# 2– How “the Good” Emerges Out of Evolution

Secularization and Its Disconnections

I claimed, in the first entry of this series, that a meaningful “story” about our kind (about the human saga) is largely missing in contemporary society—“at least in its secular components.” That phrase about “secular components” was an acknowledgment that our traditional religions do continue to offer “stories” that, if believed, provide an account of what we are as human beings and, at least in some respects, the meaning of the human saga.

But over recent generations, in the Western world, much of the world of serious thought has split off from the world of traditional religion. For people who feel that intellectual integrity requires that conclusions be based on applying reason and logic to the totality of the evidence  — and for whom beliefs based on received authoritative texts fail to meet that test — the stories told by the religions of our civilization no longer provide convincing answers.

This process of secularization has left some important empty spaces. An important aspect of such “empty space” is that, to many, the requirements of intellectual responsibility have seemed to block the way toward firm moral beliefs and spiritual conviction.

But I maintain that there is a secular and intellectually responsible way to fill those empty spaces, or at least some of those that matter most.

Most of secular thought, for example, operates from the conclusion that judgments of value are lacking in a solid basis in reality. (You can’t get “ought” from “is.”) Statements about value, many have felt compelled to conclude, are just matters of opinion, and thus cannot be taken fully seriously as saying things that are “true.”

Additionally, according to much of the rational-secular world, there is no meaningful and valid way of speaking of “the sacred.”

It has seemed to many that one can EITHER be intellectually responsible (meaning believing only what evidence and reason lead one to believe) OR one can hold moral and spiritual truths with full conviction. But not both.

That way of thinking, I maintain, is both dangerous and invalid.

Those “empty spaces”– left empty by the way secular thought has developed — have contributed to the peril of our times by interfering with the ability of many good people to connect fully with their moral and spiritual core.

That is a significant loss, as that core is a place from which comes much of the passion required to contain the forces of destruction at work in the world.

(Here’s a dangerous combination that might serve as a very approximate description of the heart of the current crisis in the American body politic: while a large component of the church-going part of America, which does believe in such things as “good and evil,” has been deceived and manipulated into giving support to a force of destruction; meanwhile, a large portion of the secular-minded, liberal part of America has proved incapable – due to its blindness and weakness – of seeing and combating that force.)

If it is true that the disconnection, among many with a secular worldview, from a moral and spiritual core is part of the reason that destructive forces have gained so much power in our times, it would be hard to over-estimate the importance of this issue.

And if a different and valid path for secular thought were available – one that demonstrates that there is no need to choose between maintaining intellectual integrity (in rational, scientific terms) and having full commitment to some fundamental moral and spiritual truths–  then that different way of thinking could have an important and beneficial effect on the quality of our civilization.

It is the belief in that different and valid path, and its potentially beneficial effects, that is the motivating force behind this series on “A Better Human Story.”

So, to return to my “sales pitch” for the integrative vision being offered in this series:

Would you be interested in a way of understanding our humanity that offers a well-reasoned, empirically-based, intellectually responsible “way of understanding” that offers a meaningful way to see the realm of value – categories like good and evil, right and wrong, and even “the sacred” — as an essential and real part of our human reality?


Evolution As a Meaningful Story

To begin to chart the way toward filling those “empty spaces”….

At the heart of the secular understanding of who we are, and how we got here, is the story of the evolution of life on earth. Science says clearly, this is how we came to be.

For many, this evolutionary view – in which the living world is shaped by a process with an apparently wholly impersonal and opportunistic modus operandi — has seemed to strip our being of some of its important meanings. Like the reality of good and evil. Like a dimension worthy of calling “the sacred.”

But there’s another way of comprehending that evolutionary view.

The story of evolution, far from closing off our access to the important moral and spiritual “spaces” that religions have filled with their different stories, provides us a meaningful way to understand the reality of “the good” and “the sacred.”

It is on those positive dimensions that this installment will focus. But in a subsequent entry, I will show how that same perspective provides the necessary context for understanding how – as a consequence of our species’ rather recent breakthrough into civilization, after four billion years of the story of life on earth — humankind inadvertently unleashed a force that might reasonably be called “evil” into our world.

