Lecture Six: Does Belief Matter? Belief, Hope, and Responsibility

Professor Fuentes delivered his sixth and final lecture earlier this evening. The video of Fuentes’ lecture is embedded below for those who were unable to attend in person, or for those who’d like to watch it again. An audio only version can also be found at the end of this post. In order to further facilitate discussion Dr Julia Feder and Dr Tom Uytterhoeven will offer their initial reflections. Feder is currently an Assistant Professor of Theology at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska (USA). Uytterhoeven is currently a voluntary researcher and member of the Research Unit of Systematic Theology and the Study of Religions at the Faculty of Theology and Religious Studies, KU Leuven. We’d like to reiterate that we warmly welcome anyone wishing to engage with Fuentes’ lectures to contribute their comments and questions below.

 

Fuentes opened his final lecture by reminding us of some of the key themes that developed in the previous five, with a focus on belief and the human niche. As he reminded us from the very outset he stated, “Belief is the most prominent, promising, and dangerous capacity of humanity.” In this particular lecture Fuentes asks, “Can belief matter for the benefit of humans, and others, in the 21st century?” The answer, he acknowledged, is obviously yes, but it is at the same time a complex answer. As he stated, “We know belief is central to human evolution and has played a key role in our success as a species. But that very success has brought us to a point in time with potentially catastrophic repercussions for humanity, other species, and the globe.” However, he went on to state that “nearly twenty years of research into this topic has made me a cautious optimist that the human niche, with its central role for belief, continues to hold great promise for the future.” He spent the remainder of his lecture further telling us why.

Fuentes spent the first major section re-articulating his understanding of “belief.” He spoke of our capacity for belief and its relationship to our “capacity for ‘shared reality,’ a mutuality of cognition, experience and perception.” He reminded us that in his first lecture he drew on Terry Eagleton and Kierkegaard as they described “believing as an act of being wholly and completely in love with a concept, an experience, a knowledge.” Believing inherently consists in a type of committing, which can be intentionally directed at possibilities or unknown and unseen perceptions of reality that go beyond a simple observation of the present material reality. He reminded us again that the ability to believe is “part of the human system in an equivalent manner as fingers are part of our upper limbs” and he took time to articulate this further in order guard against taking this to be a reductionist assertion. As he went on to state, “the fact that belief is not always materially quantifiable or dependent on cued representation does not make it any less real, or useful, for us. But even more so than our hands and fingers, belief has been and can be used for immense, and meaningful, shaping of the world and ourselves.” Belief, as Fuentes has articulated many times throughout these lectures, is a central aspect of our human niche and it is “critical to the very process of becoming human.”

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In the next major section of his lecture Fuentes returned to further articulating the significance of the development of the human niche (a historical narrative that takes us from our present back to approximately 2.5-3 million years ago). He spoke of the origins of our own genus Homo and the “increasingly complex patterns and processes of behavioral and neurobiological plasticity and capacity generated by, and generating of, the feedback processes of toolmaking, foraging, caretaking, the control of fire, the creation of meaning-laden materials and the ecological expansion of humans across the planet,” which “set up the necessary biosocial infrastructure for a capacity for belief.” He mentioned the  development that enabled ecologies and societies (across the last 3-400,000 years) that enabled “early belief systems to begin to emerge.” He then spoke of the emergence of meaning-making (approximately 200,000 years ago), which enabled “the capacity for creating explanations of observable phenomena that were shared and connected to aspects of the material world but not confined to them,” which enabled humans to “use imagination and belief to reshape themselves and the world around them.” Getting ever closer to our contemporary period, he then spoke of the last 15,000 years when the various and diverse forms of domestication started to develop, which helped reconfigure “the possibilities and patterns of, and reasons for, belief.” He ended this section on the human niche by reminding us of “the expansion and solidification of various types of storage, new residential patterns, and new lifeways” that “facilitated new concepts of property, ownership, and identity.” Here too is where new realities of inequality were enabled. As he went on to state, “These recent processes in the human niche significantly influenced the ways contemporary humans believe, and opened the doors for increasingly structured and extensive belief systems.

