- The Meaning of Human Existence by Edward O. Wilson, and: The Experience of God: Being, Consciousness, Bliss by David Bentley Hart
Recently a colleague drew my attention to The Meaning of Human Existence by my eminent Harvard colleague, the sociobiologist E. O. Wilson. This brief, general-audience treatise, a kind of intellectual memoir, encapsulates with simplicity insights refined over a lifetime about the “reason we exist,” the “unity of knowledge,” “other worlds,” “idols of the mind,” and the “human future.” Given his strong ideas about the human as part of a larger bioecology, Wilson is a scientist of broad learning, interested in the humanities and in wider discourses on the human. It is not surprising, then, that comments on philosophy and religion appear throughout his book. Religion has its part to play, he concedes, since being religious, both as individuals and in groups, is inevitably part of the biological makeup of who we are: “The brain was made for religion and religion for the human brain.” But, on the whole, religion does not fare well here, it being the second topic of part 4’s “idols of the mind,” placed intriguingly between “instinct” and “free will.” In sketching his position on religion, Wilson mixes a few textual and historical references with sweeping comments that beg for greater precision. He touches on specific examples without developing them, as when he notes that “deeply religious people want to find a way to approach and touch [the] deity,” by way of transubstantiation “in the Catholic manner” or at least through prayer. Most religious people, he states unequivocally, hope to pass after death into “an astral world where they will join in bliss those who have gone before.”
In what may be an attempt at levity, Wilson recalls that the physicist Anton Carlson once said that, if the Virgin Mary was assumed into heaven, she would surely have passed out at thirty thousand feet. The judgment of Søren Kierkegaard that the idea of the Incarnation is absurd is enlisted here as evidence not that he wanted to push back against a reductive rationalization of Christian faith but, rather, as evidence that he wanted to attack “the core of the Christian creation myth.” This remarkably abbreviated reading of Kierkegaard begs to be substantiated, but Wilson quickly moves on. So too his use of the words theology and philosophy is both novel and undefended: “The attempted resolution of [humanity’s] mysteries lies at the heart of philosophy. The purest, most general form of religion is expressed by theology, of which the central questions are the existence of God and God’s personal relation to humanity. . . . Theological spirituality . . . seeks the bridge between the real and the supernatural” (these are my emphases here and below). No one would look to The Meaning of Human Existence for theological precision, of course, but it is Wilson’s indictment of religion [End Page 125] that gives the chapter its energy, and it amounts to his own theology. Religion’s “exquisitely human flaw is tribalism,” he argues, a flaw “far stronger than [religion’s] yearning for spirituality.” Tribalism meets the human need for belonging, for not being alone, but it has dire consequences; unlike “pure religion,” it “makes good people do bad things.” Or, as Wilson repeats and develops the point a few pages later, digging in deeper: “The true cause of hatred and violence is faith versus faith, an outward expression of the ancient instinct of tribalism. Faith is the one thing that makes otherwise good people do bad things.” All of this misery happens because the religious tribes—individual churches, whole religions—believe “that God favors them above all others” and “that members of other religions worship the wrong gods, use wrong rituals, follow false prophets, and believe fantastic creation stories.” The consequences are dire, since “there is no way around the soul-satisfying but cruel discrimination that organized religions by definition must practice among themselves.”
At the core...