Novelist Marilynne Robinson, who won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Gilead, reflects on the relationship between science and religion in a new nonfiction work, Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of the Self (Yale Univ., May). She was inducted in May into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. Robinson responded in writing to RBL’s questions.
Religion BookLine: How did you develop this work?
Marilynne Robinson: The book is the product of an old restlessness of mine with a body of thought that has calcified into orthodoxy, the curriculum of modernism. On the basis of the work of a fairly short list of writers who were active in the 19th and early 20th centuries, certain ideas are treated as though they are truths established for all time. These are not great truths, though they are taken to have displaced metaphysics and to have rendered theology meaningless. Indeed, there is a quotidian smallness about them. They are reductionist in a very negative sense of the word. They are not compatible with one another, Darwin with Freud, Nietzsche with Marx, but they are collectively powerful in that they are taken to have arrived together at one inescapable conclusion, or rather at one account of the modern condition that not only describes but also determines the kind of understanding we must have of our nature and our prospects. They function in our intellectual culture in a way that pre-empts thought, in part because the old trappings of science and the old mystique of iconoclasm still cling to them. Two centuries of scientific advance should have provided a basis for new thought, even a new metaphysics. The iconoclasts have become the icons, saints of an orthodoxy very badly in need of challenge.
RBL: One of the books that has shaped the current critique of religion is Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell. Do we need to break the spell of science?
MR: I think we need to pay much more attention to science. It is brilliant and illuminating, a privilege of our historical moment that we are too little inclined to enjoy. We do need to break the spell of “science,” that is, the tendency to invoke the authority of science inappropriately to give strength and cover to arguments that would not bear scrutiny.
RBL: Do you think that modern thought devalues the insights of earlier cultures?
MR: I think that a primary myth of modernism, and one that persists, is that the past was naive and benighted—and probably happier for the fact. Nevertheless, assumptions about what has been thought and known in earlier periods are a part of the modernist construct of history, the idea that there is a yawning gulf, with complacent belief on one side and disheartened enlightenment on the other. This notion discourages inquiry into the testimony the past has left us.
RBL: Should science “proclaim the glory of God”? Or is that art’s task?
MR: I don’t think the universe should be made a party to our quarrels. It [the universe] is worthy of admiration, no matter how admiration is expressed.