Consistent or Crazy?
Thesis research can be a tad monotonous at times, but every once in a while, in the midst of wading through page after page of different versions of the same arguments, you come across a book that really surprises you—where you read something that you’ve never come across before that forces you to rub your eyes, sit up, and take notice. That happened for me this week when I was introduced to Loyal Rue.
At this stage of the game, I’ve come across more than a few evolutionary accounts of the origins of religion. It’s usually a fairly simple strategy: demonstrate that believing in imaginary entities provided our distant ancestors with some evolutionary advantage (i.e., it promoted social cohesion, led to the requisite amount of respect/fear for authority in the young, assisted with predator detection, etc.) and any supernatural component of religion is thought to be disproved. The general assumption seems to be that if it can be shown that being religious was adaptive in some way (i.e., it helped our species evolve), it was and is thereby nothing but adaptive—its supernatural claims make no contact with anything objectively real.
In By the Grace of Guile, Loyal Rue seems to largely buy this story (I say seems to because I’ve only just started to read him so it’s entirely possible I’m misconstruing his thought in some way), but he takes it in an entirely different direction than, for example, Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett. Where the latter take evolutionary explanations of religion as providing good grounds for finally getting rid of this loathsome phenomenon, Rue argues that the religious impulse should be actively nourished.
Rue is bluntly pessimistic regarding the true nature of the world: Does the universe contain inherent meaning or purpose? Not a chance. Is religion a response to an objectively real supernatural realm? Of course not. Is it little more than an evolutionarily useful deception? Absolutely. Is nihilism the only intellectually honest conclusion one can come to when faced with the cold hard facts of reality? Without a doubt. But why on earth should we be so concerned about things like honesty or truth?
The difference between Rue and some of the neo-atheists who use evolutionary “explanations” of religion to bolster their case against religion, is that Rue thinks that religion is a lie that we continue to need. It may not be too much of an overstatement to suggest that for Rue, deception takes on almost salvific overtones”
The paradox of the human condition is that we are both damned and saved by deception. And the challenge emerging in our time is ultimately an aesthetic challenge. It remains for the artists, the poets, the novelists, the musicians, the filmmakers, the tricksters, and the masters of illusion to winch us toward our salvation by seducing us into an embrace with a noble lie. Nihilism disenchants the universe—it tells us there is no objective meaning or purpose or value inherent in it. The universe just is. The challenge of a noble lie is to reenchant the universe by getting us to perceive, in spite of ourselves, that its significance is objective.
Biocentrism is your story and mine. It is everybody’s story. It presumes to tell us how things are and which things matter. It is, nevertheless, a lie. It is a lie because it is not nature’s own story, not told by the earth, not the authorized version. It is merely a tale told by humans, full of contingency and distortion, signifying hope. But it is a noble lie, one that washes down with a minimum of deception and offers up a maximum of adaptive change. And if it is well and artfully told, it will reenchant the earth and save us from the truth.
Nihilism may, ultimately, be the only true description of reality, but truth, it turns out, is maladaptive. What is needed is deception – we must do what we can to convince ourselves that some other story about the world is true. Far from being the lamentable blight on human history that it is presented as by Dawkins & co., religion ought to be embraced and encouraged—we ought to do whatever we can to trick ourselves into “reenchanting” the world in order to make it a more human place.
There’s a lot that could be said in response to this argument, but I think that whatever one may make of Rue’s conclusions, his attempt at consistency is admirable. Where, for example, Dawkins feels free to pick and choose which “evolutionary misfirings” he wants to keep (altruism, compassion for non-kin who suffer—”blessed, precious Darwinian mistakes”) and which he wants to get rid of (religion), Rue seems to say “if it was necessary to get us to this point, I guess we need it. Religion may be a lie, but it is a noble one and without it we can’t survive.”
Consistent? Crazy? Confused? All of the above? At the very least, my reading may be interesting over the next couple of days…