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.