Saturday, September 11, 2010

secular religion

While I was on my run this morning, I thought a bit about E.O. Wilson's "epic of evolution":
Human beings must have an epic, a sublime account of how the world was created and how humanity became part of it ... Religious epics satisfy another primal need. They confirm we are part of something greater than ourselves (…) The way to achieve our epic that unites human spirituality, instead of cleave it, it is to compose it from the best empirical knowledge that science and history can provide.
Human beings seem to require a grand narrative which gives their lives meaning. Wilson suggests one in accordance with the principles of science generally and evolution in particular.

I'm amenable to this in some sense. I studied philosophy because I was interested in the meaning of life and the purpose of existence. It's hard for me to understand why someone would study philosophy if they weren't interested in the big questions. After all, there are plenty of other disciplines studying the small questions and doing a much better job of it than philosophers. My own view on this became an eclectic hybrid of Hegel's and Marx's organic, developmental models of society, Heidegger's history of transcendence, and Kurzweil's account of the technological singularity. I believe the grand narrative I've cobbled together from this is not only consistent with the discoveries of science but more importantly explains why the universe is intelligible at all and why problems continue to remain amenable to intelligent solution.

But I would never suggest my beliefs could replace widespread religious beliefs. It's not because religious people are irrational. Religion is a form of rationality. Hegel and Durkheim covered this topic pretty thoroughly. The contest between science and religion isn't between thought and emotion or reason and faith. It's between the new and the old. People are extremely religious, not primarily because they're animalistic or irrational or don't like understanding things, but because human beings are by their nature conservative. At least when it comes to the big things, like not cutting off women's clitorises or not persecuting homosexuals. (They're great at adopting smartphones and search engines, though.)

So, the problem isn't that you have one or two memes floating around in the heads of Pentecostals or Islamists, and if only we could replace those memes or those faulty bits of programming, we'd get rational beings who would accept secular humanism. Nor is it a question of replacing one emotion with another. Communities are more like organisms than like mere aggregates of information. They want to preserve themselves as a whole, and that means holding steadfastly to the essential beliefs about self, universe, and other people. In other words we're talking about a whole pattern of life if you're a bigot, a creationist, or even a goth or hipster or something like that. And the pattern not only defines who you are but also connects you up with other people and colors what you're willing and not willing to accept about the universe. And it's all pretty rational, at least from the inside, since there are things that count as evidence, things that don't, etc.

Really the only thing you can do in a lot of cases is just wait for people to die. And keep putting the message out there about science, rationality, respect, fairness, and the rest. That part isn't hard, because there's so much information available and so much being generated on a daily basis. It's just a question of presenting it in an engaging way, which isn't so hard either. Personally, I just take heart in the fact that the older generations must eventually die (assuming they don't live long enough to become cyborgs, god forbid—the last thing the world needs is a Dick Cheney or Sarah Palin cyborg). And the possibilities for individual freedom generated by technology and science are so much more appealing on a basic level, and the world population is so young in many places. I think that's what will ultimately overcome religious conservativism, not a "new religion" handed down by academics.

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