Cover image for The secular mind
The secular mind
Coles, Robert.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
189 pages ; 23 cm
Reading Level:
1490 Lexile.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
BL2760 .C65 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Does the business of daily living distance us from life's mysteries? Do most Americans value spiritual thinking more as a hobby than as an all-encompassing approach to life? Will the concept of the soul be defunct after the next few generations? Child psychiatrist and best-selling author Robert Coles offers a profound meditation on how secular culture has settled into the hearts and minds of Americans. This book is a sweeping essay on the shift from religious control over Western society to the scientific dominance of the mind. Interwoven into the story is Coles's personal quest for understanding how the sense of the sacred has stood firm in the lives of individuals--both the famous and everyday people whom he has known--even as they have struggled with doubt.

As a student, Coles questioned Paul Tillich on the meaning of the "secular mind," and his fascination with the perceived opposition between secular and sacred intensified over the years. This book recounts conversations Coles has had with such figures as Anna Freud, Karen Horney, William Carlos Williams, Walker Percy, and Dorothy Day. Their words dramatize the frustration and the joy of living in both the secular and sacred realms. Coles masterfully draws on a variety of literary sources that trace the relationship of the sacred and the secular: the stories of Abraham and Moses, the writings of St. Paul, Augustine, Kierkegaard, Darwin, and Freud, and the fiction of George Eliot, Hardy, Meredith, Flannery O'Connor, and Huxley. Ever since biblical times, Coles shows us, the relationship between these two realms has thrived on conflict and accommodation.

Coles also notes that psychoanalysis was first viewed as a rival to religion in terms of getting a handle on inner truths. He provocatively demonstrates how psychoanalysis has either been incorporated into the thinking of many religious denominations or become a type of religion in itself. How will people in the next millennium deal with advances in chemistry and neurology? Will these sciences surpass psychoanalysis in controlling how we think and feel? This book is for anyone who has wondered about the fate of the soul and our ability to seek out the sacred in our constantly changing world.

Author Notes

Boston-born psychiatrist and author Robert Martin Coles devoted his professional life to the psychology of children. Coles has been associated with the Harvard University Medical School since 1960.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for his five-volume series entitled Children in Crisis, Coles has contributed hundreds of articles to popular magazines, as well as writing over thirty books for adults and children. Other books include The Mind's Fate, Flannery O'Connor's South, and Walker Percy: An American Search.

(Bowker Author Biography) Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at the Harvard Medical school and a research psychiatrist for the Harvard University Health Services. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning five-volume Children of Crisis and the bestselling The Moral Intelligence of Children. He is also the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard. He lives in Massachusetts.

(Publisher Provided) Robert Coles is a professor of psychiatry & medical humanities at the Harvard Medical School, a research psychiatrist for the Harvard University Health Services, & the James Agee Professor of Social Ethics at Harvard College. His many books include the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Children of Crisis" series as well as the best-selling "The Spiritual Life of Children" & "The Moral Intelligence of Children". Dr. Coles is a founding editor of the award-winning magazine "DoubleTake".

(Publisher Provided)

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Readers serious enough about moral issues to find Bill Bennett's multiple best-sellers a bit thin would want this latest volume from the prolific Coles. In examining the nature of the secular and the sacred, Coles draws on his interviews with such notables as Paul Tillich, Dorothy Day, Anna Freud, and Walker Percy, as well as nuanced readings of the Bible and a range of great literature. Coles challenges the facile moanings about the uniquely secular nature of modern society and devotes more than half of this slim volume to chapters titled "Secularism in the Biblical Tradition" and "Where We Stood: 1900." He then examines twentieth-century changes--particularly the greater scientific grasp of the workings of the human brain and the century's two major forms of totalitarianism--and assesses our direction in "Where We Are Headed." The Secular Mind offers many small gems: selections from Augustine, Pascal, and William Carlos Williams; a deathbed conversation with Karen Horney; and pointed analysis of Eliot's Middlemarch, Hardy's Jude the Obscure, and O'Connor's short stories. Demanding, but definitely worth the effort. --Mary Carroll

Publisher's Weekly Review

Coles, a Harvard professor of psychiatry and social ethics and the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Children of Crisis, is one of those rare writers who can gracefully combine intellectual rigor with the idiom of spiritual quest. Here, despite the title, Coles is concerned not just with the secular mind‘the mind that exists and exerts its will in the contentious world‘but with the blurry intersection of the secular and the sacred. "I try," he writes, "to explore this matter of two minds, secular thinking and its constant search for moral, if not spiritual, sanction." Over the years, Coles has interviewed notable theologians, psychiatrists, novelists and poets, juxtaposing their clinical and aesthetic takes on the psychology of the human soul with experiences of ordinary people. He discusses the writings of Freud, Walker Percy, Dorothy Day, William Carlos Williams and Kierkegaard, among others. Throughout the book, Coles meditates on the paradox that it is as a scientist that he approaches questions traditionally deemed religious or spiritual. It's a paradox that, as Coles notes, manifests in many ways: Freud, who despised religion, became an object of "secular idolatry" as his work displaced the interior spiritual world that "had been the territory of religion." Coles also includes the not-at-all-famous, such as an Italian immigrant woman who realized the high cost of her Americanization: "When I prayed to God, I used to talk to Him, now I talk to myself." Finally, Coles assesses the impact of technology, including the possibility that science, in the form of neurology or genetics, may discern‘and eventually mediate with drugs‘human qualities, such as "goodness" or "badness," that once were in the realm of the spiritual. The brevity and conversational style of the book is deceptive; this is a potent and powerful work readers will think about and return to again and again. (Apr.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Choice Review

Robert Coles, child psychiatrist, professor at Harvard Univ. and the Medical School, and Pulitzer Prize winner for Children of Crisis (CH, Dec'67), offers a meditative essay that examines the nature and meaning of secular thinking and its connection to the sacred within the biblical tradition, at the beginning of this century, at its end, and for the future. Using an effective interdisciplinary approach, Coles's exploration weaves almost aphoristic treatments of many figures and their contributions from the worlds of religion, literature, and psychology with his own searching experiences. This fascinating essay demonstrates a rather unique and profound understanding of the Western intellectual tradition(s) that comes from a seasoned interpreter and self-conscious participant in and with that tradition(s). His study confirms that the secular mind can have its own kind of sanctity. This book is well written and quite readable at all levels, although Coles's style of referencing assumes considerable prior knowledge and thus a rather sophisticated reader. No bibliography or index. This insightful essay should be in public libraries and in libraries of educational institutions. Reading it is a delightful and stimulating experience. R. L. Massanari; Alma College

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 1
Ch. I Secularism in the Biblical Traditionp. 9
Ch. II Where We Stood: 1900p. 47
Ch. III Where We Stand: 2000p. 97
Ch. IV Where We Are Headedp. 15