In a fascinating essay published in The Atlantic in 1998, Edward O. Wilson digs into us to try to understand — The Biological Basis of Morality — and he leavens our understanding of faith and facts by pitting religious transcendentalism against scientific empiricism. Wilson argues, in a thought-provoking and wide-ranging article, that the fate of the human condition rests in tempering a harmony between those opposite, and irreconcilable, philosophies.
I am most fascinated by Wilson’s connection of the hierarchy of the animal world and aggressive, evolutionary, human behavior.
Wilson argues we have an undeniable animal instinct to obey power and to also fight for control — and those of us that understand those coded, animalistic rhythms, can exploit our embedded, involuntary, twitch responses for their success and our failure:
Modern human beings are unlikely to have erased the old mammalian genetic programs and devised other means of distributing power. All the evidence suggests that they have not. True to their primate heritage, people are easily seduced by confident, charismatic leaders, especially males. That predisposition is strong in religious organizations. Cults form around such leaders. Their power grows if they can persuasively claim special access to the supremely dominant, typically male figure of God. As cults evolve into religions, the image of the Supreme Being is reinforced by myth and liturgy. In time the authority of the founders and their successors is graven in sacred texts. Unruly subordinates, known as “blasphemers,” are squashed.The symbol-forming human mind, however, never remains satisfied with raw, apish feeling in any emotional realm. It strives to build cultures that are maximally rewarding in every dimension. Ritual and prayer permit religious believers to be in direct touch with the Supreme Being; consolation from coreligionists softens otherwise unbearable grief; the unexplainable is explained; and an oceanic sense of communion with the larger whole is made possible.
Communion is the key, and hope rising from it is eternal; out of the dark night of the soul arises the prospect of a spiritual journey to the light. For a special few the journey can be taken in this life. The mind reflects in certain ways in order to reach ever higher levels of enlightenment, until finally, when no further progress is possible, it enters a mystical union with the whole. Within the great religions such enlightenment is expressed by Hindu samadhi, Buddhist Zen satori, Sufi fana, and Pentecostal Christian rebirth. Something like it is also experienced by hallucinating preliterate shamans. What all these celebrants evidently feel (as I felt once, to some degree, as a reborn evangelical) is hard to put in words, but Willa Cather came as close as possible in a single sentence. In My Antonia her fictional narrator says, “That is happiness; to be dissolved into something complete and great.”
In a previous article — Primate Morality and Shared Values: Are We Aping Them? — I wrote about the cross-cultural connections we share with apes, including the ideas of “reciprocity, punishment, peace-making, empathy and setting rules with punishments.”
Now I wonder if science will ever reveal the mysteries of religious dedication and morality and if religion can ever provide undeniable proof that even science requires an unbending faith that can never be understood or mapped for dissection — because the moment the belief is cleaved by cold fact, both religious transcendentalism and scientific empiricism dissolve into nothingness — never to be touched by human hand or mandated by godhead again.