Fuentes then turned the attention to articulating “how belief works” in the human niche. He listed five capacities for belief that developed in the human niche that are, furthermore, constitutive aspects of the human process of belief. As he listed them:

1) The developmental processes of the human body and brain evolved as a system that is always in concert with, and mutually co-constitutive of, the linguistic, socially mediated and constructed structures, institutions, and beliefs that make up key aspects of the human cultural niche. To paraphrase Tim Ingold, humans are constantly becoming.

2) Skills, the ways we use our bodies and minds, develop and are incorporated into the human organism through practice and training in a given environment. Skills are always simultaneously biological and cultural and are contingent on the capacities and constraints of the development of our bodies and minds and our relationships with one another and the cultural and material environments we are in. Belief is a prominent human skill.

3) Specifically, via neurobiology and the endocrine system, the human learns to orchestrate herself within a cultural context and a range of individual experiences. Cultural concepts and meanings, the elements of belief systems, become embodied neurobiologically, physiologically, cognitively, and experientially co-shaping our anatomy and behavior, which in turn interfaces with, and potentially reshapes, the very cultural processes shaping it.

4) The shape of, and boundaries to, the human niche (the system in which we become) are not always material or physiologically perceptible because of the processes and structures of human culture combined with our particular neurobiological capacity for extensive detached mental representations (imaginings). Belief and belief systems themselves can act as elements in the construction and modification of the structural parameters of the human niche, materially and perceptually.

5) Finally, the human enhanced capacity for detached representations and the complexity and diversity of our cultural milieus enables humans to experience, create, and even develop skills in transcendental perceptions/awareness and to make these a core component of basic human functioning. Developing and deploying the capacity to believe, including the possibility of transcendent experience, is a central aspect of becoming human.

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He then highlighted how the specific beliefs of particular humans are contextually, holistically, and intersubjectively constituted. As he said, “For humans, what is and what should be, critical components of every human belief system, are, in large part, both contextualized and contingent on where and how we develop and are embedded in who we are and how we become.” However, he then stated that an openness to revelation and discovery were centrally significant for the evolutionary success of our human niche, thereby, avoiding (as he has throughout these lectures) a hermetically reductionist contextualism.

Until this point in his lectures the majority of Fuentes emphasis has been on the “the positive and the hopeful.” In this next section of his lecture he articulated three ways in which belief can be, and currently is, dangerous. If we recall the key question of this lecture, “Can belief matter for the benefit of humans, and others, in the 21st century?” it is here that Fuentes offers “three dire examples of how belief matters for the worse,” thereby articulating the complexity of his answer.

The first dire belief is that “today most humans believe that the world should be exploited.” Belief, for Fuentes, is a commitment and an intentional way of existing in the world. So even if many humans would not explicitly admit or say that they believe the earth ought to be exploited (surely some would explicitly affirm this) the behavior of the majority of humans show that they do indeed believe this. As Fuentes stated, “In the 21st century neo-liberal capitalist economic systems have become dominant, populations have increased at a record pace, and the concomitant explosion in the extraction of biotic and abiotic resources across the planet has reached a scale and impact such that the only way humans could possibly continue at this pace, is a belief, even if subconscious, that the earth can sustain us, regardless of what we do to it.”

The second dire belief that Fuentes drew our attention to is that “we have believed ourselves into a related crater of structural inequity across social, economic, racial and gender divisions so deep that it appears ready to entomb us.” As he went on to state, “We’ve developed immense hyper-complex societies and byzantine political and economic structures that generate massive inequality and disconnection between sections of societies creating all sorts of prejudices that keep groups of people apart.”

