of a 'subtle matter' he named 'plenum,' which swirled in vortices like whirlpools and actually moved the planets by contact. Here, these vortices carry the planets around the Sun.

First Atlas of the Moon

Johannes Hevelius. Selenographia sive lunae descriptio, atque accurata tum macularum eius, quam motuum diversorum. Danzig: Hunefeldianis, 1647.

Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.

Picturing the Universe

Konrad von Megenberg, Buch der Natur (Book of Nature). Augsberg: Johannes Bämler, 1481.

Before the revolutionary, sun-centered ideas of Copernicus, the traditional geocentric or earth-centered universe was usually depicted by concentric circles. In this popular German work on natural history, medicine, and science, Konrad von Megenberg (1309-1374) depicted the universe in a most unusual but effective manner. The seven known planets are contained within straight horizontal bands which separate the Earth below from Heaven, populated by the saints, above.

Buddhist Cosmological Map

Sekai dais no zu (Buddhist Cosmological Map). Japan: 1830

This map represents the Buddhist mythological and real worlds. The upper half of the map depicts the seven great forests interwoven with seven rivers, the Sun God Palace, and the 'Great Jambu Tree.' The tree is described as 10,000 miles high and bearing the most delicious fruits. Only those who cultivated the divine power can visit the tree. The central section is the Sun God Palace in heaven.

Traditional Korean Maps

Chonhado (World Map) from Chonha Chido (Map of the World).Hand-copied manuscript map. Korea: mid-eighteenth century.

From the oldest known examples (perhaps from the sixteenth century) to almost the end of the tradition in the nineteenth century, the content and structure of traditional Korean maps such as these examples changed very little. The map of the world (or Chonhado) presents Korea, China, and their East Asian neighbors surrounded by rings of exotic, mythical lands and peoples and reflects the traditional Korean view that the world was flat. Being a peninsula, Korea stood out on the map and was close to China, the classical center of Asian civilization.

Tibetan Astrological Thangka

Srid pa ho (Divination Chart). Tibet, late twentieth century. Paint on cloth.

Tibetan astrology depicts the signs and symbols of the universe in this traditional format, possibly introduced from China as early as the seventh century and popular in Tibet since the seventeenth century. The central figure is a large golden tortoise, representing the Bodhisattva of Knowledge, upon whom are drawn various geomantic diagrams, such as the nine magic squares and symbols of the eight planets. This type of Thangka is often hung in homes for protection and displayed for special occasions.

Constellations from Classical Antiquity

Reiner Ottens. Atlas maior cvm generales omnivm totius orbis regnorvm. Amsterdam: 1729. Hand-colored engraving.

The star charts of Reiner Ottens (1698-1750) were intended first and foremost as a feast for the eye and had no pretensions to scientific precision or the presentation of the most recent cartographic information. The constellations on this chart are elaborately represented by figures from classical antiquity. In the corners of the chart are illustrations of four European observatories, including that of the noted sixteenth-century astronomer Tycho Brahe (1546-1601). This atlas is a seven-volume compendium of assembled-to-order star charts and geographical maps.

Aztec Calendar Stone

Antonio de León y Gama. Descripción histórica y cronológica de las dos piedras. Mexico City: F. Zuniga y Ontiveros, 1792.

In 1790 workers repaving near the Cathedral in Mexico City discovered a stone eleven and one-half feet in diameter inscribed with the Aztec calendar. When in use, the stone would have had bright polychrome colors and would have held sacrificed human hearts that the Aztecs believed were needed to feed the sun and keep civilization alive. This first study (pictured to the left) of the stone explained its 260-day divinatory cycle. The stone's colossal size, elaborate patterning, and symbolic imagery have made it an unofficial emblem of Mexico.

Omens in the Sun

Burmese astronomical-astrological manuscript, mid-nineteenth century. Accordion-style paper manuscript.

This manuscript of the mid-nineteenth century, possibly of Sgau Karen origin (the Karen are a minority people in the mountainous parts of Burma), shows various appearances in the sun, the moon, clouds, etc., and indicates the primarily bad omens these appearances foretell. Explanations in English were added to this manuscript by a nineteenth-century American missionary.

Astronomy Cards

Jehoshaphat Aspin. A Familiar Treatise on Astronomy. London, 1825.

An unidentified lady, referred to by her nom-de-plume, Jehoshaphat Aspin, designed these whimsical astronomy cards. Most of the names of the zodiacal constellations date from the early Babylonian period, possibly from the Sumerians. The zodiac itself is a mathematical concept, which does not appear to be in use prior to 400 B.C. It provides a frame of reference in which the positions of the sun, moon, and planets could be expressed by their angular distance from the beginning of the sign in which they were located.

See more gems in the Library of Congress online exhibition. You can read more about how the exhibition was envisioned, curated and brought to life here.

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