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Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit

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ISBN13: 9780232526370

ISBN10: 9780232526370


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  • Despite the decline of institutional religion, David Hay maintains that a remarkable new phenomenon is emerging. Survey figures show that interest in spirituality, often expressed as the awareness of something there, is rising right across the developed world. Researching the biological, psychological and social sciences which strongly suggest that spiritual awareness is a genuine and deep-seated aspect of what it is to be human, David interviews hundreds of ordinary people, who claim no formal religious affiliation, who back up the view that spirituality is hard-wired into our biological make-up and is evolving, through natural selection, because it has survival value. It is what enables people to relate ethically to other human beings and to their environment.
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  • Chapter one The mountains of the mind

    Man that is born of woman has but a short time to live, and is full of misery. 1662 Prayer Book

    O the mind, mind has mountains; cliffs of fall
    Frightful, sheer, no-man-fathomed. Gerard Manley Hopkins (l)

    ESTRAGON (giving up): Nothing to be done. Samuel Beckett, Waiting for Godot (2)

    The spirit of an era
    Certain people come to represent the spirit of their time. Maybe the Beatles or Elvis did that for the pop world of the 1960s and 1970s. On a cold evening in London in the 1950s the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett had already gone a step further. He put in a nutshell the emotional culmination of four centuries of European culture. The setting of this tour de force was the Arts Theatre Club in Great Newport Street on 3 August 1955. After troubles with the Lord Chamberlain over censorship, Becketts new play was about to open privately with Peter Hall directing. The weather had been drab all day, so it was not a bad time to get out of the cold and into the warmth of a theatre. Anyone present on that basis and hoping for a comfortable evening was to be disappointed. As the curtain rose, this is what confronted them.

    On a bare stage stand two shabbily dressed men. Bowler-hatted clowns, they might be mistaken for Laurel and Hardy.(3) They are Vladimir and Estragon, the central characters in Waiting for Godot.

    Although there is a path running through their Wasteland they do not venture along it, but stay rooted to the spot. It seems they are immobilised by hope, the hope that someone called Godot will arrive and... what? Give a meaning or an explanation of their situation? Tell them what to do? Get them out of their hopelessness? Who knows? At any rate here-and-now they are in a state of absolute dependency on a mysterious figure who mayor may not exist. (4) Those members of the audience who have the stamina to remain in their seats until the final curtain find out that nothing changes and Godot still hasnt come. They are left with the strong suspicion that he will never come.

    On that opening night, and for many succeeding nights, most of the audience were unimpressed. Many walked out, while others stayed to jeer - they couldnt make head or tail of it. I remember being puzzled myself the first time I saw the play. Yet Beckett repeatedly asserted that the theme of Waiting for Godot is simple and straightforward. His claim to transparency is somewhat disingenuous, for his words confront us with human depths where few would care to remain for long. The psychological world occupied by the central characters is one that has regressed back to a childlike directness of feeling, as hinted at by the use of their pet names, Didi and Gogo. Their straightforwardness has a primordial quality, as if signalling the announcement of an embodied, biologically rooted knowingness existing before all theology, all philosophy, all scientific investigation, or any kind of extended thought whatsoever. The common response of those first audiences was denial, in the psychiatric sense of that word. People either avoided Becketts version of the truth by refusing to understand at the conscious level, or they ran away.

    In spite of the temptation to shut out Becketts message as unrecognisable, his language is indeed perfectly familiar. Inevitably, but paradoxically, the naked passions of the characters in Waiting for Godot are clothed in the forms of European culture, particularly its Christian beliefs (5) - inevitably, because Beckett was a European; paradoxically, because how can language ever do more than hint at the primordial?

    Beckett was unusually well acquainted with Christian culture. His mother, who was a devout member of the Church of Ireland, brought him up in a suburb of Dublin. (6) Their relationship was troubled and intense, and for the rest of his life he continued to immerse himself in the classical literature of Christianity, particularly the works of Dante. An interviewer once asked him if a Christian interpretation of Godot was justified, to which he replied, Yes, Christianity is a myth with which I am perfectly familiar. So naturally I use it. (7) Becketts allusions to Christianity are not always reverent, but they are always serious and self-referential. His preoccupations are identical to those of the devout Christian believer meaning, hope and despair, suffering and the shortness of life. (8) During one knock-about exchange Estragon makes a reference to Jesus Christ. Vladimir exclaims Christ! What has Christ to do with it? Youre not going to compare yourself to Christ! Estragon replies: All my life Ive compared myself to him.

