Skip to main content

Shaw – The Darwinian Revolution: Escape from God?

Jane Shaw
Political Economy Research Center

"The Darwinian Revolution: Escape from God?"
Philadelphia Society, April 27, 1997

One of the first people to be troubled by Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was his wife, Emma.
As Charles’ ideas developed she found that he was "putting God further and further off." In one
letter she shared her concern, and I quote a small portion of it. "May not the habit in scientific
pursuits of believing nothing till it is proved," she asked, "influence your mind too much in other
things which cannot be proved in the same way, and which, if true, are likely to be above our
comprehension?" We know something of Charles’ response because the letter has in his
handwriting a note at the end: "When I am dead, know that many times I have kissed and cried
over this."

Such thoughtful, troubled weighing of evolution’s impact is not heard much these days. Or at least I
didn’t find it when I began looking into the impact of Darwinian evolution on religion, especially
Christianity, two years ago. I came across rather complacent statements. For example, a British
writer, D. F. Bratchell, author of a book called The Impact of Darwinism, said that "…religious
opinion generally can accommodate scientific explanations of evolution." He added, a little irritably
,that the only problems seemed to be "reports from the United States about objections by
fundamentalists to the teaching of Darwin’s theories in schools."

More recently, the Pope made a statement that evolution is acceptable if it is recognized that the
human soul comes from God. This is a big "if," but the press treated the statement as the Catholic
Church having finally come around to accepting science, making up for having treated Galileo
poorly for so many centuries.

Over the next few minutes, I will question the upbeat view that the theory of evolution and our
Judeo-Christian religious heritage are compatible and suggest that Emma Darwin may have
understood the problem rather well. My comments, by the way, are my own and have nothing (or
almost nothing) to do with the organization I work for, PERC.

But first, what difference does it make? Why does it matter if Darwinian evolution makes religion
difficult for some of us to swallow? Let those who want to spend Sunday morning in church do so
and those who want to spend Sunday morning working at the lab-or playing golf for that matter-do

Well, it matters because of the thesis of Stan Evans’ book The Theme Is Freedom, which has been
the subject of this conference, The Religious Roots of Liberty: Our freedoms come primarily from
our Judeo-Christian heritage. And if we lose that heritage, our freedoms will go, too. While Stan’s
thesis is controversial among some audiences, his arguments are persuasive. I am here because a
short talk he gave two years ago, and a shorter one by Joe Morris, led me to Stan’s book, and to
this topic.

If Stan’s arguments or the arguments we’ve heard this weekend supporting the link between religion
and freedom aren’t good enough for you, consider F.A. Hayek. In his last book, The Fatal
Conceit, Hayek viewed the long sweep of human history and argued thus: The monotheistic
religions allowed "beneficial traditions" to be "preserved and transmitted at least long enough to
enable those groups following them to grow, and to have the opportunity to spread by natural or
cultural selection. This means that, like it or not, we owe the persistence of certain practices, and
the civilisation that resulted from them, in part to support from beliefs which are not true-or
verifiable or testable-in the same sense as are scientific statements, and which are certainly not the
result of rational argumentation."

Those who know Hayek’s work recognize that we may be unaware of just how these traditions
and beliefs and our freedoms-or which traditions and beliefs-are connected with our freedom. But
tampering with them may destroy more than we know.

Even those who are not so sure that religion is the source of freedom must concede that religion has
values to offer civil society. But how many Americans never darken the door of a church or
synagogue? How many of the people who influence our national life-scientists, university teachers,
artists, writers-are antagonistic to religion, all religion except possibly the pantheism that has been
spawned as part of the environmental movement?

For many of these people, I believe, Darwin’s theory has obliterated any hope of religion.

As Michael Behe indicated, when people talk about Darwinian evolution, they are usually referring
to the neo-Darwinian synthesis which is, very simply, the idea that species changed over time
through a process of natural selection. Slight, random changes in the characteristics of animals and
plants gave those animals or plants an advantage in reproduction, especially when their environment
changed. They were able to survive longer and therefore produce more offspring or enable more of
their offspring to survive. Gradually, according to the theory, the old form was replaced by
creatures with the new form.

The differentiation of species and the wonders of nature, from the eye and the ear to the processes
by which our bodies fight disease and our brains produce ideas…all these, according to the theory,
came about not because they were designed or planned or forethought but through a blind process.
Although Darwin wrote about the formation and history of species, he did not try to explain the
origin of life itself. But Darwinians have. Yes, it was "statistical improbability on a colossal scale,"
says Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most prominent Darwinians-but enough time and the
right constituent materials enabled life or "organized complexity" to begin by chance and chance

Once you accept that the marvelous living existence around us developed through a self-organized,
mindless process -an algorithm, if you will-I think you have taken away one of the most
fundamental reasons to believe in God. Darwinian evolution makes religion appear unnecessary,
makes it seem just superstition. People may want to believe in a personal God who numbers the
hairs on our head and clothes the lilies in splendor, but doing so is increasingly difficult, as scientific
explanations crowd out miracles and heaven becomes increasingly vast. Darwinian evolution,
especially when carried to its ultimate conclusions, is the final blow. It enables its proponents to
reject God, and perhaps even requires them to reject God. "Darwin," says Richard Dawkins,
"made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist."

Many of the people in this room probably respect Richard Dawkins. I certainly do. He’s
well-known for his book The Selfish Gene, which explains human activities in an evolutionary way.
In a more recent book, The Blind Watchmaker, Dawkins defends the Darwinian paradigm directly
and he does so with some grace. The title acknowledges the marvels of nature that led William
Paley, an early critic of Darwin, to say that if you found a watch on the ground, you would know
that there had to be a watchmaker; it did not arrive by chance, said Paley. Similarly, "every
manifestation of design…exists in the works of nature,"he wrote.

