Removing the “New” from Religion and Atheism

Screen Shot 2014-08-23 at 11.38.41 AMDuring the Festival of Dangerous Ideas, Lawrence Krauss, who is a physicist and relative newcomer to the New Atheism camp, debated Peter Rollins, who has become known as a leading thinker in Emerging or postmodern Christianity. Their debate was billed as “New Atheism” versus “New Religion,” although neither man sat well with the title his side had been given.

I have seen Krauss in other debates, particularly in Unbelieversthe recently released movie featuring him and Richard Dawkins arguing with a host of religious conservatives, primarily Christian and Muslim. What I found amusing in this particular debate, however, is that Krauss didn’t quite know what to do with Rollins. They had too much common ground. Rollins argued three things about New Atheism. First, he claimed that it can and has become for many an identity source just like religion, meaning that it is not functionally different from the religious traditions it decries. Second, he suggested that the direct attacks against fundamentalism serve to strengthen rather than weaken it. Lastly, he proposed that atheism does not have the “capital” to serve as a viable alternative to religion.

In terms of its function, it is undeniably true that atheism can become as much of an unthinking identity as religious tradition, but it should be unpacked a little bit. Rollins argues his case by suggesting that fundamentalism is not the problem, but the solution to a problem. It is this deeper problem that can be seen in fundamentalism and atheism alike, although I would add that the historical and fantastical accretions of religion make it a more hospitable location for dogmatism than atheism. In any case, while Rollins doesn’t specify what the deeper problem is, it can obviously take many forms in economic or social deprivation (or a defense for economic and social privilege), but almost always in a skewed sense of identity that needs reconciliation. I have spoken with people for whom atheism is clearly an identity, having shifted from a negation of religious belief to a positive affirmation of an absence of religion as a dogmatic stance.

In this case, it would be difficult not to agree with those Christians and Muslims who argue that New Atheism, or simply atheism, has developed into a position akin in many ways to religious tradition, which means that it can become unthinking. Krauss is much less able to recognize this position than is Rollins, because Krauss appears to be a clear and logical thinker. He doesn’t and doesn’t need to bank on an atheist identity. Consequently, while he acknowledged that atheism for some can become a positive identity, something more than “not-skiing” as a sport, he doesn’t understand it as a common, albeit illogical, approach. It is ridiculous to Krauss that an intellectual stance or what amounts to subjecting religious wisdom to scientific scrutiny could become a dogmatic stance, because it is clear that it shouldn’t. Indeed, it violates the principles of a scientific approach to form a dogmatic stance about it. In fact, it’s logically impossible to establish a dogma around a fundamental openness to new evidence. However, it is entirely possible to rest on such a stance based on what recent scientific thinkers have said about religion, namely that it is patently false. Without possessing the ability or will to question the truth of particular situations, one can easily and freely adopt the stance that all religion is false and religious folks are imbeciles, just as many religious folk are convinced that atheists are willfully ignoring God or are influenced by the devil.

Rollins, on the other hand, understands the paradox that even a belief in nothing, or the negation of belief in something, can become itself something. In a slightly different form, this has been one of the primary points of his critique of Christianity. According to Rollins, most Christians already know that the claims they make are untrue on some level. Consequently, when they are criticized from the outside for the ridiculousness of their claims about prayer or God’s will, etc., Rollins recognizes that, contrary to curing them of their illogic, it will often drive folks further into their irreconcilable positions. As a recent example, the Friendly Atheist was incredulous that the missionary doctor who received treatment for Ebola from an experimental drug spent most of his time in his first speech on release giving thanks to God for saving him rather than the drug and the doctors who nursed him back to health. However, the doctor no doubt didn’t refuse the experimental drug when offered so that God could do the work of healing. He simply holds two contradictory positions: one, that God healed him; and two, that modern medicine saved him. The first position makes no sense unless God likes the two white missionaries more than all those who have died from Ebola in the most recent outbreak. The second position makes enormously more sense: the missionaries received proper medical care and lived, others did not and died. Paul Farmer talks about this from a practical perspective in a recent interview on Democracy Now.

