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Darwinism as religion: what literature tells us about evolution

Critics of the New Atheists argue that they are as religious as those whom they excoriate. Their writings show a polemical scorn for their opponents unknown outside those books of the Old Testament devoted to the prophets. It is not purely contingent that the world’s most famous non-believer, Richard Dawkins, author of the God Delusion, is also the world’s most famous evolutionist, Richard Dawkins, author of the Selfish Gene. The New Atheist creed is Darwinism, a secular world picture that dates to 1859, the year of publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species.

The New Atheists deny this charge vehemently, so naturally as a philosopher interested in the relationship between science and religion I am attracted to the issue, and as an evolutionist I am convinced that understanding of the present demands understanding of the past. Hence, Darwinism as Religion: What Literature Tells Us About Evolution. I argue that, from the publication of the Origin, enthusiasts have been building a kind of secular religion based on its ideas, particularly on the dark world without ultimate meaning implied by the central mechanism of natural selection. Thus, I conclude that not only are the New Atheists in the secular-religion business, it would be very peculiar and historically anomalous if they were not.

Although I have been writing now for over forty years on Darwin and the revolution that he brought about, in Darwinism as Religion I use a strategy entirely new to me–and although obviously one familiar to scholars in English Literature basically ignored by full-time historians of science. I turn to British and American literature for insights, working from the great novelists and poets of the nineteenth century–George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, Emily Dickinson, and others–down to the writers of today–ending with the very different perspectives of the British novelist Ian McEwan and the American novelist Marilynne Robinson. By running through the concerns of conventional religions–God, origins, humans, race and class, morality, sex, sin and redemption, the future–I show how people thought (and continue to think) in ways that are as based on Darwin’s insights as they are on rejection of long-established doctrines, Christian doctrines in particular.

Take as an example that of proper behavior, ethics. Even before the Origin people worried about whether one could have morality without the Christian God. In Nemesis of Faith (1849), James Anthony Froude (brother of one of the closest associates of John Henry Newman) has his main character (an Anglican clergyman) lose his beliefs in Christianity and then follow a very morally dicey career entangled with another man’s wife. Even after the Origin, Darwin’s “bulldog” Thomas Henry Huxley–the father of agnosticism–argued for compulsory school bible study for its moral value. Yet the novelists, above all George Eliot, took up the challenge. Especially in her last full-length novel, Daniel Deronda (1876), through the behaviors of her two main characters–the beautiful but selfish Gwendolen Harleth and the conversely truly altruistic Daniel–Eliot shows how good behavior of a kind stressed by Darwin in his Descent of Man (1871) leads to happiness and how bad behavior leads only to misery. Morality is its own justification, a theme picked up by Mrs. Humphrey Ward (the former Julia Arnold, niece of the poet) in her smash-hit best-seller Robert Elsmere (1888). Her hero, another Anglican clergyman, likewise loses his faith (thanks in major part to Darwin) but not only remains loyal to his wife but takes up the satisfying role of a teacher in a kind of proto-YMCA night school for the working classes.

Just as we have the proselytizing Darwinian New Atheists, so we have today a vocal anti-Darwinian party, consisting somewhat surprising not only of the evangelical Christians of the American South but of some of today’s most eminent atheist philosophers, notably Thomas Nagel, OUP author of Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (2012). As his subtitle reveals, Nagel’s worry is less about the science and more about its supposed religious-cum-metaphysical implications, namely that Darwin plunges us into a hateful world without value and meaning. This kind of worry is shared by many students of the history of evolutionary theory, and–although unlike atheists who deny the existence of Jesus Christ one can hardly deny the existence of Charles Darwin–there is today a veritable cottage industry of writers proving that Darwin was unimportant and that there was no revolution bringing on evolution, certainly no Darwinian Revolution. As Darwin as Religion takes on the New Atheists Darwin idolizers, so also it takes on the Darwin deniers, arguing that there was a revolution, that Darwin was the key figure, and that, as is shown by the discussion of morality in the last paragraph, fears about godless materialism, stripped of meaning and value, are simply without historical foundation.

Featured image: 6 editions of ‘The Origin of Species’ by C. Darwin. CC-BY-4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. 

Recent Comments

  1. Hasler Gray

    Is the book available in South AFRICA yet ?

  2. parivash bay

    as Islam or any other religion is believed as a complete fact toward obtaining the rightest truth, then they are accepted as the pure fact to mankind. Regardless of their purity or non- purity aspects of the religions, human being should be aware of how to find the relation of the facts of the world and creation with no bias. any bias looking toward any phenomenon has provided the possibility of wrong attitudes. it could be in philosophy affected by the religion, the knowledge affected by the religion, the art affected by the religion and ect. Then looking at a matter, one should be beyond it. Being inside an issue never has provided a wide conception over the issues. it means that, talking on the correlation of the knowledge of creation and religion needs a safe groundwork in which truths could be combined not struggled because truths are for discovering and understanding not for struggling. ..this is the man’s inefficiency in finding and making correlation between GOD and creation. it is not the inefficiency of GOD in creation. religion that could be interfered by man during the centuries is not able to provide a clear and reliable source to make this correlation. then how possible to combine the knowledge of creation and religion considering this interference..first of all, it should be essential to pasteurize the religion, if possible(applicable) , then it takes the values to be considered and matched with the pure knowledge of the creation which none has changed and is not able to change. therefore, the study of a purity gains the value in the presence of another purity. all parameters should be right in order to be evaluated align with the very purity. in case of any muddy things, providing clear truth is not possible. The human being should first ask “why it is impossible to combine the knowledge and religion”? if both came from one GOD. is there problem in GOD, religion, knowledge, human being, or in the understanding of man kind.
    dealing with Darwinism wouldn’t be so important if the religion or knowledge couldnt be combined thoroughly. in case of any appropriate concurrence between the two, then any idea, notion, study, or thesis to evaluate the two (religion & knowledge) gain a value deserved to be analyzed.
    Without focusing on the roots of a problem, just going through the inconsistency between the chaos wouldnt be helpful to the long debates in knowledge and religion. the knowledge of creation, if considered, is derived from GOD, then it is unable to perform individually and need to be align with other parts in the creation. even if Darwin has brought the Idea of Godless using the knowledge, the knowledge itself proves the GOD.

  3. RandyW

    Define “religion.”

  4. MJA

    Evolution theory is a creation theory of intelligent design. =

  5. Carmine COLACINO

    If the way to judge if Darwinism as a religion is Darwin’s works, and (non-scientific) literature, well, clearly then Darwinism is a religion, based on old texts… But presenting Darwinism this way is certainly a caricature ignoring almost two centuries of scientific (not religious) research…

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