April 27, 1998
(p. 256): "The same reasoning that aligns ethical philosophy with science can also inform the study of religion. Religions are analogous to superorganisms. They have a life cycle. They are born, they grow, they compete, they reproduce, and, in the fullness of time, most die. In each of these phases religions reflect the human organisms that nourish them. They express a primary rule of human existence, that whatever is necessary to sustain life is also ultimately biological."
(p. 257): "The formidable influence of the religious drive is based far more, however, than just the validation of morals. A great subterranean river of the mind, it gathers strength from a broad spread of tributary emotions. Foremost among them is the survival of instinct. 'Fear,' as the Roman poet Lucretius said, 'was the first thing on earth to make gods.' Our conscious minds hunger for a permanent existence. If we cannot have everlasting life of the body, then absorption into some immortal whole will serve. Antything will serve, as long as it gives the individual meaning..."
(p. 258-9): "Propitiation and sacrifice, which are near-universals of religious practice, are acts of submission to a dominant being. They are one kind of a dominance hierarchy, which is a general trait of organized mammalian societies. Like humans, animals use elaborate signals to advertise and maintain their rank in the hierarchy. The details vary among species but also have consistent similarities across the board, as the following two examples will illustrate.
"In packs of wolves the dominant animal walks erect and 'proud,' stiff-legged, deliberately paced, with head, tail, and ears up, and stares freely and casualy at others. In the presence of rivals, the dominant animal bristles its pelt while curling its lips to show teeth, and it takes first choice in food and space. A subordinate uses opposite signals. It turns away from the dominant individual while lowering its head, ears, and tail, and it keeps its fur sleeked and teeth covered. It grovels and slinks, and yields food and space when challenged.
"In troops of rhesus monkeys, the alpha male of the troop is remarkably similar in mannerisms to a dominant wolf. He keeps his head and tail up, walks in a deliberate, 'regal' manner while casually staring at others. He climbs nearby objects to maintain height above his rivals. When challenged he stares hard at the opponent with mouth open -- signalling aggression, not surprise -- and sometimes slaps the ground with open palms to signal his readiness to attack. The male or femals subordinate affects a furtive walk, holding its head and tail down, turning away from the alpha and other higher-ranked individuals. It keeps its mouth shut except for a fear of grimace, and when challenged makes a cringing retreat. It yields space and food and, in the case of males, estrous females.
"My point is the following. Behavioral scientists from another planet would notice immediately the semiotic resemblance between animal submissive behavior on the one hand and human obeisance to religious and civil authority on the other. They would point out that the most elaborate rites of obeisance are directed at the gods, the hyperdominant if invisible members of the human group. And they would conclude, correctly, that is baseline social behavior, not just in anatomy, Homo sapiens has only recently diverged in evolution from a nonhuman primate stock."
(p. 260-1): "The symbol-forming human mind, however, never stays satisfied with raw apish feeling in any emotional realm. It strives to build cultures that are maximally rewarding in every dimension. In religion there is a ritual and prayer to contact the supreme being directly, consolation from coreligionists to soften otherwise unbearable grief, explanations of the unexplainable, and the oceanic sense of communion with the larger whole that otherwise surpasses understanding.
"Communion is the key, and hope rising from it eternal; out of the dark night of the soul there is 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 the Hindu samadhi, Buddhist Zen satorim Sufi fana, Taoist wu-wei, and Pentecostal Christian rebirth. Something like it is also experienced by hallucinating preliterate shamans. What all these celebrants evidently feel (as I once felt 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. 'That is happiness,' her fictional narrator says in My Antonia, 'to be dissolved into something complete and great.'
"Of course that is happiness, to find the godhead, or to enter the wholeness of Nature, or otherwise to grasp and hold on to something ineffable, beautiful, and eternal. Millions seek it. They feel otherwise lost, adrift in a life without ultimate meaning. Their predicament is summarized in an insurance advertisement of 1997: The year is 1999. You are dead. What do you do now? They enter established religions, succumb to cults, dabble in New Age nostrums. They push The Celestine Prophecy and other junk attempts at enlightenment onto the bestseller lists.
"Perhaps, as I believe, it can all eventually be explained as brain circuitry and deep, genetic history. But this is not a subject that even the most hardened empiricist should presume to trivialize. The idea of the mystical union is an authentic part of the human spirit."
(p. 265): "Which world view prevails, religious transcendentalism or scientific empiricism, will make a great difference in the way humanity claims the future. During the time the matter is under advisement, an accommodation can be reached if the following overriding facts are realized. On the one side, ethics and religion are still too complex for present-day science to explain in depth. On the other, they are far more a product of autonomous evolution that hitherto conceded by most theologians. Science faces in ethics and religion its most interesting and possibly humbling challenge, while religion must somehow find the way to incorporate the discoveries of science in order to retain credibility. Religion will possess strength to the extent that it codifies and puts into enduring, poetic form the highest values of humanity consistent with empirical knowledge. That is the only way to provide compelling moral leadership. Blind faith, no matter how passionately expressed, will not suffice. Science for its part will test relentlessly every assumption about the human condition and in time uncover the bedrock of the moral and religious sentiments.
"The eventual result of the competition between the two world views, I believe, will be the secularization of the human epic and of religion itself. However the process plays out, it demands open discussion and unwavering intellectual rigor in an atmosphere of mutual respect."
About the author
Edward O. Wilson, born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1929, received his PhD in biology from Harvard in 1955.
He is currently Pellegrino University Research Professor and Honorary Curator in Entomology of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard.