In his recent Zeteo post, Drew Whitcup cites a New Yorker polemic by Lawrence Krauss, who posits a necessary conflict between science and religion. But the emergence of modern science is inconceivable without the ancient and medieval assumptions of a divine orderliness to things.
The great philosopher-scientists of the early enlightenment — say, Kepler and Newton — saw no necessary quarrel between science, on the one hand, and religion or art, on the other. They would have scorned a “militant atheism.”
Einstein and the eminent biologist E. O. Wilson also reject such blindness.
In a happy serendipity, after setting aside Krauss’s polemic, I found Wilson’s pleasing invitation to consider an amiable relation between science and religion.
He wants the story of evolution – the scientific story – to be our contemporary religious epic or myth, a story to be told and retold to “ennoble our lives, our tribe, and our species.” He makes the importance of story crystal clear:
The primal instinct of narrative, of continuous scenario invention, is what makes the human brain superior in performance. In dreams we construct stories of unconstrained fantasy. In gossip we evaluate others with tales of their exploits and foibles. And in religious myths we repeat the epics that ennoble our lives, our tribe, and our species.
He makes these remarks in his preface to Loyal Rue’s Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution. Evolution makes for a story of epic proportions, I suppose, but why do we need the epic told in a religious register?
One answer might be that “ennobling our lives” just is a religious undertaking – raising the dead, as it were, bringing the great and glorious back to life, generation on generation, through story and art and edifice, always on the lookout for new saints to continue the legacy.
Wilson doesn’t go there, but he does suggest that in addition to ennobling,
Religious epics . . . confirm that we are part of something greater than ourselves. They say, Death may claim your precious self, and those you most love, but it will not claim the tribe or sully the benefits that empower the tribe.
This religious epic will encase an earthly, exclusively naturalist religion preserving wonder, patience, honor, kindness, and respect for all life and all natural forms without encumbering creeds or backward institutions.
I suspect a Darwinian religious epic would crystallize within a wider set of institutions and practices so far largely unformed as such. And in addition, we would need parables, wisdom tales, Midrashim, psalms, and sacred walks.
Such an epic would float free of God or the gods (as Buddhism does) and free of the Abrahamic God on which Islam, Christianity, and Judaism pivot. It might embrace a quasi-pantheism (as in Thoreau’s religion), and would celebrate a naturalist’s deep wonder at the imaginative and narrative structure of the world and the mirroring imaginative and narrative scenarios of the sciences.
Here is Annie Dillard:
Everyday is a god, each day is a god, and holiness holds forth in time. I worship each god, I praise each day splintered down, splintered down and wrapped in time like a husk, a husk of many colors spreading, at dawn fast over the mountains split.
Homo sapiens can justly be called the mythopoeic species. Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity came to be part of it. The brain’s architecture automatically makes up stories; and the mind it creates is a theater of competing scenarios. The brain is not confined, animal-like, to instant sensory impressions followed by rough associations of these impressions with past reward and punishment. Instead, it searches continuously backward across time to re-create past events, real and imaginary, and forward to invent future scenarios. Stories that are pleasing to reason and emotion outcompete others less so. Replacing them, they serve thereafter as maps of future action. During this process the self, the central protagonist of the scenarios, is perceived within the present-moment scenario as having reached a decision.
I think he sees us “having reached a decision” in the sense that we will come to a cross-roads, and if we are settled beyond confusion and despair, it will be because somehow through balancing competing stories we indeed come down on one side or the other. We become decided.
We might find ourselves groping helplessly toward a “cosmic sense of things,” or amidst others who are defiantly or loosely indifferent. Or we might find ourselves inching hopefully toward some glimmer of radiant decision.
—Ed Mooney, Contributor
Citations: For a sample from Lawrence Krauss’s New Yorker piece, see Drew Whitcup, Zeteo 09.09.2015, “Science and Religious Freedom (and Kim Davis).” E.O. Wilson is quoted from his Preface to Loyal Rue’s Everybody’s Story: Wising up to the Epic of Evolution (SUNY, 1999), encountered in a Unitarian Minister’s blog run by Andrew Brown, Cambridge, England: http://andrewjbrown.blogspot.com/ in remarks posted on September 7th, 2015. Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (NY: Harper & Row, 1977), p. 3. Thanks to google images. For more, see the Religious Naturalists Association: http://religious-naturalist-association.org/