Monday, March 09, 2009

Darwin as agnostic?

Here's an article that makes a good point about Darwin. While the New Atheists have held him up as their spiritual leader, it's not clear how much he would have agreed with that evolution precludes a creator. At the very least, it's not a case that he made in his lifetime.

"In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Darwin kept his pronouncements on religion to a minimum, partly out of respect for his Christian wife. Despite continuing claims that he was an atheist, most scholars acknowledge that he never went further than agnosticism.

Yet bizarrely, the whole 19th-century collapse of faith is now pinned on Darwin. While he was poring over his pigeons, biblical scholars were hard at work radically revising the historical understanding of the Bible and arguably doing as much as he ever did to undermine the possibility of a literal reading of scripture. The work of the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell debunked the idea of seven days of creation in Genesis long before Darwin.

The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up). Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin's theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events. It's a position that infuriates many scientists, not to mention philosophers and theologians.

"A defence of evolution doesn't have to get entangled in atheism," says Mark Pallen, professor of microbial genomics at Birmingham and author of The Rough Guide to Evolution. Bob Bloomfield, of the Natural History Museum, says: "We want to move the agenda on to the relevance of his ideas today and put aside this squabbling over faith and dogma.""

Thanks David!


Crockhead said...

I don't think it's the "New Atheists," that have tried to claim Darwin for atheism so much as the "Old Christians." That evolution is an atheist doctrine has been proclaimed by fundamentalist Christians almost since the publication of the "Origin of the Species."

Jeff L said...

Darwin was certainly an agnostic, and much more careful and tentative about his claims than many present day evolutionists (especially the New Atheist types). He originally studied to join the clergy, and his mentor and teacher in the sciences was an ordained priest. Over time Darwin did slowly move away from a traditional Christian faith, probably treading carefully due to the general Victorian climate as well as his wife's Christian faith.

While fundamentalist Christians are certainly wrongheaded in both their claims and approach, it is hard to deny there is some tension between the general Christian idea of God creating life (including humans) intentionally versus life arising through an accidental process of mutation and selection. This is not necessarily a tension with evolution per se, but with Darwinism (i.e. the theory that natural selection and mutation can fully account for the development of life).