Re: How evolution became a religion

From: Richard Wein (
Date: Mon May 15 2000 - 05:09:27 EDT

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    Michael Ruse claims that "Evolution is a religion." Not just that it's
    sometimes been used as a religion. Not just that some people use it to
    support their religion. But that it *is* a religion. This is either an
    absurd exaggeration or a very sloppy use of language. It is inconsistent
    with Ruse's own statement, later in the article, that evolution is "good,
    tough, forward-looking science". Ruse is tarring the whole of the science of
    evolution with a religious brush just because *some* people, *some* of the
    time, use it as a religion.

    And when Ruse complains about the use of religious-sounding language by
    Gould and Wilson, why is he picking out only evolutionists? What about all
    the physicists who've used similar language? Would Ruse have us believe that
    physics is a religion too?

    Richard Wein (Tich)

    > [National Post Online]
    > Page URL:
    > Saturday, May 13,
    > How evolution became a religion
    > Creationists correct?: Darwinians wrongly mix science with morality,
    > politics
    > Michael Ruse
    > National Post
    > In 1980 the young governor of Arkansas, one Bill Clinton, neglected his
    > constituent base and was defeated in his run for re-election. He learned a
    > lesson never to be forgotten, regained office in 1982, and remained
    > until he was elected President. During the two-year interregnum, the
    > governor's mansion was occupied by a man called Frank White, whose
    > at his election was equalled only by his inadequacy for the job.
    > Uncritically, Governor White signed into law a bill promoted by an
    > evangelical Christian state representative, a bill debated by the
    > legislature for less than half an hour. This "balanced treatment" bill
    > required that children be taught not only the theory of evolution, but
    > the Bible -- taken absolutely literally. Countering the claim that we are
    > all descended by Charles Darwin's glacially slow process of development
    > very simple organisms, children were also to be told, in their biology
    > classes, that Adam and Eve were real people, and that Noah's Flood once
    > covered the whole earth.
    > The U. S. constitution separates church and state. Whatever its
    > merits -- and they were few -- the Arkansas law was clearly
    > unconstitutional. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the law,
    > before the year was out a trial was held and the legislation struck down.
    > Appearing as expert witnesses for the ACLU were the famous -- Stephen Jay
    > Gould, Harvard professor, paleontologist, and America's best-known
    > evolutionist -- and the not-so-famous -- a philosophy professor from the
    > University of Guelph, yours truly.
    > I still remember arguing in the Arkansas court house with one of the most
    > prominent of the literalists (now generally known as creationists). Duane
    > Gish, author of the best-selling work, "Evolution: The Fossils Say No!,"
    > resented bitterly what he felt was an unwarranted smug superiority assumed
    > by us from the side of science.
    > "Dr Ruse," Mr. Gish said, "the trouble with you evolutionists is that you
    > just don't play fair. You want to stop us religious people from teaching
    > views in schools. But you evolutionists are just as religious in your way.
    > Christianity tells us where we came from, where we're going, and what we
    > should do on the way. I defy you to show any difference with evolution. It
    > tells you where you came from, where you are going, and what you should do
    > on the way. You evolutionists have your God, and his name is Charles
    > Darwin."
    > At the time I rather pooh-poohed what Mr. Gish said, but I found myself
    > thinking about his words on the flight back home. And I have been thinking
    > about them ever since. Indeed, they have guided much of my research for
    > past twenty years. Heretical though it may be to say this -- and many of
    > scientist friends would be only too happy to chain me to the stake and to
    > light the faggots piled around -- I now think the Creationists like Mr.
    > are absolutely right in their complaint.
    > Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science.
    > Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion -- a
    > full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. I am
    > ardent evolutionist and an ex-Christian, but I must admit that in this one
    > complaint -- and Mr. Gish is but one of many to make it -- the literalists
    > are absolutely right. Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution
    > the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.
    > ---
    > One of the earliest evolutionists was the eighteenth-century physician
    > Erasmus Darwin, grandfather of Charles. He was no atheist, believing
    > in God as "Unmoved Mover": a being who decides right at the beginning on
    > future course of nature, lays down unbreakable laws, and never acts again.
    > Rightly, Erasmus Darwin saw this "deism" as challenging Christian theism,
