Charles Darwin was not the father of atheism
Added: Sun, 29 Jun 2008 23:00:00 UTC
Thanks to Tony Newberry for the link.
Charles Darwin was not the father of atheism
By George Pitcher
This week sees the anniversary of one of the greatest landmarks in the history of science. Tomorrow we commemorate the great day, exactly 150 years ago, that Charles Darwin unveiled his theory of evolution by natural selection, the most authoritative scientific challenge to Biblical accounts of our origins in, well, the history of the universe.
So we can expect the celebrations of Darwin's genius to start this week and run through next year, the 200th anniversary of the great man's birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his On the Origin of Species.
Less happily, there will doubtless be jolly parties with themes like "The Death of God", at which Professor Richard Dawkins will appear in human form alongside his apostle, Christopher Hitchens, to the rapture of his atheistic disciples. Sinful bishops and rabbis will be forgiven, so long as they repent, and secularists will move among the people, with Darwin's sacred text to guide them, singing "Happy Birthday to Reason."
But wait a minute. Or, indeed, a millennium. As the wonderful Oxford don John Hedley Brooke puts it, we should be careful about pigeon-holing the man who wouldn't pigeon-hole pigeons.
Wasn't Darwin also a man of God, who wrestled with some form of faith throughout his life? Was he not intensely respectful of the relationships between science and faith? Should atheists, such as Dawkins, really adopt Darwin as their champion?
Yes, yes and no, in that order. But I just want to suggest that Darwin wasn't the father of atheism; that his story is far more complex than that and that his contribution to the relationship between faith and reason is what really counts, rather than whether he came down firmly on one side or the other, like Sir Alan Sugar deciding whether to hire or fire God.
This ambition will not be achieved by a simple narrative of the arc of his life, from going up to Cambridge to take holy orders, to his early Bible-quoting evangelism on HMS Beagle during his scientific Grand Tour, to a deistic position when he wrote On the Origin of Species, and his later agnosticism (and very probably atheism in the face of family tragedy).
Far better to see Darwin in the theological context of his time. The prevalent Victorian religious mindset was Natural Theology and, if its principal proponent, William Paley, would forgive the paraphrase, it ran that life, the universe and everything was too ordered, too complex, too coincidental and too downright beautiful to have come about by accident. It followed that it all must have had a benign and purposeful creator.
Little wonder that Darwin's revelations about evolution undermined that. But he was still able to write this intriguing confession, about the effects of contemporary theology on him, in The Descent of Man: "I had not formerly sufficiently considered the existence of many structures [which are] neither beneficial nor injurious, and this I believe to be one of the greatest oversights as yet detected in my work." Darwin was apparently unable to annul his former belief that each species had been created on purpose. And this led him to assume that everything "was of some special, though unrecognised, service."
But it wasn't his science that destroyed his residual faith; it was the death of his 10-year-old daughter, Annie. Darwin's alienation from his former faith was driven by bitter personal experience, not cold, scientific analysis, as those who hail him as faith's nemesis might like to claim.
In later life, Darwin refrained from committing himself to atheism. He tended to have theistic moments, such as when contemplating how the universe came to be here at all. Darwin intuitively understood the pre-Enlightenment relationship between faith and reason, or the idea of a reasonable faith that is as old as Augustine. Unlike today's posturing and positioning, he was a brave and honest explorer of all that makes us work. That's what we should be celebrating and aspiring to recapture this week.
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