Drawing the Line…

The estimable E. O. Wilson, in a recent piece for the New Scientist, offers what is to my mind an essential tripartite distinction between religion and science:

In the more than slightly schizophrenic circumstances of the present era, global culture is divided into three opposing images of the human condition. The dominant one, exemplified by the creation myths of the Abrahamic monotheistic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – sees humanity as a creation of God. He brought us into being and He guides us still as father, judge and friend. We interpret His will from sacred scriptures and the wisdom of ecclesiastical authorities.

The second world view is that of political behaviourism. Still beloved by the now rapidly fading Marxist-Leninist states, it says that the brain is largely a blank state devoid of any inborn inscription beyond reflexes and primitive bodily urges. As a consequence, the mind originates almost wholly as a product of learning, and it is the product of a culture that itself evolves by historical contingency. Because there is no biologically based “human nature”, people can be moulded to the best possible political and economic system, namely communism. In practical politics, this belief has been repeatedly tested and, after economic collapses and tens of millions of deaths in a dozen dysfunctional states, is generally deemed a failure.

Both of these world views, God-centred religion and atheistic communism, are opposed by a third and in some ways more radical world view, scientific humanism. Still held by only a tiny minority of the world’s population, it considers humanity to be a biological species that evolved over millions of years in a biological world, acquiring unprecedented intelligence yet still guided by complex inherited emotions and biased channels of learning. Human nature exists, and it was self-assembled. Having arisen by evolution during the far simpler conditions in which humanity lived during more than 99 per cent of its existence, it forms the behavioural part of what, in The Descent of Man, Darwin called “the indelible stamp of [our] lowly origin”.

Too often are the failures and atrocities of communist history laid at the feet of those who hold to an atheistic worldview, even if that atheism is simply a byproduct of a more firm commitment to what Wilson calls “scientific humanism.” But I believe that it is this division between scientific humanism and monotheism which is the dominant ideological struggle of our time, and it is one which requires a significant rethinking of the multiculturalist positions (or ‘postmodernism’ more generally) which, to be sure, forged great gains over the past thirty-five years, but which, as Wilson points out, may be seen as a variant of “political behaviorism.”

To push this further, the ideological lines that supposedly disappeared sometime around 1989 or 1991, those dates which mark the end of History for Fukuyama (or the end of Art for Danto), have been redrawn, not between civilizations, between East and West, between Islam and Judeo-Christianity, between Islamo-fascism and Liberal democracy, but between religion and science, with humanism–that means the Arts; for what better testament to humanist values can there be?–firmly on the side of the latter. By which it follows that a commitment to humanism, to human achievement and creativity, without recourse to a belief in supernatural agency, is the banner under which our art–our contemporary art–must march.


  • Catherine Spaeth

    I think I just now at this moment fully stepped into postmodernism, more comfortable with subjectivity than humanism, and avoiding all marches with banners. It doesn’t mean that I don’t appreciate the secular attitude, but I describe it differently than you do. And I find that it is not without some form of what people used to refer to as a secular mysticism. Bogey words, those.

    But your appeal is odd to me. Can you tell me in what ways religion has really become so important in the art world? I see it in my own ways, but not as problematic for “art.” I don’t understand the war you seem to be fighting – where is it?

  • Jonathan T. D. Neil

    The “war” is more general insofar as I think that “ideology,” though branded negatively, is exactly what we’re missing at the moment. The fight is here”, and it was the source of a long thread on Ed Winkleman’s blog in which I took part back in August.

  • Catherine Spaeth

    That’s interesting. And I’ve been thinking about art and religion quite a bit, gave a lecture on Art and Buddhism during the Vietnam War this summer in fact.

    Have you seen Moriko Mori at Deitch? Spirituality has become very “cool,” indeed.

    Here are some excerpts from my response to your post on Artworld Salon, which may not be posted:

    “Watching Jose Alvarez’s video in the back room of The Kitchen I was very surprised at how much there is a part of me that longs for powerful connection to the universe should I stand in the middle of a NASA satellite with a phallic crystal in my hand.”


    “All of this talk of the priesthood and the priveleged class is “the role of the intellectual” warmed over for a dystopian audience. This is an important question, perhaps answered best by focusing on WHAT is art criticism, as writing and not solely the embodiment of a “class.” Those who ask “why” are already coming to the table with the suggestion that it is empty and worthless, and this is not, to my mind, a consideration earned.”

    Of course, I’m responding to what I perceived to be another poster’s anti-intellectualism here, but this is embedded in worries over spirituality in America, an ideological spirituality.

    Ideology, not spirituality is the problem. As an art critic, I am very wary of how what you refer to as religion appears in art. Gordon Matta-Clark was a Buddhist, I see this in his work, and it adds to his touch.

    Outside agendas are the problem. Something else to consider is how very strangely the Hudson Valley Center of Contemporary Art, a non-profit run by collectors Mark and Livia Straus, is driven by the kaballah. Quirky, but real.

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