THE SECULAR MIND

By Robert Coles

Princeton. 189 pp. $19.95

Reviewed by Bill Broadway

Amajor shift in American spirituality is well underway as the Third Millennium bears down upon us. But you wouldn't know it from this new work on religious belief by child psychiatrist, literary critic, cultural observer and Pultizer Prize-winning author Robert Coles.

In The Secular Mind Coles examines the historical ascendancy of knowledge and materialism over divine authority since biblical times -- especially the last 200 years. The goal, he says, is to understand the distinctions among "Man the thinking materialist and Man the anxiously aspiring creature who bows his head and prays" and, quoting theologian Paul Tillich, Man who "looks outside himself to Another, to God."

Coles then sets out to show how reason has supplanted faith in modern society, how the religion of psychoanalysis has replaced trust in a Divine Being and how advances in psychobiology and pharmacology eventually could lead to total mind -- and faith -- control.

For insight and example, the author reaches into his stable of heroes, some of them his mentors and all of them subjects of books he has published over a long career: Anna Freud, daughter of Sigmund Freud; social activist Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement; novelist-metaphysician Walker Percy; modern Christian martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer; poet-doctor William Carlos Williams; and psychiatrist Erik Erikson.

The author re-visits such 19th-century literary classics as George Eliot's Middlemarch and George Meredith's The Egoist and the 20th-century stories of Flannery O'Connor. And he quotes Blaise Pascal's Pensees and remarks on the futuristic novels Nineteen Eighty-Four and Brave New World. All this he does in 189 pages, bouncing from subject to subject in a kind of free-association intellectual meandering.

What he doesn't do is even mention the dominant trend in religion in the last decade of the millennium, a widespread resurgence of interest in things "spiritual" to which this special issue of Book World is only one testimonial. The general populace is fed up with traditional forms of religion and equally discontented with the inability of science to solve social problems or bring personal happiness. Massive numbers of spiritual seekers are struggling desperately to find new ways of thinking about God, the Other and Inner Being -- searching for antidotes to the secularization of the mind of which most people already are keenly aware.

Many have found solace in "walking the labyrinth," following a maze of lines on huge portable canvases -- an activity that people swear puts them in touch with their deepest feelings and increases empathy for their fellow travelers. Others glom onto hybrid meditation programs that combine Christian or Jewish prayer with Eastern methodologies.

Among organized religions, the charismatic and Pentecostal movements have gained adherents at an unprecedented pace. And in the ultra-rational world of science, a bastion of atheism and agnosticism, an increasing number of renowned physicists, astronomers and psychiatrists have publicly confessed a belief in some life force beyond human knowledge.

Why Coles, who says his extensive work with children showed how much culture and environment influence personality development, fails to note this dominant cultural movement is puzzling. The multi-disciplined Coles is precisely the person to take a critical look at the phenomenon and to say, within the framework of a book such as this, whether we might see a new form of belief to fill a spiritual void caused by secularism.

Instead, he devotes the final chapter of The Secular Mind, "Where We Are Going," to strictly scientific matters. At least he finally reaches the heart of what is really bothering him: the possible annihilation of the sacred by "emerging biological psychoanalysis." "The coming centuries will offer their very own version of Freud's drama, with its three well-known protagonists [Ego, Superego and Id]," he writes. "But, as Freud anticipated, `mind' will increasingly become `matter,' a move from metapsychological inquiry to medical applications and interventions tied to a materialist comprehension of how the brain works."

This scenario obviously leaves Coles not a little muddled and, frankly, scared. He presents his fears through the voice of an unnamed fourth-year medical student who admires her grandmother's refusal to become a slave to the phones, faxes and other "gadgets" that the young woman -- like her father -- has come to depend on: "Sometimes I wonder whether we won't undo ourselves -- learn how to do so much that `we' are left behind!" the young woman says. "Will there always be a `me' who wonders about what she's doing, and why, or will the `me' or the `you' get lost in all the understanding or control we have over the way the brain works?"

Coles concludes his intellectual exercise on a note of despair, wondering whether in future centuries anything will be left of the human notion of self and compassion. Indeed, he suggests, there may be no such thing as a soul. And prayer itself, a defining feature of faith, becomes the "the last gasp of the sacred," though one is "unsure, in a secular sense, to whom or what such prayer is directed."

What a downer. Too bad Coles didn't walk one of those labyrinths. At least it would have meant taking some action, which even the angst-ridden existentialists prescribed as a way to find some meaning to life. And the reader could walk away without feeling he's wasted his time.

Bill Broadway is a religion writer and editor for The Washington Post.