Robert May attacks fundamentalism

Robert May (also known as Baron May of Oxford, former chief science advisor to the British government) is arguably the world’s most famous ecologist. I’ve known him for a while, but have never heard him decry any form of religion.  Now, as reported by The Independent, May has spoken out against fundamentalism, arguing that the tenets of unquestioning belief may have been useful in earlier societies, but should now be discarded as inimical to progress.

“In such systems, there is unquestioning respect for authority. Faith trumps evidence. But if indeed this is broadly the explanation for how co-operative behaviour has evolved and been maintained in human societies, it could be very bad news. Because although such authoritarian systems seem to be good at preserving social coherence and an orderly society, they are, by the same token, not good at adapting to change.” [Quote from May]

The rise of fundamentalism, not just in the Muslim world but in the United States, and within the Catholic Church, could actually make global co-operation more difficult at a time when an unprecedented level of teamwork was needed, Lord May said. “If you take the view that in times of stress, authoritarian hierarchies tend to resist change, what the history of religion has been has been towards a softening, less dogmatic values, but under stress you simplify complex problems to simple mantras,” he said.

20 Comments

  1. Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:04 am | Permalink

    One quibble: I think it’s a bit confusing to use the term “fundamentalist” to describe anything other than a certain sort of Christian, who were/are self-described as believing in certain “fundamentals” of that religion.

    Perhaps “literalist” would be more clear — and would apply to most mainstream religious believers, not just the extremists.

    But anyway: I’m glad for his comments.

    • newenglandbob
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:34 am | Permalink

      How about the term faitheist?

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:56 am | Permalink

      Hmm. If you go that way, I think you have to walk further. Where I live the former state church was lutheran protesthantic, and take texts as interpretative but authoritative canon, not literal canon. (You can’t have canon without being authoritative on the scope of accepted texts, of course.)

      All of those resist change in varying degree. (Which is why our state church was separated instead of shelved completely.)

      I’m pretty certain that May meant fundamentalism when he said it. Fundamentalism can tentatively be accepted as a likely grouping and a potential movement withing broader religious groups. (And it definitely exists as such.) But in any case a good blog rule is to parsimoniously accept the less contrived explanation.

      • Posted September 7, 2009 at 10:23 am | Permalink

        Again, I don’t think the term applies well to other religions such as Islam, for example. Nearly all Muslims (except a few mystics and liberals) take the entire Koran as literal truth. Are they all “fundamentalists”?

        No, the term is generally only applied to those Muslims who seek a religious government or whom we otherwise don’t like very much.

        In fact, the word “fundamentalist” generally just means whoever we think is backwards, ignorant or intolerant, and it gets thrown back toward atheists the same way by theists and faitheists.

        I’m not sure which word might work better. “Literalist” works for Christian protestants but not authoritarian Catholics.

        How about “religious believers”? ;^)

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 7, 2009 at 1:05 pm | Permalink

        “Again, I don’t think the term applies well to other religions”

        Oh, your scope was outside christianity.

        Well, then, that is both precise and illuminating. OTOH, the Wikipedia intro discuss the modern wider scope that fits all religions (and so May’s characterization).

    • qbsmd
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      Read the intro to the wikipedia page on fundamentalism. That’s very close to what I understood him to mean.

      More confusing was the phrase “has been has been”. I read that a few times to parse it.

    • MadScientist
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

      I always thought of “fundamentalists” as anyone who takes their abrahamic religion (and perhaps a few non-abrahamic religions) seriously – whether it is the pope, Jimmy Swaggart, the ayatollah Khomeini, Osama Bin Laden – to me they’re all fundamentalists because they all claim to have the One True religion and demand that people worship a sky fairy.

  2. newenglandbob
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:33 am | Permalink

    Ah, yes, this is what one would expect from a chief scientist (current or former) and not religious dogma (you know of whom I speak).

  3. Leigh Jackson
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:37 am | Permalink

    I’m attending a public speech by May later this afternoon on the theme of human cooperation in the contaxt of Darwinian “survial of the fittest”.

    The Independent’s report gives a somwhat different slant to that of The Telegraph.

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 8:05 am | Permalink

      Thanks.

      “He said that no country was prepared to take the lead and a “punisher” was needed to make sure the rules of co-operation were not broken.

      The former Government chief scientific advisor said in the past that was God and it might be time again for religion to fill the gap.

      “Maybe religion is needed,” said Lord May, who was brought up a Scottish Presbyterian but went through an “inverse epiphany” at the age of 11.

      “A supernatural punisher maybe part of the solution.””

      If that is correct, it certainly looks like “the committed atheist” is just another faitheist.

      • Reginald Selkirk
        Posted September 7, 2009 at 8:11 am | Permalink

        Do you think this approach can work if people are aware that the “supernatural punisher” doesn’t actually exist, and is being cynically invoked to control their behaviour?

      • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
        Posted September 7, 2009 at 1:07 pm | Permalink

        Work in what respect? It certainly divorced him from some atheists (i.e. me :-D).

  4. jimvj
    Posted September 7, 2009 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    One form of faitheism causing a lot of trouble and instigating a huge response of faitheism in its opponents is:

    “God gave us this land, therefore we can treat you like dirt and dispossess you of the land and water you and your forebears have lived on for centuries.”

    • Torbjörn Larsson, OM
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 8:16 am | Permalink

      “Ism as ism, fundamentally it’s the same faith.” 😀

      [Of course, as Moscow’s comment delineate, actually “narrow” faitheists makes claims very much in common with “broad” fundamentalists. “Science can never prove …” and all that jazz.]

  5. Posted September 7, 2009 at 8:02 am | Permalink

    Odd…the way I heard the BBC report this 3 hours ago was along the lines of ‘scientist says religion is necessary in the fight against global warming.’ Then in the report it went on to say that May also said there are problems with religion.

    • Zarcus
      Posted September 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Ophelia,

      Read: Accomodationist

      • Jerry Peeper
        Posted September 7, 2009 at 2:08 pm | Permalink

        Definately sounds like accomodationist to me.

      • Tom Johnson
        Posted September 7, 2009 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

        Accommodationist? Really?

        I’m ignorant of what exactly he said, but I’m fairly sure we’ll need to get the religious on board to change their daily activites if we’re going to combat global warming. And one can certainly say they can do that without catering to their views.

        You can hold whatever moronic religious views you want…but we’re going to need the religious to act if we’re going to combat AGW. We don’t have enough to time ot pretend we can ‘convert’ them all.

    • Leigh Jackson
      Posted September 14, 2009 at 7:07 am | Permalink

      I’ve just got back from holiday. Here’s a late report of May’s address at the opening of the British Science Festival. Given in Guildford Cathedral, I think May was discreetly hinting that religion of the authoritarian kind may be a problem to place alongside global warming, population growth, water shortage and species extinction whilst suggesting that the psychological mechanism of an unseen punisher might potentially be helpful if it could be harnessed.

      Not faitheism, but a blend of sceptical and speculative pragmatism, I would say.

  6. Carstairs
    Posted September 8, 2009 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    The real problem is that people haven’t caught up with the ideas of atheism. They still needs their gods/parents.

    Solve that problem and you won’t need to say There is No God any more.


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  1. […] Connection To Authoritarianism, Its Past Uses, And Its Current Fundamentalist Risk via Jerry Coyne come remarks from Oxford’s Lord Robert May, president of the British Science Festival and […]

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