Wilson’s Critique of Religion (V)

This is the 8th 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 (IV).

“THE ARMAGEDDON IN THE CONFLICT between science and religion (if I may be allowed so strong a metaphor) began in earnest during the late twentieth century. It is the attempt by scientists to explain religion to its foundations—not as an independent reality within which humanity struggles to find its place, not as obeisance to a divine Presence, but as a product of evolution by natural selection. At its source, the struggle is not between people but between worldviews. People are not disposable, but worldviews are. Was Man made in the image of God, or was God made in the image of Man? This is the heart of the difference between religion and science-based secularism. Which alternative is selected has profound importance for human self-understanding and the way people treat each other. If God made Man in His image, a belief suggested by the creation stories and iconographies of most religions, it is reasonable to suppose that He is personally in charge of humans. If, on the other hand, God did not create humanity in His image, then there is a good chance that the solar system is not special within the ten sextillion or so other star systems in the universe. If the latter alternative were widely suspected, devotion to organized religions would fall off significantly.”  (Kindle Loc. 4124-35)

Wilson’s critique of religion is based on his own sense of the weakness of religious arguments.  He imagines that if religious people realized the size and vastness of the universe they would abandon notions of a Creator.  It is partly because he cannot envision or allow for a being that is so great as to bring the entire cosmos into existence. And since he believes only in material existence, some form of life – divinity – which is not limited by corporeal realities is not possible in his thinking.   But that may be more the limitation of his imagination than any facts that can disprove such a being as God.

Copernicus’ clock

The European discovery of the “New World” occurred at a time when many of the assumed truths of the Bible were being challenged by new discoveries.  Some could not believe that a “New World” could exist since it wasn’t mentioned in the Bible.  And some indeed came to doubt that the Bible was the sole source of truth.  But what was most being challenged was the very nature of the Bible itself – was the Bible the source of scientific knowledge and discovery?  Or was the Bible offering an understanding of what it meant to be human – revealing the truth about God and humans in the culturally conditioned languages of historic people?

That the Bible gave no indication of the existence of the Americas is problematic mostly if you think the Bible is the source of all knowledge.   But the number of things which have been discovered in nature which are not mentioned in the Bible is staggering, not to mention the numbers of inventions which human technology have created.    The very notion of what the Bible is or what it means that the Bible is the Word of God has been undergoing change through time.   It was a human understanding that was undergoing change, not what the Bible says.  The text of the Scriptures were still there but scientific, geographic and astronomic discoveries were revealing aspects of the universe that were not revealed in the Bible.  It was the reading of Scripture in a particular way that was being challenged and changed.

The love of God for the world will not be diminished if it is discovered that God loves the rest of the universe just as much as He loves our world, or that He created other beings in other solar systems.  For me at least, the discovery of other inhabited worlds is not much different than the discovery of the New World by Europeans and the discovery that the New World was inhabited.  It doesn’t mean the Bible is wrong, but our reading of it and the assumptions we make about the Bible may be way off base.

Indeed some people’s faith will be challenged if it can be shown to them that their reading or understanding of the Bible was simply errant.  But others will continue to marvel at the mysteries of the universe and the meaning of life which are both hidden and revealed in the Scriptures.

Wilson does point out what he sees as the growing divide between those committed to a scientific understanding of the universe and those who still acknowledge a religious faith as being part of their understanding.

“On these basic questions a division widened during the twentieth century between religious believers and secular scientists. In 1910 a survey of “greater” (starred) scientists listed in American Men of Science revealed that a still sizable 32 percent believed in a personal God, and 37 percent believed in immortality. When the survey was repeated in 1933, believers in God had fallen to 13 percent and those in immortality to 15 percent. The trend continues. By 1998, members of the United States National Academy of Sciences, an elite elected group sponsored by the federal government, were approaching complete atheism. Only 10 percent testified to a belief in either God or immortality. Among them were a scant 2 percent of the biologists.”   (Kindle Loc. 4139-45)

There is no doubt that many committed to a scientific understanding of the universe see no place for religion in their lives.  Atheism offers a fairly straightforward logic and rationale which appeals to the intellect of many.   It can point to the failures of religious groups in behavioral terms and the contradictory claims of religions as evidence to the limitations of supernatural claims for truth.  If one assumes that the empirical universe is all there is, then atheistic science offers a pretty good explanation as to how things work.

Yet, for some of us, the truths of science, which we don’t refute, do not answer those questions which we can ask – why do we exist?  What is the meaning of life?   What is the meaning of being human?    The answers to those questions lie beyond the capacity of science to answer because they are questions which look beyond the limits of the material universe for answers.  The search for meaning is also a search for hope.  That we can consciously perceive beauty, mystery, spirituality and love in the universe defies mere scientific explanations.  (We will briefly consider in the next few blogs some of Wilson’s thoughts on these things).  Consciousness and conscience speak to us about an experienced dimension which is not limited by the material universe. Indeed imagination, consciousness,  abstract thinking, conscience and problem solving give us hints that evolution, whatever the truth of it is, brings into existence something not predicted by materialism, something which exists in an unknown relationship with the empirical brain, something that sets humanity apart from mere biological existence and from all other species on earth.   And this “intelligence”, the mind, the heart, the soul or the self – whatever words we want to apply to it – enable humans to think beyond themselves and the physical universe.   Humanity can aspire for something greater than limits imposed upon us by our physical nature.  Such “spirituality” is as real in our lives and world as is the material universe.

Next:   Biological Determinism