Written by Chesterton House

Sep 26, 2006

Last week eminent Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson published his most recent book–The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. It’s a very nice looking book from Norton, featuring earth tones and outdoorsy-feeling rough cut pages. The contents of the book, a series of letters to a fictional Southern Baptist preacher, the upshot of which is that we should all set aside dogma, ideology, and metaphysics, and join in the cause to “save the Creation,” are more of a mixed bag.

I was considering posting my response in the form of a letter back to Wilson, but my friend Andy Crouch beat me to the punch in his Letter to a Tenured Professor. While affirming Wilson’s appeal to collaborate across worldviews, Crouch puts his finger on the main problem: Wilson persists in speaking of science and religion in oppositional terms.

By way of a little background, when the environment became a hot topic in 1970, the church was largely asleep at the wheel. As Rolf Bouma of theCenter for Faith and Scholarship (the Christian Study Center at the University of Michigan) demonstrated in a lecture here a couple of years ago, debates over the nature of salvation have so preoccupied Protestants since the Reformation that the doctrine of creation has been effectively marginalized in seminaries and theology textbooks.

Much has changed since 1970. In 1990, the late Cornell astronomer Carl Sagan initiated the Open Letter to the American Religious Community, signed by 32 Nobel laureates and other scientists, including Wilson. Partly in response to that letter, the National Religious Partnership for the Environment–a coalition of Jewish, Catholic, Orthodox, Mainline, and Evangelical organizations–was founded in 1993. Also in the 1993 theEvangelical Environmental Network was founded, and issued The Evangelical Declaration on the Care of Creation. There are so many initiatives at the interface of religion and the environment, from Cal DeWitt’s AuSable Institute to the recent Conference on Christianity and the Environment at the MacLaurin Institute (the Christian Study Center at the University of Minnesota), that it is virtually impossible to keep up with it all.

When Wilson expresses concern that belief in the Second Coming results in an atrophied appreciation for this world, he is echoing a concern that found similar expression in David Orr’s much-discussed April 2005 Conservation Biology article “Armageddon Versus Extinction.” To be fair, Orr and Wilson have some good reason to be concerned. In a country where the Left Behind series has sold 70 million volumes, escapist rapture theology is not all that uncommon. And, as Crouch pointed out in an earlier column, evangelicals have been cool toward global warming.

What should we make of all this? First, let’s acknowledge that Christians have been slow and reactive on environmental issues. Second, let’s also acknowledge that religious reflection on the environment has come a long way in the last 15 years. Third, let’s remember that Christianity is a religion of renewal and hope, including the promise of a new heaven and a new earth. Historic Christianity teaches that Creation itself will be restored. We are called to be agents of shalom in the world, and that includes stewardship of the natural environment. Not only the doctrine of Creation, but the doctrines of the Incarnation, the bodily resurrection, Common Grace, and even the Second Coming, all yield a dignity and significance to the material world.

Finally, what should we make of Wilson’s proposal that we all set aside dogma, ideology, and metaphysics in order to work together to save the Creation? Right idea; wrong strategy.

The main problem with Wilson’s book is his epistemology. He believes that science and religion constitute two different ways of knowing, which is very problematic. Christianity (for example) is founded on an historical event that is “evidentiary” in nature. The disciples testified to the Resurrection as that which they had heard, seen, and touched. They were invoking sense data as their evidence, and as many historians of science have pointed out, a belief in the reliability of sense data that characterized the Christian West was one of the preconditions of modern science. The Belgic Confession puts it nicely, that God is known by two means–first, “by the creation, preservation, and government of the universe,” and second “by his holy and divine Word.” Historic Christianity, contra Wilson, posits no conflict between reason and revelation.

The conflict between science and religion has been greatly exaggerated, for the opposite of theism is not science but atheism. Wilson refers to his worldview as “scientific humanism.” But humanism is a philosophy, and there is nothing inherently more scientific about it than other philosophies, including Christianity. Simply put, Wilson’s philosophical outlook is dated, as would be obvious to anybody who has followed discussions in the philosophy of science over the last half century. Problems with his philosophy lead to problems with his sociology, as he assumes that scientists and religionists are two distinct sets of people, when in fact they are often the same people.

Wilson’s question needs to be recast. The question is not can scientists and people of faith work together on the environment (as Crouch points out, he and his wife get along fine), but can people of different faiths and/or no faith work together on the environment? The answer of course is yes, but again, not for the reasons Wilson suggests. Wilson says that the basis of collaboration is setting aside differences in metaphysics. Not so. The better basis for collaboration is for all parties involved to ground their concern for the environment in their particular metaphysics. In contrast to Wilson’s assertion that “the defense of living nature is a universal value [that] doesn’t rise from any religious dogma,” it is rather a value that, like all values, can only arise from religious dogma. Christians care about Creation because God created it and calls it good. Set aside the narrative and Christians no longer have a basis for environmental ethics. Wilson’s values function more similarly to this than he realizes. His own care for creation is grounded not in science–science doesn’t give us concern for the environment–but in his humanism. As organizations like the National Religious Partnership for the Environment illustrate, differences in worldview need not divide, but can actually be the very basis for collaboration. Indeed, mutual respect means acknowledging, not ignoring, each others’ worldviews. In all sincerity, perhaps what is needed is for Wilson and other secularists to join the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. Secularism, after all, is not a procedural ethic that somehow transcends particular visions of human flourishing. It is one among many worldviews.


POSTSCRIPT: Cambridge paleobiologist Simon Conway Morris has just weighed in with his assessment of Wilson’s book in the current issue of Nature(“The Road to Hell,” 21 September 2006). Morris refers to Wilson’s thesis as “deeply problematic” and “a thinly disguised programme to hijack religious energy and divert it into the secular arena.” Although well-intentioned, Wilson’s work “is ultimately underpinned by an incoherent metaphysics. Equally important, its scientistic agenda carries the real risk of imposing tyranny.” Then, echoing our observation precisely, he concludes that the failure of Wilson’s project lies in “the recurrent inability of materialists to understand that the decision to protect the biosphere can only derive from an ethical imperative that is itself independent of the natural world.”

Chesterton House Painting