Entry from December 11, 2013

According to The Independent of London, a study by Professor Piercarlo Valdesolo of Claremont McKenna College in the journal Psychological Science has shown that religious belief begins with awe inspired not by the supernatural but by the natural world. “It’s not that the presence of the supernatural elicits awe, it’s that awe elicits the perception of the presence of the supernatural.” I don’t know that this supposedly scientific view is any more flattering to religious belief than the opposite one, but I thought of it on reading a tribute in The Daily Telegraph by Gerry De Groot to the English county of Northumberland which is trying to cut down on light pollution in order to give its inhabitants — and others in search of increasingly hard-to-find darkness — a more awe-inspiring view of the night sky.

While the Northumberland initiative started out as another effort in green-hearted do-goodery, it quickly became something sublime. When the lights went out, locals made an extraordinary discovery. They found that, far from expanding our world, light actually shrinks it. The “clean, well-lighted place” is finite, its parameters defined by the strength of luminescence. Darkness, on the other hand, is infinite. Overcome its sinister connotations and we find our world grows larger. Instead of being one pathetic soul with a flashlight, we become a citizen of a vast universe.

Has anyone done a study of the growth of atheism correlated with that of light pollution? My guess is that the two things are likely closely to correspond, though of course causation does not necessarily follow in the one direction any more than in the other. Which is to say that common sense may doubt atheism causes light pollution and suspect that light pollution causes atheism, but there is no way of knowing for sure if either conjecture is true. Still, we should be aware of possible influences upon our proclivity both to believe and not to believe.


On irony. “You’ve got to hand it to Jesus,” is either a very good or a very bad introduction to a newspaper column. Which it is depends on the context. Or you could just look at the by-line and see that the piece is by Howard Jacobson. Here’s how he goes on:

He didn’t settle for the easy part of being a rabbi, turning up to charity fund raisers or telling folksy parables about the wise man of Minsk to bored barmitzvah boys. He went out, in Matthew’s words, “to cities”, or wandered by the sea shore where “great multitudes were gathered unto him”. I have started to do the same. “Lecturing,” I call it. Addressing people in the streets on matters of practical morality, dress sense, litter — that sort of thing.

I take it that the ironic, self-deprecating tone is both Jewish and English, though it is also difficult for all but the best writers to carry off. That may be why so many people profess to dislike irony: sheer envy. I particularly liked the bit of Mr Jacobson’s effusion where, after mentioning a lecture he gave someone on wearing headphones while walking in the street he adds en passant,

Now I have been careful about inveighing against the wearing of headphones in public places ever since a person apparently wired up to the usual musical inanities walked blindly into me, stopped in amazement and, before I could dress him down, told me that by wonderful coincidence he was listening to my latest novel on audio book. I let him off with a caution.

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