To put it another way, religious believers cannot fully accept the world scientifically until they address its incompatibility with their belief, but the only way to address the fallacy of their belief would be to fully adopt an open and questioning stance, a scientific stance. What many atheists are unwilling to admit is that this is much more than an intellectual shift. It carries tremendous social and psychological baggage, and it is predicated on sufficient cultural capital, on social, political, and/or economic stability. Rollins thus realizes, I believe, that directly exposing the contradictions of particularly conservative religion is inefficient at best, which was revealed by his third point against New Atheism, that it lacks the cultural capital to provide religious folks with an alternative. This point, too, is fundamentally inconceivable to Krauss and the like, who cannot grasp that the lies we tell ourselves rival the power of truths about the universe, even when the latter are demonstrably true and the former are not.

In terms of a paradigm shift, then, Rollins’ position is perhaps more viable. It is true that he has an economic interest in maintaining ambiguous ties with Christianity because liberal or postmodern Christians are primarily the folks that come to hear him. To the outsider, of which Krauss provided a quintessential example in this debate, Rollins’ circumlocutions seem unintelligible. His is the language of the existentialist, the language of deconstruction, but it is also storytelling, narratives that Christians are familiar with. If he could succeed in recasting Christianity not around dogmatic principles about the world and the afterlife, but around breaking down those principles and questioning our dogmatic assumptions about the world, the fundamental and unthinking ways that religion allows folks to operate in would be shifted. Religion would not provide a safe haven for rigid belief and unthinking behavior. It is certainly not to say that it would eliminate it. The very fact that atheism can provide that same haven for unthinking should be an indication that institutionalization, not the content of an institution, is all that suffices to become dogmatic.


Thoughts on a live debate over the existence of God…

Screen Shot 2014-02-09 at 4.32.16 PM I attended a debate on Friday put on by the Secular Student Alliance at Boise State entitled “Does God Exist?” To my surprise, the room was packed, with about three hundred people in attendance. The debaters were Dan Barker, a former evangelical pastor and founder of Freedom from Religion, and Bill Pubols, a director of Athletes in Action, a “community striving to see Christ-followers on every team, every sport, every nation.” I’ve never attended a debate like this before, but I’ve heard about Dan Barker for some time and wanted to see the type of arguments each side trotted out.

I will say up front that Pubols (who valiantly came in as a last minute replacement for Matt Slick) was inexperienced and outmatched by the veteran Barker. However, the arguments he brought forth were similar to those of more experienced debaters, albeit not deployed as skillfully or confidently. For his part, Barker was not as charitable as I would have liked in his characterization of Christians, though I agreed with nearly all of his points.

While the constructing and dismantling of arguments was interesting, I noticed a distinct change in tactics on Pubols’ part over the course of the debate. He began with the Kalam cosmological argument, made arguments from universal moral principles, and contended for the validity of the New Testament based on its historical accuracy. Barker in turn dismissed the cosmological argument for making a category error (assuming that the universe itself obeys the same laws of things within the universe), denied that morality had to be universal to be valuable, and suggested a number of irreconcilable contradictions in the Biblical text.

As the debate continued though, Barker retained the same approach while Pubols shifted from making arguments to using anecdotal evidence and making emotional appeals. I recognized both the rhetoric and the tone of his altered argument from time spent listening to innumerable sermons on Sunday mornings.

I sensed that Pubols was more comfortable with anecdotes and emotional appeals than philosophical arguments, and rightly so. Christianity situates the individual within a narrative that spans both time and eternity. Seen from within, this narrative creates purpose and meaning, but as Jean-Francois Lyotard notes in The Postmodern Condition, this grand narrative is incompatible with scientific knowledge. Lyotard concludes that “it is…impossible to judge the existence or validity of narrative knowledge on the basis of scientific knowledge or vice versa: the relevant criteria are different” (26). The two epistemologies speak a different language, and this became apparent during the debate.

(One might argue then, as many have, that religion and science just occupy mutually exclusive registers of reality. But Lyotard’s point is that narratival justification is no longer possible in the postmodern world, and the best we can do is little narratives that make no claim at universality. In a sense we know too much for the grand narratives to continue to function. And if it were true that religious or scientific beliefs were held in a vacuum, their potential conflict would be inconsequential. In our world, though, they vie for position in politics and culture. This is one reason I can’t buy the argument that freethinkers should just leave believers alone if their belief gives them comfort. It’s not that simple.)

Both men made appeals to scientific knowledge, and I’m curious to know whether a scientific argument is appealing to other folks when arguing over religion. Pubols told of the unimaginable improbability of the universe being constructed so as to support life–which for him points to a knowing creator–but Barker was well-versed in scientific jargon to support other examples in the universe of order coming from chaos. Those arguments did little to convince me on either side. It may be because my deconversion was initiated from a more practical and social standpoint. I was more convinced by the arguments from morality and the problem of evil.