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The third and final dire belief that Fuentes brought up was that of “scientism.” In this he spoke of both religious and scientific fundamentalisms, but his focus was on the scientific version. As he said later on, “I think that any fundamentalism, religious, scientific, political or economic, is dangerous to humanity.” This is because “it, by definition, curtails our ability to imagine, to experiment, to innovate and to entangle with others, the very things that have proven again and again in our history to offer us the greatest opportunities for success.” As he frankly put it, “fundamentalism is an abuse of the human capacity to believe.”

Fuentes moved on to the penultimate section of his lecture by focusing on how belief can matter for the better. As he stated, “In any possibility of effecting changes to how power, access, and justice are distributed in our societies belief must play a central role. It is the commitment to a suite of beliefs, and the actions that result from such commitments, that can redirect our trajectory towards more sustainable and just outcomes.” Fuentes went on to articulate how scientific inquiry and the humanities (including religion) need to come together and collaborate in order to best tackle issues that matter for us all and for the world that we call home.

Fuentes ended his final Gifford lecture speaking about “our responsibilities as human beings” who are the “ultimate niche constructors and believers.” Fuentes shared a personal story from his childhood in order to illustrate the power and possibilities of belief, especially as we experience awe and wonder at transcendent possibilities. He closed the series hoping that he was able to help us better understand “why we believe so that we can all better develop and direct our shared beliefs and actions to imagine, hope for, believe in, and create a better future.”

8 thoughts on “Lecture Six: Does Belief Matter? Belief, Hope, and Responsibility

  1. Christian Faith and the Generativity of Human Belief

    It is a joy and privilege to share my thoughts on these careful and creative lectures by Agustín Fuentes. There are many points that deserve comment and appreciation, but I will restrict my reflections to just a few of his main ideas in this final lecture. As a Christian theologian, one of the most moving insights from Prof. Fuentes’s Gifford lectures is his insistence that beliefs are generative commitments, investments, and devotions. Beliefs are so profoundly generative for human beings that they shape our minds, our bodies, and our landscapes. To believe in X is to be deeply in love with that thing, idea, or person. To be profoundly in love is to orient one’s life around the object of one’s love. It is to have one’s desires, joys and pains shaped by the object of one’s love. It means to direct one’s rational powers and capacities toward the object of one’s love, even one’s powers of rational critique when necessary. To be in love is to be in enduring relationship with. It is this relational dynamic which many Christian thinkers—including Martin Luther, the great Protestant reformer who proclaimed that we are saved by faith alone—highlight about “faith”; faith in God involves a relational commitment to God, not simply (passionless, disembodied) intellectual assent to God’s existence. Belief involves bodies and emotions. Furthermore, a relational commitment to God involves more than simply a vertical relationship with the divine. An enduring, relational trust in God involves commitment to network of relationships and ideas. Faith involves investment in community (or “church”—that is, those who mediate God to the individual) and in human action for the common good (signified by the Christian belief in the enduring power of acts performed in love, even when they fail).[1]

    For Christians, faith is eschatological. It is a belief (again, a relational investment in the idea) that what is is both “already” shot through with the presence of God but is also “not yet” fully reflective of God’s desire for wholeness. Prof. Fuentes refers to that which is “not yet” as “a better future,” one which is more sustainable and just. Christians believe that this better future is both a gratuitous gift from God and our responsibility to bring about. Both sides of this paradox are important and mutually animating in the Christian imagination. Eschatological fulfillment of the created material world, though brought about by God, does not happen without the free participation of creatures in history.[2] Through the autonomy of creation, maintained by God, humanity has been graced with the resources to mediate eschatological transformation of the world.[3] Though we do not know what this eschatological transformation or this “better world” looks like definitively, we can know that we are currently falling short as evidenced by the profound imbalances in our climate and in our social communities (as Prof. Fuentes has pointed out).

