Part 1 is here.
In The Meaning of Human Existence, E.O. Wilson writes:
“Are human beings intrinsically good but corruptible by the forces of evil, or the reverse, innately sinful yet redeemable by the forces of good?”
“Scientific evidence, a good part of it accumulated during the past twenty years, suggests that we are both of these things simultaneously.”
“We are all genetic chimeras, at once saints and sinners, champions of the truth and hypocrites–not because humanity has failed to reach some foreordained religious or ideological ideal, but because of the way our species originated across millions of years of biological evolution. (P. 27 – 28) “
“…a conflict ensued between individual-level selection, with individuals competing with other individuals in the same group, on the one side, and group-level selection, with competition among groups, on the other. The later force promoted altruism and cooperation among all the group members. It led to innate group-wide morality and a sense of conscience and honor. The competition between the two forces can be succinctly expressed as follows: Within groups selfish individuals beat altruistic individuals, but groups of altruists beat groups of selfish individuals. Or, risking oversimplification, individual selection promoted sin, while group selection promoted virtue. (P. 32 – 33)”
Ignoring Wilson’s characteristic commitment to group selection, when I read this I thought he was obviously going to claim that religion promotes altruism towards those outside our cooperator networks by asking us to repress our selfish nature. He’s even uses “sin” to descrine the actions of the selfish ego. But when he comes to discuss religion he writes:
“The great religions… perform services invaluable to civilization. Their priests bring solemnity to the rite of passage through the cycle of life and death. They sacrilize the basic tenets of civil and moral law, comfort the afflicted, and take care of the desperately poor. Inspired by their example, followers strive to be righteous in the sight of man and God. He churches over which they preside are centers of community life. When all else fails, these sacred places, where God dwells immanent on Earth, become ultimate refuges against the inequities and tragedies of secular life. They and their minsters make more bearable tyranny, war, starvation, and the worst of natural catastrophes. (P. 150). “
“Faith is biologically understandable as a Darwinian device for survival and increased reproduction. It is forged by the success of the tribe, the tribe is united by it when competing with other tribes, and it can be a key to success within the tribe for those members most effective in manipulating the faith to gain internal support.” (P. 151.)
How can he miss religion’s central endless battle against our selfish drives? I can’t see how one can miss that the core mission of religion is teaching people to fight against their selfish impulses. In the great monotheistic religions the primary battle is against sin as putting self first in gluttony, pride, greed, vanity, sloth, envy; the ancestor worship religions pressure its adherents to consider the shame they are bringing upon their ancestors as a way to get adherents to not act on their selfish appetites; and even Buddhism, which is often hard to categorize with other religions, offers nirvana as a reward for the cessation of desires. In all of them the point is to motivate people to not act on their selfish ego imperatives. They do it in different ways, but it is plausibly the one constant among the great religions (The Aztec religion being a possible exception). As I look back at the history of human civilization, it seems clear to me that it is the function of centralized religion to motivate the people to restrain their socially destructive impulses.
In “Restoring a Virtue-Based Ethics Frt The 21st Century” I discussed the social emotions. These are things like fear of exclusion or loneliness on the one hand, and friendship and love on the other. They have been built into human psychology over the long course of our history as a social species where it has proven advantageous to maintain mutually-beneficial relationships with other humans. The function of the social emotions is to get the organism to behave in ways that produce mutually beneficial relationships with others. In small hunter/gatherer tribes everyone is known to one another and individuals can keep track of each other’s reputations. The problem is that in the abnormal state there are present many people outside an individual’s kin and clan networks. The presens of many possible non-cooperators has necessitated a switch to a server/client network from the peer-to-peer that can exist in small tribes (a metaphor that will probably get me in trouble but what the heck). The “server” in this model I will call the central source of the social emotions or just The Controlling Source (I tried to come up with a flashy sounding acronym for the Source (Central Reciprocal Altruism Distribution Loss Enforcer ?) but decided to keep it dry).
In a civilization, religion functions as the central source and distributor of the social emotions, and its purpose to get an individual to repress his or her selfish drives in favor of true altruism, ultimately in the pursuit of the good human life. This controlling source works by centralizing the distribution of stories that provide moral instruction and gets everyone on the same page as to expected behaviors: it distributes these lessons from the Source through a network, teaches people as to what behaviors will result in the removal of reciprocity/ostracism, and instruct them to enforce these teachings on one another. Violators are punished at least by ostracism and the removal of reciprocal altruism (and at most by stoning or execution) and anyone granting aid to the ostracized are then themselves ostracized. In religious societies the central religious order distributes the stories and lessons to the priesthood which distributes them to the nodes of the followers. This source could be as small and localized as a small town church where the Pastor teaches the congregation, or as massive as the Catholic Church centralized in Rome and distributing to parishes around the world.
