Selling Silence

article-2269026-17336C77000005DC-673_634x778A CD filled with … nothing at all except complete silence … has become a bit of a hit.

It is a 30 minute recording of the inside of the village church of St Peter’s Church in Hangleton, Hove, done to raise funds to repair the building. An article on it reports …

Roger Bing, 74, from Seaford, the church member who came up with the idea, said: ‘The church was planning an open day and wanted something a little bit different to catch the attention of people who were coming along.

‘The church has got quite good recording equipment so we decided to make a CD of 30 minutes of silence.

‘It is pretty much silence throughout with a few background noises.

‘There are a few little noises here and there – I think if it was total silence people might get a bit bored.

Apparently they have had orders for it from Germany and even Ghana, and yes, that sound you can now hear is the distinct sound of my mind trying to wrap itself around this idea. It is of course a good idea, in that it is an old historical building in need of funds, and as an idea for fund-raising – it works, and it does indeed also tell us a great deal about the psychology of the human mind.

Try this question. Why exactly is the silence of a church so special above and beyond the silence of some of the following?

  • The British Library at night, or for that matter, any similar institution at night such as your favorite art gallery, or museum
  • An empty windless day in some remote lifeless spot on the planet … (pick your favourite)

There is something within us that attributes specific places or even specific objects as “holy” or “sacred” and so the sound of silence itself from such a place is deemed special. This appears to be, in terms of psychology, a form of essentialism. In other words there is some intangible essence that most cannot articulate. For example, suppose we started taking bits away, brick by brick, until there was nothing left at all, just a grassed over area, does it cease to by “holy” or “special”? Aparently not, it still in the human mind retains those special attributes.

OK, let us look at a simpler example, why do some collect autographs, it is simply ink on paper. Suppose you find a book that you really enjoy and just happen to bump into the author. Upon doing so you quickly yank out his book, thrust it in his face and ask if he would sign it for you. He then dutifully responds and quickly rushes off. Is this book somehow now special in some way because it has been signed by the author himself? But wait, what essence has been imparted, what special holy magic or aura does the book now contain? It is simply the addition of a bit more ink to a text that is already filled with the thoughts of this same author. It might imply some special relationship, but none exists, the poor bloke simply signed to get you out of his face, he has no special feelings for you, nor does he actually know you or for that matter really give a toss.

OK, back to our holy place, it is not just a grass field, but is deemed “special” because people once did “holy” things there a long time ago. Ah but what then happens if that all fades and is forgotten about, could somebody turn up at this empty field, quite oblivious of the history, and with the right instruments measure that it contains something special? If you are truly honest, the answer to that is “No”, because there is nothing that is actually there that can be measured that justifies this belief in “holy”.

What is going on is that this essence we tend to impart to objects or places is more akin to a form of sentimentalism, and says a great deal about what goes on inside our heads, but not very much about the things that are actually real. We have a lot of words we use to describe this, words such as “special”, “holy”, or even “spiritual”, or “Aura”, I’m sure you can think of lots more.

People appear to have a default assumption that things, people and events have invisible essences that make them what they are, not because they actually do, but because we have been naturally selected to be like that, we are natural-born essentialists and because it is like this we can be naturally prone to superstitious thinking. This perhaps also explains why there is a considerable disbelief in evolution, the belief that each species is a specific type that contains a specific special essence that makes it what it is. When you think like that then to hold fast to the idea that one type cannot become another type.

We are of course still evolving and changing, as the flow of information increases we are starting to rise above all this and are slowly embracing a more rational empirically based view, and slowly letting go of our more primitive essentialism. However, the fact that a CD of silence from a “holy” place can become a hit demonstrates that religion can still quite successfully tap into and leverage our quite natural essentialism as a means to survive.

It should of course be no surprise, selling a CD containing nothing at all, is what religion has been successfully doing for centuries.

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