Taking the Super out of the Supernatural (or a Manifesto for a Latter-Day Pantheism).

Excerpt from a symposium on Loyal Rue’s Religion Is Not About God. Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science.

There’s something horribly plausible about Ralph’s arguments, religion arising out of man’s unique awareness of his own mortality. . . . In fact—when you think about it in this light—the story of Original Sin in Genesis could easily be a myth about the advent of self-consciousness in evolutionary history. Homo sapiens, by virtue of his sudden surge in brain-power, apprehends his own mortality, and is so appalled by the discovery that he makes up a story . . . a story about having offended some power greater than himself, who punished him with death for his transgression—and in later elaborations of the story, offered him a second chance of immortality. . . . In the myth, the forbidden tree is the tree of knowledge. . . . But perhaps in reality the knowledge was of death, and all the existential angst it brought in its train. The fall of man was a fall into self-consciousness, and God a compensatory fiction. (Lodge 2001, 107–8)

The existential angst that is a by-product of consciousness is as good a characterization of the human condition as one will find. Consciousness, one might say, is an encounter with eternity. With this angst comes epistemological and metaphysical musings about humankind’s place in the larger scheme of things. Epistemologically, humans as naturally disposed cause-seeking creatures hypostasize all manner of beliefs where explanation of a long as they enhance survival: “Religious traditions work like the bow of a violin, playing upon the strings of human nature to produce harmonious relations between individuals and their social and physical environments” (p. 1). Put another way, “religious traditions are primarily about manipulating aspects of our universal human nature for the sake of achieving the twin teloi of personal wholeness and social coherence, thereby to maximize the odds favoring human reproductive fitness” (p. 122). Hence, for Rue there is unquestionably an evolutionary story to be told about religion. Religion as an essentially adaptive cognitive phenomenon functional to the evolutionary impulse, is the presupposition that underwrites the explanatory dimension to Rue’s project. In this sense, Rue takes the super out of the supernatural and is what he means when he declares religion to be not about God but about us.

Rue writes that “there is much to be said for the thesis that all theological formulations are dubious for the simple reason that God is inscrutable” (p. 3). Epistemologically speaking, the concept of God does not achieve enough clarity and distinctness to be discussable. When we cite the divine attributes—omniscience, omnipotence, and so on—I do not think we have the least purchase on these ideas, which generate antinomies almost immediately. Such antinomies might well be what feed our conceptual alienation from the natural world, of which we are a part.

A standard objection to scientific inquiry into religion is that whatever scientific benefits accrue, humankind’s imaginative or religious sensibility will be correspondingly impoverished. Rue argues that notions of humility, awe, and delight are not necessarily alien to a scientific sensibility. Indeed, a naturalized religion will generate a new sense of mystery and awe, the object being Mother Nature (p. 17). I thus take Rue to be offering a deflationist metaphysic—that is, he considers the postulation of God to be redundant. Identification of the natural world and scientific method with a unity that may or may not be divine brings into focus some of the issues in the relationship between religion and science, which is known for generating more heat than light. It was with some apprehension, therefore, that I approached the so-called religion-science literature. It became apparent to me that this literature marks a deep philosophical question that in essence revolves around whether or not science is explanatorily closed. This question has a great deal of resonance within the philosophy of mind, my primary area of research. How are epiphenomenal phenomena—mental causation, intentionality, or consciousness—to be reconciled with physicalism? In philosophy of mind parlance, this debate is termed the “explanatory gap.”

Rue’s Feuerbachian slogan that religion is not about God but about us will no doubt alienate many who would be conceptually and perhaps emotionally bereft of the notion of the supernatural. So, before we examine Rue’s positive proposals, it will be useful to say what Rue is not doing. (Rue terms them disclaimers.)

1. Rue is not in the business of proving or disproving the epistemological and ontological claims of the various religious traditions. As a theorist guided by a strict scientific sensibility he can address only that which is open to falsification (pp. 316–18).