For most of human history the best distribution network we had was an individual speaking to an assembled crowd who went on to tell those who were not present what was said. With the advent of the printing press there came a new form of replication/distribution. Protestantism officially has no Central Source, or rather, the Bible itself is supposed to contain the rules and God is supposed to be the only source of the Social Emotions. Protestantism still used the local church and its religious leader to distribute instructions to the congregation as to what behaviors should produce which social emotions. But without a real Central Source to provide structural integrity, Protestantism has run off in all directions like Perseus’ horse.
The mass media has been the third great replication/distribution system. American Conservatives chose to fight the culture war using the churches in their traditional role to distribute values, while the Left used Hollywood, and we all know how that turned out. Early on, religious leaders saw the threat of Hollywood and managed to institute the Hollywood Code in hoping to get Hollywood to serve their ends. Even after the lifting of The Code Hollywood still feared the threat of religion and took pains not to stir up religious sensibilities. It wasn’t until the late 1980s that TV and movies felt secure enough to openly mock religious concerns and openly declared itself as The Source. Now, If I look around today at who controls the telling of stories, has a distribution system for sending them out to the nodes, educates the people as to what behaviors are praiseworthy and which result in ostracism and excommunication, and demonstrates to the people how to withdraw the benefits of reciprocal altruism (aka ostracism) towards violators, it seems obvious that the controlling source is The Media. Hollywood controls which stories are told, distributes them over its network of TV and movie screens, and through its stories educates the people as to what behaviors result in ostracism, and instructs the people to enforce this denial of the benefits of reciprocal altruism on each other.
Religions have been scared to criticize Hollywood since the Murphy Brown, The Simpsons, and Married With Children fiascos. Hollywood struck back so powerfully to these criticisms that religion has been afraid to speak out ever since. Religion was defeated by Hollywood and is now powerless to get the people to ostracize sinners, and at the same time The Media has taken on this role for itself. Now religion cowers before The Source and is sure to conform to its power. You can tell that religion is no longer the Source as it takes pains to conform to the Leftist morality of anti-x-ism out of fear The anti-x-ism is the higher framework and religion must work within this overriding framework. But most disastrously, Hollywood has used its control over the social emotions in the service of the selfish-ego. If I was to summarize the moral code of Hollywood, it is to shame any suggestion that someone not act on the urgings of the selfish-ego/appetites (short of violence); calling something a sin is the ultimate sin. Thus, the central source which is supposed to instruct people to resist the urges of the ego, now teaches us to attack anyone for suggesting we do so.
The Controlling Source always sets up its own people as the moral arbiters. Thus with Hollywood in charge it is actress/TV host Oprah is our moral paragon, and and we are subject to the absurd spectacle of having actors and actresses lead marches and speak at political demonstrations. Previously, in the golden age of newspapers, it was newspaper editors who lead the moral campaigns. Is it that moral activists seek out he best means of persuasion, or that the Source installs its people in positions of power? I don’t know.
The current Controlling Source needs to be overthrown, that much is certain. But can civilization do without one? The 1960s generation tried to throw off religion and all other social pressures as limitations to personal freedom. It waged a campaign against petty moralizers peeking out from behind curtains so as to ruin the reputation of violators, but it just went on to build a new controlling source in The Media. Today Leftists peek out from behind their electronic curtains seeking to destroy the reputation and force the social removal of reciprocity. Again, the fact that civilizations always have one, and when they try to get rid of one they just build another makes me think that they are necessary. I don’t see any enthusiasm even among the dwindling band of old liberals to get the band back together to take on the new crop of moralizers who are more fanatical then the religious right ever were.
So if there must be one what should it teach? As always, it should reflect our best understanding of the means by which the good life ought to be lived and how we ought to treat one another. Thus, people need to understand human nature and what flourishing entails, learn to detect when others are acting under the influence of their ego imperatives, and to call out these vices. We need an education in human nature whereby we can learn to detect when someone is acting under the influence of their ego imperatives and how this may effect the living of a good lie.
A few final notes: I could have called the controlling source “religion” but I wanted to leave open the possibility that religion is a controlling source the derives its authority from supernatural revelation. I also leave open the possibility that the controlling source may always derive its authority from supernatural revelation (an idea I toyed with in “Progress Report Regarding Our Efforts to Reestablish Theocracy.”)
Can the controlling source function without metaphysical beliefs as the foundation? I don’t know, but the fact that this was the solution to the problem for thousands upon thousands of years makes me think that it can’t.
The controlling source is never all-powerful, there are always competitors looking to knock it off the throne (how to do this is another interesting story), but there always seems to be one dominant source and it guards its power jealously.
The controlling source can be very concentrated in one man who issues edicts, or it can be a very diffuse group, more like a power cluster, as our current media elites seem to be.