There are two reasons that it is the positive part of that pair — how evolution gives rise to “the good” – that should come first. It comes first chronologically, in terms of how value gets built into the organic structure of creatures such as ourselves. And it should come first also logically, in terms of laying the necessary foundation for seeing how the subsequent breakthrough into civilization of a culture-creating animal like homo sapiens would inevitably generate a force of brokenness.


The Good as an Emergent Reality

From the secular perspective, it appears that values like “the good” and “the sacred” are not built into the cosmos, “out there.” But those values are “emergent” realities — arising out of the evolutionary process. Realities that have been instilled, by that process, into our very being.

In a nutshell, here is the argument for how one can get from the realm of “objective” reality, that science presents, to the realty of “the good.”

  • Evolution (natural selection) systematically chooses life over death;
  • Natural selection, in time, by favoring those who are motivated to do what survival requires, crafts creatures to find fulfillment from those things that have ancestrally been life-serving;
  • The fulfillment of sentient creatures – creatures to whom things matter experientially – is the only criterion for “the good” that makes any sense.

(Those first two points are fairly basic in the realm of evolutionary thought, though the language about “choosing life over death” and “finding fulfillment” are my own way of framing those ideas. The third idea has a degree of kinship with the philosophical idea of utilitarianism. Taken together, they form the framework for an argument… well, I wouldn’t know how to counter it!)

What is selected for, in biological evolution, are those creatures that do what survival requires. At a certain point in evolutionary development, that required “doing” starts being driven by “motivation.” Wanting to do what’s necessary for survival helps. Wanting to avoid what threatens survival is also a plus.

Along with motivation, then, comes this wanting. Which, in turn, means emergence of an experiential dimension of things “mattering.” To the motivated creature, some outcomes and some experiences are preferred to others.

In this way, evolution’s “choosing” of life over death leads directly to the next step in the emergence of value. That step brings us to that third and crucial point above – the one about the connection between “value” and the fulfillment of sentient creatures.

The Central Reality of the ‘In Here’

It mystifies me how so many smart people have stumbled over this movement from this step from the “out there” domain of “objectivity” to the “in here” domain of “experience.” As if value could not be “real” unless it was “out there.” But it seems clear enough to me that value could only make sense in terms of the (subjective) experience of sentient beings, and that it is no less real for that.

The idea that for something to be “real” it must be “objective,” like the stars in the heavens or the rock on the road, seems to me a complete non sequitur.

Value means that some things are better than other things. In a lifeless universe, devoid of any beings to whom things matter – i.e. for whom some things are experienced as “better” than others – how could there be any kind of value? (A God could count here as one such being, if He were “well pleased” with one thing, and displeased with another.) But in the absence of any such creatures, and any such experiencing, how could anything be “better” than anything else?

There can be no “value” unless something matters – something is better or worse—to someone.

(In a universe with a God who makes pronouncements about the better and the worse, would that mean that it matters to Him? That He thinks it will be good for His creatures? And for His creatures to accept such pronouncements, would that not have to mean that they accept that God’s assessments. Unless, that is, it is just out of fear or deference to authority. Only in an authoritarian framework does the positing of God solve any problem about value not equally solved in a secular framework.)

And in a universe without a God – the universe as cosmological science has been able to see it – then one can say that value is an “emergent” reality in the universe, once creatures (like us, but not only us) emerge to which some experiences are preferable to others.

In sum: Value is inherent in the experience of creatures like us, and value must necessarily register in the domain of experience.

At this point, we might encounter the challenge according to which experience, being subjective, cannot be really real. To which my response is: To say that value is not real, because it’s “merely” based in experience, makes as much sense as to say that pain is not real.

Nor does “subjective” mean “merely idiosyncratic. Just as it is fallacious to argue — from the fact that we each have different bodies — that there’s no such thing as “human anatomy.”

Beneath our differences – between individuals, between cultures – there is a fundamental stratum of our experience, and of our sense of how things matter, on either the positive side or the negative, that is grounded in how evolution has shaped our human nature.


The Two-Level Game of Evolved Human Life

As it follows from evolution understood as a process that chooses life over death, that the nature of a sentient creature is molded such that its experience of well-being tends to correspond to what, in the history of the species, has been life-serving, so also does it follow that the life-serving and the fulfilling are two sides of the same evolutionary game.

