Interview examines the shortsightedness of the culture war between science and religion.
Join Skeptiko host Alex Tsakiris for an interview composer and lecture series co-director Peter Bannister. During the interview Bannister considers whether Christianity has lost it’s mystery:
Alex Tsakiris: Modern Christianity is wed to materialism in some fundamental ways that make it hard to pull it out of there. So this is the problem I have with the dialogue with some of my Christian friends. It gets down to doctrine. I keep pushing saying, “This doesn’t make sense. You can’t really have this doctrine. You can’t really have this belief set as rigidly as that,” but their fallback is, “Well, come on, I am a Christian.”
And I think there’s a direct parallel with the scientists. I think the scientists, whether they say it explicitly or not, is saying, “well, come on, I am a materialist because at the end of the day if I can’t measure it I’m out of business.”
Peter Bannister: I think you’ve made some perceptive points, particularly about the marriage of convenience, or Faustian pact between Christianity and I would say Rationalism. But what’s curious if you do the history is that that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. I think that there is a very close tie to the rise of a certain type of science and a religious rationalism which insists that the doctrine really is about questions of proof and questions of discursive knowledge, propositions, dogma in the worst sense.
There are a lot of historians who say that really is a very shortsighted view of what the broader tradition really is about which is much more mysterious and a little bit more fluid than that. But the people don’t actually know this tradition very well because nobody’s ever really told them. The truth that we’re after is much more relational than propositional.
A lot of people in Christianity and some other wisdom traditions and faiths are saying, “Hang on. One of the big problems in the world today is that we’ve got hooked up with this notion of dogma. It’s dogma in the sense of an effort to control.” I think control is really the key thing because as soon as you have a doctrine which you say corresponds to reality in a sort of one-to-one way that gives you a method of control.
Alex Tsakiris: That’s the bridge we have to cross. Science is a religion. Atheism is a religion. And now we’re all on the same playing field.
Peter Bannister: Because it’s our ultimate concern. I think, a very good definition of religion. It’s what is your ultimate concern? If you go back to the idea of who do we want around this table, obviously the entry fee, as you say, is a certain ability to let go or to say, “Okay, we all bring ourselves to this but we bring ourselves to this in an open way.” My hope—and you might say I’m naïve in this—is that there is a groundswell of people who have this openness and who are genuinely interested in following and examining the data in an open and intelligent way. And I think there is a big need for the construction of a community like that.
Alex Tsakiris: Today we welcome Peter Bannister to Skeptiko. Peter holds graduate degrees in music from King’s College, Cambridge, and philosophical theology from the University of Wales. He’s an award-winning composer and performer and is co-directing a very interesting lecture series at the American Church in Paris promoting an increased and enhanced dialogue in the relationship between science and faith.
Welcome, Peter, thanks so much for joining me on Skeptiko.
Peter Bannister: I’m delighted to be with you, Alex.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, I’m very excited to have you on, as well. You have such a diverse background and I love the way you’ve initiated this dialogue, particularly from your position. So you’ll have to tell us a little bit about the American Church in Paris, which sounds like quite an interesting institution with a rich, rich history. And then also about this lecture series you’ve become a part of.
Peter Bannister: It has indeed had a rich, rich history, the American Church in Paris, which includes famous incidents such as Bob Dylan singing in the basement in the 1960s along with Joan Baez; and the Gestapo coming in looking for the church organist who was kind of running the church in World War II under the Occupation in Paris. Martin Luther King, Jr. preaching from the pulpit on the way to receiving the Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s a unique—or perhaps not unique but it’s certainly an unusual congregation in the sense that it’s extremely international. The title “American Church” is pretty nominal, really. We’ve got people from virtually every continent except Antarctica and a symphony of languages. People from really all over the map in terms also of their faith background, if they have one. You’re never quite sure who you’re going to meet. It’s sometimes a wild ride and I personally find that very stimulating, always challenging.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, yes, and a perfect place to ferment a discussion about the relationship between science and faith, no doubt, right?