    Often Christian eschatological faith, especially when paired with the related concept of eschatological hope, can be mistaken as a substitute for real engagement in the world. One might expect religious believers to be waiting passively and without responsibility for a superpowered God to swoop in and save them from the messes that they have created. These kinds of believers might exist, but this is not fundamentally how human belief needs to function. As Prof. Fuentes makes so clear, human belief is the capacity to imagine new possibilities and to make these possibilities happen. Christian religious faith does not set up divine agency and human agency in a competitive, dualistic framework. To act for good, according to Christian belief, is to cooperate with God in bringing about the salvation of the world. Consequently, eschatological faith is the belief that God can effect a transformation of creation that includes but also extends beyond what human action mediates. This faith in the promise of God for a transformed future has a critical-practical effect on those who hold this belief to fuel an imaginative vision of good that transcends that which has already been achieved.[4] It allows those who believe to hold on to a common vision of the good when it is not clear that human good is possible and encourages the community to persist in a critique of the present order without falling prey to exhaustion. A Christian eschatological vision expands the ground for human hope beyond the limits of human achievement with the effect that Christians can then affirm the fragmentary and partial achievements of human liberating action as mediations of God’s promise of salvation for creation, however incomplete. In a symbolic culture, such as ours, that over-prioritizes technical reason and efficiency, it is easy for the human imagination to be restrained by the “impotency of dull satisfaction”[5] or to be hemmed in by false preconceptions about the limits of human compassion and cooperation. A Christian eschatological vision, especially insofar as it always maintains a proviso, perpetually expands these perceived limits. A Christian eschatological hope never allows one to proclaim definitely within history: this is it, this is the promised future!

    Christian faith does not represent a departure from material or evidence-based reality, but instead functions as an extension of what one can see, taste, smell, and touch. For Christians, the eschatological vision of the transformation of creation contains elements of continuity as well as discontinuity. As Paul analogizes in 1 Corinthians, the present is to the transformed future as a bare seed is to a mature fruit (1 Cor 15:36-38). Though a seed bears little sensory resemblance to its fruit (e.g., tomato seeds do not look, taste, smell, or feel like miniature tomatoes), there is a continuity of identity between a seed and the fruits that later develop from it. When a seed is sown it does not disappear, but it is transformed. Continuity is key in order to affirm the integrity and the validity of history, as well as to ensure the meaningfulness of human action. In other words, continuity is needed to eschew an apocalyptic, interventionist understanding of salvation coming from God to humanity from without. But, discontinuity is critical in order to affirm the possibility of something truly new. In other words, a hope for some measure of discontinuity encourages more than the sanctification of the status quo and makes possible a robust critique of socio-political structures and interpersonal sins.[6] The eschatological transformation, for which Christians await, does not discard the world as it is and replace it with a radically new world; instead, this world that we experience now is brought to fulfillment as something truly new yet at once continuous with what it is now.[7]

    Belief coordinates human activity, it creates cultures of belonging and enmeshment, and it facilitates complex (and often paradoxical) thought. Belief is, as Prof. Fuentes makes clear, integral to being human. And, being human often involves remaking the world as master niche-constructors according to our most deeply held beliefs (whatever they may be). Christian belief in an eschatological transformation of the world through our cooperation with God has the potential to embolden those who are in love with this idea to hope for the wholeness of creation, avoid the temptation to imagine what this wholeness is too narrowly, and yet also take responsibility for bringing this wholeness about.

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    [1] Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Christian Experience in the Modern World, trans. John Bowden in The Collected Works of Edward Schillebeeckx, vol. 7 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014) 8-9 [25].

    [2] Edward Schillebeeckx, .“Liberating Theology,” in Essays: Ongoing Theological Quests in The Collected Works of Edward Schillebeeckx, vol. 11 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014) 83.

    [3] Edward Schillebeeckx, God the Future of Man, trans. N.D. Smith in The Collected Works of Edward Schillebeeckx, vol. 3 (London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2014) 112 [185].

    [4] Ibid., 118 [194].

    [5] Steven Rodenborn, Subversive Eschatology in the Theology of Edward Schillebeeckx and Johann Baptist Metz (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014) 102.

    [6] Edward Schillebeeckx, The Understanding of Faith: Interpretation and Criticism, trans. Norman D. Smith (New York: Seabury, 1974) 8.

