Ants, God, and E O Wilson

E O WilsonThe great biologist E O Wilson is 85 years old today. He is controversial because of his work in sociobiology. This is the idea that social behavior is evolutionarily determined—at least in part. This comes out of his study of ants and their social behavior. It seems to me that rejecting this idea is a very typical kind of human error of thought. It is the idea that somehow humans are special and thus in some sense a quantum step removed. I realize that when people like Stephen Jay Gould argue against it, they are making a more sophisticated case. But I still just don’t see the big deal here.

I’m more interested in Wilson’s ideas about religion. He claims that the three forms of religious believe are, “Marxism, traditional religion, and scientific materialism.” This is the kind of thing that drives atheists crazy. But that’s just because they don’t really understand what he’s saying. What we are talking about are belief systems. Although I count myself an atheist, it does bug me that most atheists don’t seem to understand that scientific materialism is a belief system. The problem is that after hundreds of years of rationalist thought, it is now like the air: we don’t even know the assumptions we are making.

Even more frustrating is that most theists are also scientific materialists—at least in the sense that they see God as something outside of this reality. And this brings us to Gould and his idea of non-overlapping magisteria—that there is no crossover between religion and science. The New Atheists seem to hate this idea, and I really can’t understand why. What I think is going on is that atheists have a strong tendency to argue against the most primitive forms of theism. (Theists do exactly the same thing to atheists.) Wilson does a lot of talking to religious groups about the partnership of science and religion.

Personally, I think that’s a hard one. I agree with it in theory. The problem is that religion has become so much a commodity and Americans have accepted such pathetic and childish answers to theological questions. I don’t see how you have an adult conversation with people trained to think so childishly. The other side of this is that the atheist community has no interest in having such a partnership. Most of them hold the equally childish view that traditional religion will be wiped out and replaced by scientific materialism. That will never happen.

Wilson thinks this is because of the way that the species evolved. There is much to that. Humans need to create narratives and they are going to create them whether there is a narrative or not. But I think the problem is even more fundamental than this. There is a paradox of existence. It is mathematical in nature. We will never unraveled it because of our parochial nature. It is perfectly fine for the materialists to just ignore that paradox. But there will always be people who find that paradox upsetting and who want answers. Not only are these people not going away; they will always be a large majority.

So I’m with Wilson: let people have their myths and their tribes and their “answers” to the great riddle of the universe. And let us all work together for a greater society. Scientific materialism can be a cold way of looking at our fellow humans—it can easily lead to rearing children in boxes. And regardless, look at the libertarian-atheist connection. Religion can be humanizing, precisely because it presents the fiction of the specialness of humans. It doesn’t matter to me that people are wrong. If we can create a more perfect society, I’m for it. And I’m afraid those atheists who think religion will go away are not being very scientific about that idea. It is a matter of faith. I don’t share that faith. Wilson has done a lot of scientific study on the issue and he doesn’t see religion going away. I think we should take him seriously. And we should get on with the business of making life better for all humans.

Happy birthday E O Wilson!


You may be thinking, “This guy hates theists and atheists! Doesn’t he like anyone?!” Yes I do: I like smart and thoughtful theists and atheists. There just aren’t a whole lot of them around. It’s not too surprising that I feel this way, because I am kind of in the middle in the sense that I am like the theists in that I find the paradox upsetting but I’m like the atheists in that I expect no answer.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

0 thoughts on “Ants, God, and E O Wilson

  1. The difference is that science is verified by its results. Science enables us to create technology that actually works. Airplanes designed according to our knowledge of the laws of physics actually fly. Antibiotics and vaccines proven in controlled experiments actually work. Everything from stereos to computers depends on the fact that the scientific understanding of subatomic physics and quantum mechanics is objectively true; if it were not, those things would not work. The "assumptions" that underpin the scientific method are thus empirically verified.

    Religion and Marxism have no such objective achievements to point to, because they are just random crap made up out of thin air by people who didn’t know anything. They have no substance.

  2. @Infidel753 – I understand that, although I would disagree about Marxism. But the point is that there are always going to be religious people and we are better off getting along with them. What I want them to do is get rid of dogma like, "God hates fags." If you can get rid of the hubris of thinking they know what God wants people to do, then there is no overlap. I don’t see young earth creationism as a religion. It’s just silliness–anti-intellectualism. But the Catholic Church has accepted Darwin and quantum mechanics for decades. Soon they will accept homosexuality and women. It’s better to work with them that way than to run around telling them they are wrong to believe that God loves them. As for people like Ken Ham, well, there will always be idiots.