    > which takes God as ready always to intervene miraculously in His creation.
    > For Erasmus Darwin, evolution was simply confirmation of his commitment to
    > law-bound process of creation set down by a non-interventionist God. It
    > part and parcel of his alternative religion.
    > To this vision, Darwin's grandfather added an enthusiasm for social
    > -- as embodied by the Industrial Revolution -- which progress he then read
    > right into his science. Erasmus saw social progress as a rise from a
    > village-based society to the complexity of the modern city, and
    > he thought evolution rises progressively from the simple, the
    > undifferentiated blobs of the first life forms (known as "monads"), to the
    > apotheosis of organic complexity, the human race.
    > In his progressivism -- especially in his belief that we humans ourselves
    > can and do improve our overall well-being -- Erasmus clearly stood in yet
    > another way against Christianity, which stresses that salvation can come
    > only through God. For the Christian, our greatest gains "count for
    > Evolution therefore came into being as a kind of secular ideology, an
    > explicit substitute for Christianity. It stressed laws against miracles
    > by analogy, it promoted progress against providence.
    > And so things continued. In 1859, Charles Darwin, the father of modern
    > evolutionary thought, published his great work On the Origin of Species.
    > With this book, Darwin hoped to change things and make a less ideological
    > system of evolution. He offered a systematic survey of the biological
    > showing how many different factors -- the fossil record, the geographical
    > distributions of organisms, the discoveries from embryology -- point to
    > evolution. At the same time, he proposed his celebrated mechanism of
    > selection: thanks to population pressures, some creatures flourish and
    > offspring and some do not and, over the ages, this "survival of the
    > leads to full-blown change.
    > But almost at once Darwin's efforts were frustrated by (of all people) his
    > greatest supporter, his famous "bulldog," Thomas Henry Huxley.
    > When Jesus died he left no functioning religion. This was the work of his
    > supporters, especially Saint Paul, and as we all know the Christianity of
    > Saint Paul was not exactly identical to the Christianity of Jesus. Like
    > great apostle and Christianity, Huxley -- one of the most prominent
    > scientists and greatest educators and social reformers of his day -- had
    > begun by denying evolution, and when converted had the same enthusiasm as
    > Paul.
    > But like Paul also, for all that Huxley venerated Charles Darwin, he could
    > see in the master's writings only a glimpse of what he himself needed for
    > his own purposes. And in working to his own ends, Huxley was led to the
    > consequences as Paul: a functioning system, but not that of the man in
    > name he worked and preached.
    > Origin appeared at just that time in Victorian Britain when it was
    > to transform the country from a rural-based, near-feudal society and to
    > it for an urbanized, industrialized future. There was need for reform
    > everywhere: in the civil service, merit had to count, not connection. In
    > medicine, doctors had to stop killing patients and start curing them. In
    > education, learning had to be for today and not to glorify the past.
    > and his fellow reformers were in the thick of all this -- Huxley himself
    > a college dean, served as a member of the new London School Board and on
    > numerous royal commissions looking into the state of things.
    > Correctly, Huxley saw Christianity -- the established Anglican Church
    > particularly -- as allied with the forces of reaction and power. He fought
    > it vigorously, most famously when he debated Samuel Wilberforce, the
    > of Oxford. (Supposedly, on being asked whether he was descended from
    > on his grandfather's side or his grandmother's side, Huxley replied he had
    > rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop of the Church of
    > England.)
    > As a social reformer therefore, Huxley, known in the papers as "Pope
    > Huxley", was determined to find a substitute for Christianity. Evolution,
    > with its stress on unbroken law -- which could be used to reflect messages
    > of social progress -- was the perfect candidate. Life is on an upwardly
    > moving escalator. It has reached Victorian Britain. Who knows what glories
    > and triumphs might lie ahead? Thus the vision of Saint Thomas -- something
    > to be preached far and wide. Working men's clubs, popular scientific
    > congresses, debating societies, university convocations were Huxley's
    > Corinthians and Galatians.
    > Indeed, recognizing that a good religion needs a moral message as well as
    > history and promise of future reward, Huxley increasingly turned from
    > (who was not very good at providing these things) toward another English
    > evolutionist.
    > Herbert Spencer -- prolific writer and immensely popular philosopher to
    > masses -- shared Huxley's vision of evolution as a kind of metaphysics
