Tuesday, August 29, 2006

A Strange New Affect(at)ion

There is a preternaturally bizarre item in the 4 September issue of The New Rpublic. It is an open letter from Edward O. Wilson, of sociobiology, consilience, and biophilia fame, "to an imagined Southern Baptist pastor". In this letter, Wilson rehearses all the usual crimes against nature that have been committed by evil old humankind, putting into vintage John Denver-era language all the damage that has been done to the "biosphere" and how only we can prevent forest fires, industrial pollution, mass extinctions, destruction of the ozone layer, global warming, etc. etc. etc. The alleged purpose of the "letter" is to enlist the support of "the larger evangelical community" in averting ecological disasters that would otherwise be certain to occur. An alliance between "scientists" and "evangelicals", however, would be equally certain to be helpful:
Religion and science are the two most powerful forces in the world today, and especially in the United States. If religion and science could be united on the common ground of biological conservation, the problem might soon be solved.
You've got to love that reification of "science" and "religion", as if they are these monolithic entities that, once united in a Justice League-style alliance, will rule the world in peace and harmony. It's nice to know that a 77 year old Harvard biologist still has a little of the 15 year old in him.

There is certainly nothing new in a biologist wringing his hands over the environment--some might even say that it goes with the territory. What is surprising is the putative audience for this open letter. Although it is addressed "Dear Pastor", no serious reader can be expected to take that at face value. If Wilson had really wanted to enlist the support of evangelicals in his environmentalist crusade, he could quite easily have sent the letter to a genuine pastor, or dozens, if not hundres, of genuine pastors. Or he could have sent it to some newspapers in the Bible Belt, or to Christianity Today or any number of other, similar places. Instead he chose to send it to The New Republic, surely a journal that is not very high on your typical Southern Baptist Pastor's "must read" list. Add to this the fact that Wilson himself notes that the very audience he is presumably targetting with this letter has already "begun to move care of the Creation back into the mainstream" of political discourse, and that "this evangelical interest in the environment is part of a worldwide trend among religions". The religious folks, it would seem, are already with the program. So what is the real purpose of this letter? Perhaps without quite meaning to, Wilson himself tells us in rather Machiavellian terms:
It may seem far-fetched for a secular scientist to propose an alliance between science and religion. But the fact is that environmental activists cannot succeed without you and your followers as allies. The political process in American democracy, with rare exceptions, does not start at the top and work its way down to the voting masses. It proceeds in the opposite direction. Political leaders are compelled to calculate as precisely as they can what it will take to win the next election. The United States is an intensely religious nation. It is overwhelmingly Judeo-Christian, with a powerful undercurrent of evangelism. We secularists must face reality.
I think you've got the real agenda right there in a nutshell. The phrase "we secularists" is beautifully ambiguous. Its deixis might be second person ("Unlike you religious folks, we secularists..."), which is presumably how it is meant to be taken on the surface. But since this letter is not likely really directed at a Southern Baptist pastor, one is tempted to take that phrase as having first person deixis, that is, one is tempted to say that this letter is really a political appeal to fellow liberal environmentalists. It's a letter that says "Look folks, if you can't beat them--and we found out in 2004 that we can't--then you'd better join them, or better yet, get them to join you". This is a letter of political advice to other like-minded environmentalists, explaining to them that the best policy, in terms of accomplishing an environmentalist agenda, is one of appeasement. If you can at least act like you share some values with evangelical Christians, you will find that together you will have the political base to get things done.