    [7] Ibid., 11-12.

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  2. Human Niche Construction and Religious Education

    In this blogpost I first briefly discuss two features of human niche construction. Second, I reflect on the implications of niche construction for education, and for theology. Based on these short reflections, I conclude by arguing that religious education can be an important aspect of human niche construction, provided that we acknowledge the evolutionary roots of religion and the need to foster the ‘creative spark’ of humanity.

    The Creative Spark in Niche Construction

    As Agustin Fuentes’ work testifies, niche construction theory offers an exciting new perspective on human evolutionary history. For me, two features of this perspective stand out. First, niche construction theory implies the notion of an ecological inheritance. In short, this means that an environment, physically changed by a generation of organisms, is transmitted to the next generation, and so on. Second, for humans, as Fuentes points out, the transmitted environment is as much – perhaps even more so – a cultural environment as it is a natural environment. This evolutionary view on the development of cultural traditions becomes all the more fascinating, when we bear in mind what, according to Fuentes, is the most defining aspect of the human niche: creativity.[1]

    The Creative Spark in Teaching

    In his book The Creative Spark, Fuentes shows how teaching was instrumental in ratcheting up human creativity. I think educational practices in the classroom can illustrate what niche construction means for humans. In a very concrete way, the material arrangements in a classroom form a little cultural niche. Of course, a teacher has an important role to play. How she interacts with her students, the rules she sets for interactions in the group, the cultural content she presents in her classes, etc. all have an important influence on the environment in the classroom. But there is more. The way desks are placed in the room, the content of didactic posters on the walls, the amount of light and fresh air in the room, the color scheme of the walls, etc. all influence the interactions within a class group. Students entering a classroom on the first day of a new school year inherit, one could say, a cultural environment, created by the teacher, that will influence their development. But how does this ‘classroom niche’ incorporate sparks of creativity?

    The notion ‘affordances’ might be helpful to see how school teaching can support creativity.[2] The term was first coined by James J. Gibson, as a way to express how the environment offers information to observers, and how, at the same time, observers partake in that environment. An affordance should, Tommasso Bertoletti and Lorenzo Magnani explain, be seen “as an invitation, as a possible cognitive pathway”, which leaves the cognitive agent free to decide whether to accept or decline the invitation.[3]

    The notion of ‘affordances’ is probably not completely new to teachers, since much of teacher’s praxis is aimed at helping their pupils to recognize possibilities, whether it regards new methods to add large numbers in mathematics, to craft something with clay, or to find the meaning of a new word. But the role of ‘affordances’ in fostering the creative spark in niche construction helps us understand that teaching, as the transmission of information to new generations, is not only about continuity. The goal, rather, is to enable a critical stance towards the given context, to enable discontinuity. In order for new generations to acquire the capacity to engage the cultural niche in which they live, to see affordances, and to consciously choose between affordances, education needs to support creativity. There has to be a dialogue between the current context and the transmitted cultural inheritance. In other words, there is a constant need for a creative spark in education. Education, from a niche construction perspective, is truly a creative dance of continuity and discontinuity.

    The Creative Spark in Religion

    This creative dance is also what Fuentes expects from religion, when he argues that “(o)ne cannot scientifically or otherwise assume that anything written in a book or books, or handed down verbally, across generations of individuals using multiple languages, can maintain consistency or be resistant to modification. All religions have been changing since their inceptions and still are. Anyone who cannot accept that and asserts that their version of a given religion, exactly as it stands, is both unchanged and the one true human religion is wrong.”[4]

    Fuentes suggests – convincingly, in my view – that religion has not so much to do with what it ‘does’ for humans, but, rather, with ‘how humans are’. In human niche construction, he explains, imagination is a key aspect of the way in which humans find responses to the challenges of life. And religion is one of the ways in which human imagination unfolds. Fuentes adds to this that his approach allows room for both a scientific and a theological understanding of the emergence and nature of religion.

