Darwin and religion

Ever since I wrote in my Boston Globe column, “Fact and Fiction on Evolution,” that (contrary to assertions that Darwinism is a vehicle for atheism and materialism) Charles Darwin himself was a Christian, a number of people have written to me to point out that while Darwin started out as a Christian and even trained to be a clergyman, his faith eventually waned and he was an agnostic by the end of his life. One correspondent wrote to me:

On Darwin being a Christian, see the PBS site where James Moore (Darwin’s biographer) talks about the slow death of Darwin’s faith. Darwin clearly had “issues” with the Christian God and worked them out via his theory.

What the page says is that in his later years, Darwin struggled with issues of religious faith. To some extent, this had to with the fact that his theory of natural selection refuted the view, popular among the Christian naturalists of his time, that the complex and sophisticated structure of creation showed that “divine design” had to be at work. But in fact, when Darwin set out on his famous voyage aboard the H.M.S. Beagle, he was himself a believer in “divine design”; he had even studied with one of that theory’s leading proponents, the Rev. Adam Sedgwick (a geologist), in preparation for his trip. His observations on the trip caused him to question and ultimately reject “divine design,” but he remained a strong proponent of Orthodox Christian morality. The real crisis of faith that turned Darwin away from Christianity was caused by the death of his 10-year-old daughter Annie in 1851. (This article in Newsweek also offers some interesting information on Darwin’s scientific and religious beliefs.)

My statement that “Darwin was a Christian” oversimplified the complex reality of Darwin’s views, and should have been more nuanced. However, the notion that Darwin developed his ‘theory of natural selection as a way to “work out his issues with God” is preposterous, if only because he developed his theory more than a decade before he developed his “issues.” It also says a great deal about the mindset of ID proponents, who treats scientific inquiry as essentially driven by ideology.

Incidentally, that is what makes ID a fundamentally non-scientific enterprise: not that it is driven by religion, but that it is driven by ideology. That is, its proponents question evolutionary theory not because they are dissatisfied with the scientific/factual evidence for it, but because they don’t like its conclusions. To be sure, they look for and claim to find scientific and factual holes in the theory, but the main (or only) reason they start looking is that they don’t want it to be true. It makes no difference whether a critique of Darwinian theory is motivated by defense of religion or, say, by concern that biological Darwinism easily lends itself to apologetics for social inequality. In both cases, the motivation is ideological, not scientific.

Are there people who champion Darwinian evolution because they dislike Christianity and religion in general? Yes, I’m sure there are. But there is simply no evidence that most scientists or most supproters of science are so motivated, and there are plenty who consider themselves religious.

More: See also this post for a funny, yet insightful, 1872 poem (originally in Russian, translated into English by yours truly) on the conflict — or lack thereof — between Darwinian theory and religion.

22 Comments

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22 responses to “Darwin and religion

  1. John Howard

    I don’t know about ID specifically, but Creationism is non-scientific because science is part of the created world, Creationism is outside science’s scope. And it’s not that we don’t like evolution’s conclusions, we don’t like the premises that pit it against God and Creationism instead of being another example of God’s beatiful Creation.

  2. anniesmom03

    Cathy,
    Great piece, and I also liked the Globe column very much.

    I probably qualify as one of those religious scientists, though my religion is best described as agnostic Christian. That is, I belong to a church, I read the sacred texts, I attempt to practice the teachings of Christ, and spend a great deal of time thinking about religion, but a firm belief in god or the divinity of Jesus, or an understanding of the nature of god elude me.

    As a biology professor with a background in genetics, cell biology and embryology, I cannot understand how anyone who claims to be a scientist can support ID. Evolution makes sense because it has extrordinary explanitory power for seemingly diverse biological phenomena. When I reread certain passages from “Origin of Species”, I can’t help but marvel at the fact that Darwin knew nothing of DNA, and yet got it so right. The molecular biology revolution of the 20th century obliterated any serious scientific challenges to Darwinian theory. More than anything else, and understanding of how DNA works has unified evolutionary theory with the laws of physics.

