E. O. Wilson’s strange attitude to religion

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.


  1. says

    It would be a tragic misreading of history to expunge under God from the American Pledge of Allegiance.

    It’s a more tragic misreading of history to think that “under God” is even necessary in the Pledge. I hate the Pledge, but if you think (as Wilson apparently does) that the ritual has a necessary function, then its function should remain even with religious references stripped from it. In the case of the Pledge, I think it does (if its function is to inculcate a certain societal value, namely, patriotism).

    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.

    And this is one of the reasons that good secular invocations are so useful. We should be able to use poetic language for truly cohesive purposes, not ones that build solidarity within a primary sub-group at the expense of the already-marginalized.

  2. steve oberski says

    It would be about as tragic to expunge god from our traditions as it would to abandon slavery, misogyny, xenophobia, homophobia and genocide.

    All of which are or have been part of our “venerated sacral traditions” and all for which one could equally make a case that ” they have increased the survival and reproductive success ” of those who partook in them at some point in the history of our species.

  3. corwyn says

    If the ‘tradition’ of the pledge of allegiance is important, then it should never have been modified to ADD ‘under god’. Returning it to it proper traditional state should thus be encouraged.

  4. Cuttlefish says

    Essentially, what he is talking about is a sort of “stimulus control”–and the sacred language is a mechanism by which we draw bright boundaries around some sorts of behavior. If telling the truth is so very important, have a specific “sacred” ritual which separates giving testimony from the more mundane elements in our lives.

    It makes some sense, but I disagree with him that the particular religious baggage that happens to have accompanied these rituals is worth keeping. The particular language of the court is different enough from the everyday, and its customs, appearances, and rituals are enough. “I do solemnly swear (or affirm” is enough of a bright boundary without bringing a deity in and intentionally sorting people into star-bellied and plain-bellied sneetches based on whether it happens to be their particular deity that gets invoked.

    Yes, it is the language of our tribe, but so were the slurs we used to help us “other” the non-members of our tribe, and we don’t much miss that language (I hope Wilson would agree on that). Our tribe has gone global, and it is time to use language that does not separate. That language can still serve the function of making something important, even “sacred”. But culture evolves, our tribes evolve, and “so help me God” is something I would gladly see go extinct.

  5. doublereed says

    There’s something that greatly disturbs me about such a mindset, as if the symbols involved are more important than the people involved. And I don’t mean having concepts like freedom or transparency be of larger importance than individuals (which is far more justifiable), but the actual symbols themselves. The flag. The pledge. These are not important things. They may be symbols of important things (although the Pledge is more like fascism imo), but they aren’t sacred in of themselves.

  6. moarscienceplz says

    This has more than a whiff of “religion is the opiate of the masses”, i.e. “many people just don’t have the mental resiliency to function without a religious framework, the poor dears.”

  7. Reginald Selkirk says

    Despite Wilson’s frequent appearance on “Top Ten Atheist” lists, he describes himself as a Provisional Deist.

    I remember a couple decades ago a friend was recommending Consilience to me. I opened it up to the chapter on religion, or science and religion, and picked up two or three large errors in as many pages. So I never bothered to read the complete book.

  8. Reginald Selkirk says

    Whether atheists or true believers, let oaths be taken with hand on the Bible, and may we continue to hear So help me God.

    He starts out by talking about true character and ends with advising people to lie.

  9. Anne Fenwick says

    Pure nostalgia. And the power of association. I bet that for Wilson, these ceremonies have become associated with things he feels good about in the same way that my mother’s 1970s nylon purple bolero is indelibly associated with my mother as far as I’m concerned. Trouble is, under God oaths don’t have to mean a damn thing to the rest of us.

  10. lanir says

    This is basically just a specific rehashing of the argument that values tradition highly. I don’t really see it, especially since traditions change. If we all wanted to value history and tradition above all else we’d be burying pregnant Venus figurines outside our dwellings when we left on journeys, bowing to horned gods and abandoning the Roman style of architecture for official buildings in favor of the more ancient ziggurat design. After all if we’re following the logic of older practices and forms having value, why wouldn’t we go for maximal value in these areas? Why stop with what’s simply useful for a current subculture? If we’re not concerned with alienating people then why pander to some at the cost of others when we can equally alienate everyone? After all, history has also taught us equality is important. It’s a lesson we’ve paid very dearly as a species to learn (and are still paying and still learning).

    Poetic language… I can write this stuff. I place an especially low value on this as any sort of excuse for bad behavior. With just a bit of effort I can make any sort of errant nonsense sound like a semi-reasonable idea (I use this for roleplaying games – the scariest enemies are those that almost make sense). With enough thought and effort I can manage somthing motivational on most topics. And this is hardly a unique talent – any advertiser or public relations firm has staff that does a particular variant on this concept for corporations and products all around the globe.

    It’s impossible to write this stuff without somehow giving away the game, though. You’ll always use some of the same tricks and false logic shenannigans. Deconstructing an advertisement or credo is not that difficult and is a skill everyone would be better off having.

  11. Ed says

    A particularly ironic problem with the “under God” line in the American Pledge of Allegiance is where the 1950s revisionists inserted it into the original. Usually when religious language is used in an oath it’s at the beginning or end. Some variant of “so help me, God” at the end or “I swear to God” at the beginning.

    The “under God” however, was put in a place that both interrupted and subverted a beautiful expression of what a democratic nation should aspire to be: “One nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” This is not to say that I agree with requiring people to chant any patriotic pledge or believe that concern for liberty and justice for all should be limited to any nation’s borders.

    But the added phrase implies that some animals are more equal than others. In fact the one nation IS divisible between those whose metaphysical beliefs are approved of and those who have to seek tolerance.

    It is often argued that this does not discriminate against anyone; but imagine any other words in its place giving privilege to a group other than theists.

    More specifically religious: “One nation under —-(Jesus, The Catholic Church, Allah, etc.)”
    Racial: “One nation descended from Europeans” (missing a large % of the population, there, aren’t we?)
    Regional: “One nation along our beautiful coasts (what about the US`s vast interior of landlocked states?) Or “One nation in our glorious towering cities” (what about the rural population?)

    If any discriminatory remarks other than an acceptance of vaguely defined God compatible with the nation’s dominant religious bodies were introduced, there would simply be no serious argument that it didn’t marginalize and insult large sections of the population.

    Apologists for “Under God” say that no discrimination takes place because the specific content of the Pledge has no legally enforceable commands or penalty for disagreeing with it. True, but the same could hold for the hypothetical examples I gave. They could simply be dismissed as “poetic” and have no overt consequences but would still send a message about who is valued most.

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