    This, I believe, is indeed the case. An example is the theological anthropology developed by Lutheran theologian Philip Hefner, synthesized in his book The Human Factor.[5] Particularly interesting for our subject is his discussion of how human culture, including religion, is part of human evolutionary history and, throughout that history, has influenced how the human species interacted with the natural world.

    For Hefner, religious traditions contain past experiences of the human species. More importantly, religious myths and rituals enable humans to imagine possible futures, including ones in which humans act as ‘created co-creators’ in service of the Kingdom of God. I admit that, since Hefner’s theological work predates the development of the extended evolutionary synthesis, he did not use the term ‘niche construction’ in his work, and it would be a stretch to claim his work is completely in line with current science. But still, Hefner’s theological reflections clearly show that a scientific understanding of religion and a theological one can co-exist.

    It might be interesting, however, to look at one resemblance and one difference between Fuentes’ picture of religion and Hefner’s. First, the resemblance. Both the scientist and the theologian stress the need for continuous renewal and change in religion. For Fuentes, this is part of how cultural traditions develop, and inherent to human’s being in the world. From a scientific point of view, it seems that human’s defining feature is their ability to imagine possible futures, and to act on them. For Hefner as well, it is a crucial feature of the human species to be able to imagine the future, and to discern which kind of future is most wholesome. Both scholars suggest that humans need to foster their ‘creative spark’ if they are to survive.

    But the reason why both scholars make this suggestion differs. As noted above, for Fuentes, change in religion is what happens because of the human way of being in the world. Hefner suggests that we need to consciously retrieve and revitalize religious myths and rituals – that is, to read them anew in an age of science, acknowledging what we now know about the world, but also recognizing the symbolic meaning of these myths and rituals. If we do so, Hefner argues, we will again be able, as he states, to “interface with the rest of nature’s systems.”[6] What Hefner seems to suggest, is that religions are not just part of human imagination, but also part of human memory. Religious traditions, in this view, incorporate what our species experienced throughout its evolutionary history. And, according to Hefner, if we are to imagine futures that are wholesome for all life on our planet, we need to revisit these experiences.

    This, of course, raises the question, of whether it is possible to do so? This, I believe, is where religious education can play an important role.

    The Creative Spark in Religious Education

    Education in general is a dialogue between the current context and the cultural inheritance, as I argued above. It follows that the same can be said for religious education. I agree with Fuentes that it is important for people of faith to recognize this, and to avoid any tendency to claim their religion is exempt from change. Religious education, when seen as part of human niche construction, should set out to integrate change and renewal of the tradition it teaches. If we regard the religious narratives – myths, rituals, praxis – as part of the ecological inheritance that is transmitted from one generation to the next in human niche construction, this implies that next generations act creatively on this inheritance, altering it by living in it.

    I think it is important to stress that accepting change as an inherent feature of a religious tradition and, thus, of religious education, is not a matter of abiding to scientific rules. This is not what Fuentes has set out to argue religion should do, nor do I want to suggest this. Rather, what I want to suggest, from a theological perspective, is that education should set itself in service of God’s word. Allowing God to speak implies that teachers go beyond ‘copy-past-exercises’ about the meaning of a religious narrative, or a religious ritual. Instead of teaching to keep to the text, teachers should teach their students how to listen to a story, how to experience a ritual, and how to think about its meaning. Paradoxically, only by accepting change and renewal, I believe, will they – teachers as well as students – be able to remain faithful to the meaning of their cultural inheritance, thus, to the ongoing dialogue between God and humanity. And it is this dialogue that enables the faithful to imagine new, wholesome futures. Reflecting on what it means to teach religion as part of human niche construction, therefore, could well be one of the most important items on any religious teacher’s to-do-list. Fuentes’ publications and his Gifford Lectures provide us with ample inspiration to do so!