This might seem like a rather cynical reading of a letter that ends with the cordial "Warmly and respectfully, Edward O. Wilson." But this is the same Edward O. Wilson who wrote in Consilience:
To share reverence is not to surrender the precious self and obscure the true nature of the human race. We should not foget who we are. Our strength is in truth and knowledge and character, under whatever sign. Judaeo-Christians are told by Holy Scripture that pride goeth before destruction. I disagree; it's the reverse: Destruction goet before pride. Empiricism has turned everything around in the formula. It has destroyed the giddying theory that we are special beings placed by a deity in the center of the universe inorder to serve as the summit of Creation for the glory of the gods. We can be proud as a species because, having discovered that we are alone, we owe the gods very little. Humility is better shown to our fellow humans and the rest of life on this planet, on whom all hope really depends.
Wilson is obviously one of those rather old fashioned scientists who still thinks that there is an uncrossable divide between science and religion. This comes across rather embarrassingly in his letter, since he seems to think it important to stress how different his worldview is from that of a Southern Baptist pastor. Much of what he says in this regard betrays a rather weak grasp of the relationship between science and religion, and it would be disastrous to say such things to a real pastor, but it is probably just the right sort of thing to say to other secular humanists.

Consider, for example, the following:
I do not see how the difference in worldview between these two great productions of human striving [science and religion] can be closed. But, for the purposes of saving the Creation, I am not sure that it needs to be. To make the point in good gospel manner, let me tell the story of a young man, newly trained for the ministry and so fixed in his Christian faith that he referred all questions of morality to readings from the Bible. When he visited the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil, he saw the manifest hand of God, and in his notebook he wrote, "It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind." That was Charles Darwin in 1832, early into the voyage of the HMS Beagle, before he had given any thought to evolution. And here is Darwin, concluding On the Origin of Species in 1859, having first abandoned Christian dogma and then, with his newfound intellectual freedom, formulated the theory of evolution by natural selection: "There is grandeur in this view of life..." Darwin's reverence for life remained the same as he crossed the seismic divide that separated his religious phase and his scientific one. And so it can be for the divide that, today, separates mainstream religion and scientific humanism. And that separates you and me.
This is clearly directed at others like Wilson, for you would never say to a Southern Baptist pastor that Christianity is to be characterized as dogmatic and contrasted with the "intellectual freedom" of science. That's something that you say to the morons who think that science disproves religion, and that if you would just open your mind and use it for a change you would see how obvious it is that religion is a virus infecting the minds of the weak. I'm sure Richard Dawkins would approve. The real purpose of a paragraph like this is to persuade not evangelicals but other environmentalists that one must be willing to be, well, not condescending, exactly, but at least benignly silent on certain questions "for the purposes of saving the Creation." Sure, we all know that "science says that, as far as verifiable evidence tells us, we are alone," but why not keep that to ourselves when we're hanging our with our Christian buddies, at least until the votes are all counted.

One phrase that is conspicuous by its absence in most of Wilson's essay is "the religious right". Clearly a liberal like Wilson is not going to want to toss that term around too much in an essay that is putatively directed at, well, the pastors of "the religious right". But he just can't contain his enthusiasm:
To be sure, some leaders of the religious right are reluctant to support biological conservation, an opposition sufficient to create a wedge within the evangelical movement....For decades, conservatives have defined environmentalism as a movement bent on strangling the United States with regulations and bureaucratic power. This canard has doged the U.S. environmental movement and helped to keep it off the agenda of the past two presidential campaigns.
If that sounds a little testy, don't be surprised, since the real audience for this letter is going to be in complete agreement, and this will really get them fired up. We can divide and conquer if we can work with those elements of the evangelical community who are not hidebound ideologues about Big Government. We must build up a coalition based on those Christians who care about "Creation", and we can marginalize the rest.

That this is really Wilson's purpose is made manifest again and again in the "letter" as he praises the virtues of science and condescendingly treats religion as a quaint reminder of our roots. This is also the Wilson who compared Christian belief to Aztec sacrifices of children to Tlaloc and the beliefs of medieval astronomers, and who wrote, again in Consilience:
Great ceremonies summon the history of a people in solemn remembrance. They showcase the sacred symbols. That is the enduring value of ceremony, which in all high civilizations has historically assumed a mostly religious form. Sacred symbols infiltrate the very bones of culture. they will take centuries to replace, if ever.