The game of life operates, then, on two levels. The overall system operates mechanically as if animated by the “purpose” of yielding survival. The sentient creatures the system creates are built to seek fulfillment. From the point of view of the system, that fulfillment is a means to an end. But from the point of view of the sentient creatures, the fulfillment is an end in itself.


Out of the impersonal processes of evolution, there emerges value, which is to say, there emerge creatures who experience things in terms of the better and the worse.

It matters to a baby whether it is lovingly cared for our callously neglected or cruelly abused. It matters to a kitten whether it is stroked or tortured. (Pleasure and pain are a gross way of expressing the inherent dichotomy. But I think the experiential “good” is richer than “pleasure” connotes. The word “fulfillment” captures more of that richness.) It matters to a human community whether the people flourish or are mired in misery.

The emergence of creatures who directly experience that “things matter” is the entirely logical – one might say inevitable – outcome of the process of natural selection. Once life begins to develop out of a cosmos in which, at least as far as science can tell, there was previously no meaningful way in which one thing could be better than another, “the good” will eventually arise as an emergent property.

Filling Those “Empty Spaces” in an Entirely Secular Way

Thus does a scientific, secular perspective provide a meaningful way of recognizing the reality of value. This way of establishing that reality seems by no means inferior – logically – to any of the religious stories that claim to illuminate the good and the evil.

As the human good consists of human flourishing, this secular way of establishing value is fully capable of establishing the validity of such principles as “Love thy neighbor as thyself,” said by Jesus, or Rabbi Hillel’s precursor to the Golden Rule, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow.” For the practice of such precepts will maximize the fulfillment of the human beings within any community that practices them. Their rightness is affirmed by the experiential reality of sentient creatures.

As “value” is an emergent property in the evolving system of life, so also is “the sacred.”

Just as value cannot have meaning except in terms of experience, so also with the sacred. (Unless within a basically authoritarian outlook, in which anything the Supreme Being declares, His creatures must agree to.) Consider “the sacred” as what occasions a special form of the experience of value – value to the nth degree. Value in excelsis.

Many with a secular perspective regard the concept of “the sacred” as meaningless, as not corresponding to anything in reality.  But to deny the meaningfulness of the idea of “the sacred” is to deny an experiential human reality.

The reality is that it is a human universal that people have “special” kinds of experiences—experiences that give rise to a sense of sacredness. We need some such concept, because it refers to an experiential reality that people talk about in such terms—in terms of its breaking through into a deeper, more illuminated, bigger dimension of reality.

“The sacred” – the capacity for this kind of experience — seems to be an inherent part of our humanity. Just as music and laughter – which are also found everywhere human beings are to be found – are part of what we humans are by nature. Evolution, evidently, put it there.

To deny the reality of “the sacred” because it is grounded in experience makes as much sense as denying the reality of excruciating pain.

Not every human being, it seems, has such “Wow” “way out there” “blown away” “deeply illuminated” kinds of experience of value. But I gather it’s a substantial portion. (Not every human is musical, or has a sense of humor either.)

The “sacred” seems to be a human universal in the sense that such experiences arise in virtually every human culture. And, in virtually every human culture, people attribute profound importance to such experiences. Indeed, historically and cross-culturally, it would seem that human cultures have organized themselves around such experiences.

And perhaps in that major orienting role that these experiences play, we get a clue to how it may be that the evolutionary process – which instills value in all sentient creatures – has apparently instilled that experiential capacity in humankind. One might presume that it has proved life-serving for the animal that embarks on the path of culture to possess a capacity for experiences of value so profound that those experiences serve as major guideposts for the organization of cultural life.

Indeed, what peoples through history and across the world have tended to experience as “sacred” are things that are profoundly life-serving: the sacredness of holding one’s infant in one’s hands, the beauty of the natural world from which we draw our sustenance, the solidarity of the social group, the family gathered around the Thanksgiving table, one’s hearth and home, a well-ordered and just social order.

The sacredness, in other words, of those things that contribute to human flourishing.

