Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Intellectual Bigotry

On the way into work this morning I caught a bit of "The Current" interview with Robert Wright, who is giving this year's Massey Lectures on the CBC. The Massey Lectures are broadcast by the CBC's "Ideas" which, if you haven't tuned in, is usually well worth a listen. The blurb advertising this particular event on the CBC website is as follows:

In his 2004 CBC Massey Lectures, A Short History of Progress, the acclaimed
anthropologist and novelist Ronald Wright argues that only by understanding
humanity's patterns of triumph and disaster since the Stone Age, can we
recognize the threats to our own civilization. With luck and wisdom, he
suggests, we can help shape the future.

Ronald Wright said one thing in this morning's interview that made me chuckle. He asserted that species evolve in ways that sometimes lead to evolutionary traps from which they cannot extricate themselves. His thesis is of the, "we are doomed ecologically unless we radically change our environmental ways right now," school of thought. He said the best empirical evidence illustrating a human evolutionary trap was the experience of the erstwhile Polynesian settlers on Easter Island.

Apparently this deserted, barren island with its mysterious stone heads was once a fertile wooded paradise. Alas, the former inhabitants had a cult of ancestor worship, which led them to erect these large stone monuments to their ancestors. In order to erect these monuments they gradually denuded the island of all the trees. The soil then blew into the ocean and the inhabitants no longer had wood out of which they could fashion boats. They were doomed without soil to grow crops and without trees on which to fish, or escape.

He went to note that we must not allow ourselves to hold to unrealistic religious beliefs that in the end can do us in. So far so good. He then drew a parallel with American Christian fundamentalism, which he said believes that is ok to degrade the environment because God will make it right in the end. Get it. If the Christians (who are irrational and not at all scientific) have their way we are finished.

That is what made me chuckle. Think about it for a moment.

Christian fundamentalists, as a rule, do not believe it is ok to despoil God's earth, on the basis that He will make it all right in the end. In contrast, it is the post-enlightenment, irreligious acolytes of the modern world, who hold to such a deep irrational faith in such matters. It is they who assert that the good arises from the pursuit of material things and that "scientific knowledge" is the necessary means by which we acquire those things. It is they who have harnessed the considerable power of science to meet the insatiable demand for material goods.

Now, some on the post-Christian left recognize the ultimate irrationality of such a belief and the excessive exploitation of the environment which flows from such thoughts and have reacted against it, blaming the Christian "right" for the perceived environmental miasma. Of course, Christian fundamentalists, and other inhabitants of planet earth who believe in unending human progress are reflecting not so much their Christian theology, but the influence of the various materialistic utopianism philosophies of the age such as capitalism, socialism and fascism.

Christianity, properly understood, presents us all with an opportunity to exploit the world's resources for the benefit of men and women, but also imposes an obigation of good stewardship towards this planet. This obligation arises from the compelling Christian imperitative, "to love one another, as He has loved us." For Christians, the Creator gave us a paradise and we must ensure that it remains so. To deliberately despoil this great gift is a great sin.

Ronald Wright's comments on The Current allow us to glimpse a common bigotry of the modern mind. It the flawed view that faith and science are opposing gladiators and not complementary allies in the pursuit of truth.


At 5:37 pm, November 24, 2004 , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Leszek Kolakowski, the noted Polish philosopher, has suggested that one of the reasons that western christian civilization has fostered the rapid technological growth of the past 4 or 5 centuries is religious. In short his view is that the christian attitude toward nature is characterized by a very productive tension. On the one hand, the material world is not ultimately the true world - there is the promise of a redeemed life beyond - which to some degree sanctions an instrumental attitude toward nature. On the other hand, unlike some other religions, it does not maintain that the material world is an illusion. It is God's creation and it is good. This, in Kolakowski's view, supports efforts to understand nature and this in turn requires manipulation of nature.
This says nothing about environmentalism, but it does suggest that there is something intelligent (and non-bigoted) that can be said about different religious attitudes toward the manipulation of nature and by extension technological society.


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