The 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.