Globe and Mail: What possessed you to immerse yourself in the roiling waters of the science-religion wars?
Marilynne Robinson: I happen to be deeply interested in science and religion, so well disposed toward them both that the idea that they are natural adversaries has always bothered me. And I am fascinated by the idea that civilizations generate a hum of insight, invention, disputation, affirmation and controversy, each one like a great mind engaged with its own preoccupations. So for me, attentiveness to these "wars" is attentiveness to the unfolding of human history. That said, the issues that emerge in any culture can be profound or vacuous, brilliantly articulated or dealt with crudely. Science and religion are both profoundly important to our culture, so the integrity of the conversation around them is important as well.
G&M: What determined your approach?
MR: I think of Absence of Mind as a critique of a prevailing curriculum, which is the actual basis for the world view that in the context of this controversy is called "scientific." These new-atheist writers carry forward an elderly tradition of polemic against religion which predates modern science and has always been and still is dependent upon positivist notions of rationalism and of the nature of physical reality. So I approach the subject as a problem in the history of ideas.
G&M: Despite the assault of science on religion, it's only in apparent decline in the West and seems to growing in reach and, indeed, fervour in much of the rest of the world. How do you account for this?
MR: Has science in fact assaulted religion? Or is it only that the prestige of science has been appropriated in order to make an argument against religion appear authoritative? Somehow it seems to have been accepted by people on both sides of the question that religion stands or falls on the literal truth of one reading of Genesis I. It could as well be argued, for those who attach importance to such things, that the Genesis account is surprisingly consistent with the Big Bang, with the emergence of life in progressive stages, and with the remarkable phenomenon of speciation. But these questions only seem important because the actual substance of religion, the thought and art that have made it the great germinative force behind civilization, are not consulted by people on either side.
G&M: You suggest that some of the new atheism is a reaction to militant religious fundamentalism, especially in Islam, but also in other religions. Can you expatiate a bit?
MR: Certainly militant fundamentalism has given a great assist to all religion's hostile critics. Human beings are what they are, and they tend to take things to extremes. This is true of science as well as of religion. All the world's most appalling weapons are the creations of scientists. The implications of cloning, surveillance and any number of other facts of contemporary life that are entirely the work of scientists remind us of the excesses of which science has proved itself capable. Those who idealize science dismiss these expressions of it as somehow beside the point, and this is alarming, since it means that they are refusing to acknowledge the extreme gravity of the issues with which science confronts us. This is not a criticism of science as such. I wish only to point out that what is scientific is not therefore rational.
G&M: You seem to fault the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett for a failure of imagination, for failing to grasp complex individual behaviours of the sort that had us thinking about gods, or first causes, to begin with. Though they do construct stories, they're stories that seem to discount subjective experience in favour of an overarching master narrative. Is this a novelist's criticism of the scientific mind?
MR: I am a great admirer of the scientific mind. I may have a special definition, one that ranks physicists and cosmologists very far above entomologists, animal anthropologists, linguists. I believe Dennett is a philosopher, which puts him off the scale altogether. I love grand hypotheses. I love the excitement that runs through any real (by my definition) scientific community when something is observed that overturns established assumption. New thinking is precisely what is never found among these new atheists. All their books repeat one argument, which could have been written in 1890. Their emendations, for example that famous "selfish gene," are conservative strategies for shoring up old ideas. There is rarely a hint that they proceed from data or observation, and never a sign that anything can surprise them. Dogmatists are not given to flights of imagination or to the creation of new syntheses. Scientists are. The human mind, wonderful and terrible, is the great fact. To minimize its power, its complexity, its loneliness and radical individuation, is to evade every essential question.
G&M: You sometimes refer to "para-scientism" as seeking evidence that confirms an existing state of mind or belief. But don't we all do this? Can we make any statements about the mind, or consciousness, that do not proceed from a set of assumptions?
MR: We do indeed all have assumptions. But people who claim to be scientists ought to be especially active critics of their assumptions. This is how they attempt objectivity. This is the reason for the scientific method, the disciplines of experiment and observation. The new atheist argument would fall to the ground if they were to own up to merely proceeding from a clutch of favoured assumptions.
G&M: You're very careful not to draw any explicit religious conclusions. But does your critique of scientism point toward the assertion, even the monotheistic assertion, of human specialness?
MR: My own sense of human specialness is absolutely central to my religion [Robinson is a Christian] but not dependent on it. I always tell my students that the human brain is the most complex object known to exist in the universe. I say this to encourage them to take a more generous view of their own gifts and potential, and to make a higher estimate of their readers and their characters. But what I am giving them is a scientific fact (modified with scientific humility by that word "known"). Then there are history, culture - and science itself. It seems strange to doubt that we are truly extraordinary.
G&M: What are the likely next steps, or salvos, in the discussion? Where would you like to see it go from here?
MR: My real interest is in encouraging a new humanism. From my perspective as a writer and teacher, I feel and see the consequences of simplistic and dismissive approaches to humankind and its works and ways. We are not in competition with the rest of the biosphere. If human lives are not valued, nothing else is safe. And the fact is that we are overwhelmingly interesting and would reward our unbiased attention.