The Sacred: A Case in Point

Which will lead, in the next installment, to my talking about the latest space I’ve been working on fleshing out for this ambitious “integrative vision” of a “Better Human Story.”

In contrast to that fleshed out piece mentioned in the previous piece — the darkness ascendant in American in these times—this new project is about something worth celebrating in human life.

The name of the new project is “The Sacred Space of Lovers.”


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Are there people you know who would answer “yes” to the question with which this piece began? If so, please send them the link to this piece.


NOTE: The comments that follow, below, are from people I’ve asked to serve as my “co-creators” on this project, i.e. to help me make this series as good and effective as possible.

They are people who have known me and my work. And my request of them is that –when the spirit moves them to contribute – they add what they believe will help this series fulfill its purpose and give the readers something of value. I’ve invited them to tell the readers what they think will serve the readers well, and to pose questions or challenges they believe might elicit from me what I should be saying to the readers next.

I am grateful for their attempting to help me find the right path.

Margee Fabyanske

I’m ready to accept a new way of understanding that offers a meaningful way to see the “realm of value” (right/wrong, good/evil, or sacred/fulfilling) as an essential and real part of our human reality.  But should we group people into two vast categories of secular intellectual vs. religious fundamentalist?

If evolution has shaped our human nature should we jump to the conclusion that all humanity is looking for the sacred or fulfilling life as part of our DNA?  Do we all, deep down, want to flourish?

Andy Schmookler responds:

On your first question:

Reality is of course more complicated than our categories. But our understanding does seem to require that we notice differences, and one important difference is that different people reach their beliefs by different means. In other words, they have different “epistemologies.”

This series is dedicated to the approach to knowledge/belief that is about evidence processed through reason. The belief in biological evolution grows out of a veritable mountain of evidence of many different kinds.

The religious approach –and please note that I said nothing about “fundamentalism” – is usually different. Certainly scientific proof of God’s existence is lacking. And the purely logical attempts to prove it – as attempted by Aquinas for example – fail to pass logical muster. I expect that most people who believe in God (or believe, say, that one can find salvation in Jesus Christ) have arrived at that belief by means quite other than “evidence processed by reason.”

It is true that a person might believe in God through that means. If, for example, one had the experience that Moses is reported to have had with a voice speaking to him out of a bush that burned but was not consumed, that experience would constitute for that person “evidence” (even if not of a publicly available sort), and reason might lead him/her to conclude that indeed, God does exist. (Or they might conclude that they’d been hallucinating.)

I myself would like to believe that the universe is ruled by a God who is just, merciful, good, powerful, wise, etc. as our traditional Western religions have posited. For me, however, the evidence does not seem to support that belief. On the other hand, I also have had some experiences that I have difficulty integrating into my general worldview, and that leave me open to the possibility that “there is more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my (natural) philosophy.”

On your second question:

I am in general against “jumping” to conclusions. But if there are people who are inherently indifferent to the “pursuit of happiness,” I would be at a loss to explain why. And that would be for the reasons articulated in the piece—i.e. how selection has crafted us to do what survival requires, and to feel rewarded (fulfilled) for doing those things.

There certainly seems a wide range of human variation. It seems to me quite plausible that seeking experience of the “sacred” – value to the nth degree – is not a human universal, just like not everyone responds deeply to music. (Also, there can be birth defects of all kinds.) And certainly people can be damaged by their experience so that they do not remain alive to the possibilities of happiness, pleasure, fulfillment.

But how would it come to pass that someone would – by inborn nature – not be inclined toward that which his/her ancestors were selected for being motivated and rewarded for pursuing?


Fred Andrle:

Atheists and agnostics I know – admittedly a small number –have firm moral beliefs and a motivation toward altruistic action based in compassion for their fellows. I don’t find them at all hesitant in this regard.  Perhaps they base their beliefs in a kind of thought process similar to yours. I will inquire.

One atheist friend holds that we have developed our sense of altruism, our sense of compassion, even love, out of a need to function as a human society. Without that development, he says, societies would collapse in an orgy of personal greed and comprehensive exploitation of others.

So I wonder why some who don’t subscribe to a religious outlook find it so difficult to leap to a firm secular code of ethics. I wonder what’s missing for them.