The case of morality is particularly interesting because the believer is sincerely convinced that life is not meaningful without ultimate purpose (think Rick Warren and the Purpose Driven Life here), and the freethinker is just as sincerely convinced that life can (and must) be meaningful without ultimate purpose because there is none. This suggests that understanding how individuals pass from one paradigm to another is critically important to understand.

The problem of evil is much more straightforward, and it remains difficult to understand how one can employ notions of the goodness of God, or divine love, in the face of the human condition. As Barker noted, if God is whimsical or bad, he would be more convinced of his existence, but the insistence that God is good in the face of good and bad acts in the world requires a redefinition of linguistic terms that is only possible when one starts with the answer. To use a crude but applicable example, if a friend or partner beats you and then tells you he loves you, others would recognize it as manipulation or abuse. On the global scale and when talking about the divine, many religious folk are comfortable with calling it love.

In the end, although the arguments Pubols first employed were attempts to justify his belief on the basis of philosophy or science, they weren’t the foundation for his belief, nor are they (I think) for most Christians. They certainly weren’t for me as a believer. Christianity was true because I was part of a narrative, one that plotted me in the course of human history and guaranteed my righteousness for eternity. Thus, when his attempts at reasonable justification were thwarted, Pubols resorted to the familiar tactic of narrative, the means by which he and others have been sincerely convinced. He referred to, among other things, the “knowledge” of the heart, the “Truth” of Jesus’ statements such as “I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” and the felt “need” we all have for ultimate meaning.

According to the anonymous entrance poll, the majority of audience members were Christian, and there was about a four percent shift toward the nonexistence of God by the exit poll. I came away entertained but wondering if the debate format was worth the effort if the aim is to sway the opposition. Changing the question from the existence of God to the validity of faith would likely have improved the discussion, but lessened the draw to the debate. Overall, it seemed akin to the recent debate between Bill Nye and Ken Hamm (which I didn’t see). One commenter summed it up by saying that the only thing that would change Nye’s mind is evidence, and the only thing that would change Hamm’s mind is…nothing. But people do change, somehow. If I could only figure out how…


Is science the key to morality?

81vhPlG1sNL._SL1500_The only one of the “New Atheists” I have ever read is Sam Harris. I recently finished his The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values. I think it was the seeming audacity of the title that drew me to the work. As a student of religion (and the humanities more generally), I am reluctant to believe claims that science can directly replace the position that religions have traditionally held in society, even as I am a failure at religion myself. I have written on the topic before, as well as the relation of scientific knowledge to the senses.

After reading The Moral Landscape, I looked at my notes for the other Harris book I read back in 2007, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, which is the work that first put Harris on the map. Though the earlier work talks more specifically about religion, they both contain some of the same ideas, namely that religion is an illogical and insufficient guide for morality, and does more harm than good (or at least it does enough harm to outweigh the good). Even reading his book back then, as a Christian, I conceded that he did seem to have a genuine concern for the growing violence in the world and its connection with forms of religion. However, I had several general objections at the time, all of which I now consider insufficient (and all of which he anticipates in The Moral Landscape).

First, I objected that Harris criticizes faith for not being testable, when the very definition of faith—at least in one Pauline Christian interpretation—is belief in things unseen, belief despite lack of evidence. Harris also noted that the extent to which religious adherents are tolerant is the extent to which they don’t believe what their tradition tells them. I am much more inclined to agree with this statement now than I was as a Christian.

The other major objection I lodged is embarrassingly common among religious adherents. If you take away a person’s religion, what else will they have to give them a reason to live? It is easy to see that this is not an adequate defense of religion; it is simply a plea to allow people to continue believing something that cannot be proven. The frequent complaint lodged against atheists is that it is just mean to pick on someone’s beliefs if they aren’t hurting anyone and it gives the person comfort. One response is that it does hurt society for people who don’t existentially rely on religion to continue to affirm belief in it, both because of the systemic forms of intolerance and violence it can support, and the continued support it gives religion in general for those groups we would label as “fundamentalist.”

My conclusion in my review of End of Faith was that, despite good arguments that Harris made, science was simply not advanced enough to replace religion as a source of values. Religion has traditionally been that source, and that gives it a historical advantage. Looking back, that amounted to dragging my heels and applying a standard to science that I exempted religion from because of its lengthier history. My reading of the Moral Landscape affected me in a different way.

