Religion and science. Cats and dogs. We’re used to hearing these two just can’t get along. High profile scientists sometimes denounce religion tout court, and some religionists doubt science’s claims implicitly. Human beings, truth be told, are both rational and spiritual. Often not both at the same time. Edward O. Wilson is a biologist who believes, as expressed in The Origins of Creativity, that the humanities and science are both essential and that the hope of humanity is that both will be embraced. It’s a fine vision—guided by science but aware of the values brought by art, we would live in a world utilizing the best our species has to offer. So, why don’t we?
Apart from the obvious fact that humans are also irrational and non-religious—what else could justify wars?—Wilson has a rather odd answer. The belief in creation myths, he avers, is what leads to much unrest in the world. Not religion per se, but creation myths. Muslims, Christians, and Jews share basically the same creation myth. Their divergences come in other forms. Many don’t much care about the creation myth of their tradition so much as about issues that are based on outdated understandings of humanity. Wilson doesn’t condemn religion per se, which is refreshing, but he does seem to circumscribe it far within its natural boundaries. I suspect his real target is creationism.
In this very insightful little book, another curiosity lurks. Wilson, although he supports the humanities and advocates for them, stresses that they are problematic by being limited to humans. I think I get this, partly. There is much to the world beyond human ability to perceive. Our senses of smell and taste are especially limited. We can’t see as well as an eagle or hear as well as a bat. Incorporating their experiences into the humanities would be way cool, but we would never experience them ourselves. This is terribly speciesist of me to say, I know, but humanities are all about what it means to be, well, human. We are limited. Rationality is limited. We don’t have all the facts, and if history is anything to go by, we never will. Accepting limitations is very human. So is attempting to exceed them. The humanities at their best embrace both. Wilson acknowledges that the study of religion is important, and that our universities let us down by not giving the humanities their due. Science can take us only so far. Creativity is about the most godlike trait we possess.
The average reader has difficulty sorting out what’s biblical or not. For example, when Cyrus Scofield began putting 4004 BC [sic] as the date of creation in his annotated Bibles, people thought the date was biblical. It was, literally, “in the Bible.” I used to tell my students that there’s a cultural belief that everything bound between the covers of a Bible is biblical. If so, I’ve just become biblical myself. I must say, it comes with mixed feelings. For the many people with whom I’ve worked on the New Oxford Annotated Bible, having their names inside is an expectation. Employees, however, sometimes make it in, too, in a prefatory way. I was touched to see my moniker there, on Bible paper, amid Holy Writ. Almost life-changing. A little scary.
Imagine a post-apocalyptic world. (I know, it’s easier now than it was just a few short months ago.) What if all books were wiped out except a copy of the book fondly abbreviated NOAB? Some Leibowitzian monk might come across it, and, recognizing that it’s sacred dare to open it, not comprehending the language but eager to begin again. Am I ready to be in such a book? Nobody reads prefaces, I know, but this is the widest circulation my humble family name has ever achieved. In there with Joseph, Job, and Jesus. It’s heady stuff. I’ll be on the shelves of used bookstores from now on. For a guy who’s books have been printed only in the 300 run range, this is dizzying. And not too bad for being only an administrator. None of my deans ever made it into the Good Book.
Surely there’s some grim responsibility that accompanies becoming biblical? Some consummation devoutly to be wished? Looking around at my fellow biblical characters, I’m not so sure. Many cases of men behaving badly surround me. None of them, I expect, had intended to be biblical either. Time and circumstance led to their elevated status. Modern biblical people tend to be famous only among their own guild. Some gain wider recognition, to be sure, but none share the name recognition of those recalled by the unknown recorders of sacred scripture. I’ve written books of my own, and been acknowledged as a scholar and editor in other peoples’ books, but never before have I found myself in such exalted, if accidental company. Where does one go from here? A Herostratus of Holy Writ? I can’t help but wondering if Jeremiah started off working in a cubicle.
