The renowned biologist and environmentalist E. O. Wilson wrote a book Consilience in which he argued for the unity of all knowledge. There is a chapter towards the end where he compares the transcendental view of morals and ethics and compares it with his own view, that of an empiricist. In describing his own view, he says (p. 246-247)
True character arises from a deeper well than religion. It is the internalization of the moral principles of a society, augmented by those tenets personally chosen by the individual, strong enough to endure through trials of solitude and adversity. The principles are fitted together into what we call integrity, literally the integrated self, wherein personal decisions feel good and true. Character is in turn the enduring source of virtue. It stands by itself and excites admiration in others. It is not obedience to authority, and while it is often consistent with and reinforced by religious belief, it is not piety.
Nor is science the enemy. It is the accumulation of humanity’s organized, objective knowledge, the first medium devised able to unite people everywhere in common understanding. It favors no tribe or religion. It is the base of a truly democratic and global culture.
You say that science cannot explain spiritual phenomena. Why not? The brain sciences are making important advances in the analysis of complex operations of the mind. There is no apparent reason why they cannot in time provide a material account of the emotions and ratiocination that compose spiritual thought.
You ask where ethical precepts come from if not divine revelation. Consider the alternative empiricist hypothesis, that precepts and religious faith are entirely material products of the mind. For more than a thousand generations they have increased the survival and reproductive success of those who conformed to tribal faiths. There was more than enough time for epigenetic rules – hereditary biases of mental development – to evolve that generate moral and religious sentiments. Indoctrinability became an instinct.
Ethical codes are precepts reached by consensus under the guidance of the innate rules of mental development. Religion is the ensemble of mythic narratives that explain the origin of a people, their destiny, and why they are obliged to subscribe to particular rituals and moral codes. Ethical and religious beliefs are created from the bottom up, from people to their culture. They do not come from the top down, from God or other nonmaterial source to the people by way of culture.
Which hypothesis, transcendentalist or empiricist, fits the objective evidence best? The empiricist, by a wide margin. To the extent that this view is accepted, more emphasis in moral reasoning will be placed on social choice, and less on religious and ideological authority.
Such a shift has in fact been occurring in Western cultures since the Enlightenment, but the pace has been very slow. Part of the reason is a gross insufficiency of knowledge needed to judge the full consequences of our moral decisions, especially for the long term, say a decade or more. We have learned a great deal about ourselves and the world in which we live, but need a great deal more to be fully wise. There is a temptation at every great crisis to yield to transcendental authority, and perhaps that is better for a while. We are still indoctrinable, we still are easily god-struck.
Resistance to empiricism is also due to a purely emotional shortcoming of the mode of reasoning it promotes: It is bloodless. People need more than reason. They need the poetry of affirmation, they crave an authority greater than themselves at rites of passage and other moments of high seriousness. A majority desperately wish for the immortality the rituals seem to underwrite.
So far, so good. But he then suddenly veers off in an unexpected direction.
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 by 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 may we continue to hear So help me God. Call upon priests and ministers and rabbis to bless civil ceremony with prayer, and by all means let us bow our heads in communal respect. Recognize 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.
I find this deeply puzzling. I get it that religious rituals are deeply engrained in our culture and thus will be hard to shake off. They may, as he suggests, even be impossible to eliminate. But that does not mean they are desirable. They are the source of all manner of sectarian strife. It may be that humans need rituals but if so the solution is not to keep the sectarian religious ones but to replace them with secular ones that are inclusive and welcoming to all.
I met Wilson about five years ago when he came to give a talk about evolution. In a small group discussion, he ducked a direct question of whether science and religion are compatible. I thought then that he was taking a tactical position, so as to not alienate any potential allies in his crusade to save the world from ecological destruction. I can understand this, though it seems misguided to me. But I cannot understand the suggestion that giving up religious symbolism and verbiage would be a bad thing.