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A Process of Transformation

Whether by coincidence or some mysterious cosmic force, May 2017 saw the publication of two books I wrote about the tension and possible partnership between religion and science.  The first was a science fiction novel titled Revival, and the second, a science research monograph titled Dynamic Secularization.  Both were written from the perspective of the radical revolution caused by information technology and computer science, and both postulated that we stand at a turning point in history.  Both also conceptualized human culture as a chaotic yet meaningful ecology of competing hopes, dreams, and actions.  Here I shall share the logic of Revival, saving the passion of Dynamic Secularization for a later time.

For many decades, Western Civilization has seen the eruption of scores of scientistic religions, small, intense, often short-lived, yet suggesting that humanity needs something to replace the Abrahamic faiths that have dominated many nations for many centuries.  Some of those "cults" avoided definition as such, notably Sociology and Psychoanalysis.  When I earned my sociology doctorate from Harvard University, the most influential professor in the department was Talcott Parsons, whose last name was an apt definition of the man, a parson and a theological preacher.  He considered religion to be a universal and inescapable step in the evolution of civilization, serving to sustain transcendent values.  The founder of the department decades earlier, Pitirim Sorokin, had predicted that Western Civilization would fall into another Dark Age, from which it would be rescued by a new faith.  Auguste Comte, arguably the founder of sociology in the nineteenth century, intended it to be a replacement for Christianity, as suggested by the title of his book The Catechism of Positive Religion.  Today, sociologists pretend objectivity when they assert that their scientific data demand certain changes in our economic system and social institutions, yet they resemble Moses immediately after he came down the mountain holding tablets of divine commandments.

A vast contentious literature presents a myriad of perspectives on Psychoanalysis.  Some writers assert that it is a modern expression of centuries-old mysticism, for example David Bakan in Sigmund Freud and the Jewish Mystical Tradition and Nandor Fodor in Freud, Jung, and Occultism.  Sigmund Freud himself wrote books about religion, notably Moses and Monotheism which supports Bakan's thesis, and The Future of an Illusion with an ironic title intended to demote religion, yet describing Psychoanalysis itself.  Is the subconscious mind a redefinition of the soul?  Does the fact that Freud initially was a disciple of Mesmerism suggest that Psychoanalysis was a cynical method for gaining control over disciples and parishioners?  Immediately, Psychoanalysis splintered into a myriad of local cults, each organized in a master-student lineage rather like some Asian religious traditions.  Every future psychoanalyst was required to submit to a didactic analysis under the influence of an already established psychoanalyst.  What is scientific about that?

As it happens, my family background prepared me to be fascinated by these issues.  In 1856, my great-great-grandfather, Samuel McMath Bainbridge, published an essay about the social and political upheavals of his era, titled "The Last Great Shaking," blending social scientific theory with religious millenarianism.  His son, William Folwell Bainbridge, conducted an intense research journey throughout Asia and the Middle East in 1879-1880, publishing two scholarly books that were both analytical social science and personal enlightenment, Around the World Tour of Christian Missions and Along the Lines at the Front, plus Self-Giving, a novel in which he imagined that his daughter who had died in infancy had lived to die a martyr converting India to Christianity.  His son, surgeon William Seaman Bainbridge, published 11 medical books and 100 articles, cleverly concealing his conviction that psychiatry was nonsense even when he wrote in that field.  Among a dozen other family members with similar interests, I especially feel intellectual kinship with my cousin, Christopher McIntosh, an Oxford educated historian who has published extensively about European esoteric spiritual movements, and with his wife Donate currently communicates through Vanadis.org, named for the patroness of their project, the Nordic goddess Freya who was "child of the Vanir" gods.

The abstract principle that can most easily be derived from these perplexing and apparently trivial observations is that modern culture is complex, possibly disintegrating but definitely unreliable, the nearest thing to the precipice of a Dark Age, if not inescapable doom.  This is an important point, if not conclusively determined.  If the dominant monotheistic tradition dies, will religion repaganize?  If social and psychological sciences continue to be wracked by political disputes and leadership rivalries, will emergence of a new consensus be impossible?  Perhaps, at this point in history, a consensus would not be desirable.

