This is the 7th blog in this series which is reflecting on E.O. Wilson’s book The Social Conquest of Earth. The first blog in the series is “What Does It Mean to be Human?” and the previous blog is Wilson’s Critique of Religion (III).
Wilson’s critique of religion follows a pretty standard line of thinking, but doesn’t seem to acknowledge the complexities of religious tradition and the ways in which religion have overcome his notions of religion being an evolutionary tool of tribal unity. For religions, especially monotheistic ones, have shown long ago that they have the ability to unite diverse peoples overcoming old tribal divisions. Even a simple story as St. Jacob of Alaska’s work among warring native Alaskans shows tribal exclusivism and hatreds being brought to a peaceful end as the previous warring tribes came to accept each other as brothers and sisters in Christ. Christianity carved out of the old Roman Empire a new race – different from Jews and Gentiles – the Christian people. The Emperor Constantine seems to have recognized that Christianity can create a unity out of an empire divided by geography, language, gender, race and religion. (So too Isalm has achieved that same notion – a brotherhood of believers). Old tribal divisions were ended. But Wilson ignores history and writes:
“Religious believers today, as in ancient times, are not as a rule much interested in theology, and not at all in the evolutionary steps that led to the present-day world religions. They are concerned instead with religious faith and the benefits it provides. The creation myths explain all they need to know of deep history in order to maintain tribal unity. In times of change and danger, their personal faith promises stability and peace. When faced by threat and competition from outside groups, the myths assure the believers that they are paramount in the sight of God. Religious faith offers the psychological security that uniquely comes from belonging to a group, and a divinely blessed one at that. At least within the immense throngs of Abrahamic faithful around the world, it promises eternal life after death, and in heaven, not hell—especially if we choose the right denomination within the many available, and pledge to faithfully practice its rituals.” (Kindle Loc. 4306-13)
What Wilson describes is certainly what Christianity and Islam within their own ranks have endeavored to overcome. Religion doesn’t simply sanctify inescapable evolutionary determinism, but strives to overcome biological “predestination” through sexual morality, in working to protect and help the weaker elements in society, in opposing euthanasia and eugenetics, or slavery in all forms. Religion has led the work against selfishness and self-centeredness teaching self-sacrifice, philanthropy and altruism.
Wilson however does not see positive value in religion, but rather sees religion as always being a way for some people to oppress others. It is not to God that religion’s adherents demand obedience, but to themselves and their institutions, so Wilson thinks. Thus for him religions are always self serving. There certainly have been times in history where this has been true, but many religions would acknowledge those are the moments in which the religion has failed; that is not the main teaching of religion which seeks God’s will and recognizes God, not humans, as Lord. Wilson, however, asks:
“Yet let us ask frankly, to whom is such obeisance really directed? Is it to an entity that may have no meaning within reach of the human mind—or may not even exist? Yes, perhaps it really is to God. But perhaps it is to no more than a tribe united by a creation myth. If the latter, religious faith is better interpreted as an unseen trap unavoidable during the biological history of our species. And if this is correct, surely there exist ways to find spiritual fulfillment without surrender and enslavement. Humankind deserves better.” (Kindle Loc. 4326-30)
The question of course to be asked is if Wilson is consistent in his thinking, won’t he have to admit that the tribal thinking is then not the fault of religion but nothing more than the product of biological determinism? The tribal divisions of humankind in this scenario are inescapable and even ridding the world of religion can change nothing, for people will be people as is in our genes. So his rants against religion are nothing more that a meaningless rage against the mechanistic universe – which he believes in – whose determinism cannot be resisted.
“Why, then, is it wise openly to question the myths and gods of organized religions? Because they are stultifying and divisive. Because each is just one version of a competing multitude of scenarios that possibly can be true. Because they encourage ignorance, distract people from recognizing problems of the real world, and often lead them in wrong directions into disastrous actions. True to their biological origins, they passionately encourage altruism within their membership, and systematically extend it to outsiders, albeit usually with the additional aim of proselytization.” (Kindle Loc. 4700-4705)
Wait a second……What did he just say?
In his last sentence Wilson faults religion for extending altruism to their own members and then systematically extending it to others. So religion is rejected because it advocates love for others? So he rejects religion both because it advocates love for others and because it is divisive, because it separates people and because it unites them. Bottom line is he rejects religion and will not admit that religion does challenge us in our biologically determined thinking to overcome our self-centered limitations.
Religions indeed have been competitive and oppositional, but religion does offer hope, beauty, goodness, and an ability for humans to evaluate their social actions in terms of morality and truth.
A world without religion will offer us what? Some humans (the atheistic scientists) ruling the world to eliminate the weak and to create a genetically modified humanity in their own image and likeness with no ability to know where this all will lead. It is another version of the utopian ideals that brought Fascism and Communism to power in the mid-20th Century.
Humans devoid of love and humility will not create a better world. Humans when they understand themselves as serving a Lord God have the potential at least to suppress their selfish genetic tendencies and to serve their fellow human beings.