The gist of The Moral Landscape is that our brain, our consciousness, is the primary determinant of how we view, interact with, and understand our world. As that is the case, it is science that offers us the best method for understanding the way we operate, particularly the way we interact with the world and each other. We call the standards that guide us morals, and many think those are given by God or a religious tradition, but for Harris, we must look to science for keys to a more sustainable well-being than religion has offered.

At the beginning of the work, I found myself making the same critique: science doesn’t lay out an exact map of morality. I am much less confident than Harris in the ability of science to help solve moral quandaries, especially “science” in the generalized way he seems to be using it. His focus on the brain seems a little too cold and clinical at times. For example he explains that the chemicals oxycontin and vasopressin have to do with the way we emotionally bond to others. Children raised in orphanages do not experience the same surge of these chemicals when interacting with adoptive parents as other children do with biological parents. While to me, as with Harris, it is clear that this altered chemical makeup affects the emotional and psychological responses of these children, the implications of solving these problems on a chemical or biological level would look much different than solving them on a psychological one, and involve looking at the human in a different way. At the least, this shows that while our morality may depend in part on the human brain—and a complete picture of morality may not be possible without it—it does not depend solely on the brain.

However, the critiques that Harris makes of our current moral hang-ups are poignant, and offer experts in religion a significant challenge. He strongly criticizes the kind of moral and cultural relativism that seems to prevent any critique of a particular value system. The idea that we cannot criticize the head-to-toe veiling of women is preposterous, Harris argues, based on any system that would suppose to value societal well-being. He dismisses the response that these women may be happy with their situation by contending that even if this were the case, it is quite clear that we often do not know what is best for us.

This is dangerous territory for Harris, who might be accused of playing God, but no more or less so than the major religious traditions themselves do. What is overwhelmingly practical about his approach, however, is that it does not claim to have the right answers, although it certainly does admit to their possibility. Rather, Harris sets broad parameters and says it is clear that a world in which everyone’s well-being was maximized would surely be better than a world where everyone misery would be maximized. We know the direction to go, although we may not have the definitive answer to every moral dilemma. Maximizing well-being is good, maximizing misery is bad.

The study of religion, and that of morality in general, is heavily influenced by anthropology and its story of the noble savage, the cultures and tribes that we cannot judge since they are culturally independent. Who are we to say they are unhappy, even if they are sacrificing each other to appease bloodthirsty deities? This complex is in part rooted in a reaction to a past history of Western imperialism, to be sure. However, Harris suggests it is also connected to a confusion between ontology and epistemology. Our experiences are subjective, but this does not mean we can know nothing about them, particularly in a comparative sense. Harris seems to take this approach much farther than I can, seeming to claim that there are right and wrong answers to questions of morality. In a conditional sense, I would agree. In a universal sense, I cannot, if only because I don’t see us being privileged with anything approaching that level of knowledge in the near future. However, this doesn’t and shouldn’t stop us from making moral judgements.

As I prepare to teach a class on ethics, Harris’s commitment to “changing people’s ethical commitments” resonates with me. Where we differ is that Harris thinks our ethical commitments can and should be grounded in science. We should be nice to one another because that rewards us with the highest level of such-and-such chemical in our brains, and the presence of such chemical is the highest indicator of subjective levels of happiness based on multiple experiments. I am skeptical that we can ever explicitly base our morality on this. As Harris seems to admit on some level, we may need a more elaborate story, some sort of Nietzschean tragedy to found our morality. I think, though, that we might be happier with founding our morality on the level of social construction, with the help of scientific insight of course. Brain chemicals just don’t make the same story that Joseph Campbell’s hero myth does. This doesn’t prevent criticizing the inadequacy of our current stories and searching for better ones, ones more inclusive of current culture.

In any case, there is much to recommend in Harris’s book and little to fear.


Do you believe in magic?

The question of miracles has been in the news as of late because of the process of granting late Pope John Paul II sainthood.  To become a saint, the person in question has to have performed two miracles, and in the case of John Paul II, these were both posthumous. In one case, a nun praying to the late Pope was reportedly healed of Parkinson’s disease. Of course the case is not without critics, some of whom have suggested that the nun was misdiagnosed in the first place. While the particular case is interesting, I am more interested in the opportunity to reflect on miracles in general.

