False Dichotomies and the Virtue of Historical Perspective

America is a divided society in many ways, but the breach between fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist scientific materialists would seem to be among the chasms most unbridgeable. The true believers in each group appear to live in totally different worlds, the paradigms out of which they operate irreconcilable. But are their differences as stark as they seem?

As a schoolboy in the ‘fifties, I used to hear the mantra “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet.” Of course, now, West meets East at Walmart, where the meeting is stamped on most of what they sell: “Made in China.” But that is not my point. It is the dichotomy, the binary-ness implied in this aphorism. Growing up in Cold War America, the world was (conceptually) divided in two: us virtuous democratic capitalists and those godless totalitarian communists. Us versus them: the good guys against the bad guys. “Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists,” as I seem to recall someone once saying.  Seeing the world in this binary way goes back at least to Aristotle and his system of logic based on either/or. Either it‘s black or it’s white; it’s right or it’s wrong. Two separate, but interrelated, things are going on here. One is this either/or filter we put on our perceptions of the world—a filter handed down to us by culture. The other is our tendency to examine and parse the world in short time-frames.

     In the context of the twentieth century, communism and capitalism were competing economic ideologies, and they seemed to represent polar opposites. As a young person hearing about this great divide in the world, it didn’t occur to me to question the scale and scope of the division, and thereby see how hyped up the differences between us actually were. It was really only a dispute about how the pie of the world’s natural resources would be divided up and distributed among humans. Should it be:”From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs” in a command and control economy?  Or should it be the “invisible hand” of the “free” marketplace left alone to work its magic of “equitable” distribution?  Never brought into the discussion were the shared cultural assumptions, and ways of life, between the Soviet Bloc and us in the so-called Free World. That both our industrial consumer societies were based on unlimited resource extraction and consumption never entered the discussion, nor, of course, was our extravagant and wasteful way of life ever questioned. Looking back, it is much easier to see than it was at the time that we were Tweedle- Dum and Tweedle-Dee arguing over who got what.

     Years later I would come to recognize that the really meaningful dichotomy was one that never got discussed, and that was the divide between the Indigenous Worldview and lifeway, and the worldview and lifeway of Western civilization. In America, beginning in the 1980s, books by and about Native people’s started to become generally available in bookstores and libraries, and I took to reading them, finding them so fascinating that I have kept on reading these kinds of books ever since—including lots and lots in the area of anthropology. And it was these years of experience reading books outside the dominant paradigm (including some outsider history books) that made me recognize two things. The first has to do with how you frame an issue– or rather, how others frame the issue for you—not only limits the ways in which you can see that particular issue, but the framing also sets a precedent in the mind, a kind of scaffolding or superstructure, which you will tend to use to organize your own thinking on other issues. And this is one way false dichotomies get set up in our own minds.

     The second hard-won insight that has come to me with age and experience has to do with historical perspective. When you are caught up in the Cold War, for instance, the issues of that particular time dominate your vision and the way you frame the world. What I am building up to here is: the same can be said for science and religion as can be said about communism and capitalism. The apparent dichotomy is not as fundamental as it seems—not if you put a long lens on it. And here I want to quote the scientific AND religious scholar, Thomas Berry. “The current extinction is being caused by human action within a cultural tradition shaped in a biblical-Christian and classical-humanist matrix. The tragic flaw in both traditions seems to be an anthropocentrism that has turned into a profound cultural pathology.” Just as communists and capitalists share the commonality of being highly extractive industrial consumer societies, science and religion share a human-centered view of the world.

     And that is not all they share. Both science and religion are based in a culture that goes back about ten thousand years, to the beginnings of civilization– based in agriculture and built upon specific foundational assumptions about the world (our ontology). Perhaps chief among these assumptions is that the human being is separate from Nature, which, along with its corollary:  that Nature is ours to use as we see fit, and ours to dominate. This foundational axiom, central to our cultural belief system, I call the Big Lie. I call it that because we manifestly are NOT separate from Nature; but, false as it is, the Big Lie informs almost everything we see, believe, and do. It permeates our perceptions of the world, our value system, and all our cultural and social institutions, which means that myriad smaller lies are built into every area of civilized life, because the Big Lie has been accepted and passed on through scores of human generations within civilization.