    Many critics have dwelt upon this pervasive use of Christian imagery in Becketts writing, some of them claiming that his message is religious. It has even been suggested that he was awarded the 1969 Nobel Prize for Literature on the mistaken assumption that his writing was a defence of religion. But Beckett was absolutely without any form of religious belief. The concluding words of his novel The Unnameable, express his views succinctly: Where I am, I dont know, Ill never know, in the silence you dont know, you must go on, I cant go on, Ill go on. (9)

    One way of interpreting Godot is to see it as a snare to catch out unwary people and summarily demolish their illusion that they do know where they are. (10) Although Becketts stock of ideas came from the European tradition, he insisted that there is no solid reason to suppose that this or any inherited point of view corresponds with reality. His personal axioms included the belief that we are forever alone, that language ultimately fails to communicate, that broad generalisations (metanarratives) about the nature of reality are unwarranted; that they are even a kind of violence done to the unique world of the individual. Hence all that a writer or artist who feels driven to express themselves can do is to speak as concretely and simply as possible about their own experience of life.

    Although Beckett expressed his pain in a novel way, what he said is not new. Loss of coherent meaning lies at the core of an austere tradition traceable back to at least the sixteenth century in Europe.

    From time to time the distress of it is caught in the writings of those who deal in naked feeling - that is, the poets. There is a parallel emotion running through from John Donnes early seventeenth century lament,

    And freely men confess that this worlds spent,
    When in the planets and the firmament
    They seek so many new: they see that this
    Is crumbled out again this atomies.
    Tis all in pieces, all coherence gone;
    All just supply, and all relation: (11)

    to Matthew Arnolds verse written in 1867:

    Ah, love, let us be true
    To one another! for the world, which seems
    To lie before us like a land of dreams,
    So various, so beautiful, so new,
    Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
    Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
    And we are here as on a darkling plain
    Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    Where ignorant armies clash by night. (12)

    W. B. Yeats continues with similar vehemence in 1921,

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world... (13)

    In all three poems the loss of coherence is expressed as a spiritual or religious loss and it is a commonplace that this is associated with ideas that came to fruition during the European Enlightenment (14) Just how certain aspects of the Enlightenment made religious belief difficult for Europeans is an issue I will explore in detail later (see chapter 9). At this point it is sufficient to be reminded that the legacy of religious scepticism is inherited to some degree by everyone in the continent of Europe, not to speak of those other parts of the world that have been strongly influenced by European ideas. In every Westerner who is at all socially aware there resides either the conviction, or the knowledge of other peoples conviction, that religion is a dubious affair. Even those who have withdrawn into a religious ghetto to protect their beliefs are conscious of the critics who have triggered their wish for radical disengagement from the dominant culture.

    Beckett is a supremely powerful spokesman on behalf of that underlying scepticism. In the 1950s, at what now seems like a pivotal moment, with the skill of a psychoanalyst he brought to consciousness the sense of incoherence that had been growing for centuries, but in the main was ignored or repressed in peoples everyday lives. He even got it headlined in the popular media. It is as if, with the honesty and naivety of a small boy, he blurted out an unpalatable intuition; there is no ultimate meaning. Large numbers of our contemporaries, when they have the strength to explore that suppressed world, share the opinion that the meanings that traditionally clothed our existence are simply not there.