I suspect, like most people, I missed quite a few classics in school. This was the ’70’s when new and experimental were still the rage. One of the must-reads I missed was Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. As usual when approaching books like this, I’m delighted at the sheer number of famous lines I’ve repeatedly heard, whispering to myself, “So that’s where that comes from!” as I go. Since I expect you, my cultured reader, have walked on the Wilde side, I need not provide any of these lines here. I won’t even have to go over the plot. The edition I read, however, contained lines and scenes that did not make it into the canonical version. As an erstwhile writer, I know that final versions seldom resemble those that felt so magical at their penning. Cuts must be made. Editors must be satisfied. And so goes the life of the writer.
It was one of these cut lines that caught my eye. With Wilde’s keen wit, the clergy, represented by Dr. Chasuble. (For those liturgically challenged readers, a chasuble is a priestly vestment in the Roman and Anglican traditions.) In an unfortunately stricken scene the minister says, “I am compelled, like most of my brother clergy, to treat scientific subjects from the point of view of sentiment. But that is more impressive I think. Accurate knowledge is out of place in a pulpit. It is secular.” Accurate knowledge is secular. That thought stayed with me long after reading the out-takes and deleted scenes of the play. Those that remain contain priceless comments about the church and the dangers of christenings. This particular gem, from the cutting room floor, would be hilarious were it not so often true. It explains, for example, creationism.
It’s a fair wager that science remains, even today, a subject that flummoxes clergy and laity alike. It is the new revelation, after all. No truth cannot be reduced to numbers. Even my scribbling this post is mere electro-chemical signals jumping synapses like electro-chemical salmon dying to spawn. We’ve simply substituted one clergy for another. When’s the last time a preacher has been cited as an authority on anything? What with televangelists setting the bar (for anything we see on the media is necessarily representative), it stands to reason that no real intelligence lies here. By default we nod toward those who hold the paten and chalice of empirical evidence. As it is now, but never was, and shall be forever, amen. Who’s being earnest now?
Evolution, we’re told, has one goal: survival. As an unthinking process of nature, evolution “programs” us all to desire survival for ourselves and our offspring. Even attributing that purpose too it is to suggest it’s more a willful agent than a blind process. People, on the other hand, are meaning-seeking creatures and so there’s bound to be some disappointment involved. I was just discussing with a friend how it seems that people just can’t agree on evolution mostly because of the strident claims on both sides. The New Atheists make claims beyond the evidence that survival to reproduce is the “only” role of evolution and we are “just” animals with too much gray matter, and that consciousness is “merely” electro-chemical activity in our brains. Creationists, for their part, say evolution couldn’t possibly account for structures as complex as we see in nature, and therefore a deity much be involved. The rancor grows until both sides end up despising the other. People who look for the middle ground are not newsworthy and fade into the scenery. I wonder if we’re evolved to ever get along.
My wife mentioned that it’s like the Tower of Babel story. Here is the tale of God making humans inevitably talk past one another. We can’t understand and so we argue and criticize and insult. A more scientific explanation might be that perhaps we’ve tipped the evolutionary balance with our species-specific success. We are by tar the most numerous species of any large animal. (At least that we know of.) Having put ourselves as lords and masters of the food chain our challenges have become mental and we turn ourselves to the question of who’s right instead of simple survival. Sacred books can’t guide the discussion, but reason alone. And reason, as we all know, has its limits.
The great irony in all of this is that, if we’re evolved to seek meaning, we’re not equipped to find the truth. As neuroscientists have pointed out, the brain’s function is survival, not truth finding. Our desire to know the truth is a human avocation abstracted from consciousness. We’ve not adequately defined consciousness, but since there aren’t many large predators hunting us down anymore, that brain-power has been diverted elsewhere. Despite all this, we don’t see world peace spontaneously breaking out. Even on a smaller scale we find prejudice and hatred and insane mass production of weaponry when our only predators are ourselves. Evolution, we’re told, has only the goal of survival. Being an unthinking principle, even ascribing it this much conscious decision-making is merely a matter of convenience. Does the Tower of Babel mean we must hate those who differ from us, or does it perhaps suggest that the real goal is better understanding?
Posted in Bible, Consciousness, Creationism, Evolution, Genesis, Posts, Religious Violence, Science
Tagged agricultural revolution, Consciousness, Creationism, New Atheists, Tower of Babel