The term miracle is often used colloquially, but it has a specifically religious context. It denotes an event or occurrence that is not explainable by science and is consequently thought to involve divine agency. The problem with the attribution of miracles is that the first part is often hastily skipped over in favor of the second. I assume that the Vatican has a comparatively more rigorous process of verification than others when it comes to attributions of miracles, but I am doubtful that a little science will stand in the way of sainthood.

I guess I am a skeptic when it comes to science, and some of my skepticism is probably unjustified. Part of it is in reaction to what I perceive is a universalization of science over and against religion, a belief that Science has all the answers. But insofar as science represents our methods of verification for our best course of action in the world, and the methods that are grounded in what we know about the world from the world, I rely on the scientific method as much as anyone.

I heard many stories of miracles while growing up in the church, and I was told I was in the presence of miracles from time to time, but I never saw any myself. And this is not a case of deciding now that what I saw then must not have been a miracle after all. Like many Christians, I imagine, I really wanted to see a miracle for the verification of faith it would provide. I heard many stories from visiting missionaries, including one in which God told a missionary to lick the eyes of a blind woman, and it restored her sight. It was a good story, and I wanted to believe it, but I had no way to verify it.

Our church was also involved in the Toronto Vineyard “renewal” movement in the early ’90s. Several members from our church visited to see the supposed presence of God’s Spirit there, which was accompanied by many miracles, including paralytics rising from their wheelchairs and someone having their fillings turn to gold. Of course, none of those things happened at our church. The best we got were strange manifestations in which people would fall on the floor, sometimes writhe around, sometimes roar like lions, and do other strange things. I experienced being “slain in the Spirit” myself, a part of me wanting to believe, another part knowing I could easily be going with the flow.

Should we really believe in miracles? As early as the third century, a significant part of the growing church was already suggesting that miracles had been reserved for the Apostolic age and were no longer possible in the present. Many Christians still justify miracles in the Bible in the same way. God was doing something special back then that he is not now. This seems overall a disingenuous approach, although there is one thread of explanation that has some truth to it. Some argue that the reason we don’t see miracles in the present—or in the First World as opposed to the Third World—is that we don’t have enough faith. It is true that we have the benefit of advanced knowledge of how the world works, and past or comparatively primitive societies have had a much smaller body of knowledge against which to test to veracity of seemingly miraculous occurrences. However, it does little for religious traditions to suggest that we should be more willfully ignorant.

I suspect, then, that few Christians in the First World actually believe in the possibility of miracles, although few of those would admit to such. And it is possible to believe in the possibility of miracles. Science does not have an answer for all the questions in the universe, nor is it likely to for some time. Yet I would be hesitant, as a result, to ascribe a phenomenon to divine agency. And I don’t think it is harmless to do so either. Belief in miracles, especially when other potential means of assessment are available, can cause significant damage. If one takes, for example, any of the many cases of child neglect in the United States based on religious belief, we can see that a belief in the power of miracles corresponded to a lack of medical attention, attention which in many cases would have saved the life of the child in question.

The liberal Christian will protest, “Well that’s ridiculous! I would never refuse medical care to my children!” But if one believes in miracles, what exactly did those individuals do wrong? Are the rules for miracles that one must do everything humanly possible before praying for a miracle? Or is it perhaps that most do not really believe in miracles but continue to give them lip service? If so, why?

The role of miracles in the Bible is complicated to say the least. Miracles are considered proof of the divine at times, and at others they are considered a weak substitute for faith in spite of proof. I suspect that one of the primary reasons the language of miracles still survives is because we are indefatigably ego-centric. Miracles are used as easy explanation for coincidence. Lets say I’m having a terrible day. It’s cloudy and raining and I’m feeling down, doubting myself and my purpose. I pray and ask God for a sign that he loves me. At that moment, the rain stops and I hear a bird chirping in the distance. I conclude that God must be giving me a sign. When explaining this to someone else, I argue, “How else could it be that at the exact moment I was praying for a sign of God’s love, the rain stopped immediately and a bird chirped?”

I have experienced such conversations myself, and the institutional pressure to attribute such occurrences to miraculous intervention is strong, at least in the Christian context and combined with our egocentrism. Subject to scientific experimentation, however, such a scenario would certainly reveal that when people pray, much more often exactly nothing happens than something happens. Our explanation is the result of our limited ability to think of the world in other terms than revolving around our existence.