Peter Bannister: Exactly and also Paris has a very, very long history of that. I’d say that in France the tradition of looking at religion and really kind of evolutionary terms can be traced right back to the 2nd Century, even, with the Bishop Irenaeus of Lyon. It was Greek-based in France and one of the key thinkers of the early Church. It was very creative in its approach to the whole question of what is the nature of the relationship of the human and the Divine and is seen by many figures in the science/faith dialogue today as actually potentially really a rich kind of resource.
And then I suppose closer to where we are historically, the great French paleontologist and Jesuit, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who I think many of the people listening to this program will be familiar with whether or not they’re Christian. Extraordinarily creative thinker and one who’s sort of in the background to a lot of discussion in France whether people admit it or not.
Alex Tsakiris: So, Peter, tell us a little bit about this series, the lecture series. What you set out to do and to what extent you are able to bridge this gap, or at least try and create this dialogue we’re talking about because I think there are some challenges to it at a deep level and we can paper over the differences sometimes, too. That’s one of the things I really want to push on a little bit.
Are we dialoguing for the sake of dialogue; so we can all feel good that haven’t we had this conversation? Or are we really making progress towards a deeper understanding, a deeper connection between these two discourses in our society that seem to always be at odds?
Peter Bannister: I think that’s a great set of questions that would probably take us the rest of the interview to answer. But if I can just give a little bit of history of how this came about, back in 2009 it was the 150th anniversary of the publication of Darwin’s Origin of the Species and some—how can I put this—some church members came to the Senior Pastor, Scott Herr, and myself about the whole question of evolution, particularly in terms of school curricula.
I think that they were feeling kind of lost in the maze of how to react, particularly as they were Americans who had been through some of the controversies over that such as the Dover Trial. It was only four years ago. And they were very interested in issues of Intelligent Design and really put not really pressure on us but felt that it was urgent that we discussed the issues.
Now, as you say, I think it’s important not to paper over the cracks and the first series of lectures that we set up involving a number of sort of guest speakers, including my father, who’s a research scientist, and philosopher Keith Ward from Oxford who again, some of you may or may not be familiar with.
Alex Tsakiris: Let me interject here. Let’s stop for a minute and talk a little bit about your background. In reading your bio I found that interesting that with this theological background you have, it was peppered by this ongoing dialogue you’ve had with your father who is a well-recognized scientific academic. Maybe you want to talk a little bit about that and then Keith Ward, as you just mentioned, I think is probably known to the people as being one of the primary debaters whenever Richard Dawkins steps up.
Peter Bannister: You got it.
Alex Tsakiris: A lot of times it’s Keith Ward stepping up and going, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s another side to look at this.”
Peter Bannister: Yeah, they’ve got a kind of special relationship. To set the record straight, I’m not a trained scientist myself but like you said, my father is. I suppose that’s a hidden side of me to the extent that my first love is really music. And yet I think that music historically, if you look at it, has been a science as much as it’s been an art. It certainly was until the end of the Renaissance, really.
And so there is an interest there obviously in the link with mathematics. The link with questions of the harmonies and the spheres and all that kind of stuff that the ancients onwards were interested in. And one of my great heroes as a composer was the French Catholic composer, Olivier Messiaen, who was an amazing pedagog. I didn’t study with him but I know an almost unhealthy amount about him through a lot of research.
In his classes, he would handle subjects such as Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, contemporary cosmology, mathematical permutations, and all sorts of stuff. In a way that’s a kind of revitalization of a very old tradition of seeing music in terms of a broad disciplinary discussion which involves on one hand the big questions, the existential questions, which have to do with our personal emotions and feelings. But it also has to do with the structure of the cosmos and so I think that’s really how I managed to get back into the scientific area of thought that I’d sort of run away from as a kid because I wasn’t that good at it.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, to punctuate that point, I was struck by your email you sent me and you referenced Rupert Sheldrake, who I didn’t know is also a musician—not to your caliber–but also is at least skilled enough to experience the transcendency sometimes of performing. You went further to say that in your experience you don’t think that the musical experience is fully explainable from a materialistic/reductionistic kind of explanation. From an experiential level you’re saying, “Hey, that’s doesn’t fit. There’s something more.”
Peter Bannister: Exactly. It’s interesting that you mention Rupert Sheldrake. It wasn’t until recently that I discovered that during the time he spent in India he was actually the church organist of the cathedral in Hyderabad. This came out in an interview with the British press quite recently and he said that he didn’t feel—and this is something that really resonated strongly—that Bach was really just explicable by electrical activity in the brain.