    The loss of religious meaning is publicly displayed in the statistics of decline in the churches. Britain is fortunate in having a relatively good set of figures summarising the changing involvement of people in religious institutions over the past 150 years. Though interpretation of the data is difficult and controversial, the waning of these institutions is unmistakable. It has been examined in detail by students of secularisation theory (which predicts that as society becomes more rationally ordered, the influence of religion will decline) .(15) The picture that emerges is one of increasing numbers of people drifting away from what they see as no longer credible, hence irrelevant to their lives. During the second half of the twentieth century the collapse appears to have accelerated. (16)

    The story is well known so I shall confine myself to offering only a few reminders of the argument. Steve Bruce, the leading British proponent of secularisation theory, reflecting on several different analyses of the 1851 Census of Religious Worship, concludes that probably between 40 per cent and 60 per cent of the adult population of Britain were regular church attenders in that year. (I7) By 1998, according to figures gathered by Peter Brierley, (18) the proportion had dropped to 7.5 per cent. Between 1900 and 2000 the aggregated figures for church membership fell from an optimum of 27 per cent of the national population to 10 per cent. (19) The story is much the same for religious professionals. In 1900 there were over 45,000 clergy in the United Kingdom. By the year 2000, at a time when the national population had almost doubled, the number of clergy had fallen to just over 36,000. Professor Bruce points out that to maintain equivalence with 1900, there should be something like 80,000 clergy today. (20) Even more startling, Brierley calculates that attendance of children at Sunday School dropped from a maximum of half the population in 1920 to a miniscule 4 per cent in 2000. (21) In England in 1900, according to Brierley, 67 per cent of all weddings took place in an Anglican church, whilst by 2000 the figure had fallen to 20 per cent. (22) Finally and most devastatingly, during the last decade of the twentieth century people were detaching themselves from the mainstream churches at a spectacular rate. The statistics recorded in Religious Trends 1999/2000 (23) show that regular church attendance in Britain fell from 4.74 million in 1989 to 3.71 million in 1998, a of more than 20 per cent in ten years. Extrapolating those figures forward, one would have to conclude that there will be virtually no Christian institutional presence in Britain by the year 2050. In other words, if we take religious adherence as our measure of a belief in ultimate meaning, then there is overwhelming evidence that Becketts message has hit home.

    Although this book is about spirituality, I will inevitably have a great deal to say about religion. The two subjects are very closely related, to the extent that for many people they are synonymous. What then, in the light of the statistics just quoted, are we to make of the dramatic changes in report of religious or spiritual experience in Britain during the latter part of the twentieth century? In 1987, along with Gordon Heald (who at the time was director of Gallup Poll in Britain), I published the results of a survey of reports of such experience in the UK. (24) The figures showed that 48 per cent of the national sample felt they were personally aware of this kind of experience in their lives. In the year 2000, in association with the BBCs Soul of Britain review of the spiritual state of the nation, I had the opportunity to have another look at the question. Again I used the skills of Gordon Heald, who by this time was running his own polling organisation, the Opinion Research Business (ORB). I wondered what had happened over the years since 1987, approximately the same period of time during which church attendance had dropped by 20 per cent. I was curious to see whether there was a parallel fall in positive response to questions about religious and spiritual experience. As far as possible I decided to repeat the 1987 enquiries in the new survey, though omitting two of the original questions. (25)

    I was astonished when I received the results, to the extent of telephoning the ORB office to make sure there had not been a mistake. Over those 13 years there had been an almost 60 per cent increase in the positive response rate. The figures suggest that around three-quarters of the national population are now likely to admit to having had one of these experiences. The great majority of these people are of course not regular churchgoers. And ever since the millennium, if the mushrooming of references on spirituality on the Internet is anything to go by (according to Google at the time of writing, it had risen to over 36,000,000) there is no sign of the interest dying down. (Currently,as of July 2006, the figure is 104,000,000.)

    But what do people mean when they say they have had a spiritual or religious experience? I am able to give a substantial answer because of the work of the Oxford zoologist, Alister Hardy, of whom I shall have more to say in later chapters. In 1969 Hardy founded the Religious Experience Research Unit (RERU) (26) with the purpose of making a scientific study of the nature, function and frequency of reports of religious experience in the human species. He saw his initial task as rather like that of the Victorian naturalists, gathering examples of different specimens and classifying them, in preparation for the creation of a theory of religious experience. In response to advertisements he placed in the media, Hardy accumulated an archive of several thousand personal descriptions sent in to the Unit by members of the general public. These narratives were replies to variants of the following question:

    Have you ever been aware of or influenced by a presence or a power, whether you call it God or not, that is different from your everyday self?

