Saturday, May 31, 2008


Religious Studies

A thought:

Skeptics continue to nourish the belief that science and learning will banish religion, which they consider to be no more than a tissue of illusions. The noblest among them are sure that humanity migrates toward knowledge by logotaxis, an automatic orientation toward information, so that organized religion must continue its retreat as darkness before enlightenment's brightening dawn. But this conception of human nature, with roots going back to Aristotle and Zeno, has never seemed so futile as today. If anything, knowledge is being enthusiastically harnessed to the service of religion. The United States, technologically and scientifically the most sophisticated nation in history, is also the second most religious - after India. ...

Today, as always before, the mind cannot comprehend the meaning of the collision between irresistible scientific materialism and immovable religious faith. We try to cope through a step-by-step pragmatism. Our schizophrenic societies progress by knowledge but survive on inspiration derived from the very beliefs which that knowledge erodes. I suggest that the paradox can be at least intellectually resolved, not all at once but eventually and with consequences difficult to predict, if we pay due attention to the sociobiology of religion. Although the manifestations of the religious experience are resplendent and multidimensional, and so complicated that the finest of psychoanalysts and philosophers get lost in their labyrinth, I believe that religious practices can be mapped onto the two dimensions of genetic advantage and evolutionary change.

- Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature

By some strange coincidence I'm reading "On Human Nature" at the moment (bought second hand through Amazon). The book was first published in 1978 and contains some out of date information, but what struck me was how speculative Wilson's thoughts were.

He clearly saw a merging of sociology and biology and a growing understanding that much of human behaviour was based on a large hereditary component, subject to evolution. Such thoughts are still controversial today - they must have been dynamite 30 years ago.
Yes, they were. Wilson (among others) set off what came to be known as "the science wars," with Stephen Jay Gould among the prominent combatants. Ullica Segerstrale's book, Defenders of the Truth: The Sociobiology Debate gives a thorough (if not wholly unpartisan) account.
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