And I think that that is sort of at the hub of a lot of this argument and you find that thought also in thinkers such as Keith Ward. But in all the things that we as human beings find really meaningful in our lives, our relationships, feelings, senses of value, meaning, you’re talking about something which is just not reducible to neuron activity. And that’s in some respects a countercultural thing to say but if you really pressed me on it I’d say in my experience I really feel that.
Most musicians, I think if you asked them deep down what is really driving their passion for music, I think that many, many would say that in some respects it is a sense of something beyond themselves. When you talk to research scientists, often they have the same sense of awe. This came out very much in our lecture series when, for example, we had a woman who’d been participating in the Human Genome Project and the way that people talk about the mystery of life is very similar to the way that artists will talk about the mystery of inspiration for lack of a better word.
Alex Tsakiris: There’s also the parallel that’s been drawn out by many biographers of the great musicians. Certainly Mozart and Bach, as you mentioned, but they explicitly have said, “I am not the composer. I am literally being downloaded this information.” And they often say it in not in theological or religious terms but in terms of experientially this is what’s happening. I just remember it in the biography of Mozart. His work is recorded without any edits or prior drafts. It just comes out flowing on the page which I don’t know your ear but modern composers say that’s just impossible. It can’t be fathomed.
The parallel I think is interesting to draw is in the transcendent spiritual experience. So if we want to talk about near-death experience for a minute again and again or let me interject and also say sometimes in psychedelic experiences there’s this downloading of information. So I had a near-death experience. I went to God and God explained everything to me. I had questions and they were instantly downloaded into my brain. And I can only bring back a fraction of it but experientially that’s what happened. So again, an interesting parallel, not just with science but with the transcendent spiritual experience.
Peter Bannister: Sure, and I think it poses big questions about the nature of knowledge. What do we mean in terms of reason? And I think that this is where a musician’s perspective is—if course, I’m biased—but I think it is quite helpful sometimes to know that the sort of analytical way of looking at the world is very useful in terms of as a tool for dissecting experience. But it’s not the only way of relating to reality and I’m very struck reading the near-death experience reports to see how often music comes up.
I listened to your podcast with Eben Alexander, for example, which reads for me like the program note to a work of Olivier Messiaen. It’s really quite extraordinary, the idea that he came across in his account of these kinds of arcs of light which were also kind of hymns. That’s extraordinary. But a lot of my musicological work has focused on Messiaen’s theory of synesthesia, a sort of fusion of the senses in which…
Alex Tsakiris: He actually experienced synesthesia, right? I mean, he…
Peter Bannister: Well, that’s actually quite controversial because I’ve heard sometimes Messiaen said that it was really sort of an intellectual phenomenon; that he did in a way copied it from a painter friend of his. But certainly he could describe it in such vivid terms.
I was just today talking with one of the big Messiaen scholars, a brilliant Jesuit historian who’s now working at the Royal University in Chicago, who is writing a fantastic monograph virtually on Messiaen and saying, “Did Messiaen as a young man have a near-death experience because it’s so similar, the reports of near-death experiencers and the way that he talks about the correspondence between sound and color.”
What’s all that about? That just really fascinates me. I think that in terms of a rather more fluid state of consciousness that clearly is integral to the way that a composer such as Messiaen would have experienced the musical phenomenon. Also because he was an improviser. This is the other thing. That’s one of the aspects of music that’s really always fascinated me.
The idea that you can create a spontaneous music which you control to a certain extent but feels ultimately—especially once you start playing fast and once your brain can’t control it in such a rational way—it feels as if something is flowing through you. That you steer but you didn’t initiate. I think that ties in very closely with what you’re saying about Mozart. I think that’s a really fascinating aspect of human experience.
Alex Tsakiris: I think it is, too. I love this idea of broadening the discussion beyond physics and beyond science because this has come up a couple times in some recent dialogues I’ve had but I think it’s completely valid what you’re saying about coming at it from a musicology kind of perspective and saying, “This is a completely valid way of understanding the human experience.” So without apology, without qualification, saying, “No, there’s something here that explains the human experience in a way that nothing else can.” I think that’s wonderful and I think it needs to be put forth.