So I may surprise you be granting this much: It would be a sorry day if we abandoned our venerated sacral traditions. It would be a tragic misreading of history to expunge under God from the American Pledge of Allegiance. Whether atheists or true believers, let oaths be taken with hand on the Bible, and we may continue to hear So help me God. Call upon priests and ministers and rabbis to bless civil ceremony with prayers, and by all means let us bow our heads in communal respect. Recgonize that when introits and invocations prickle the skin we are in the presence of poetry, and the soul of the tribe, something that will outlive the particularities of sectarian belief, and perhaps belief in God itself.
In short, it is OK for the serious empiricist to attempt to pass, as they say, since there's nothing wrong with playing along just so long as you can inwardly interpret what you're doing in whatever way suits your own subjective experience and makes your action "authentic" in some way.

I don't imagine very many people will be fooled by this "open letter"--certainly not evangelical pastors, and probably not many "scientific humanists". The attitude on display in this little morsel is very much on the wane. More and more scientists and humanists are coming to realize that the alleged conflict between science and religion is an invention of the ideologues. Indeed, the idea that the two are in conflict at all is a perfect (though ironic) instantiation of what Nietzsche called the Will to Truth--the desire of the psychologically craven to coerce others to view the world in a certain way by means of belittling and dismissive analyses of the beliefs of those to be converted. There are still a few such folks about--Richard Dawkins is everyone's favorite example, but there are others--but they are being increasingly marginalized by humanistically sensitive scientists such as Robert Pollack, Michael Ruse and John Polkinghorne, on the one hand, and by scientifically astute humanists, such as Keith Ward, David Knight, and David Bartholomew on the other. These folks realize that the allegedly vast gulf that Wilson thinks separates him from religious believers is a mirage, an ideological, a priori metaphysical assumption that drives everything before it.

There is no rational reason to suppose that science precludes rational religious belief or that religious belief makes the scientific endeavor either impossible or even difficult. Wilson rightly notes that "we are products of a civilization that rose from both religion and" science. He doesn't put it quite like that, acutally. What he says is that our civilization arose "from both religion and the science-based Enlightenment", but that is a rather serious misreading of our intellectual history. Our scientific worldview has its roots not in the Enlightenment, but in the skeptics and natural philosophers of ancient Greece. It's true that Wilson's brand of science has its roots in the Enlightenment, but that is an intellectually bankrupt kind of science, grounded as it is in ideology rather than reason. The rest of us can, like many, many others before us, take an interest in the natural world, investigate its physical, material properties, and draw inferences about the regular operations of mechanistic systems, while having a firm and robust knowledge about matters that are not discoverable by empirical means. People were doing the same long before the so-called Enlightenment, and they will continue to do so long after the ideologues have gone the way of the dinosaurs.

3 comments:

Tom said...

I got a flyer in the mail the other day announcing a speaker series at the Washington National Cathedral, featuring E. O. Wilson -- "[o]ne of the world’s leading experts on ants and beetles" -- on just this topic.

Scott Carson said...

Washington National Cathedral--another great place to make contact with evangelical Christians. I suppose the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine will be his next stop.

He is indeed a great expert on ants, and I think that many of his scientific ideas have great merit. I was actually very impressed by some of the stuff I read in Sociobiology and Consilience. His work on ants though really overshadows everything. The book he wrote with Bert Hölldobler, The Ants, is one of the greatest pieces of science writing of all time. If I'm not mistaken, it won the Pulitzer Prize. It superceded that other great book on ants, Ants: Their Structure, Development, and Behavior, by William Morton Wheeler, another really great book.

I guess you can tell that I'm something of a fan of the ants. Like Wilson, I've been fascinated by them since I was a kid.

Roland said...

I came here via the "Science and Politics" post.

Just as you questioned Wilson's sincerity about his claimed "evangelical" audience, I would question the sincerity of his "secularist" self-identification here. Elsewhere he has described himself as a "provisional Deist." Of all the major proponents of evolution, he has always been the most sympathetic to religion. (I suspect that he sees religion as an inherent part of our human nature as it has evolved, and probably adaptive in some way.) Consistent with your hypothesis, I think Wilson might be exaggerating his secularist credentials in order to appeal to an audience of secularist intellectuals.