A In its last editorial of 2001 The Observer reflects that “this year has been one of sealed minds.” It observes that whilst “Al-Qaeda is the most sinister and deadly – the hardening of cultural, political and religious arteries has been shocking evident everywhere.” Immediately below the editorial is printed an open letter to Secretary of State Estelle Morris from Oxford Professor Richard Dawkins entitled “Children must choose their own beliefs.” Dawkins’ letter urges the Government to “think again” about funding “yet more divisive” religious schools.
For many, no doubt, the two opinions sit comfortably together. The best way to combat the type of religious fundamentalism evident in Taleban-controlled Afghanistan, many believe, is to move away from a faith-based education to a purely secular one. Take God out of the schools, they argue, and you are already a long way down the road to eliminating Him from conflict and terrorism. Such opinion is not illogical, nor is it incomprehensible. Indeed, such a belief in the separation of church and state has been the backbone for some of the greatest experiments in government for hundreds of years, and continues to be a mainstay in the ideologies of liberal-minded and generally benevolent peoples everywhere.
For an increasingly large group of equally liberal minded and benevolent thinkers, however, this has become a tired debate. To unseal minds and open the arteries of cultural, political and religious thought does not demand the secularisation of the world, but rather a more informed approach to religion (or more accurately, to spirituality), synthesising the very best thinking from a variety of traditionally disparate disciplines. Theology and biology, ontology and evolutionary psychology are finding their way with increasing regularity into integrated explorations of what it means to be human.
Both Driven: How Human Nature Shapes Our Choices (Lawrence and Nohria) and Doubts and Loves (Holloway) devote much attention to the concept of models, narratives formed by the human mind designed to frame and understand the world, and which may be adapted to inform and direct the uniquely human decision-making process. Lawrence and Nohria observe that these individual understandings of the world go through the same Darwinian “V/S/R process” that accounts for our genetic heritage. Initially the individual is presented with aVariety of narrative frames (e.g. Christianity, communism and biological determinism). The mind then Selects the frame or model that is the most congruent with experience, the framework that offers to explain the most about the world. Once that framework has proved versatile and reliable, the brain will Retain it and, until it faces a serious challenge of legitimacy, it will serve to inform and direct thought and action.
At the time of the break-up of the Soviet Union, Paul Lawrence was part of a group of American and Russian scholars who “conducted an intensive field study of Russian managerial decision making” during those key years of 1989 to 1991. As the Gorbachev era came to a close it was becoming increasingly clear that the American model had triumphed over the Soviet one. It had emerged as the clear victor of the Cold War. With Soviet theorising in disarray it seemed an opportune moment for Russia to import wholesale the American concept of free-market democracy in order to kick-start the rebuilding of this vast nation. Based almost exclusively on the notions of neoclassical economics – that all humans are driven by self-interest and that a free markets economy is the best method for harnessing the power of that drive – the results were disastrous. This “application of economic theory on an unprecedented scale” resulted in a vast waste of capital, both human and economic. Since 1990 the suffering of the Russian people has been enormous: poverty levels have soared, as have mortality rates. Coherent political leadership has all but vanished.
Lawrence makes it clear that reliance solely upon neoclassical economics was to blame. Yet he is careful to stress his doubt that any other single discipline could have provided the answers. “What the Russians really needed,” he observes, “was a well-rounded, seasoned general practitioner for an entire human society.” A practitioner who had access to a theory of human nature that was as broad as it was penetrating, a unified theory that took into account everything that humans sought. Surely it is not just financial gain that drives mankind? It is out of this dramatic failure that Lawrence and Nohria draw their four-drive theory of human nature.
The drive to learn is one such drive (the other three are the drive to acquire, the drive to defend and the drive to bond). The drive to learn, Lawrence and Nohria postulate, was one of the essential agents in initiating the “Great Leap,” that so-far unexplained period of time in which primitive man dramatically evolved into our immediate ancestors. So powerful is the drive to learn – or, to put it another way, the drive to “make sense” of existence – that we cannot simply ignore it. Indeed, we will continue to create and cling to ideologies that evidence any ability, no matter how slight, to explain and clarify the world in which we live. This, Lawrence and Nohria caution, is the “dark side” of the drive to learn, “the capacity to believe plausible but inaccurate stories, the tendency to go on mind journeys of unchecked fantasy, the attraction of novelty for its own sake, and the general susceptibility to incomplete ideologies.”
It is with our susceptibility to rely on incomplete ideologies that Holloway deals so forcefully. He argues that Christianity, for centuries a powerfully elucidating mental framework for millions, has resisted Darwin’s V/S/R process to the point of ossification. Lawrence and Nohria observe that human brains seem to be built in such a way that makes it difficult to displace prior ideas, the defence of the old being preferable to learning anew. As such, over time, Christianity has become an incomplete ideology, yet one which we are unwilling to give up. The apparent choice for Holloway is stark: “Either abandon Christianity, because it is so manifestly out of tune with what you consider to be the best values of contemporary culture; or cling to a version of Christianity that is profoundly antipathetic to the freedoms of post-modern society.” But he goes on. “Is there a third approach,” he asks, “which is not a middle way between belief and unbelief and is neither diluted fundamentalism nor watered-down scepticism?”