And it kind of reminds me of this dialogue I’ve had recently–and I haven’t published it so you haven’t had a chance to hear it–it’s with a gentleman who’s been on the show before. A professor of religion but also a novelist and an author from Bryce University in Houston, Jeff Kripal…
Peter Bannister: Yes, I know some of his work actually.
Alex Tsakiris: Fascinating. Here’s a guy who’s looked at science fiction and has also kind of dabbled in it himself but says, “Hey, what about the narrative?” So he’s coming at it from a liberal arts standpoint. What’s interesting is when you were saying that, Peter, I then remembered and I’m sure you’ve heard these same anecdotes of authors who say, “Yes, I start the book and I am in control. And then after a while the characters I create write the book for me. I wake up and they tell me what they say.”
We can deconstruct that only to a point. We can say, “Oh well, that just is your mind,” or whatever, but experientially no. They’re going to tell you it’s something different. And then as you’re pointing out, we have little bits and pieces of evidence that suggest it really is different in a measurable way, these other kinds of experiences.
Peter Bannister: Sure, and I think the discussion about consciousness is very closely linked to these questions. In terms of the compositional experience, what you’re saying is something I can relate to very strongly because of the experience of writing a piece of music. I think that people who write poetry, poetry is a very close analog, I think.
But there is an interaction between you as in a sense the creator of the music because there is a rational component. If you can write a long, multi-movement symphony you do have to have a game plan. So there is an element of structure in which you mobilize all your rationality, but once you get down to the detail if you don’t actually have the ability also to respond to the music as it evolves, then you probably won’t generate something very compelling. It will just be you; there won’t be the sense that the work itself has a kind of inner life to it. I don’t know if I’m making sense with what I’m saying because it’s difficult to convey in words.
But I think it was Aaron Copland—although I could be wrong about this—who said that the notes know each other much better than the composer knows them. That ties in with what you’re saying about the novel. That there is a kind of independent music in a way that you discover as much as you—you don’t so much invent it as you uncover it. So I think this question of whether the brain produces or perceives consciousness is obviously at the heart of the contemporary discussion about neuroscience and…
Alex Tsakiris: Yes, yes, yes, but Peter, here’s the rub. I mean, so you and I are on this little island and we’re having this wonderful discussion. An interesting discussion, much more interesting than most of the scientific discussions we hear going on because we’re willing to go places that science isn’t willing to go. But on this island I’m wondering, does it really connect? I’m saying I don’t think it connects with science because science is mired in this oh, it’s about the brain.
They’re going to back and they’re going to keep looking at the brain and we’re going to keep going hey guys, it’s not over there; it’s over here. But it equally is disconnected with this religion, with Christianity. Is it really connected? Can we really—we’re mixing metaphors here—but is there really a bridge to be made? Can we really paper over those differences? Or are they just too great?
Peter Bannister: Well, I think that ultimately there is, if you committed to the unity of—to kind of use a big phrase here—the unity of truth. I think ultimately there has to be a bridge but it’s going to take a very, very long time for us to get over it. And also I think our language just creates so many obstacles. This is what I’ve seen in interdisciplinary work is that there’s a big disconnect between left-brained and right-brained people.
I mean, that’s a crude sort of separation but it is my experience that particularly in terms of people who think really in logical and analytic categories, people who are the more intuitive, that those two groups have a hard time understanding each other. Sometimes the dialogue is going to be flawed and going to be difficult.
I’d like to go back to another phrase of Olivier Messiaen, who is obviously interested in so many different things. He saw them as “one reality seen from different angles and that’s the way I approach the different disciplines.” Obviously each discipline has its own methodology. It has its own set of concerns. Sometimes these concerns mesh in a really rather difficult way if they mesh at all. I’m really committed to seeking these bridges because I think if you’re really serious about the search for the truth then you shouldn’t be put off by the fact that there is apparent tension between the disciplines.
Obviously the question of materialist science is one where I think a lot of historical work has to be done. So many people are under the impression that science is by its very nature a materialist affair. I think that’s a very limited view.