  3. But young Earth creationism is the absolute epitome of religion — belief based purely on revelation with no compromise with reality. Religion that compromises with science is that much less of a religion at all.

    The belief that "God loves you", like any false comforting belief, is dangerous. If we don’t challenge the belief that God exists, we’re not being honest.

  4. @Infidel753 – I agree with you that the "personal God" thing is just dumb. The Catholics are better on this, but they still have this idea of God’s love. But if you read someone like Terry Eagleton, you see the idea of God’s love as nothing more than existence itself being an act of love. To him existence is a work of art created by some "thing" that has no interest in us. Or which doesn’t even exist. I’m rather fond of the idea of existence creating itself.

    My biggest problem with religion is that all the big religions are hundreds and even thousands of years old. The belief system that we need to embrace is something like humanism where we admit that humanity itself is sacred. I think traditionally religious people can take a big step in the right direction by embracing universalism. It isn’t surprising that universalists generally [i]are[/i] humanists because there is nothing they have do for God’s love. Since we all go to heaven, we can worry about making this world better for everyone.

    I do think there are different kinds of religious people. The dangerous kinds are the ones who say religion comes first and then we must cram reality into that. (BTW: Objectivism is exactly like this. Last time I checked they still didn’t accept quantum mechanics.) But for most people, reality comes first and religion is little more than a cultural ritual.

    What I don’t like to see are atheists alienating reasonable religious people. And I have to say, the current head of American Atheists is really good and welcoming. I always found O’Hair as being a bad thing for the movement, even though I agreed with her and she was a very important person.

    I also think that atheists spend far too much time talking to fundamentalists. It’s a waste of time and it legitimizes a dangerous fraud. As much as I thought Penn Jillette’s book was terrible, his approach is the right one: I bet half of all the people who think of themselves as religious really aren’t. People aren’t stupid. But if they want to think that maybe there’s something out there, I don’t have a problem with that. As long as it doesn’t stop them from living productive lives. I have these Christians who come by my house every weekend. They are wasting their lives. But my older sister believes in "something" and that is about as far as her thinking goes on it. She is a universalist but without even enough interest to ever go to church or think about it. But she does provide cover for the door knockers and the Ken Hams of the world. They really out to unacceptable in polite company–like NAMBLA. (I don’t mean that as an exaggeration at all.)

    Richard Dawkins admits that in a technical sense, he’s an agnostic in that he doesn’t [i]know[/i]–no one can. But he’s about as certain as he is of anything that there is no God in the traditional sense. I think that’s where we should be heading. It’s fine for people to have some vague idea that after we die we go on to something else. As long as it stays there. As long as it doesn’t affect the way people act.

    I’m an atheist in this sense. I don’t think there’s anything out there that loves or is otherwise concerned about me. I don’t think I have a soul. I think when I die, I die. Where I get into trouble with my fellow atheists is when I start talking about cosmology because that’s where we really do move outside the realm of science. Not "big bang" cosmology, you understand, but the deeper level of why there would exist this stuff that doesn’t exist yet is able to belch out existence. But no religion deals with questions like that.

    People can get there ideas about how to live a good life in a number of ways. Some forms of Christianity can work well in this way. I’m more of a humanist, and I think that’s a better way. But the vast majority of religions seem to provide people with excuses for not being open minded and for treating minority groups poorly. Some ideas about reincarnation are terrible–saying that people born with deformities are being punished for past sins. That’s terrible.

    As a practical matter, I am only interested in religion in so far as it makes society better or worse. On the whole, it has made it worse. But I would pick a society based upon Christianity before I would pick one based upon Objectivism.

    Let me just end by noting that Sam Harris (who I think you admire), has had much nice to say about Tibetan Buddhism because of its focus the easing of suffering. I agree with him. And the current Dalai Lama has said that if science ever showed that reincarnation was not true then Buddhism would have to change. I am not a Buddhist, but I can deal with people who think that way. I don’t see it as any more fundamental a difference than musical preferences.

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