THE SECULAR MIND by Robert Coles


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Prolific, award-winning psychiatrist Coles (Old and on their Own, 1998; The Moral Life of Children, 1986, etc.) falters in this rambling exploration of secularism in modern culture and consciousness. After a spotty discussion of secular, contemporary themes in the Bible, such as the self, identity, and power (no mention of the Golden Calf incident or the Book of Job), Coles looks at secularism in late-19th- and 20th-century thought, drawing upon literary works ranging from Middlemarch to1984 and upon his conversations over the years with such figures as psychoanalyst Anna Freud, Catholic socialist Dorothy Day, and novelist/philosopher Walker Percy. Yet the raw material from these interviews is poorly shaped, as Coles tends to quote for pages on end, rather than paraphrase and respond to his subject’s comments. He also flits from topic to topic—egotism, abstract thinking, and the recent hegemony of biological psychiatry over psychotherapy, among many others—without delving sufficiently into any one, and without providing a sense of rhetorical direction. A more serious problem is Coles’s style, particularly his many run-on sentences and his occasional penchant for pretentious statements: “In the midst of the darkness science asserts and explores, we crave whatever light we can make for ourselves, even if we do so as the proverbial whistlers (or, as the expression goes, with hope against hope).” Perhaps in writing about “the secular mind,” which tends to be self-preoccupied and living in a “here-and-now world,” Coles has taken on an overly broad topic, at least for a brief work such as this. Consequently, readers, after absorbing interesting allusions from a host of important cultural works, may ask, “What the devil is the author really getting at?” Whatever it is, Coles never quite arrives.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-691-05805-9
Page count: 197pp
Publisher: Princeton Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1st, 1999


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