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    (1) Agustín Fuentes. The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    (2) Tommasso Bertoletti, Lorenzo Magnani, “Theoretical considerations on cognitive niche construction” (2016), Synthese, July (online: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11229-016-1165-2, DOI 10.1007/s11229-016-1165-2. The concept ‘affordances’ originates from architecture and design theory. See e.g. Jonathan R.A. Mayer, Georges M. Fadel, “An affordance-based approach to architectural theory, design, and practice” in Design Studies (2009) 30:4, 393-414. For Gibson: James J. Gibson, The Ecological Approach to Visual Perception, Boston, Houghton Mifflin, 1979.

    (3) Tommasso Bertoletti, Lorenzo Magnani, “Theoretical considerations on cognitive niche construction,” p. 16.

    (4) Agustín Fuentes. The Creative Spark: How Imagination Made Humans Exceptional (p. 217). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

    (5) Philip Hefner, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion. Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993.

    (6) Philip Hefner, The Human Factor, p. 155.

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  3. Superb lecture and comment on it. My take is that they are both excellent summations of how historically the human niche has evolved and triumphed using economic, cultural, theological, philosophical, scientific, and political belief systems to become the dominant species on this (not our) planet. The perspective of the human viewpoint is only natural and unavoidable but the events and development of our human niche is no guarantee that this will continue in the future. The dinosaurs were dominant for thousands of years but a meteorite strike (current theory) brought there species to an end. Nuclear warfare and global warming are only two possibilities in our cataclysmic end. I do not share Prof Fuentes’ optimistic belief that our humanity will solve our problems nor Julia Feder’s belief that human love and God’s love for humanity will prevent our extinction. All I know is that the future is in God’s hands and s/he knows best. Thank you again Prof Fuentes for a stimulating series of lectures and for the Gifford lecture committee for organising them and filming them so I could access them online.

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  4. It is with a certain amount of trepidation that I put finger to keyboard to comment on Professor Feuntes’ riveting series of lectures. He has shown himself to be a scholar of the highest calibre (not surprising as he was asked to give the Gifford Lectures), a passionate believer in the power of his subject area(s) to enhance our knowledge of what he calls the ‘human niche’ but, above all, he has shown himself to be a compassionate human being. He mentioned in conversation, away from the recording cameras, that he felt he was lucky to be able to do what he is doing. Over the last two weeks the luck was on the side of those who listened to him, and one suspects that his students are similarly lucky.

    There are just two comments I would like to make in the form of adding some information to what Prof. Feuntes said to us, and they are probably going to be controversial. He indicated that there were some areas of conflict in the world where people of one belief system denigrate, oppress and even harm those of other, different belief systems. In my experience there are some societies where this does not happen. One such example is the country where I grew up in the 1950s, Eritrea, and where I returned to work a as visiting professor in 2010-11.

    There the officially recognised religious groups of Muslims, Coptic Christians, Catholic Christians, Anglican Episcopalians, the Baptists and the small Jewish community all celebrate each other’s festivals and there is no oppression of these faith group.

    Admittedly, and in order to forestall the infiltration of fundamentalist groups, which have taken over in other neighbouring countries, the government has prevented any other religious groups from registering as recognised religions. They are attempting to avert the very intolerance that Prof Fuentes was referring to. I do not wish to argue in favour of any of the actions of the government there, but rather in favour of the population, which provides us with a paradigm example of the tolerance advocated in this year’s Gifford Lectures. Even the meaning of name of its capital city, Asmara, reflects this tolerance. Legend has it that is origins are based on a time when the settlement consisted of four groups who were fighting each other for control. The women of all four communities got together and said “from now on, we live in peace.” ‘Asmara’ means “they (females) brought peace”.

    As a brief rider to my experiences of my second spiritual home (after Scotland and before Italy), I am reminded of Prof Feuntes’ experiences with pollution and the remedy which required the government to ban the plastics which were preventing trees from propagating. Eritrea is the only country I know of that has banned plastic containers, bags and drink cans. The place is all the better for it, and it is now virtually self-sufficient in food production.