2. Rue has no axe to grind with a religious sensibility, the corollary in light of (1) being that neither is Rue an apologist for religion.

3. Rue’s environmentalism cuts across the Left-Right ideological spectrum (p. 355). Environmentalism certainly can be classed as a political ideology. Indeed, it offers no less than a substantive theory of the human good (p. 363).

The ground for any intellectual reconciliation between science and religion is the acknowledgment that there is an evolutionary story to be told about the rise of religion, a story that congeals around three inextricably linked theses:

A. There is such a thing as human nature, a nature whose outline sharpens through the lens of evolutionary theory.

B. Religious traditions are best understood as nurturing cognitive and emotional systems, conduits to personal and social well-being (hence the book’s subtitle “How spiritual traditions nurture our biological nature and what to expect when they fail”).

C. Because religion has lost the intellectual credibility and moral relevance that it once commanded, it is no longer able to attend to B, with the consequence that humanity, behaviorally adrift, has set the conditions for global environmental catastrophe.

Items A and B constitute Rue’s naturalistic explanation. Item C, as already indicated, constitutes Rue’s diagnosis. A diagnosis presupposes a remedy, but for some reason Rue defers an extended discussion to the end of his book.

What does Rue’s conciliatory overture mean? Where on the religion-science axis can we locate him? To answer this question is to work through the details of his position. His conciliatory steps take place against a background that typically has considered religion and science as incongruent, a fault line that gets definition partly through an ahistorical approach to the study of science and philosophy. I offer a brief and highly selective historical outline. We have the Romantics’ rejection of the notions of progress and rationality embodied in the universalizing tendencies of the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment. With the rise of postmodernism in the twentieth century, the leitmotif was again the rejection of objective truth and scientific rationality. Mid-century saw the two-cultures debate and the mid-1990s the debate ignited by the Sokal hoax. Currently, there is a debate between Intelligent Design theorists and the scientific establishment. Against this broad background, Ian Barbour’s fourfold religion-science categorization structures Rue’s discussion (Rue 2005, 319–24). Barbour’s classification, which I reconstruct via Rue, is as follows:

1. Conflict—profoundly different evidential requirements

2. Independence—modal incompatibility

3. Dialogue—there are metaphysical touchstones of shared interest

4. Integration i. scientific order is evidence of a creator ii. science offers resources to reconstruct extant myths iii. science and value achieve a synthesis in a metaphysic

Barbour’s classification is, I believe, pretty exhaustive, but I want to supplement it by emphasizing the morphological possibilities more, a conceptual leakage that would inform the unity Rue is positing: (a) religion as a “form of life” has prioricity; (b) scientific success underwrites its epistemological monopoly; (c) religion is sui generis; (d) science is sui generis; (e) religion and science are conversable.

Note that (b), (c) and (d) are not necessarily conceptually hostile to the religious viewpoint, and (a) is not necessarily conceptually hostile to the scientific viewpoint. For Rue, mythic traditions can foster attitudes toward the natural world in ways that are beneficial to the advancement of science (p. 322) and the corollary “science qua science presents no obstacle to theistic belief ” (pp. 316–17). If by scientism we mean a dilettantish engagement with science, an uncritical ebullience, for Rue scientism is inherently imperialistic—this would constitute a vulgar reading of (b). The conversability of (e) only acknowledges the de facto existence of different idioms of apprehending truth claims, idioms that may or may not agree. It certainly is not being suggested that they should agree given that each idiom has the inherent tendency toward superbia.

However one carves up the religion-science possibilities, many theorists have carelessly generated epistemological infelicities—disjunctions of irrelevance that cannot and should not be resolved within the sociopolitical sphere. This position is not to be taken as approximating Stephen Jay Gould’s widely cited modal view of science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria” (Rue 2005, 320–21).

