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Agnostic Stephen T. Asma's Darwinian Defense of Religion (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) June 13, 2018: My favorite scholar is the late American Jesuit Renaissance specialist and polymath Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955) of Saint Louis University (SLU), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri (USA). Over the years, I took five courses from him at SLU.

Ong's massively researched doctoral dissertation was published, slightly revised, in two volumes by Harvard University Press in 1958: (1) Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue: From the Art of Discourse to the Art of Reason (as in the Age of Reason -- also known as the Enlightenment) and (2) Ramus and Talon Inventory (an annotated bibliography of 750 or so Ramus-related volumes that Ong tracked down in more than 100 libraries in the British Isles and Continental Europe). Ong's dissertation involved a study of the verbal arts of grammar, rhetoric, and logic (or dialectic) centering on the influential work of the French logician and educational reformer and Protestant martyr Peter Ramus (1515-1572). Ramus' dialectic was the center of the curriculum not only at Cambridge University in East Anglia, but also in Harvard College (founded in 1636) in the Massachusetts Bay Colony.

In Ong's all-important 1958 book Ramus, Method, and the Decay of Dialogue, Ong works with the visual-aural contrast that he explicitly acknowledges (page 338, note 54) borrowing from the prolific French Catholic philosopher Louis Lavelle (1883-1951). In Lavelle's lifetime, he was well-known not only in France but also elsewhere in Europe -- but not so much in the United States, not even among college-educated American Catholics.

The prolific American Catholic philosophy professor James Collins (1917-1985; Ph.D. in philosophy, Catholic University of America, 1944) of Saint Louis University published an article about Lavelle's work: "Louis Lavelle on Human Participation" in the Philosophical Review, volume 56, number 2 (March 1947): pages 156-183. When Ong's two Ramus books were published in 1958, Collins published a perceptive review of them in the Jesuit-sponsored magazine America, volume 101 (April 4, 1959): pages 37-39.

Now, the visual-aural contrast that Ong borrowed from Lavelle became the decisive hallmark of Ong's mature thought. For example, he extends the visual-aural contrast in his article "World as View and World as Event" in the American Anthropologist, volume 71, number 4 (August 1969): pages 634-647. The world-as-event sense of life is manifested in animism and in the texts in the Christian Bible. The world-as-view sense of life is manifested in the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle and the Western tradition of philosophical thought -- and in modern science.

The American anthropologist David M. Smith of the University of Minnesota Duluth explores Ong's 1969 article in his essay "World as Event: Aspects of Chipewyan Ontology" in the book Circumpolar Animism and Shamanism, edited by T. Yamada and T. Irimoto (Sapporo, Japan: Hokkaido University Press, 1997, pages 67-91); reprinted in the anthology Of Ong and Media Ecology, edited by me and Paul A. Soukup (Hampton Press, 2012, pages 117-141). (The Chipewyan people live in Canada.)

I explore Ong's 1969 article in my article "Walter Ong and Harold Bloom Can Help Us Understand the Hebrew Bible" in the journal Explorations in Media Ecology, volume 11, numbers 3&4 (2012): pages 255-272.

However, I want to note here that Ong also had a life-long fascination with Darwinian evolutionary theory that culminated in his book Fighting for Life: Contest, Sexuality, and Consciousness (Cornell University Press, 1981), the published version of Ong's 1979 Messenger Lectures at Cornell University. In his 1981 book, Ong simplifies his references by simply referring repeatedly to E. O. Wilson's massive book Sociobiology: A New Synthesis (Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1975). Ong could be described as a theistic evolutionist.

However, despite Ong's long-standing interest in Darwinian evolutionary theory, he does not discuss research on the evolutionary parts of the human brain in any of his publications, as far as I know. But I hasten to add that his phenomenological accounts can be related to the evolutionary parts of the human brain, as I will discuss momentarily.

In addition, I want to mention here that Ong's life-long interest in Jesuit spirituality culminated his book Hopkins, the Self, and God (University of Toronto Press, 1986), the published version of Ong's 1981 Alexander Lectures at the University of Toronto. It is centered on the life and thought of the Victorian Jesuit poet and classicist Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889).


The American philosophy professor Stephen T. Asma (born in 1966) describes himself as an agnostic in his new book Why We Need Religion (Oxford University Press, 2018, pages 7 and 210). Now, Ong liked to say that we need both closeness (proximity) and distance to understand something. Because Ong is his mature work from the early 1950s onward tries to understand whatever it is that he is writing about, his publications usually strike me as contemplative.

As an agnostic who grew up as Catholic, I guess that Asma brings both closeness from his Catholic days and distance from his agnostic days to the task of defending religion against the critics of religion such as E. O. Wilson -- who has suggested that religious faiths should be eliminated for the sake of progress (page 1).

Disclosure: Like Asma, I also come from a Catholic background. However, for years now, I have not been a practicing Catholic. I would describe myself as a theistic humanist, as distinct from an atheistic humanist (also known as a secular humanist). Like Ong, I hold a non-materialist philosophical position, as distinct from a materialist philosophical position.

To construct his Darwinian evolutionary defense of religion, Asma works with the contrast of two mental pathways in the brain involving two different functions. For the sake of brevity, he describes these two functions as indicative and imperative. For Asma's discussion of the indicative function, see pages 31-33, 108-109, 121, 166, 173, and 207. For his discussion of the imperative function, see pages 31-33, 96, 108, 121, 166, 173, 207, and 219, note 8.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; Ph.D.in higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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