    However, my rambled and incomplete thoughts of late suggest that keeping science and religion spearate is very difficult for those of us who are fascinated with both. I suppose, if I were being totally honest, I would have to admit that my personal acceptance of evolution is at least partly influenced by an ideology, and maybe even a belief system that can be characterized as religion.

    Bear with me-I haven’t thought this through, but here it is:

    I choose to believe in a world that is governed by rational and predictable laws, rather than one that is governed by the arbitrary whims of an Intelligent Designer, who occassionally either designs things unintelligently, or who intelligently decides that some people should be born with spina bifida or that the flu virus should mutate rapidly and thus kill old people and babies when the vaccine supply runs low. In addition, a non-theistic explanation for natural phenomena, like tsunamis, hurricanes, and ovarian cancer prevents one from wasting time asking why this is happenning, allowing one more time and energy to deal with the consequences.

    And there are theological implications of ID that the theory’s evangelical Christian proponents would be wise to consider. If we simply stick the label “God”, (or Intelligent Designer) onto every aspect of biology we don’t understand, God will become smaller and more insignificant as our understanding of biology expands. And it is expanding rapidly. Given what we know about human and animal genomes, an ID proponent has to propose that God is some sort of genetic micromanager, duplicating some genes here, deleting others, there, sticking an argenine where there was once a lysine. It’s kind of pathetic really.

    However, we should be mindful of the fact that there are also serious theological implications to evolution. There are some theologians who are trying to deal with this (John Haught of Georgetown U. comes to mind), but too many scientists gloss over it. Others, like Richard Dawkins, emphatically conclude that to be a scientist you can not believe in God. While I disagree with Dawkins on this, one has to admit that a belief in evolution, or even in the constancy of the laws of physics, does put some serious limitations on the kind of god one can believe in.

    To use myself as an example, nothing about evolution keeps me from beeing deeply moved by imagining living according to the Sermon on the Mount, but parthenogenic births and resurrections are a little hard to swallow.

    It’s hard to say which came first-the science or the agnosticism. I was educated in Catholic schools in the 70’s and early 80’s, where we were taught that evolution and belief in God can coexist, however, I can not recall any nun or priest ever carrying that idea through to its full implications And if they did, the probably realized it was pretty heavy stuff for eighth graders.

    And while I am sure the death of Darwin’s daughter caused a profound crisis of faith, and I agree that it is preposterous to say that he worked out his issues through his theory, I don’t doubt that his scientific explorations and conclusions delivered a serious blow to his Christian faith.

  3. Anonymous

    Creationism is non-scientific because science is part of the created world, Creationism is outside science’s scope.

    So to would be hobgoblinism…

  4. colagirl

    Wow. Anniesmom does an *excellent* job of covering all the bases. Haven’t got much to add to that.

    For the record, I personally tend to lean atheist, largely because I can’t get any religion past my bull**** detector due (in part) to my background knowledge of evolution. Because of that, perhaps paradoxically, I’m somewhat sympathetic to the argument made by some believers that there are ethical implications to evolutionary theory. (Which means, IMHO, that we need to see what, if any, these ethical implications are, and then work to address them, not to throw out the truth in favor of ideology.)

  5. John Howard

    So, add Cowgirl to the list of people who lean athiest because of their background knowledge of evolution. Cowgirl, throw off that propaganda you got along with your education, there is nothing incompatible about God and scientific evidence of evolution. God could not create a world that didn’t make sense. The less evidence there is for God, the more evidence there is that God is great.

    Anniesmom, you can think of God as those predictable laws, and the faith you have in prediction is your faith in God. God never does anything unintelligently, and, though in theory God could, God doesn’t do things arbitrarily, because God is Love, and Love is doing what should be done. It is an obligation, a coercion. God has to be God, and has to do what should be done.

  6. John Howard

    Oh, it’s colagirl, sorry…

  7. Cathy Young

    And it’s not that we don’t like evolution’s conclusions, we don’t like the premises that pit it against God and Creationism instead of being another example of God’s beatiful Creation.