    Hardy was soon to find that the classification of the responses was more difficult than he expected, primarily because there is a fundamental difference between sorting physical organisms like animals and plants, and applying the same method to written accounts of experience. In the latter case a multitude of personal, psychological, social and political influences affect the way people put their experience into words, making classification a more puzzling and uncertain undertaking.

    In spite of the complications, several attempts have been made to organise the material in Hardys archive. (27) The simplest, and therefore the crudest method, is the one Gordon Heald and I used to prepare the questionnaire for our 1987 survey. We wanted to ask about different subcategories of experience. To be useable in a largescale national poll the questions have to be clear-cut, straightforward and as far as possible, unambiguous. We decided that it was not practicable to offer a list of more than a few alternatives, so we carefully reviewed the archive held in the RERU office and identified the eight commonest types of experience recorded. These were inserted in our poll. For the sake of clarity I will present the same classification here, along with a warning that this simplification is of course an over-simplification.

    In my illustrations I have intentionally chosen vivid descriptions because they are helpful to convey the strong feeling that typically lies behind them. But there is a snag about using extracts like this because most peoples accounts are simple and down-to-earth. Hardy wanted to stress this ordinariness, in contrast to the two previous best-known studies of religious experience prior to his work, which both emphasised extraordinary states of consciousness. William James, first professor of Psychology at Harvard University, is the acknowledged founding father of the modern psychological study of religious experience. He achieved this position through his Gifford Lectures, delivered in Edinburgh University in 1901-2 and published as The Varieties of Religious Experience. (28) The lectures intentionally laid stress on extreme examples of experience because of James belief that psychological phenomena are most easily recognisable in their acute form. Similarly, in 1917, the German philosopher and theologian Rudolf Otto wrote a highly influential book on the experience of transcendence, Das Heilige. (29) It is a dramatic work in which he focuses upon the awe-inspiring forms that such experience can take, drawing many of his examples from the Bible.

    Table 1: Frequency of Report of Religious or Spiritual Experience in Britain for the Years 1987 and 2000

    1987 2000

    A patterning of events 29% 55%
    Awareness of the presence of God 27% 38%
    Awareness of prayer being answered 25% 37%
    Awareness of a sacred presence in nature 16% 29%
    Awareness of the presence of the dead 18% 25%
    Awareness of an evil presence 12% 25%
    Cumulative Total (48%)* 76%

    * This includes totals for respondents to two additional questions asked in 1987 about a presence not called God (22%) and awareness that all things are One (5%), i.e. the total of 76% for the year 2000 is quite likely to be relatively speaking an underestimate.

    Bearing my proviso in mind, here are the classified extracts from Hardys archive.

    The commonest kind of experience reported in Britain is the recognition of a transcendent providence: a patterning of events in a persons life that convinces them that in some strange way those events were meant to happen. In the millennium year survey I mentioned above, 55 per cent of the national sample recognised this in their own lives. This is a 90 per cent rise compared to the response when the question was asked in 1987 (see Table 1). Sometimes these events have the startling characteristics of what the psychologist C. G. Jung called synchronicity, that is, a meaningful coincidence or a cluster of events that do not appear to have any causal connection with each other, yet have a meaningful relationship. (30)

    My first example will illustrate what I mean. A young woman is giving an account of her religious search:

    while walking home one dark night I reflected how my search was going and, rather sadly, felt that, like Thomas, I must have proof and without that I would have to say that I did not believe in God. Deep in thought, I looked up at the night sky, which was filled with hundreds of stars. Wildly, I threw the silent call upwards, Prove it! Hardly had the words been formed than a bright star sped across the sky. Before it died away, another star had begun to traverse the darkness. And there, just for a moment, an enormous cross blazed in the heavens like a personal signature. I was filled with awe and a certain terror at the power that I saw unleashed...

    Here we see at once the importance of the cultural context in which an experience (any kind of experience) occurs for the construction of meaning, since this woman is aware of the symbolic significance of the cross in Christianity. Nevertheless, whilst a sceptic would dismiss the coincidence as meaningless, she is convinced that her experience is not merely coincidental, since she adds,

    My husband died last year at the age of 39 years with cancer. While I nursed him a friend said to me, I dont know how you can believe in God. The question surprised me, for once you know there is a God the question of belief ceases to exist.