Alex Tsakiris: It may be limited but we have to look at how accurate it is, particularly when we look at how it is currently practiced, understood, institutionalized, in our society. I would say the same goes with religion in a different way. I think modern Christianity is completely wed to materialism in some fundamental ways that make it hard to pull it out of there. So this is the rub I have with the wonderful dialogue I have with some of my Christian friends.
Just recently I had a guest on, Michael Heiser, Biblical scholar, really nice guy. I enjoyed the conversation. Intelligent guy, bright guy. But I got to the point that I feel like I get to so often with Christians and it gets down to doctrine. I keep pushing saying, “Well, wait a minute. We’re having this great conversation but I feel like we’re always going to get to that point where you’re going to say, ‘Well, I am a Christian.’“
So we’re going to push it so far and then the person’s going to say, “Well, this doesn’t make sense. You can’t really have this doctrine. You can’t really have this belief set as rigidly as it’s practiced,” and then the fallback is “Well, come on, I am a Christian.”
And I think there’s a direct parallel with the scientists. I think the scientists, at the end of the day, whether they say it explicitly or not—and they don’t. They don’t say it explicitly. But what they’re really saying is, “I am a materialist because at the end of the day if I can’t measure it I’m out of business. I don’t really know what I’d do if you tell me I can’t really measure everything. That this reality isn’t the limit of what I can go out and run my experiments on.”
So I think fundamentally we’ve got to be really blunt and honest about the real chance for us to connect without letting go of a heck of a lot and maybe even letting go of this idea of well, I am a Christian. Maybe it’s this kind of post-Christian, progressive Christian kind of understanding that I don’t know that most people can get there.
Peter Bannister: I think you’ve made some very perceptive points there, particularly the one about the sort of marriage of convenience or Faustian pact in a way between Christianity and I would say Rationalism. But what’s curious if you do the history is that that’s a relatively recent phenomenon. And it is tied.
I think that there is a very close tie to the rise of a certain type of science and a religious rationalism which insists that the doctrine really is about questions of proof and questions of discursive knowledge, propositions, dogma in the worst sense.
There are a lot of historians who say that really is a very shortsighted view of what the broader tradition really is about which is much more mysterious and a little bit more fluid than that. But the people don’t actually know this tradition very well because nobody’s ever really told them. So as soon as you start talking about the fact that certainly in the early centuries the Church seems to be much more open to mystical experience, to be much happier not trying to codify everything in terms of doctrine or if it had to to say this is the least inadequate way of speaking about something that ultimately we don’t understand.
The truth that we’re about is much more relational than it is propositional and I think that the rationale for a lot of people in Christianity—not all in Christianity. There are some other wisdom traditions and faiths who are saying, “Hang on. One of the big problems in the world today is that we’ve got hooked up with this notion of dogma. It’s dogma in the sense of an effort to control.” I think control is really the key thing because as soon as you have a doctrine which you say corresponds to reality in a sort of one-to-one way that gives you a method of [Inaudible] 27:21 nature.
Descartes said, “We’ve become the masters and possessors of nature” with this method and that that is common most to a certain kind of science and a certain type of religion. We can see what problems that has created from both those streams, both in terms of the ecological devastation that the idea of the dominance of nature has created through a certain form of applied science in technology.
And also through a kind of religious tribalism that’s come about by saying, “Look, we have the doctrine here. We are the ones that got the truth,” in a sort of really crude way. Which gives us, of course, license to eliminate anybody who we feel is in the opposing camp. Now it’s clear to a lot of people that we’ve really got to get beyond this because if we don’t the consequences are going to be dire.
Alex Tsakiris: I think that’s wonderful. I agree with a lot of that but I have to push a little bit further on a couple points. I love the esoteric Christian mysticism that you refer to. I think it’s deep; it has many little morsels of wisdom that are probably really relevant.
But I do want to push and say is that really represented in mainstream Christianity as we see it? I don’t see it. I’d go one step further and I’d say even the dialogue that you’re promoting here, if we really deconstruct it—I really love where you’re going with it. I’d just like to know how much of that richness that you’re bringing and openness really makes it in because I look at somebody like Keith Ward and I love some of the things that he says. I can get into the cheerleading mode of go beat up Richard Dawkins, but then I can sit back and go, “Oh my God, is this really the guy that we want to put out there?”
