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Absence of Mind

Marilynne Robinson is one of the most admired novelists of our time, even though she’s only brought out three works of fiction: “Housekeeping,” “Gilead” and “Home.” The first won the Hemingway/PEN Award and has become a modern classic, the second received the Pulitzer Prize and the third was honored with the Orange Prize. All these novels focus, to a large extent, on depicting the intensely inward, spiritual life — the interiority — of their protagonists.

Robinson herself is a student of John Calvin and the American transcendentalists, a woman of deep Christian commitment. In the best sense, she’s a religious writer, always returning to the most fundamental human concerns: What does it mean to be alive? What must we do to stay true to our deepest selves? How are we to live and die? These same themes reappear in the essays collected in 1998 as “The Death of Adam” and, in a more tangential way, in the pages of “Absence of Mind.”

“Absence of Mind” derives from the Dwight Harrington Terry lectures on “religion, in the light of science and philosophy.” As Robinson tells us in her introduction, her book aims to “examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion.” In particular, she wants to question the kind of authority claimed by certain modern scientists and to raise questions about the quality of their thinking. In her first chapter she focuses on what one might loosely call the sociobiologists, thinkers like E.O. Wilson, Steven Pinker, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, who assert that our lives are ordered by overt or unconscious self-interest, that our minds are unreliable and constantly trick us, and that traditional religious belief is a primordial hold-over, certainly childish, sometimes deluded and generally embarrassing.

Robinson argues strenuously that such thinkers grossly simplify religious thought and testimony — and they ooze condescension. “The characterization of religion by those who dismiss it tends to reduce it to a matter of bones and feathers and wishful thinking, a matter of rituals and social bonding and false etiologies and the fear of death, and this makes its persistence very annoying to them.” She notes that these same crusading debunkers consistently portray those who dare to disagree with them as intellectually dishonest, as naifs who refuse to face facts.

Please read the rest of this review by Michael Dirda, award winning book critic at the Washington Post, by clicking here –…

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