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The New Humanism: E.O. Wilson and the Evangelicals

How, and why, did a self-described "uncompromising secular humanist" find himself greeted with open arms by evangelical friends and allies at Samford University, "the Ivy League of the Southern Baptist Conference," in Birmingham, Alabama? Edward O. Wilson - biologist, environmentalist, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, and humanist - delivered a presentation about the "New Atheism," the "New Humanism," and friends in unlikely places at the 2007 joint conference of the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard and the Secular Student Alliance, The New Humanism.

Wilson and Foley

Professor E.O Wilson and SSA board member Joe Foley at The New Humanism conference at Harvard University.

Professor Wilson has been an institution at Harvard for over half a century, and is among the most celebrated scientists alive today. His teenage fascination with ants led to what could have been a quiet career in entomology, but he first gained notoriety by extending the study of animal behavior to include humans, for which he coined the term "sociobiology" in 1975. Wilson's ideas were fiercely attacked by fellow evolutionary biologists such as Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, but drew support from others like Richard Dawkins and Steven Pinker, making a mark on the way both scientists and the general public think about the evolution of human behavior. Another of Wilson's professional interests was the study of biodiversity and extinction, which quickly led to his active support for global conservation; he is now one of the most prominent advocates of the movement.

Wilson is also a public voice for secular humanism, and so he began his talk by paying homage to two leaders of the movement: Paul Kurtz, founder of the Center for Inquiry, and Tom Ferrick, former Humanist Chaplain at Harvard and the man in whose honor this conference had been organized by his successor, Greg Epstein. Wilson then discussed the contributions of two sides of the modern freethought movement, the New Atheism and the New Humanism.

The New Atheism, Wilson said, is a "bolder and more confident" form of the awareness-raising that secular organizations have been trying to do for decades. He praised authors like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris for their ability to reach the general public and openly combat faith-based government, "vouchsafing those freedoms we thought we had won 250 years ago." This important line of defense, he said, will halt the excesses of religion and validate atheism as a movement and a worldview.

The other side of the coin is the New Humanism, after which the conference was named even though (or perhaps because) the term's definition is elusive and controversial. To Wilson, the New Humanism is no less skeptical of religion than the old, but it is "not so much proselytizing," he says, "as finding common ground." He pointed out that however much the freethought movement has grown recently, the membership of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) includes 45,000 churches and 30 million people. Alone, atheists or scientists (groups with significant overlap) make up a minority that is often ignored, if even tolerated. However, if we could find partnership with evangelicals on issues like environmental conservation, the sheer numbers of the faithful could move mountains.

Wilson drew on his own personal common ground with evangelical Christians to help his message get across the gap. He was born in Birmingham "just a rifle shot away" from what is now the site of Samford University, and grew up literally steeped in Southern Baptist tradition. Thus, he was able to write his latest book, The Creation: An Appeal to Save Life on Earth. It reads as a letter "to an imaginary Southern Baptist pastor." He explains that even though he no longer counts himself among their flock, and even though scientists and religious believers may have different views about how the world came into being, both parties have a vital and immediate interest in preserving it. Stewardship, he says, is a neglected but fundamental value in the Christian tradition.

Setting aside our metaphysical differences and reaching out the "hand of friendship," Wilson says, has worked "to a spectacular degree." He has been invited to meetings with American religious leaders like Richard Cizik of the NAE and Gordon Hinckley, President of the Mormon Church, and to major conferences like the one at Samford, which at one point paused for a live video link to the ongoing New Humanism conference and some polite addresses in both directions. Judging by the number of books Wilson signs as well as his conversations with the top movers and shakers, Wilson believes environmental conversation is quickly becoming a priority for America's major religions.

This kind of New Humanism may be achieving great success at pushing the rock of ages in a new direction, but what happens when this "truce in the Culture War" expires and we revisit the fundamental difference between our groups? With the growing validation of the humanist worldview and the unique mental peace with the world that it provides, Wilson predicts religion will gradually decline. It will never disappear completely, he says, because it forms so much of our literary and artistic tradition, without which we would be very poor indeed. But slowly and surely, Wilson maintains, "We will evolve."
Joe Foley is a doctoral student in genetics at Stanford University. He graduated summa cum laude and Phi Beta Kappa from the University of Minnesota in 2007, with a B.S. in biology and a minor in music. He first became involved with the freethought movement as an officer of the University of Minnesota Campus Atheists, Skeptics and Humanists, and led the group as one of its three co-chairs from 2004 to 2006. Since 2006, Joe has also served the Secular Coalition for America as Treasurer.
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