I’ll say that by sharing this quote. Here’s a quote from Keith Ward about the Bible, right?
“There may be discrepancies and errors in the sacred writing but those truths that God wished to see included in the scripture and which are important to our salvation are placed there without error.”
This is the problem. If this is the best we have in terms of a thinker, a philosopher, a modern thinker on Christianity, we’re lost. We’re going to be in this debate, this little sideshow circus that Richard Dawkins and Keith Ward can create forever because it’s just goofy. It doesn’t make any real sense. From a scientific standpoint, how would we ever test such a claim? And what would we do with evidence that contradicts it?
Peter Bannister: Well, I think that Keith, knowing him a little, I think is actually a little bit more of a flexible thinker than that one isolated quote would perhaps portray. Incidentally, Keith has got a lot of problems with religious Fundamentalists for some of the things that he’s said so he’s far from being one of the more dogmatic Apologists.
Alex Tsakiris: I know he is but see, here’s the rub for me that I was trying to get to—and then I’m going to leave this point because I don’t want it to dominate the whole thing. But it’s like now we’re getting down to the real brass tacks of Christianity. This is Keith saying, “At the end of the day, I am a Christian so I have to hold onto some doctrine here because I might not be a Christian if I give up Virgin Birth, Resurrection, whatever. Take your pick. Then I no longer have, as Mike Heiser said, then I wonder if I really have a religion anymore.”
And I guess I say, “If we’re really going to get past this and if we’re really going to ask the scientists to give up their materialistic/reductionistic thinking, then don’t we have to give up something on the other end? I think what we have to give up is any firm understanding, like you were saying, that we really understand the nature of this higher consciousness. To pretend that we really understand the mind of God and we really understand that yes, He did put these words in this book and that is the truth. Don’t we have to let go of that?
Peter Bannister: Well, I think that Augustine said something which actually relates very strongly to what you’re saying. He said, “If you understood it, it ain’t God.” I think that’s absolutely right in the sense that as soon as we say that we have the final take on ultimate reality—in a sense that’s already self-defeating. A religious person would say that’s blasphemy in a way. A philosopher would say it’s self-contradictory. If it’s ultimate and you’re finite how can you possibly have the last word on it?
I think that obviously working in a Church setting you have to accommodate a wide variety of people who are going to have very different views, some of whom hold extremely fiercely to their doctrines, others who have no doctrine at all, and then there’s some people who would say, “Hang on. We do have beliefs but it’s a question of how we hold those beliefs. It’s not necessarily having opinions which is wrong but it’s the way those opinions are wielded against others.
So how generous are we prepared to be with our orthodoxy in a way? All of us do have convictions and I think it would be a mistake to just say that the way forward is not to have any convictions at all. But are you prepared to hold those convictions with an open hand and to say, “Hang on. I’ve got to be humble about this.”
Ultimately, it’s not about the dogma. Again, I think this is the message that if you do take the near-death experience seriously, okay, I’m not going to say that it’s necessarily good news for a certain type of religion, a religion that’s very propositional and is going to have a hard time with the wide variety of near-death experiences which seem to be no respective persons. But I think that the overwhelming message that there is an ultimate reality and that reality is unconditional love is something so compelling and a rallying point I think for people who might otherwise have very diverse beliefs.
We shouldn’t be naïve in saying those beliefs can necessarily be harmonized but is that really what it’s about? Isn’t the call to service to others and to genuine search for truth in a way that is never-ending? Isn’t that something which actually we can all hopefully unite around? If we can’t all unite around that then we don’t need to be part of the discussion.
I think we have to bring whatever beliefs we have to the table and hold them lightly. There may be some things that we have to check at the door in order to be able to participate in the dialogue. It’s a mark of the honesty, the intellectual honesty of the participants to say, “Yes, I do come with a belief system but I’m suspicious of any kind of system. I’m open to you to rattle my cage a little bit. I’m not going to say that I have got the truth as something I possess but that it is a goal to which we are all progressing.” And I think that’s a question of the mindset that is actually more important than the content of the dogma in some respects.
