Tuesday, February 14, 2006

The Uselessness of Faith

A few more comments on the materialist world-view of E.O. Wilson, and its implications for theology...

It's remarkable that Wilson, although an atheist himself, is quite confident that he has religion all figured-out. Here's an excerpt from the Slate.com interview:

Wilson: Religion has an enormous Darwinian benefit. The tribes that could believe that they were superior, that were bound together by all the rituals and the myths and symbols of solidarity... were the ones that had the confidence and willingness to go through personal sacrifice, in order to prevail over every other tribe. That's history, an almost undeniable principal of history! So we don't need to think that there is...a supernatural influence.

Interviewer: So this impulse is not evidence of a God. The impulse itself can be explained in biological terms...

Wilson: Easily!

There are many problems with Wilson's "easy" explanation. Firstly, not all religions advocate violence against opposing tribes. In fact, many have adopted pacifist stances towards their neighbors that may actually lower their chances of survival. It's true that a common faith increases social cohesion, but it's not clear why supernatural beliefs are necessary for this. Why not rally around a local leader, a sports team, or a political ideology? I have a hard time believing that humans needed to invent God just to stick together in battle. As recent history has shown, people are willing to fight and die for a wide variety of ideologies and causes, some secular and some religious.

Regardless, Wilson's explanation of the religious a priori is not really new. It's merely a scientific twist on the Freudian and Marxian arguments that humans are religious not because God exists, but because faith serves some other social, psychological, or economic purpose. Religion, while pure madness and delusion in a direct sense, is indirectly useful to human societies.

There's a lesson here for theologians and religious folks in general: we should never fall into the trap of saying that belief in God is "useful". This warning may sound strange to many, but an apologetic strategy based on "usefulness" is disastrous, because eventually people will develop secular means for accomplishing the same useful ends (for instance, Wilson argues that atheists like himself are perfectly capable of behaving morally without God, and many studies bear this out). Instead, we must emphasize again and again that we embrace Christianity because we are passionate for its Truth, not because it advances certain human goals, such as higher moral standards, a sense of purpose in life, or a more equitable society. These benefits may indeed flow from religion, but they are not its reason for being.

An analogy with science may be helpful here. The most celebrated scientists of history were (are still are) motivated, not by a desire to produce better technology, but by an unquenchable thirst for the truth. Of course, better technology has been one result of their work, but humans have continued to study things with no possible usefulness, such as quarks, black holes, and dinosaurs. It's the truth that matters, and the same goes for theology, which pursues the reality of God even when it's neither useful nor comfortable.

No comments: