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A Gentler Atheism

When planning my trip to Portland, I envisioned walking in snowy woods. The view of the city from the plane did not disappoint – it was covered in a pristine white blanket. It was only when riding downtown on the MAX that I learned what a disaster this was for the residents. Portland rarely sees snow, and the city has been practically shut down for the last ten days.

I did get my walk in the woods out at Breitenbush, in between sessions of the Wild Grace workshop facilitated by Paula Byrne. The experience was refreshing, although challenging. I found myself revealing far more about my journey than I had intended. After my walk in the woods on Monday morning, however, I closed my eyes to offer my gratitude before breakfast, and when I opened them the two new friends at the table said “Thank-you for that.” I found acceptance among them.

Today was my first day driving over the ice and snow. The Dollar lot was kind enough to put me in an Impreza. I don’t know what would have happened without the 4-wheel drive. I was going to go down to the OMSI, but I needed a silk swab for my flute. I ended up bouncing around NW Portland, picking up some books at Powell’s to fill in the mornings and afternoons until heading out for the dance events that drew me here. And well that I did: the rain started this afternoon, turning the roads into an icy slushy mess, and prompting cancellation of tonight’s full-contact improv event.

I picked all my selections at Powell’s from the nature shelves. I’ve been paying far too much attention to the problems people have created for themselves, and feel a strong need to see the natural world through the eyes of people that cherish it. So I find myself with books on bees and nesting.

But I started with Frans de Waal’s The Bonobo and the Atheist. The author is a primate behavioral scientist, focusing on chimpanzees and bonobos (most similar among all the apes to our primate ancestors). Without dwelling on it, de Waal makes clear his preference for the matriarchy of the bonobos, whose casual sexuality supplants fear as social glue. But in both societies, primates evidence empathy, compassion and a sense of fairness that are often upheld by philosophers as markers of “moral” conduct. de Waal extends this attribution, through brief vignettes, to other species in the mammalian order.

Laced throughout the book are reflections on the work of the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch, famous for his apocalyptic visions. Motivated perhaps by recent works that characterized Bosch as a deviant, de Waal reinterprets the artist as a humanist, noting that there is no representation of God in Bosch’s paradise. The artwork serves as an interesting device in the narrative: de Waal references it in drawing parallels between bonobo and human behavior.

As a work of moral philosophy, the book is weak. de Waal asserts that the cooperative socialization of apes proves that morality is innate, rather than learned. But this is the morality of the tribe that suppressed intellectual innovation for so much of human history. That is not always a bad thing: nerve gas and atom bombs are tools that we probably should do without. But it is the human capacity to innovate that creates social disparity that eventually sunders tribal bonds. I remark that the Greek root – religio – means “to bind again.”

Ignoring this problem, de Waal asserts that religion exists only to claim authority over our moral energies. This is accomplished by generalizing and abstracting the moral impulse. Without demonstrating deep religious insight, de Waal suggests that any such system of moral reasoning divorces us from the physiological and emotional roots of our natural morality. Paradoxically, he observes that natural morality applies only to individuals familiar to us, which leads to gross abuse of the rights of the “other” = whether of different cultures or different species. The book closes with an appeal to broaden our moral attachments – in effect, to repeat the sins of religion by generalizing and abstracting our morality.

Unlike his more intemperate peers (such as Christopher Hitchens), de Waal does concede the benefits that religion confers upon the believer, among them longer life, social amity and a sense of meaning. He believes, furthermore, that as our moral impulse is rooted in emotional experience, any attempt to reason people away from faith is misguided. Religion is to be tolerated.

At this point, of course, de Waal has joined the camp from which I am now seeking to disentangle myself. Every human culture brought forth the concept of the soul from its tribal past. It is the most obvious mechanism for explaining the sympathy felt between intimates when one is hurt (mirror neurons having been proven to be a fiction). Taking the existence of the soul as a given, religion is then best interpreted as an institutionalized orientation toward spirituality, and the ground staked out by the atheist (de Waal among them) subsides in the tidal surge of love that originates from the divine source.

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