Science Explains Religion

(An excerpt from The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives. I thought it appropriate given the thousands of comments to my recent article that appeared at Salon: “Religion’s Smart-People Problem.”)

Edward O. Wilson (1929 – ) is a biologist, theorist, naturalist, and two-time Pulitzer Prize winning author for general non-fiction. He is the father of sociobiology and as of 2007 was the Pellegrino University Research Professor in Entomology in the Department of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. He is also a Fellow of the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry, a Humanist Laureate of the International Academy of Humanism, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and one of the world’s most famous and important living scientists.

In his Pulitzer Prize winning book On Human Nature (1978), Wilson extended sociobiology, the study of the biological basis of human social behavior, into the realms of human sexuality, aggression, morality, and religion. Deploying sociobiology to dissect religious myths and practices, led him to affirm: “The predisposition to religious belief is the most complex and powerful force in the human mind and in all probability an ineradicable part of human nature.”[i]Religion is a universal of social behavior, recognizable in every society in history and prehistory, and skeptical dreams that religion will vanish are futile. Scientific humanists, consisting mostly of scholars and scientists, organize into small groups which try to discredit superstition and fundamentalism but “Their crisply logical salvos, endorsed by whole arrogances of Nobel Laureates, pass like steel-jacketed bullets through fog. The humanists are vastly outnumbered by true believers … Men, it appears, would rather believe than know. They would rather have the void as purpose … than be void of purpose.”[ii]

Other scholars have tried to compartmentalize science and religion—one reads the book of nature, the other the book of scripture. However, with the advance of science, the gods are now to be found below sub-atomic particles or beyond the farthest stars. This situation has led to process theology where the gods emerge alongside molecules, organisms and mind, but, as Wilson points out, this is a long way from ancient religion. Elementary religion sought the supernatural for mundane rewards like long life, land, food, avoiding disasters and conquering enemies; whereas advanced religions make more grandiose promises. This is what we would expect after a Darwinian competition between more advanced religions, with competition between sects for adherents who promote the religion’s survival. This leads to the notorious hostility between religions where, “The conqueror’s religion becomes a sword, that of the conquered a shield.”[iii]

The clash between science and religion will continue as science dismantles the ancient myths that gave religion its power. Religion can always maintain that gods are the source of the universe or defend esoteric arguments, but Wilson doubts the strategy will ultimately succeed due to the power of science.

It [science] presents the human mind with an alternative mythology that until now has always, point for point in zones of conflict, defeated traditional religion … the final decisive edge enjoyed by scientific naturalism will come from its capacity to explain traditional religion, its chief competitor, as a wholly material phenomenon. Theology is not likely to survive as an independent intellectual discipline.[iv]

Still, religion will endure because it possesses a primal power that science lacks. Science may explain religion, but it has no apparent place for the immortality and objective meaning that people crave and religion claims to provide. To fully address this situation, humanity needs a way to divert the power and appeal of religion belief into the service of scientific rationality.

However this new naturalism leads to a series of dilemmas. The first is that our species has no “purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history.”[v]In other words, we have no pre-arranged destiny. This suggests the difficulty human society will have in organizing its energy toward goals without new myths and new moralities. This leads to a second dilemma “which is the choice that must be made among the ethical premises inherent in man’s biological nature.”[vi] Ethical tendencies are hard-wired, so how do we choose between them? A possible resolution to the dilemmas combines the powerful appeal of religion and mythology with scientific knowledge. One reason to do this is that science provides a firmer base for our mythological desires because of:

Its repeated triumphs in explaining and controlling the physical world; its self-correcting nature open to all competent to devise and conduct tests; its readiness to examine all subjects sacred and profane; and now the possibility of explaining traditional religion by the mechanistic models of evolutionary biology.[vii]

When the latter has been achieved biology will explain religion as a product of evolution, and religion’s power as an external source of morality will wane. This leaves us with the evolutionary epic, and an understanding that life, mind and universe are all obedient to the same physical laws. “What I am suggesting … is that the evolutionary epic is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[viii]  (Myth here means grand narrative.) None of this implies that religion will be fully eradicated, for rationality and progressive evolutionism hold little affection for most, and the tendency for religious belief is hard-wired into the brain by evolution. Still, the pull of knowledge is strong—technologically skilled people and societies have tremendous advantages and they tend to win out in the struggle for existence. This all leads to another dilemma:

Our burgeoning knowledge of human nature will lead in time to a third dilemma: should we change our nature? Wilson leaves the question open, counseling us to remain hopeful. The true Promethean spirit of science means to liberate man by giving him knowledge and some measure of dominion over the physical environment. But at another level, and in a new age, it also constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[ix]


Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979) 169.
[ii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 170-71.
[iii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 175.
[iv] Wilson, On Human Nature, 192.
[v] Wilson, On Human Nature, 2.
[vi] Wilson, On Human Nature 4-5.
[vii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[viii] Wilson, On Human Nature, 201.
[ix] Wilson, On Human Nature, 209.

One thought on “Science Explains Religion

  1. The idea that religion provided the ‘morality’ of societies is questionable. The moral behavior patterns may be encoded in a religious context, and getting people to believe that there is an invisible observer/enforcer may have improved the quality of early societies, but the idea that the inspiration for the moral rules came from religion does not wash with me. Rather I think that the story that the rules came from an invisible agent was contrived to gain power over others.

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