  Institutional Science and Institutional Religion are at odds with one another over some fundamental ontological issues: that is, they disagree about the nature of reality. The Christian view is based in Platonic dualism, which posits two worlds: the mundane and imperfect world we inhabit now, and a world somewhere else where all is perfect and ideal. The scientific view, in its essence, is based on the original work of the ancient Greek philosophers Leucippus and Democritus, who declared that all which exists is made up of atoms in the void. This is a materialist view and is compatible with today’s dominant paradigm of scientific materialism. I once had a philosophy professor who made the memorable statement that in terms of Western philosophy, Plato and Democritus wrote the book (or rather, two books), and all philosophy since has just been footnotes to their work.

     So, here we have another dichotomy: A two-world view in which one world is gross, physical, imperfect; and another world where everything attains to perfection, and where a whole wish list of desirable conditions may be possible, including spirituality. Atomism and scientific materialism deny the existence of this ideal world. Believing themselves to be realists and empiricists, the materialists say, in essence: what you see is what you get. If you cannot demonstrate something empirically then it probably isn’t “real.”

     And what about this dichotomy between realism and idealism? Is it merely a false dichotomy, as I might seem to be implying—or is it real?

     At this point I need to qualify my terms: the dichotomies between communism and capitalism, or between science and religion, are not, strictly speaking, false dichotomies so much as they are secondary or tertiary dichotomies, and not the primary dichotomies they may seem.

     Western science and Western religion are both born of the culture of civilization. They share foundational assumptions, and not only the Big Lie of separation form Nature and our narcissistic anthropocentrism, but authoritarianism is also common to both, as is the meme (or myth) of progress. Indeed, the number of cultural memes shared between Western Science and Western Religion are far too numerous to count, even if they could be untangled, one from another. And this brings me back to my central theme. Just as the disagreements between the communist bloc and the “Free World” was all within the family of industrialized consumer societies, the ideological schism between science and religion is all within the context of the culture of civilization—a culture with a history of about ten thousand years, which science and religion both share.

     When we go back that far– to the beginnings of agriculture– we finally arrive at a truly meaningful divide. I think of it as a threshold, a bifurcation point, a time of fateful decision. On one side of the divide is a worldview and lifestyle that might be characterized as living in the Gift. Living in the Gift is living off the interest of nature’s bountiful economy; living within the annual solar budget. It is, to use Daniel Quinn’s elegant phrase, “living in the hands of the gods,” trusting Nature to take care of her people. It is acknowledging the human’s kinship with all other living beings and recognizing the world and its creatures as intelligent and sentient, possessing both selfhood and volition. This is the Indigenous Worldview, and it knows that the world is animated by spirit, and that life, and the Earth itself, are sacred. The lives of hundreds of generation of our wild ancestors were lived according to this deeply apprehended understanding of the world.

    This worldview and lifeway stands apart from the worldview and lifeway that succeeded it, in what I would call a fundamental or primary dichotomy. This is not a trivial distinction. The indigenous worldview is decidedly and emphatically Earth-centered, and this orientation has far-reaching implications.

     Before there was such a thing as science or Greek philosophers, the Abrahamic religions disinvested the Earth of all spiritual value. All of the reverence, awe, and gratitude that had been invested in Mother Earth by hundreds of generations of humans, all of her sacredness, was ripped out by the roots and flung into the farthest reaches of the heavens. In this way Earth was rendered as something to be despised and degraded, on the one hand, and exploited and devoured, on the other. Western science, born within this cultural paradigm, holds the Earth in this selfsame scorn: random, hostile, purposeless– the scientific materialists say–meaningless, brutal, bloody in tooth and claw. In their contempt for Earth, science and religion are in full accord.  What ultimately unites the atheistic scientific materialists and the religionists they love to hate is their common belief that the human being is some kind of alien to planet Earth, who does not really belong here.

     This is in vivid contrast to all the life-affirming, Earth-centered spiritual traditions of our wild ancestors; and in this contrast we find a dichotomy about as basic as they get. As we try to come to an understanding of the Earth crisis we are facing today this is a dichotomy between distinct worldviews which warrants scrupulous scrutiny. The difference is almost as basic as Earth-loving versus Earth–hating, and when you consider the degree to which human behavior is determined and incentivized by cultural belief, it is not a real brain-strainer to see that you treat something according to how you value it, or devalue it. Seems pretty clear that the Earth-lovers treat the Earth with respect, reverence, and gratitude—and the Earth thrives on this treatment. From the Earth-haters you get pretty much what you’d expect: something like what you see around you now, with science and religion bickering amid the ruins.


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