    The next example has a rather less obviously culturally constructed content, but the symbolic importance of coincidence is experienced as even more melodramatic. The incident occurred at a time when the informants life was in pieces and she had decided to kill herself:

    ... at that moment I let out a loud challenge into that dark and lonesome night, into that desolation of land and soul and I shouted: ... IF THERE IS SUCH A THING AS A GOD THEN SHOW YOURSELF TO ME - NOW... and at that very instant there was a loud crack, like a rifle shot [coming from the bedroom] ... I stumbled through the open door to my bedroom. I fell into the bed shaking and then something forced my eyes upward to the wall above my bedside table and where I had a very small photograph of my father hanging. .. The picture had gone - I just looked at the empty space... but in looking closer I saw the photograph, face down on the little table and the narrow silver frame was split apart, the glass broken and from behind the cardboard on the back there had slipped out. .. the last letter [my father] had written me ... When I picked up that letter and read over and over the words of this beloved caring father of mine, I knew that was HIS help to me, and God answered me directly in the hour of this soul being in anguish.

    These two examples are described in spectacular terms and experienced as such. Much more commonly, people speak of coming to recognise an unfolding pattern in their lives that has not been dictated by their personal choice, as for example in the selection of a career. Almost without exception this configuration is interpreted as something given, though not necessarily with an overtly religious connotation. The next example, however, is from a committed religious believer, and here we can see a move towards St Ignatius Loyolas dictum of seeing God in all things:

    The experiences of the last six months have... confirmed my deep conviction that God is directly and indirectly guiding my life. .. as well as being absolutely convinced of Divine guidance in the larger issues of my life, I feel the guidance strongly even in some of the smaller events. .. the pattern of my life seems to me to be a mosaic, in which everything, including seeming disasters, eventually turns to good. . .

    Many people feel they have been aware of the presence of God. We know from our research that this can often be when they are very happy. At the other end of the scale, people talk of being aware of God when they are deeply distressed. In the latter case typically nothing changes in their physical circumstances, but the experience of Gods presence places them in a larger context of meaning which helps them to bear their suffering. In the year 2000 poll, 38 per cent of the sample said they had personal awareness of such a divine presence - a 41 per cent rise on 13 years previously. Here is an example of someone experiencing feelings of joy in the presence of God, yet anxious about her sanity:

    I was looking after the Friends Meeting House high on a spur of the forest, and sleeping on a camp bed in the sitting-room of the dwelling next door. One night I awoke slowly at about one oclock to a feeling of absolute safety and happiness; everything in the world around me seemed to be singing All is very well. After an almost unbelieving (sic) few minutes I got up and went to the window and saw the valley filled with the love of God, flowing and spreading from the roadside and the few houses of the village. It was as though a great source of light and love and goodness was there along the valley, absolutely true and unchangeable. I went outside and looked down over the hedge, and the light and assurance were most truly there; I looked and looked, and, to be honest, I was not thankful, as I should have been, but trying to absorb the awareness of safety and joy so deeply that I would never forget it.

    The writer goes on to say that the following day, in someone elses house, she picked up a magazine that lay open at an article on just such religious experiences as [I] had had the previous night. Synchronicity again. She interpreted it as a reassurance that she was quite sane. As we shall see, anxiety about insanity is a common accompaniment of these experiences.

    Some of the most interesting examples in Hardys archive are memories from childhood. (31) The freedom for experience of this type in children is often attributed to naivety and a misunderstanding of causality. In a later chapter I will question this dismissal and offer an alternative account based on recent empirical research. Here is an example of someone recollecting a spontaneous experience of being in Gods presence when she was a young girl:

    My father used to take all the family for a walk on Sunday evenings. On one such walk, we wandered across a narrow path through a field of high, ripe corn. I lagged behind, and found myself alone. Suddenly, heaven blazed upon me. I was enveloped in golden light, I was conscious of a presence, so kind, so loving, so bright, so consoling, so commanding, existing apart from me but so close. I heard no sound. But words fell into my mind quite clearly - Everything is all right. Everybody will be all right.

    The writer connects her comment with the best-known saying of the fourteenth-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich, All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.