    Unfortunately the loss of life there due to wars is well above the 2% Prof Fuentes was citing as death by trauma in global archaeological findings. They lost over 200,000 combatants and civilians (of whom 20,000 were women combatants) in their recent wars of independence – since 1961. The total population was well under five million.

    In Edinburgh we are all very lucky to have the opportunity to listen in peace to lectures such as those given by Prof Feuntes. The sheer humanity of his Gifford Lectures will long resonate in ‘Auld Reekie’ (the name we give our city).

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    • I too with trepidation put finger to keyboard to reply to Francis Roberts comment as I know practically nothing of Eritrea so I Googled it. What I found seems to contradict your views. Though the main religious groups tolerate each other smaller denominations are persecuted. It seems to be a single party state and is under going de-population. To generalise in most of the wider world the main ruling bodies and the majority of members of major faiths are very tolerant of different religions. It is a minority with their own political or extreme anti-true religious views that perpetuate violence. As I said I am ignorant of the state of affairs in Eritrea but I am sceptical that it is a religious and environmental utopia.

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      • Thank you for your reply, Jamie.

        I think you will find that at no point in my original blog did I suggest that Eritrea was a religious utopia (which originally meant ‘no such place’). To quote myself, I stated: “I do not wish to argue in favour of any of the actions of the government there, but rather in favour of the population.”

        Essentially the present government is, without much political subtlety, trying to keep extremists out. The Jehovah’s witnesses have been trying to proselytise there for some time. In doing so, they hold meetings, which are against the law, so they are detained. The conditions under which anyone is detained in Eritrea are, to put it mildly, extremely harsh. These are seen as persecuting religious minorities. More accurately, they are persecuting anyone who breaks the law – admittedly marshal law as they consider themselves to be at war. Also admittedly, they have suspended habeas corpus for ALL detainees, religious and non-religious, so fall foul of what we consider to be one of our basic human rights …

        I did not want to get into a discussion on the Eritrean political landscape, but focus on the nature of the Eritrean people. Virtually all the ones I met in 2010-11 were just as tolerant, hospitable, kind, warm, … as the ones I remember from my youth. They would all have welcomed the sentiments expressed by Prof Fuentes and all my former colleagues at the Eritrean Institute of Technology, whether Eritrean or visitors, would have flocked to his lectures.

        PS Erratum: Eritrea has not banned drinks cans.
        They are all meticulously recycled into cookers, utensils and toys, mostly at a sight called Medeber in Asmara.

        PPS one of my favourite trips from Asmara was to the Neolithic cave paintings at Qohaito. These are not guarded and the guide takes time off from tending his goats to take you there.

        PPPS The son of one of my Edinburgh friends has a 2CV car (with 4 wheel drive!) and it is covered in hand prints. These are nearly all of his children, who are now adults; there is also one set of their mother’s hands. It seems there is something enduring about hand prints.

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      • Thank you for replying to my comment. My point is that people everywhere as individuals are basically decent human beings at heart. Religion and politics are inextricably linked as is the culture and history of different countries. The majority of people with religious faith, not just some, are tolerant and accepting of other religions. The Government of Eritrea are persecuting religious minorities, such as Jehovah witnesses, and it is up to the leaders and members of other Christian denominations and other religions to defend religious freedom. The Laws of countries can be unjust and it is up to people of faith and none to challenge them. Dialogue is important and I agree Eritrea has a strong environmental record which I applaud but my main stumbling block is the absence of democracy and persecution of minority religions. May God bless you and the people of Eritrea.

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  5. Thank you for your good wishes.
    When I last left Asmara, I was (poignantly) given a copy of the UN declaration of human rights by two separate groups of friends – I still have them.
    As the words of Prof Fuentes gradually sink in, I am left thinking that his 2% figure of traumatic deaths in archaeological findings is not very different from the 200 000 Eritreans who died in the independence struggle, which is about 4.5%. Given our present ability to kill each other in ever more efficient ways, I think that we are, sadly, not so very different from our ancestors even in this respect.

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