    Conclusions or premises, the point is still that your objections to evolution are ideological, not scientific.

    If I understand you correctly, you are arguing that God deliberately created the world in such a way that it would look as if it had evolved spontaneously over billions of years in a way that did not require God’s intervention.

    That is a matter of belief, not science.

    All science can tell us is what the scientific evidence shows. You can give it any religious explanation you want.

    Cowgirl, throw off that propaganda you got along with your education…

    It never ceases to amaze me how some people complain of disrespect for their views, while showing absolutely no respect for the views of others.

    You’re assuming that colagirl’s conclusions are based on some having mindlessly absorbed some propaganda, rather than thinking things through for herself.

    Do you even realize how obnoxious that is?

    I bet if colagirl or someone else here were to say to you, “Throw off the shackles of the brainwashing you got from your chuch,” you and others would be screaming religious bigotry. But what you said isn’t all that different.

    anniesmom, thanks for a very thoughtful and intelligent post!

    I particularly like this point:

    I choose to believe in a world that is governed by rational and predictable laws, rather than one that is governed by the arbitrary whims of an Intelligent Designer, who occassionally either designs things unintelligently, or who intelligently decides that some people should be born with spina bifida or that the flu virus should mutate rapidly and thus kill old people and babies when the vaccine supply runs low. In addition, a non-theistic explanation for natural phenomena, like tsunamis, hurricanes, and ovarian cancer prevents one from wasting time asking why this is happenning, allowing one more time and energy to deal with the consequences.

  8. John Howard

    the point is still that your objections to evolution are ideological, not scientific.

    Of course. Because they’re not to evolution at all, they are to the way it is taught and sometimes to the way it is fought. Perhaps we can agree that the ID proponents are wacky – they are trying to find scientific objections to evolution. I don’t doubt accepted scientific facts any more than anyone else does, I object to the mocking DARWIN Fish on cars that suggest (and teach!) that Christianity is wrong and smart people believe in evolution. I think they have a ideological purpose in doing that – they object to the church’s stance on social issues and so want to teach that it’s beliefs are wrong.

    All science can tell us is what the scientific evidence shows. You can give it any religious explanation you want.

    Exactly, but you don’t need to tell me that, you need to tell it to Colagirl, who says she is unable to get any religion past her background in evolution. That’s evidence of the phenomenon I was complaining about.

    You’re assuming that colagirl’s conclusions are based on some having mindlessly absorbed some propaganda, rather than thinking things through for herself.

    Not mindlessly, I am sure she mindfully absorbed it. I am responding to the emotions evident in her post, where she she seems genuinely troubled that her ‘background in evolution’ (that I assumed came from her public school education) has made it impossible to believe any religion. She seems to want to be able to, so I am trying to show her that the idea that they are in conflict was propaganda. She can still believe in all the scientific facts and believe in God at the same time, the propaganda was that she has to choose one or the other. This is true about all the Bible stories, as you say, they are all matters of belief, not science.

    (And to acknowledge your point about obnoxiousness – I never went to church, my parents were athiest scientists, I went to good liberal public schools, and arrived at my beliefs independently through reading physics, philosophy, and theology books. But from when I was kid and all through my twenties, I continued to believe the propaganda of my education and thought that evolution was proof that Christianity was wrong and Christians were therefore stupid and needed to be educated better, like me. Turned out it was me that needed to understand the scope of God and the nature of God’s creation. So I would indeed object if someone dismissed my views by thinking I was a mindless parrot of propaganda, but I don’t mind people’s attempt to straighten me out if they think they see where I am off track and they can help me. I wasn’t dismissing colagirl’s views.

  9. Revenant

    an Intelligent Designer, who occassionally either designs things unintelligently, or who intelligently decides that some people should be born with spina bifida or that the flu virus should mutate rapidly and thus kill old people and babies when the vaccine supply runs low.