And one atheist friend who has had an ecstatic experience of the sacred looks back on what was for him at the time a religious experience, and now calls it “brain chemistry.” That seems enough of a value for him.  Sufficient in itself  because the experience was intensely life affirming.

Andy Schmookler responds:

I will be interested in hearing, Fred, what you learn when you inquire of your friends who are atheists and agnostics and have firm moral beliefs, as to whether their route has anything in common with the one I’m presenting here.

And I share your wonder at the difficulty some people without a religious outlook have in reaching a firm basis for their values.

On that point, a famous line from Dostoyevski’s Brothers Karamazov comes to mind: “If there is no God, everything is permitted.” (The quote appears in “The Grand Inquisitor,” which is “written” by one of the characters, so it is not clear whether Dostoyevski himself buys that logic.)

If only the existence of God can make anything forbidden, does that mean that the only reason people would abstain from wrong-doing is that there’s a mighty, all-seeing power around to punish one’s misdeeds? Or alternatively, does it mean that the only way that any moral rules can be established is by such a Being?

Both seem like complete non sequiturs to me, for the reasons given in the essay. And fortunately, it does appear from various psychological studies that people do have some inborn moral sense. (Even chimpanzees apparently have an innate sense of fairness, for example.) Which makes sense when one thinks of how our whole primate evolution has taken place in social groups, and how the requirements of healthy, life-serving social interaction would readily select for a tendency to do right by one another.

That point is akin to what your atheist friend says about how societies would collapse. But it does not sound like your friend – if he talks about “comprehensive exploitation of others” – is thinking in the long-term evolutionary perspective in which our nature was shaped, where we live in small bands in which the structures to enable such exploitation were lacking.

Turning, finally, to your friends with the ecstatic experience of the sacred. The question of “brain chemistry” does arise. Above, I referred to some experiences of my own that suggest that there may be “more in heaven and earth than is dreamt of in my (natural) philosophy” (using the line from Hamlet). If one has a resolutely secular view of things, it can eliminate some cognitive tension to interpret such experiences as mere “brain chemistry.” On the other hand, for me at least, the experiences have called out to be accepted as saying something bigger—something that does not fit so readily into my larger understanding of the world.

I would be interested to know whether your friend, at the time of his experience, thought of that ecstatic contact with the sacred as “brain chemistry,” or as saying something that was about more than just him.

There is an element in all this that, for me, remains mysterious. I believe natural selection can fully account for the emergence of the capacity for such experiences. But it is not crystal clear.


Ed Schmookler:

I would like it if you began with an instance (example) of the attitude against which you are arguing (i.e. regarding “value” as not really “real,” a matter of opinion, etc.).

Andy Schmookler responds:

Having spent much of the past twenty-five years engaged in engaged in conversations with people on both the political right and the political left – on the radio, and online, as well as in Q&As at my speaking events – I’ve been pretty well marinated in the ways of thinking of different components of the moral and political culture.

But when it comes to the attitude toward value that I attribute to secular (and mostly liberal) culture, I don’t come up with a single one I might use that would carry the necessary freight well enough to make my beginning with it effective.

A few examples that come to my mind, however, include:

Teaching students (in the 70s, and then again in the oughts) who said things like, “Though what the Nazis did at Auschwitz is not what I would have done, given my values, it did correspond with their And so it was right for them.”

Conducting a conversation on Wisconsin Public Radio on the subject of “Judgment,” where callers would say that no one had a right to question anyone else’s moral judgments, since they were only a matter of opinion. It seemed that the only moral judgment that they were willing to assert as valid was that it was wrong to be “judgmental.”

When I began talking about “The Concept of Evil,” http://web.archive.org/web/20160501133604/http://www.nonesoblind.org/blog/?page_id=26    back in 2005, and continued to do so for the next decade, I encountered a great deal of resistance in secular/liberal/intellectual circles. The objections took various forms, some of which were allayed when I made it clear that I was not interested in labeling individual human beings as “evil,” but was talking about a visible and coherent “force” at work in the world that spreads a pattern of brokenness. (About which much more later in this series.) But among the objections was the idea that there is no such thing as “evil” because “good” and “evil” are just archaic notions referring to nothing that’s actually “real” in the world.