I am as willing as others to accept miracles if they fit the definition. A missing limb growing back, with documentation and verification, would seem to fit the requirements. But as the evidence and history of miracles is slim, we would do well to be skeptical. Those who cry “Ye of little faith” are not defending miracles against willful disbelief. Rather, they are defending the fragility of belief against the absence of evidence.

Your thoughts? Why/should we believe (or not) in miracles?


Eusociality, Multilevel Selection, and my Smartphone

Harvard Emeritus Professor E. O. Wilson posted an interesting opinion piece in the New York Times over the weekend, entitled “The Riddle of the Species.” (I subsequently found/remembered another piece written last year, conveying similar information with more religious language.)Wilson is one of the few scientists I like to read because he writes accessibly and is conversant with the other side of the aisle, i.e., the humanities.

The article opens with the idea that the humanities (history, philosophy, art, religion, etc.) cannot give us the full picture of humanity and that science must contribute to this endeavor. I appreciate this approach because science is often presented by both sides as being an exclusive harbinger of truth, one that cannot or doesn’t know how to share. It can contribute a valuable piece of the puzzle, Wilson says, in helping to determine why we are the way we are.

He continues, “A majority of people prefer to interpret history as the unfolding of a supernatural design, to whose author we owe obedience. But that comforting interpretation has grown less supportable as knowledge of the real world has expanded.” There’s a lot to comment on, just in this one sentence. First, it is in one sense astonishing that the majority of people on earth “prefer” a supernatural explanation to the reason things are than a non-supernatural one, scientific or not. I’ve never thought about it quite this way, but perhaps one reason is that supernatural explanations are great equalizers in that they require, on their surface, no specialized knowledge. On the one hand, you have a complex explanation of the evolution of the human species as in part a result of eusocial behavior and multilevel selection, and on the other, “God made the world.” The latter is more immediately accessible.

I might make a comparison with my smartphone. I have very little idea of how it works. If someone asked, I might offer up lame suggestions of electricity and microprocessors, but I don’t know how it all fits together. One could argue that I treat it as supernatural. It just works, and when it doesn’t, I don’t know why and my lack of knowledge makes me extremely frustrated because it should just work. Its lack of functionality exposes my severe lack of understanding. If I knew just a little bit more, I might be able to deal with problems—at least smaller ones—myself, and I would likely be less frustrated or dogmatic about its reliability. But most of the time, I am satisfied to treat it like magic. This is not to say, necessarily, that a detailed knowledge of how electricity works with the components of the phone is equivalent to an objective knowledge of how it works, but it is a more justifiable and reliable understanding than, “It just works.”

Wilson attributes some of the success of humanity to euscociality, “cooperatively rear[ing] the young across multiple generations.” This requires protection, creating a “home base” in which to harbor the weakest and watch over them with a smaller number while others venture forth to forage. This transition, in turn, may have been enabled by a transition to meat-eating, which allowed less work by less people for more energy gain.

These elements required alliances and group formation in order for some to go out and hunt while others stayed behind. The alliances, in turn, require constant negotiation and inference, staying up to date on the feelings and associations of others and being aware of one’s own. Wilson identifies these group formations as based in part on individual competition and cooperation within groups and in part on the same across groups.

This background provides a lead-up to the last three paragraphs of the article, which are the most interesting to me. Wilson comments that although violence—as a result of competition in and across groups—has been a part of society as long as we have record, we do not have to conclude that they are part of our nature. “Instead,” he claims, “they are among the idiosyncratic hereditary traits that define our species.” What’s the difference? Rather than explaining our violence by man’s sinful nature, or the secular equivalent of there existing intrinsically good and bad people, we can locate the reasons for competition in meaningful explanation in order to look for alternatives to the kinds of violence we collectively believe cause more harm than good. We are the way we are because we became that way, not because we were made that way.

For Wilson, this biological genealogy means a couple things. First, as people begin to process the connections between science and the humanities, it will make a substantial difference in the way we understand our history, which will include pre-history as well. We may also take better care neither to treat the world as a temporary home that will soon be abandoned, according to traditional Christian theology, or an object we can control at our will, according to certain earnest scientific communities.

The moral of the story for me is that science doesn’t have to be pitted against the humanities in a life-and-death competition for the explanation of the universe. Both offer necessary avenues to the fullest explanation of the human species. Religion is an intricate part of the development of human understanding as well, but it is gradually losing its influence as an explanatory value. For Wilson, it has no place left; for most, it will take more time. Even if its explicit value disappears from the scene, however, its legacy will live on its cultural influence for many years.