    That, to me, is exactly why the theory of evolution is compatable with Christianity and Intelligent Design isn’t. The inescapable conclusion, if one examines the life on this planet, is that if someone DID design all this he was either malevolent or not very intelligent. The “design” of most life on this planet, far from being brilliant and irreducibly complex, is pretty much a hack job. It’s the kind of thing we’d expect if life was the result of unguided evolution through natural selection — not the kind of thing we’d expect if there was a loving and all-powerful God managing things. Yeah, sure, you can rationalize away the problems with the human body by saying that they’re a result of our “fall from grace”, but left unexplained is what dogs ever did to deserve heartworms. What sick son of a bitch gives a dog heartworms on purpose? Did some ancient dog eat the Milk Bone of Knowledge and damn his descendants, too?

    Is there even a point in discussing this with John Howard, by the way? Unless he takes the time to actually read some books that detail the actual science behind the theory of evolution — by which I mean books written by scientists, not creationists — the chance of his changing his mind is approximately zero. You can’t reason a person out of a faith-based position.

  10. Anonymous

    “To be sure, they look for and claim to find scientific and factual holes in the theory, but the main (or only) reason they start looking is that they don’t want it to be true.”

    Intelligent design is to the right what political correctness is to the right.

  11. Anonymous

    I mean “Intelligent design is to the right what political correctness is to the left.” If there is an intelligent designer, I wish he’d forseen these little brain blips.

  12. anniesmom03

    John Howard,
    About those Darwin fish: I agree with you on that. I dislike those fish because they ARE mocking and they ARE ideological. The fish is a legitimate symbol of Christianity, and the Darwin fish is an in-your-face and disrespectful misappropriation of that symbol. My guess would be that many of those sporting the Darwin fish on their cars could not have a scientific discussion about evolution, they just like the fact that it does not require God. I know very few scientists who have these fish, and many who once had them have removed them from their cars. In light of recent events, the last thing many scientists want is to give weight to the argument that evolution is anti-religion.

    Of course it is free expression to put a Darwin fish on your car, as it is free expression to desecrate or mock any religious symbol. But it sure is not civil discourse, which is what this debate needs (why does it have to even be a debate?), and it is in fact an ideological statement.

    Incidentally, what I know of Darwin suggests that he would be horrified to see his name smack dab in the middle of a misappropriated symbol of Christianity. He seems to have been extremely sensitive to the implications of his work to the point of actually suffering the physical symptoms of anxiety.

  13. Revenant

    The fish is a legitimate symbol of Christianity, and the Darwin fish is an in-your-face and disrespectful misappropriation of that symbol.

    The use of the fish symbol as a bumper sticker in the first place is a misappropriation. The symbol’s significance to Christianity is that oppressed Christians — back 1500+ years ago when Christians were the oppressed rather than the oppressors — used it to secretly identify themselves. Anyone sticking one on their car today either (a) is claiming to be oppressed, (b) is referencing the oppression of sixty generations ago, or (c) hasn’t given the matter any thought. All three groups deserve to be made fun of.

    What is unfair about the Darwin fish, though, is that it equates “Christian” with “Creationist”. Most Christians aren’t Creationists, and the major Christian faiths accept the theory of evolution. Acting as if all Christians belong to the ignorant Creationist minority is somewhat unfair to the rest of the faith.

    But there is a perception among non-Christians, and I think it is a fair one, that the majority of Christians who do accept the theory of evolution are content to let the Creationist minority of their faith speak unopposed. In that sense, Darwin fish can be seen as a way of shaming Christians into speaking up in opposition to the “evolution is anti-Christian” myth.

  14. John Howard

    Today, people with the fish are simply saying “I am a Christian, and look, there’s lots of us.”

    I associate it with Christ’s miracle of abundant fish, to me it says that you should believe and have faith, and your faith will become real. I had one one my last car for the polital and theological implications, but didn’t feel I was a good example of pious Christian living (or driving) so I took it off.

    It’s true that most Christians believe in the facts associated with “evolution” and accept the scientific beliefs regarding history of the world as true. But Christians also believe in God and the necessity of God (and ought to believe in the Sovereignity of God but sadly most Christians today are Pelagians).