Because of Rue’s naturalistic credentials, he has to reject the hermeneutic contention that religious phenomena are culturally specific (p. 5). A diversity of myths may have democratic appeal, but religious pluralism is socially destabilizing (p. 325). No doubt many will take this as a provocation, but Rue is just making the sociological point that the preconditions to social peace tend to be conceptually tied to a culturally homogenized phenomenon is not forthcoming. The religious imagination is preeminent in its ability to consider things not immediately present to the senses and things that do not have a correlate in reality. Metaphysically speaking, philosophical, religious, and scientific thinking has sought to understand the relationship between the material and the nonmaterial (mind or soul). The philosophical, religious, and scientific are all in some sense refracted through the Gordian knot that is consciousness. For some this puzzle, pregnant with meaning, informs a religious or transcendentalist sensibility in that our senses of self and value are intimately tied up with consciousness. For others, a naturalized study of religious phenomena is a study of some important aspect of cognition and is derivative of the larger project of explaining consciousness. For both groups, the final frontier is not deep space but the perplexing universe bounded by our cranium.

Given that evolutionary accounts of consciousness are now legion and that notions such as the “God gene” have of late entered popular discourse, what is distinctive about Loyal Rue’s Religion Is Not About God (2005)? Rue offers a discussion that is as much a sociopolitical diagnostic as it is a scientific explanation; indeed, these are inextricably linked. It is a diagnostic in the sense that humanity is living under an ecological sword of Damocles. The prospect of global environmental catastrophe is tied to an unrelenting danse macabre of wants and satisfactions characteristic of the prevailing consumerist culture. Because environmental problems are for the most part self-inflicted, it stands to reason that the resources to address the problem lie with us as well. Any solution that forestalls or ameliorates global warming and related environmental problems lies with humanity, and this requires a life-affirming religious sensibility to be in tune with scientific insight. Rue’s recommendation therefore requires that the diverse mythic traditions converge on one, if not new, perhaps dormant, myth—a myth that is ecocentric and consonant with natural reality, a pantheistic religious naturalism that has nature as the sacred object of humanity’s ultimate concern (Rue 2005, 366).

To achieve this goal one has to appreciate the evolutionary development of religion. This explanatory dimension to Rue’s discussion is embodied in his proposals for a general naturalistic theory of religion, which lays bare the structural and functional features of religious phenomena as the critical first step on the road to a badly needed intellectual realignment. Such a realignment would facilitate a global response to a global problem—the environmental imperative. For Rue, the intellectual reconciliation between science and religion turns on the perceived plausibility of a given myth’s root metaphor. Science is in the business of plausibility; the seeds of this plausibility may already have been assimilated, to a greater or lesser extent, by some societies (p. 318). Religious traditions maintain plausibility so society. Whatever diverse “adaptive meanings” there are have been underwritten by natural selection. Rue subscribes to a brand of materialism that accepts the notion of the unity of science, even if the relevant bridging laws are currently unknown. The unity of science that he is proposing is not the ebullient positivistic version of seventy years ago in which reduction entailed reduction to physics. For Rue, the absence of such laws does not undermine the generality of scientific materialism; the various domains of science (physics, biophysics, psychology, sociology) offer fully valid levels of description, each running on different methodologies (p. 39). Whatever behavior might be, it is ontologically dependent on some biological materiality (p. 29). Taking inspiration from E. O. Wilson’s Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge (1998), Rue terms this brand of materialism consilient scientific materialism (2005, 14). Because all epistemological and ontological domains jointly and severally constitute an all-encompassing domain, call it Mother Nature, they are in principle part of a metaphysical unity. Rue’s monistic (materialist) or scientific pantheism is the conceptual solvent to the religion-science polarity. Clearly he does not subscribe to a reductive physicalism, a materialism that eliminates or discounts emergent nonphysical properties found at a high levels of description. Insofar as psychological phenomena are concerned, it would seem that Rue’s materialism would have to be a claim for supervenience—the idea, roughly speaking, that causal efficacy and explanatory relevance of mental phenomena are transmitted across levels of description, the mental being supervenient upon the physical.