Having completed a senior honors thesis at Boston University, based on covert participant observation research inside Scientology, leading to publications like a chapter in Scientology that was edited by James Lewis for Oxford University Press, I naturally decided that similar research inside an offshoot of it would reveal some of the principles by which cultures proliferate and evolve. As it happened, a British group called the Process had set up a branch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, so while I was doing my historical dissertation and first book, The Spaceflight Revolution, I also collected the data for my second book, Satan's Power: Ethnography of a Deviant Psychotherapy Cult.  I like the word "cult," because it is culture "writ small" and suggests that such groups can be understood in cultivated literary terms, as well as from the perspective of one or another splinter of social science.

The founders of the Process had met while they were students in training to be Scientology practitioners in London in the early 1960s.  They were also influenced by Psychoanalysis, especially by Alfred Adler's version of it, building on his concept of "inferiority complex" to develop therapeutic treatments that promised to render a person superior.  They set up an independent therapy service, called Compulsions Analysis, then a several-year odyssey added considerable cultural complexity.  Among the influences was the ornate family of initiatory "magikal" groups such as the Order of the Golden Dawn, Rosicrucianism, and Aleister Crowley's Thelema cult.  A different influence was Anton Szandor LaVey's Church of Satan.  The Process did not join any of these already existing movements, nor did it become as the popular media often reported, Satanist.  Rather, the traditions were combined, in a context that was both psychological and religious.  Notably, the four "gods" of the Process could be understood either as deities or as human personality types: Jehovah (dutiful), Lucifer (permissive), Satan (separation), Christ (unification).

My novel Revival is set in the near future, perhaps just months after today, decades after the Process disintegrated.  Today, civilization is disintegrating.  Look around you, if you have doubts.  The viewpoint character, who narrates the story in first person, is named Robert Anson, and you would be forgiven if you thought that this name is a reference to the classic science fiction writer, Robert Anson Heinlein.  But this Robert Anson is a computer scientist in a government grant-giving agency named the National Social Science Institute.  The entire novel sees religion from the standpoint of computer and information science, as had already been suggested in a short story, "Processional, " I had published in the October 2015 issue of the prominent computer science magazine, Communications of the ACM.

The story begins as Robert Anson is working at the Institute, managing review of research grant proposals, when a heavy packing crate is delivered, amazingly sent by his old school friend, Colin Stuart, who had been murdered a few days before.  Robert had not been in contact with Colin for years, although he was aware that Colin had revived the Process, greatly enhancing its use of information technology, thus giving it much greater chance of popular success.  The original Process had used an electronic device, called the P-Scope, similar to a Scientology E-Meter, which Colin had reintroduced, building on the long tradition established by psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung that measured both galvanic skin response and latency of verbal response.  The Process used P-Scopes in sessions like Psychoanalysis, but aiming both to uncover an individual's subconscious compulsions and to discover memories of previous incarnations.  Colin had also developed means for preserving an individual's identity in the data from computerized therapy sessions, augmented by samples of DNA.  The crate delivered to Robert contained four copies of Colin's data, with the request that Robert would find four trustworthy people, each of whom would protect one copy until the technology was sufficiently advanced to bring Colin back to life.

The novel follows Robert Anson and three of his Institute colleagues as they explore the various branches of the new Process, each branch devoted to one of the gods, and confront a rising wave of mysterious murder that seems aimed at ending any marriage of religion and science.  The sociologist on his team is Anne Parsons, not to be confused with the real-life daughter of Talcott Parsons, who committed suicide in response to being mistreated in Psychoanalysis.  The literary symbolism of the two other scientists who explore the future of religion can remain encoded, Watson Skinner the behavioral psychologist, and Cora Benedict, the cultural anthropologist.  (cf. Wikipedia articles for John B. Watson, B. F. Skinner, Cora Du Bois, Ruth Benedict).

As I learned from reading the works of H. P. Lovecraft, novels in this general area between fantasy and science fiction need to be filled with interesting details.  Process rituals and scriptures provide rich cultural background, and every location where action occurs is a real place, including scenes set in four of the chapter houses of the original Process, or in accurate information technology environments.  The violence is meaningful while frankly lurid, because everything about it symbolizes the bloody chaos arising in our real world today.  Yet the hope of the Process was that competing realities could combine, religion and science, to form a new synthesis for the human future.  The novel's publisher, Feral House, provided wonderful images representing each chapter as fragments of reality converging into the Process Sign that decorates the cover:

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.



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