    Many people believe that evolution means that they cannot believe in God. If that is the fault of scientists mocking Christians with their Darwin fish, or teachers who teach the Scopes trial as if it was religious belief itself on trial, or defensive Christians who don’t understand the fullness of God’s creation, doesn’t mater, both sides need to point out that what is unnecessary is to choose one or the other.

  15. Anonymous

    As someone who was an atheist long before I did any hard thinking about evolution, I have to agree that the theory doesn’t force you to chose between faith and science. However, a lack of faith sure makes it easier to just be a scientist. (It was the same with just being gay, actually.) I never had to do this soul searching and agonizing about how to square what you know is real (because the evidence is there) with deeply held beliefs.

    While the theory and science behind evolution doesn’t force you to choose, I have to agree with anniesmom that it truly limits what kind of God you can believe in and what kind of faith you can have. If you believe in a God that has a plan and a purpose for each life, then the random processes behind genetic mutation and genetic drift are going to directly contradict what you fundamentally believe. If you are a biblical literalist, then much of science is going to rub you the wrong way (not just biology!).

    Sure, there are theological arguments that get around the contradictions, but getting to those requires confronting deeply held emotionally charged beliefs. I get the impression that most people don’t like ANYTHING that forces them to take a good look at their own belief systems or to modify those beliefs (even ever so slightly). They get so uncomfortable and upset. I wish I knew a better way of dealing with that. Science really isn’t the enemy.

    Z

  16. Revenant

    Today, people with the fish are simply saying “I am a Christian, and look, there’s lots of us.”

    Like anyone in America could possibly be unaware of how common Christians are? That’s like having a bumper sticker that says “I’m white” or something. No, I think the fish people are, at some level, going for that historical-oppression vibe. That’s the meaning behind the fish that gets taught in Sunday School.

    Many people believe that evolution means that they cannot believe in God

    Certainly some people’s belief in gods is based on the incorrect idea that we need gods to explain the world around us. Their belief is ignorance-based, rather than faith-based, and therefore inevitably vanishes once they cease to be ignorant. People whose belief in God is rooted in faith are not going to be convinced otherwise by evolution.

    Which is yet another reason why teaching Intelligent Design is bad for Christianity, actually — it creates ignorance-based belief in gods, not faith-based belief in them. People who are (wrongly) told that only the existance of a Designer can explain the world are going to always be one decent book, TV show or science class away from apostasy. You can’t build a lasting religion around keeping people ignorant.

    If that is the fault of scientists mocking Christians with their Darwin fish

    Darwin fish are displayed by people who enjoy irritating fundamentalists (e.g., me back when I was a college student, and before I got sick of my car being vandalized). Scientists are not a significant percentage of the people mocking Christians with Darwin fish. To be perfectly honest, most scientists consider Creationists, like flat-earthers and people who think the moon is made of cheese, to be beneath their notice. Scientists, in my experience, prefer talking to people who are actually interested in understanding the world, and tend not to especially enjoy the company of people whose world view is based on unexamined received wisdom.

  17. John Howard

    No, I think the fish people are, at some level, going for that historical-oppression vibe.

    Fine, they feel oppressed, they feel marginalized, they feel disrespected. I wonder why they feel disrespected?

    Certainly some people’s belief in gods is based on the incorrect idea that we need gods to explain the world around us. Their belief is ignorance-based, rather than faith-based

    OK, not everyone neds to understand the underlying ontological mechanics of faith and theology, but if anyone has their faith diminished because someone ‘teaches’ them that Darwin proved that evolution, not God, created the world, their new found athiesm is also ignorance-based, rather than reason-based. Or rather, it is propaganda-based, since they are ‘taught’ something in a skewed and manipulative manner in order to make the student believe there is a conflict and abandon Christian morality. Perhaps the fault is with the church for not getting the message out more consistently that God and the Bible are not in conflict with science and historical evidence. Would you listen and accept that message, or would you continue to insist that Christians are either ignorant or quaintly piously faithful, because evolution shows that there is no need to believe in God?