Perhaps even more important are the ubiquitous and subtle ways that this attitude manifests itself in the secular/liberal world: a huge reluctance to condemn anything on the other side; an impulse to be “even-handed” no matter how asymmetrical the realities of the situation; an insistence that all moral positions be given respect—all of these founded on a notion that everyone is entitled to their own opinion, that all moral positions should be respected because they are only our opinions.


April Moore:

Very interesting. For one thing, I find it fascinating that values can emerge from a system without values.

Andy Schmookler responds:

Yes, the phenomenon of “emergence” is a fascinating thing. Going back within the scientific picture before the emergence of value in a world previously without value, there is the emergence of life in a world presumably hitherto lifeless. Going back still further is the mystery of how it is that, presumably in the Big Bang, “something” emerged where there had been nothing.

That mystery – how matter and energy, time and space, along with a set of “laws” that ordered how they worked – could come into being ex nihilo is completely mind-boggling to me. Nothing any physicist I’ve read or spoken to about it in the least solves this mystery. But the subsequent phases of emergence that lead to our human situation in the world seem comprehensible enough to me.


Karen Berlin:

Thank you for sending yet another engaging, intellectually thought-provoking and well written piece.  I am grateful for your ability negotiate great depth of content with effective economy of words.  You said a lot well in a concise and compelling manner.

Some religious people may feel disenfranchised from your writing.  Affirming religious frameworks as a natural phenomena in the human experience is helpful and invites people of faith like me to keep reading to see how your insights will compliment or challenge my current structure of beliefs.

Andy Schmookler responds:

Thank you, Karen, for your appreciations. It would please me greatly if God would be delighted by my insight. I wonder how, given that insight, the God you believe in would describe His role in the unfolding of life on earth, and then of human civilization over the past 10,000 years.

Although you say that “some religious people may feel disenfranchised from your writing,” You also say, “I experience no tension between your writing and my faith.” Which leaves me wondering: what would those who would feel “disenfranchised” have to change – or give up? – in order to feel that comfort you report with the evolutionary perspective that I’ve presented here?

To address your one reservation – that that readers might be turned off by my statement about the “blindness and weakness” of Liberal America, and thus bail on following me where this series is going – I would say a couple of things.

First, my critique of Liberal America is not a blanket indictment. After all, I consider myself part of that segment of American culture, and what I’ve seen has inspired me to fight as strongly as I can for more than a decade against the destructive force that has been ascendant in America in our times. And of course, there have been many others.

But not enough. Had there not been a problem of weakness, how else to explain that a force that continually deceives has been so often able to defeat the force of Liberal America that has more habitually been armed with the truth? How else has a force that has done virtually nothing to enhance the lives of the great majority of the citizens of this nation – and indeed has been working to take power and wealth away from them – been able to persuade such a large number of those Americans to align with it and to regard the political side that is clearly more concerned with their well-being as the enemy?

So, for those who know that they have not been blind and weak, there’s no need to take my critique personally. And for those whom the shoe fits, the challenge is to wear it, and awaken to the nature of the profound battle being waged these years in the American power system. The election of 2016 has done much to achieve that awakening. The underlying reality has become so blatant, that many who were blind now see it. And the threat has become to palpable that many who supported weakness are aroused to fortify the political muscle of Liberal America.

As I said in the first installment, that is all to the good. And it would have been still better had that happened earlier in the battle, when the force of destruction did not control so much of the battlefield.


Livvie Mellan:

I really loved the part where you talk about “the sacred,” because it reminded me of a couple of major experiences in my own life, and gave me new language to talk about them. As with what you said about cultures orienting themselves around experiences of “the sacred,” these two conversations are what put me on the work-path I’ve followed my whole professional life.

The first one was a conversation with my thesis advisor, when I was pursuing a Ph.D. in French and was on my way to an academic career. He could tell I was lukewarm about that prospect, and in a conversation in which I was complaining about a love-relationship gone wrong, he asked me if it had ever occurred to me that I had more love in me than would be satisfied just by being in a relationship with one man. At first I thought he was talking about my having multiple lovers, but he soon made it clear that he was talking about a career that was all about giving people some kind of loving care. Like a therapist, and more particularly, since he knew my love of the theater, like getting into something like psychodrama.

