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Marilynne Robinson on Science, Religion, and the Truth of Human Dignity

On Sunday, Andrew Sullivan offered a passage from Marilynne Robinson’s new book, When I Was A Child I Read Books, as excerpted in Guernica:

Jefferson says that we are endowed with “certain” rights, and that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are “among these.” He does not claim to offer an exhaustive list. Indeed he draws attention to the possibility that other “unalienable” rights might be added to it. And he gives us that potent phrase “the pursuit of happiness.” We are to seek our well-being as we define our well-being and determine for ourselves the means by which it might be achieved.

This epochal sentence is a profound acknowledgment of the fact that we don’t know what we are. If Jefferson could see our world, he would surely feel confirmed in the intuition that led him to couch his anthropology in such open language. Granting the evils of our time, we must also grant the evils of his and the cultural constraints that so notoriously limited his vision. Yet, brilliantly, he factors this sense of historical and human limitation into a compressed, essential statement of human circumstance, making a strength and a principle of liberation of his and our radically imperfect understanding.

This is preceded in the Guernica excerpt by this:

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This is the kind of thinking I would like to recommend. We don’t know the nature of Jefferson’s religious beliefs, or doubts, or disbeliefs. He seems to have been as original in this respect as in many others. But we do know he had recourse to the language and assumptions of Judeo-Christianity to articulate a vision of human nature. Each person is divinely created and given rights as a gift from God. And since these rights are given to him by God, he can never be deprived of them without defying divine intent. Jefferson has used Scripture to assert a particular form of human exceptionalism, one that anchors our nature, that is to say our dignity, in a reality outside the world of circumstance. It is no doubt true that he was using language that would have been familiar and authoritative in that time and place. And maybe political calculation led him to an assertion that was greater and richer than he could have made in the absence of calculation. But it seems fair to assume that if he could have articulated the idea as or more effectively in other terms, he would have done it.

What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident? As animals, some of us are smarter or stronger than others, as Jefferson was certainly in a position to know. What would be the non-religious equivalent for the assertion that individual rights are sacrosanct in every case? Every civilization, including this one, has always been able to reason its way to ignoring or denying the most minimal claims to justice in any form that deserves the name. The temptation is always present and powerful because the rationalizations are always ready to hand. One group is congenitally inferior, another is alien or shiftless, or they are enemies of the people or of the state. Yet others are carriers of intellectual or spiritual contagion. Jefferson makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization.

My point is that lacking the terms of religion, essential things cannot be said. Jefferson’s words acknowledge an essential mystery in human nature and circumstance.

As it happens, Robinson lectured Sunday at the Congregationalist church in Iowa City and included something close to these passages in her prepared remarks. Robinson is perhaps best heard in a church. She is a stately woman given to authoritative, oracular pronouncements on grand topics in a tone of high moral seriousness. I’ve heard her referred to as “Saint Marilynne” here in Iowa City. A friend once deigned to criticize Robinson and afterward admitted it felt “blasphemous.” Her lecture was audaciously titled “What Is Truth and How Do We Recognize It?” She hardly approached an answer to either question, but she circled around them beautifully. Lovely sermon, but frustrating.

Robinson’s main point was that the truth of several related propositions — that we are all part of a single human family; that we are in some sense equal; that there is inherent human dignity — ought to be treated as fixed points in the web of belief. “Human dignity is the one truth against which all other claimants to truth must be measured,” she said. But these truths, Robinson argues, are essentially unverifiable, and we cannot count on either religion or science to get them right.

After her talk, Robinson fielded questions from the congregation. When the microphone came to me I said that I did not understand what she takes to justify such confidence in the truths of equality or dignity, if both science and religion are supposed insufficient to support our confidence. “When acted upon,” Robinson said, “they demonstrate themselves to be true as things get in this world.” The idea seemed to me to be that communities that act upon an ethos of equality and dignity demonstrate by their health and humanity the truth of the tenets of that ethos.

That is, Robinson thinks a relatively dogmatic widespread conviction in equality and dignity produces good consequences. This sort of pragmatism fits snugly in the venerable tradition of American pragmatism. But it seems to me starkly at odds with Robinson’s misgivings about empiricism.

Robinson spent most of her lecture making the case that the authority of science was invoked to justify the doctrine of natural inequality at the heart of the secessionist South’s founding ideology of slavery. She’s right, of course.

Robinson is impressed with the possibility that there are facts about the elemental constituents of the universe — she mentioned dark matter — that may be forever inaccessible to human intelligence. This would mean that there are truths about our world beyond the reach of empirical validation. She does not then tend to suggest that revelation or faith is well-equipped to fill the gap. Rather, Robinson seems to want to establish that our relationship to the natural world is one of ineradicable mystery. Religion is no less likely than science to get the facts wrong, and religious dogma is no less likely to justify evil. Robinson’s point seems to be that religion offers a vocabulary in which to speak of unverifiable truths.

So we see her ask above “What would a secular paraphrase of this sentence look like? In what nonreligious terms is human equality self-evident?” She wants to say that there isn’t one. And she’s surely right that there is no secular case for the self-evidence of human equality. Yet if pushed ever so lightly she happily provides a what seems to me a nonreligious justification for belief in fundamental human equality: communities that believe it turn out better than communities that don’t. Is this an essentially unverifiable proposition? I don’t see why it should be. I think it’s true, and well-verified.

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It may even be true, as the Strausseans would have it, that we’re better off if our convictions about equality and dignity are codified in religious language and treated culturally as articles of faith. But if this is the truth, it’s not like the truth about dark matter, empirically inaccessible and unsayable in the human language of “medium-sized dry goods,” to use J.L. Austin’s phrase. That there is indispensable utility in religious vocabularies of mystery and enchantment–that without them, “essential things cannot be said”–obviously is not itself something that cannot be said without them.

Here’s why I find Marilynne Robinson really frustrating. Robinson is at pains to communicate that she is the furthest thing from an enemy of science–that she keeps a foot planted firmly in each of C.P. Snow’s two cultures. She repeatedly tells us that she keeps abreast of all the latest science news, and actively casts herself as an amateur authority on what science does and does not encompass and comprehend. Thus her rather caustic remarks about the narrowness and irrelevance of the social sciences, and especially economics, are presented as though they spring from knowledge rather than ignorance. Her audience, mostly composed of bookish liberal Christians more likely to get their science news from Marilynne Robinson than Scientific American, is therefore inclined to take her word for it. But her comments Sunday to the effect that the social sciences so far have had almost nothing to say about the basis for human morality and decent community shows her to be barely better informed than the typical novelist and gives the lie to her pose of insatiable curiosity about the bleeding edge of scientific discovery. (In the Guernica piece one can see her taking pointers about the ideology of economics from David Brooks. Not a good sign.) Robinson seems to want to open a rhetorical space in which gauzy platitudes of rote liberal humanism take on the authority of both religion and science without needing to defer to either. It would be a neat trick if she could pull it off. It would certainly help if she actually knew what she was talking about. She could sound much more authoritative if she went no further than reading Herb Gintis’ Amazon reviews, though reading a few Herb-endorsed books sure wouldn’t hurt.

That said, I like amateur philosophizing from eminent novelists and think it ought to be encouraged. Marilynne Robinson is more intelligent, penetrating, and stimulating than all but a handful of academic philosophers and social scientists, and it would be a better world if scientists paid half as much attention to the New York Review of Books as Robinson seems to pay to New Scientist.


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