    I agree with you that ID is ignorance-based and misguided in principle. but theology is a very hard topic to understand, you should try to read this book to see how the best philosopher-theologian I know of thinks of God and creation.

  18. John Howard

    Just got that book out of my shelf to look at again. Dr. Lee signed my copy at an Edwards conference in Washington DC marking Edward’s 300th birthday, and I met lots of big name theologians there, such as Richard Niebuhr (younger brother of Reinhold) and Conrad Cherry. Man, this book is difficult, it took me a looong time to read it. Some easier books on Edwards’ philosophy are out there, my favorite is James Carse’s The Visiblity of God. I recommend that one highly if you can find it.

  19. Revenant

    Fine, they feel oppressed, they feel marginalized, they feel disrespected. I wonder why they feel disrespected?

    Depends on who “they” are. Christians aren’t marginalized or disrespected by American society, so any Christian who feels they are feels so because he is either hypersensitive or out of touch with reality. If the “they” is “Creationists” then they presumably feel marginalized and disrespected for much the same reason that people who believe the world is flat do.

    Would you listen and accept that message, or would you continue to insist that Christians are either ignorant or quaintly piously faithful, because evolution shows that there is no need to believe in God?

    Evolution is entirely compatable with Christianity, and with belief in God. It just isn’t compatable with what YOU believe, because what you believe is, based on your comments here, not terribly similar to the theology of most Christians.

    But if it were true that some belief — “Belief X” — was mutually incompatable with belief in the theory of evolution, then it would logically follow that Belief X is wrong. Because life on Earth evolved, and that’s as close to a fact as anything we know can be. The complaint that students were being taught that Belief X was wrong would be no more than a complaint that students were being taught the truth instead of a lie.

  20. John Howard

    It just isn’t compatable with what YOU believe, because what you believe is, based on your comments here, not terribly similar to the theology of most Christians.

    There is no scientific finding that is incompatible with what I believe, and what I believe is totally compatible with popular modern Catholic belief and with Edwards/Calvin/Luther style Protestantism, as well as so-called secular philosophers like Heidegger and physicists like John Wheeler. I feel no need to argue when someone says “this fossil is evidence of a early human ancestor from 150,000 years ago” and I feel no need to argue when someone says the earth was created by God in 6 days, 10,000 years ago. Both are compatible and valid. I do argue with people who deny either one and suggest that they are not compatible.

  21. Revenant

    I feel no need to argue when someone says “this fossil is evidence of a early human ancestor from 150,000 years ago” and I feel no need to argue when someone says the earth was created by God in 6 days, 10,000 years ago. Both are compatible and valid

    “The earth is over 150,000 years old” is not compatable with “the Earth was created 10,000 years ago”. The idea that the Earth is 10,000 years old is only compatable with the idea that God created the world complete with a wealth of of phony evidence that show it to be billions of years old. That is not a mainstream Christian belief, nor is there anything in the teachings of Jesus or the prophets which requires or supports it. It is also not a belief compatable with science, because science is based in the idea that reality is consistent and rules-based.

  22. John Howard

    REvenant, you’re being to literal-minded, please, you can have fun with this and you’ll see that there is no need to be contentious. The evidence is real evidence, not phony evidence, God’s not trying to deceive us. And it’s a true statement to say the age of the universe is 15 Billion years. But, it is also true that it was and is created ex-nihilo by the will of God, it seems for the first time around 10,000 years ago*. And it is created with a real history as real as the present is. The computer in front of me is real, and it has been here for a couple years now, but it was created by the will of God and is continually recreated as it must be every moment. If God can create a tree, he can create a tree that is as old as a tree has to be to be a tree. He can create a universe that is truly 15 Billion years old at will, obviously.

    Here’s a pretty good rundown on creatio ex nihilo and creatio continua:

    *There is something significant about the 6 to 10 thousand year figure. I’m not sure where that number comes from, or how much it matters exactly what it is, but it was about the start of recorded history. It is when language is first found, which is significant because language is the primary root of existence (In the beginning was the Word).

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