When I heard that, it was like I’d been hit by a thunderbolt. It was like the planets stood still. It changed the course of my life.

A second conversation with those qualities of thunderbolt and planetary stillness happened a couple of years later. A lawyer with whom I was offering a workshop that didn’t get any takers suggested, “I really think we should do a workshop about money. That’s really the last taboo.” And again, it went right to my core. I recognized that every time the subject of money came up – like with a couple or with an individual – it was as if there are ghosts of family members (theirs and mine) around the room. So rich in what it means to people, and often so much in need of help that people don’t get. It seemed important to create a safe space for people to talk about these money-related things.

So those two moments – those two “sacred conversations” –gave me such a “zing” into some level of deep meaning that they guided me to what has felt like my true calling.

Andy Schmookler responds:

Thank you, Livvie, for sharing your own moments of life-guiding breakthrough into something that might be called the “sacred” level.

This came in after the piece went public:

Jack Miles:

            Before beginning a reply to installment #3, I would like to offer a set of quick comments on installment #2.

            First, though it is true that religion has lost its appeal for many intellectuals, one need not be an intellectual to be irreligious. Honesty to the social reality in which we find ourselves is served, when comparing secular to religious options, not always to imagine the secular exponent as well-educated and thoughtful. Irreligion does not require a philosophical cast of mind. Nihilism does not require a college degree. Your local Aryan biker is not likely to be a church-goer.

Second, while your account of the emergence of value in evolution is both attractive and persuasive, I would underscore a point that I do not think you would reject—namely, that your implicit critique of science is scarcely less severe than your rejection of religion. The locus of this critique is your valorization of the subjective against received science’s devaluation of it. This is crucial to the story you are developing.

In that connection, I would like to share something that I wrote in connection with another project. The online Italian magazine MicroMega recently decided to ask a number of intellectuals to respond to the same set of questions that Partisan Review asked intellectuals to respond to in a special issue, or series of issues, published in 1950 under the general heading “Religion and the Intellectuals.” Partisan Review — a left-wing review founded by Communists, though it had broken with the party by 1950 — was concerned by a revival of religion discernible in the United States at that time. Central to their concern was the status of science: was it losing credibility as religion gained credibility?

Here is the second of their 1950 questions, followed by my 2017 answer:

PR: Granting that social changes and catastrophes may bring people to consider religion more sympathetically, the fact still remains that the trend in question here is one among intellectuals, who have undergone a change in convictions. What has happened to make religion more credible than it formerly was to the modern mind? The credibility of certain religious mysteries like the Incarnation and the Trinity would certainly not seem to be changed by any new data, scientific or otherwise; but there may be other parts of religion whose general credibility is changed by fundamental changes in the climate of opinion. Do you consider these latter changes valid?

     Does this trend imply that the scientific attitude of mind is being forsaken? Or that drastic limits are being set to it? Or is some readjustment necessary, by which the scientific attitude will be given a new place in the intellectual hierarchy?

JM: In 1950, in my view, few dreamed that any such “readjustment” was or ever would be necessary in the scientific attitude. Intellectually, science was triumphant, its rightness and goodness taken as beyond challenge, with medical miracles like the polio vaccine readily summoned to testify in its defense. Yes, there was nuclear anxiety, but more pervasively there was a clear (and actively promoted) sense that science and consumer capitalism were beneficent partners. As a boy coming of age in the 1950s (I was eight in 1950), I vividly recall television commercials featuring the Dupont corporation’s motto “Better Living Through Chemistry.” If there was any incompatibility between this partnership and church membership, no one seemed much troubled by it. That science-enabled environmental degradation might lead to social collapse and even human extinction—such prospects lay still well over the far horizon.

     Religion came in for more mixed reviews, starting in the 1960s and 1970s. While some religious leaders were very much in the lead in opposing the Vietnam War and racial segregation, institutional Christianity was also deeply implicated in both, and it began to be heavily discredited as a result. Anticlericalism of a sort familiar in Europe began to take hold in the United State, and a clear anti-religious or religion-phobic constituency began to come into existence that a few years later would bring unprecedented popular success to the works of “new atheist” scientists like Richard Dawkins and philosophers like Daniel Dennett. Though not Marxist, such writers breathed new, populist life into the PR view that religion was part of the childhood of the human race, ludicrously indefensible for adults in our day.