Alex Tsakiris: Great. I can certainly see how that can join us in an intelligent and meaningful dialogue with others who have arrived at a certain point. I have to wonder, Peter, does that allow us to dialogue with “science” in that materialism here, reductionism, it’s the chasm that until you get over that, it’s your entry ticket in. We can’t really have that dialogue. So I wonder what kind of meaningful dialogue can we have with someone who insists, as science does, that we have a boundary on reality and that boundary is materialism.
Peter Bannister: This is partly why I’m really committed to inter-disciplinary work because what I see is the dialogue and it’s only really going to progress if you have a team of people from different disciplines. Go to another interview with Rick Strassman about the DMT research which again I found absolutely compelling. And also from a Judeo-Christian point of view, to see he had been forced back to his own Hebrew scriptures in phenomenological way by the way that the results of his research were so counter-intuitive that he couldn’t fit them into his paradigm. And that because he’s an honest and sincere searcher for the truth, he had to say, “Well, we’re not going to ignore the results. We’re going to have to change the paradigm.”
And I think that that is the mark of intellectual honesty. Once he started getting into his—and I love his current research to look back at the Hebrew Scriptures and say, “Hang on. What is it about prophetic writings that seems to be so close to near-death experience reports? Why is that?” And that’s something I think that I’ve been thinking about in terms of work of Olivier Messiaen, who in his works–almost precisely those texts out of the Hebrew Old Testament–would produce this incredible, almost psychedelic music.
But also the work of somebody like Nancy Evans Bush, former president of the International Association of Near-Death Studies, who’s also looking at this area. I think there is potential for doing something really groundbreaking but that it requires people from different disciplines who have actually got the skillsets to take the data and to ask the right questions of those data.
But I think that there is the disinformation problem because most people have very little knowledge of philosophical argumentation. And why should they? It’s not taught in school. Unless you’re trained in philosophy you’re easily manipulated by people who come with a lot of credentials and can get away with saying outrageous things and nobody calls them out on it.
Alex Tsakiris: You know, in terms of misinformation, disinformation, deception, that’s another point that I know I’ve tried to bring into this conversation and I don’t always get a lot of people behind me and with me.
But I think if you’re honest about it there’s a deliberate deception among a certain wing of the scientific community that sees this new wave of consciousness research as a direct attack on science and scientism and they mean to counter that attack with disinformation, with deception. There’s no other way to explain the antics of—you know who we always pick on—Richard Wiseman or Chris French. There’s no other way to explain that action. There’s really no other way to explain the action of Richard Dawkins.
Peter Bannister: To defend Richard Dawkins just a little bit because I feel that just out of charity I ought to, I think that he has been seriously riled by religious Fundamentalists.
Alex Tsakiris: Absolutely. Right.
Peter Bannister: That’s why he feel that there’s a moral crusade. So I think you brought it back to the central issue which is control. This phrase “letting go” is I think absolutely critical to the whole discussion. From a Christian point of view that is also critical because ultimately I think that Christianity—but not only Christianity—you can find this in other wisdom traditions, too.
It says that you cannot find the way to your true Self unless in a sense you’ve died yourself. And that is about control. Where I see the dividing line is not between the religions. I see the dividing line within the religions themselves. I treat science sometimes as a form of religion.
Alex Tsakiris: Yes. That’s the bridge that we have to cross is that science is a religion, Atheism is a religion, and now we’re all on the same playing field.
Peter Bannister: Because it’s our ultimate concern. I’m not a huge fan of Paul Tillich but that’s, I think, a very good definition of religion. It’s what is your ultimate concern? Is that, in fact, your religion? I think it’s a very good definition. I think if you go back to the idea of who do we want around this table, obviously the entry fee, as you say, is a certain ability to let go or to say, “Okay, we all bring ourselves to this but we bring ourselves to this in an open way.”
My hope—and you might say I’m naïve in this—is that there is a groundswell of people who have this openness and who are genuinely interested in following and examining the data in an open and intelligent way. And I think there is a big need for the construction of a community like that.
Alex Tsakiris: Well, Peter, maybe that’s a wonderful way to leave it then. I certainly join with you in this call for an inter-disciplinary approach and the kind that you’re certainly trying to take with your lecture series there at the American Church in Paris. We wish you the best of luck with that. Again, thanks for joining me today on Skeptiko.
Peter Bannister: It’s been wonderful to be part of this conversation, Alex.