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Sacred Sociobiology

Thursday, April 25th, 2013

Fellow Passengers: This week’s Promise Passage* (Genesis 38) transports me to two traditional Southern Baptist Churches, one in Brewton, Alabama in the 1930s, the second in Lawton, Oklahoma in the 1960s. Each of these churches saw a child born and raised in their midst, professing faith and receiving the rite of baptism, learning the sacred stories, only to recant their faith and reject their tradition in adulthood. Not only that, each of these children would in their adult lives become highly touted leaders of an intellectual movement calling the very premises of religious faith of all stripes, including their received Christianity, into question, and would become the target of many an evangelical sermon on how the world is going to hell in a hand basket. The Alabama Baptist turned infidel is Edward O. Wilson, the famous Harvard professor and author known as one of the fathers of sociobiology, the science that attempts to explain why our species acts the way it does. Sociobiology was the academic precursor to evolutionary psychology, the bailiwick of the Oklahoma Baptist boy, Robert Wright, famous as a Princeton and University of Pennsylvania professor and author. These two intellectual giants and their colleagues in the field have resisted few opportunities to poke and prod and push the buttons of their spiritual forbears’ moralizing tendencies. At the risk of greatly oversimplifying what the evolutionary psychologists are saying, I’ll do just that, greatly oversimplify. The core argument is that the very notions of religious faith and morality are something the brain has evolved to deceive us with. The reason for the deception: it serves the primary purpose of the species – to get our genes into the next generation. In whatever ways our ethical and cognitive capacities evolved, it is all because acting and thinking in certain ways contributed to successful reproduction. The bottom line, from a genetic standpoint, is that we don’t care about liberty and equality and justice and compassion and faith, except for the utilitarian ways these concepts and their corresponding actions get our genes into the next generation.

At first glance, it seems obvious why these prodigal sons of the baptist tradition drive the preachers of said tradition crazy and provide fuel for their fires. On closer examination, though, I wonder why E.O. and Bob had to leave their faith behind in making these scientific observations. Their words may seem radically antithetical to the Word of God, but if they would go back and remember their Sunday School lessons, they might realize that what they have professed academically in classroom and textbook is much the same thing that was told by the story-telling professors of covenant history. Today’s passage is a prime example. In a community where sexual mores were clearly established, where prostitution was roundly condemned, and sexual intimacy with your father-in-law was a taboo almost equal to incest, we find an odd tale told. Tamar, grieving widow, is childless, and her brother-in-law fails in his levirate mating obligation to carry on the family line. She engages in some crafty subterfuge, sinning boldly (according to the moral code) by disguising herself as a prostitute to seduce her father-in-law, who does the deed and impregnates her. Once her chicanery is discovered, she is not punished for her trespasses; to the contrary, she is praised as being righteous and just. Why? Because she was (genetically, the scientists would tell us) in love with life; she kept the line of life going (and from her the life-line would come many generations later to Jesus). The moral code that prohibited certain behaviors, like prostitution and seduction of your father-in-law, must have evolved from a sense of what kinds of community behaviors established conditions most favorable to successful genetic transference from one generation to the next, that is, to the propagation of life. But when those same conditions threatened the generative capacity, the code got thrown out the window and the rule-breaker was celebrated for righteousness.

It’s quite a story, one I hope even scientific minds like Robert Wright and E.O. Wilson could appreciate. I’ve read books by both of them, and while intriguing, I think the narrative approach taken by the story-teller of Genesis is far more compelling. Who knows, the ancient proverbial sage may prove to be right, train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not depart from it. I have noted that both Wilson and Wright have had a hard time maintaining an emotional distance from the faith of their fathers, both write about religion with a fair amount of frequency. Wilson even wrote a book in the form of a letter to an imaginary baptist pastor. I’d like to think the sacred texts are still working on them, (these stories can be as seductive as Tamar on the street corner), and that they’ll one day discover they don’t have to choose between the two worlds. The faith tradition and the scientific method can converge, with neither losing their essence.

How about you? Where does this Promise Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.

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