     This actively irreligious or anti-clerical constituency is still solidly there in America, but even larger—at the social level–is the constituency of the disaffiliated not just from all organized religion but also from many or most of other forms of voluntary organization, including political parties. Alexis de Tocqueville once found voluntary, extra- or infra-political association distinctive of early America, and even a key to the nation’s social viability.  What now all “belong” to, however, is the Internet, which in many lives claims so many daily hours of “devotion” that one is put in mind of Benedictine monks singing the holy office in the 12th century. And America is by no means the most “wired” nation in the world.

Meanwhile, at the intellectual level, addressing PR’s really quite daring openness to substantive questions about science, a certain interesting ferment actually is becoming more noticeable. Let me quote the philosopher Thomas Nagel reviewing Daniel Dennett’s latest book, a rigorously naturalistic study of human consciousness, in The New York Review of Books (March, 2017):

The spectacular progress of the physical sciences since the seventeenth century was made possible by the exclusion of the mental from their purview. To say that there is more to reality than physics can account for is not a piece of mysticism: it is an acknowledgment that we are nowhere near a theory of everything, and that science will have to expand to accommodate facts of a kind fundamentally different from those that physics is designed to explain.

In 1950, I believe, one would have looked long and hard to find a philosopher of science as distinguished as Nagel writing, “there is more to reality than physics can account for.” I myself have long taken seriously the fact that there is no physical evidence, none, for the statement “Only physical evidence is real evidence.” There are serious implications in these reservations about science for the future of religion and other “subjective” pursuits, but to say even so much as that is to gesture toward a future still struggling to be born.

            I introduce this long digression because it underscores, via Thomas Nagel, both my point that your valorization of the subjective is a radical critique and that you are not alone among contemporary thinkers in calling for some such revision.

            Third, you have allies as well in your desire for a master story that combines scientific cosmology, most especially evolution, with values that—to some degree and in some ways—have been transmitted by religion. The Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology (www.fore.yale.edu) has produced a film and companion book, Journey of the Universe: A Story for Our Times. It’s impressive and yet, for me, unsatisfying precisely in the area where I find strength in your emphasis on values. Their emphasis falls on awe before the grandeur of Earth and the wonder of its story. I don’t believe that awe alone quite “gets us there.” They neglect the evolution of values and love within that larger evolution, which is the great strength of your emergent story. That said, comparing your secular story with this pluralist, science-affirming, empirically open religious story strikes me as at least an apples-to-apples comparison, while comparing yours to the stories told by authoritarian religion is apples-to-oranges. Examples of secular, even aggressively irreligious authoritarianism, after all, are easy to come by. One need mention only Josef Stalin.

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  1. Kenneth Mayers

    I, too, found your argument for the sacred to be effective and useful. But it also got me thinking about the role that authoritative identifications of the sacred and reactions against them have played in our human story. Perhaps you will be addressing this later in the series.

  2. I enjoyed reading that, Andy. It warrants a second reading on my part.

    You are trying to fill what many think of as the gap left after God died. I am certain that I have never thought this carefully about it as you have, possibly the consequence of having been raised in a non-religious family. To excavate the source of my values would take a long narrative, tying them to culture, to specific experiences and people, to much of what I have read, to Sarah, dominantly (atheist father, religious mother), and to a very large part my experiences as a teacher, learning from some wonderful colleagues and even more from my students, listening carefully to their experiencers and dreams.

    Putting that together has been my bible. That plus reading people like Joseph Campbell, John Dewey, William James, Paulo Freire, quite a bit of Zen Bhuddist, putting all of that together to become me. Although as I have said, I’m a slant atheist, I have never felt spiritually empty.

    I don’t want to go too far into the negative effects of religious thought. They are more than obvious if one looks through a historical lens. But when I talk to people who are truly religious, following closely the thoughts of the narrated Jesus or Buddha, we have an easy time understanding each other.

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