Building on this idea, Dawkins concedes the "magnitude of the problem that our explanation faces,"
but then goes on to claim that it all happened by a succession of random changes. He talks about
the complexity of the eye-the example that has been debated since the publication of the Origin of
Species-and in a tour de force describes the equally amazing process of echolocation, the way that
bats "see" by hearing. No matter how marvelous these are, he insists that "not a single case is
known to me of a complex organ that could not have been formed by numerous successive slight
modifications. … If it is…I shall cease to believe in Darwinism."

Daniel Dennett is another prominent Darwinist, author of a recent book that was well-received in
scientific circles, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. He calls evolution
"both a scientific and a philosophical revolution.""More than a century after Darwin’s death," he
writes, "we still have not come to terms with its mind-boggling implications."
What are these implications? Religion as we know it is over. Yes, he respects the "glories of our
religious traditions."But churches, cathedrals, and synagogues are "now on the way to being cultural
museums." He’s not sorry. Just as times are coming when tigers "will no longer be viable, except in
zoos and other preserves," it’s time for "many of the treasures in our cultural heritage" to be
preserved, but not believed.

Can religion withstand such an assault? Can you believe that life developed and even began by
chance and still be a religious Christian or Jew? Perhaps the people who are complacent have
failed to get the message. The man I quoted earlier, D. F. Bratchell, lives in a country (the United
Kingdom) where only 23% of the population attends religious services. This is accommodation ?
Or annihilation? Even in the U.S., probably the most religious country in the industrial world (where
69% of the population attends religious services), the fastest-growing denominations are those that
deny Darwinian evolution. Bratchell complained about fundamentalists in his book which was
written in 1981. Today the opposition to Darwin is greater than ever in the schools.
I don’t have an answer to the question of whether it is possible to be religious and to be a
Darwinian. It’s a personal dilemma. But in discussing this topic with many people, I have come up
with three possible ways out; that is, possible favorable outcomes of this conflict.

The first is to stop worrying about it. The issue is not worth addressing, I’m told. Science may move
the educated population further and further from religion, but there will always be religion, no matter
what the most educated members of society think.

I don’t find this to be an answer. Yes, perhaps there will always be religion, but if an insuperable
divide between science and God exists, then people will choose sides and the only religions with
any vitality will be those that deny Darwinian evolution. I don’t feel comfortable with that.

Nor do I feel comfortable with the new religions that may be unleashed by the rejection of the old
ones. Daniel Dennett, for example, suggests that pantheism might be left after Darwinian theory
strips away old faiths. "There have been many varieties of pantheism," he notes, "but they usually
lack a convincing explanation about just how God is distributed in the whole of nature. …Darwin
offers us one: it is in the distribution of Design throughout nature, creating, in the Tree of Life [a
term that Darwin used to describe the history of species], an utterly unique and irreplaceable
creation…." Dennett goes on to say, "This world is sacred."

Is Darwinian evolution responsible for the worship of creation that we find increasingly among
environmentalists today? I don’t know. But if we assume that all creatures, including humans, are
products of a process based on chance, then logic tells us that there is nothing to distinguish human
beings. There is no justification for a rule of law or human rights. Property rights can be violated in
favor of animal "rights." And this is what we see in the actions of biocentrists and, increasingly,
mainstream environmentalists.
This line of thinking doesn’t seem to be going in the right direction. The second possibility is more
encouraging: Perhaps Darwinian evolution can be reconciled with God, along the lines stated by the
Pope and expanded on by Father Jaki this weekend.

A slightly different tack is taken by a physician friend who attends the Episcopal Church, as I do.
He explains that he can accept God because he separates knowing how from knowing why. He
explained, "If you ask me, why does the bread rise? I have to say I don’t know. But I can tell you
how the bread rises." Science tells us how; religion tells us why.

Others have said the same thing. The Darwinist Stephen Jay Gould refers to the two "magisteria,"
or teaching authorities, science and religion. In a comment on the Pope’s statement on evolution,
Gould says that there is room for both and that the theory of evolution does not challenge religion’s
magisterium. However, he admits that it bumps up very close. And, by the way, he is an agnostic.
Furthermore, science continues to expand its area of knowing, leaving less and less for religion.

So I am not optimistic about this answer, but it may be because I lack theological and philosophical
education. But as we have seen, there is a third possibility on the horizon. Darwinian evolution may
not be the full scientific story. This is what makes Michael Behe’s work so exciting. Although
Darwinists circle the wagons in defending the idea to the public, there are important disputes among
evolutionary biologists. And what we are seeing today is the emergence of some very basic
scientific challenges to the theory.

In conclusion, I did not come here to defend or challenge Darwinian theory. I am here to share with
you the dilemma for me and I believe for many other thinking people: How can we reconcile the
idea that life began and developed through a mindless, unplanned process with a belief in an
all-knowing God? And if we can’t, which will fall, religion or Darwinism? If the former, will the
result be a non-religious society that becomes a non-free society? Friedrich Hayek wondered
about that, too, and he concluded his last book with the thought that if faith in God is viewed as
superstition, people may still feel they must believe in something. He raised the question of whether
they will find their belief in "society," and thus ultimately socialism. He concluded his book with the
statement: "On that question may rest the survival of our civilisation."


© The Philadelphia Society 2024 | Webmaster Contact

The material on this website is for general education and information only. The views presented here are the responsibility of their authors and do not reflect endorsement or opposition by The Philadelphia Society. Please read our general disclaimer.