    Surprise is very characteristic, as in the next quotation, which is of interest because the writer includes a reflection on the use of metaphor to mediate his experience:

    The experience itself is very difficult to describe. It took me completely by surprise. I was about to start shaving at the time, of all things. I felt that my soul was literally physically shifted for quite a number of seconds, perhaps 15 to 20 - from the dark into the light. I saw my life, suddenly, as forming a pattern and felt that I had, suddenly, become acquainted with myself again after a long absence - that I was, whether I liked it or not, treading a kind of spiritual path, and this fact demanded me to quit academics and enter social work... I must stress here that prior to this experience I used never to use the words such as sour or salvation or any such religiously coloured words. But in order to make even the slightest sense of what happened to me I find it imperative to use them. Looking back it does seem as if I saw a kind of light, but I think that this might have been a metaphor I coined immediately after the experience.

    The next illustration is an example of the many accounts of the presence of God that are associated with times of severe distress:

    I had an experience seven years ago that changed my whole life. I had lost my husband six months before and my courage at the same time. I felt life would be useless if fear were allowed to govern me. One evening with no preparation, as sudden and dynamic as the Revelation to Saul of Tarsus, I knew I was in the presence of God, and that he would never leave me nor forsake me and that he loved me with a love beyond imagination - no matter what I did.

    Rather more than a fifth of our 1987 sample referred to this kind of experience. We were not able to include a question on it in our millennium poll. (32) That is unfortunate, because it is an increasingly Important category in an age of religious decline. Luckily there are numerous examples in Hardys archive. People are often lost for words, and when they do find words they are not sure that they Convey the experience. Evidently the term God is not always appropriate for the writers, partly because they feel uneasy with religious language. The inarticulacy associated with any experience of a transcendent presence, and the uncertainty when words are found, is beautifully brought out in the next account. It is also of a childhood memory, from a man in his fifties:

    As a child (not younger than 6, not older than 8) I had an experience which nowadays I consider as kindred, if not identical with those experiences related by Wordsworth in The Prelude, Bk I, lines 379-400. (33) The circumstances were: dusk, summertime, and lone of a crowd of grown-ups and children assembled round the shore of an artificial lake, waiting for full darkness before a firework display was to begin. A breeze stirred the leaves of a group of poplars to my right; stirred, they gave a fluttering sound. There, then, I knew or felt or experienced what? Incommunicable now, but then much more so. The sensations were of awe and wonder, and a sense of astounding beauty... that child of 6 or 7 or 8 knew nothing of Wordsworth or about mysticism or about religion.

    My former colleague Edward Robinson (34) had the opportunity to talk further with this man about what his experience meant to him. He told Robinson,

    Its very difficult to say that it revealed - what? The existence of infinity? The fact of divinity? I wouldnt have had the language at my command to formulate such things, so that if I speak about it now it is with the language and ideas of a mature person. But from my present age, looking back some half a century, I would say now that I did then experience - what? a truth, a fact, the existence of the divine. What happened was telling me something. But what was it telling? The fact of divinity, that it was good? Not so much in the moral sense, but that it was beautiful, yes, sacred. (35)

    Did this man mean God? I dont know, and it is not clear that the person himself feels able to give an unequivocal answer to that question either. A similar uncertainty appears in the next extract, because the informant has consciously withdrawn from the religious institution in which he was nurtured:

    Since about the age of 6 I have had an awareness of a higher power. At all times I am aware of this power, which is as real to me as any in the physical world. In this sense I live in two spheres of influence. When I am tranquil, as in bed late at night, I place my problems before this higher power and I am shown the way to solve them... Originally a Catholic, since 12 I have belonged to no organised religion whatsoever. I belong to no group.

    Sometimes there is no equivocation, as in the next brief extract, which sounds self-contradictory, perhaps further underlining the difficulty with the use of religious terminology in a secular age:

    I ... know that since I concluded some years ago that my mind could not accept a personal God... I seem to have become more aware of this all pervading power which to me is strength, comfort, joy, goodness. . .

    In great unhappiness or fear, many people, including those who are uncertain about Gods existence, turn to prayer for help. A total of 37 per cent of those questioned in the millennium su

Something There: The Biology of the Human Spirit