    > rather than a straight science. He was happy to insist that even moral
    > directives come from the evolutionary process itself.
    > "Social Darwinism" (more accurately, Social Spencerianism) took evolution
    > entail struggle and success for the few, and so the moral message was
    > understood as enthusiasm for laissez-faire individualism. The state should
    > stay out of the running of society, and the best should be allowed to rise
    > to the top. Failures deserve their fates.
    > Of course, there were differences between Social Darwinians. Socialists,
    > Marxists and anarchists also justified their beliefs in the name of
    > The point is that the harnessing of evolution to ends that were explicitly
    > moral, even political, went on right through the nineteenth century.
    > The even greater point is that it continued to go on right through the
    > twentieth century. Evolutionary ideas were to undergo a great
    > in the 1930s and 1940s, when a professional science of evolutionary
    > was developed -- a professional science which stood on its own legs by its
    > own merits, having no need for an alternative career as secular ideology.
    > But this secular ideology or religion hardly folded its tents and crept
    > away. One of the most popular books of the era was Religion without
    > Revelation, by evolutionist Julian Huxley, grandson of Thomas Henry. First
    > published in 1927, the book was revised (for a second time) and reissued
    > the 1950s.
    > "All thought and emotion," Huxley wrote, even the highest, spring from
    > natural mind, whose slow development can be traced in life's evolution, so
    > that life in general and man in particular are those parts of the world
    > substance in which the latent mental properties are revealed to their
    > fullest extent." As always, evolution was doing everything expected of
    > religion, and more.
    > ---
    > Today, professional evolution thrives. But the old religion survives and
    > thrives right alongside it. Evolution now has its mystical visionary, its
    > Saint John of the Cross. Harvard entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O.
    > Wilson tells us that we now have an "alternative mythology" to defeat
    > traditional religion. "Its narrative form is the epic: the evolution of
    > universe from the big bang of fifteen years ago through the origin of the
    > elements and celestial bodies to the beginnings of life on earth."
    > Faithful to the oldest tradition of evolutionary theorizing -- reading his
    > morality and politics into his science and then reading it right back out
    > again -- Mr. Wilson warns us that we have evolved in symbiotic
    > with the rest of living nature, and lest we cherish and preserve
    > biodiversity we will all perish. Drawing on the dispensationalism of his
    > Southern Baptist childhood, with the eloquence and moral fervour of Billy
    > Graham, Mr. Wilson begs us to repent, to stand up and acknowledge our sins
    > and to walk forward in the ways of evolution. We have but a short time,
    > moral darkness will fall on us all.
    > The language of Stephen Jay Gould is hardly more tempered. We learn that
    > evolution "liberates the human spirit," that for sheer excitement
    > "beats any myth of human origins by light years," and that we should
    > this evolutionary nexus -- a far more stately mansion for the human soul
    > than any pretty or parochial comfort ever conjured by our swollen
    > to obscure the source of physical being."
    > Mr. Gould ultimately rejects traditional readings of evolution for a more
    > inspiring, liberating version: "We must assume that consciousness would
    > have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the
    > dinosaurs as victims. In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence,
    > large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars." If this is not to rival
    > traditional Judaeo-Christian teaching -- with its central belief that we
    > humans are not just random happenstances, but a major reason why God
    > heaven and earth -- I do not know what is.
    > What is the moral to be drawn from all of this? You might think that the
    > time has come to save evolution from the evolutionists.
    > Darwinism is a terrific theory that stimulates research in every area of
    > life sciences. In the human realm, for instance, discoveries in Africa
    > our immediate past in ever greater detail, while at the same time the
    > Genome Project opens up fascinating evolutionary questions as we learn of
    > the molecular similarities between ourselves and organisms as apparently
    > different as fruit flies and earthworms. Surely this is enough.
    > There is no need to make a religion of evolution. On its own merits,
    > evolution as science is just that -- good, tough, forward-looking science,
    > which should be taught as a matter of course to all children, regardless
    > creed.
    > But, let us be tolerant. If people want to make a religion of evolution,
    > that is their business. Who would deny the value of Mr. Wilson's plea for
    > biodiversity? Who would argue against Mr. Gould's hatred of racial and
    > sexual prejudice, which he has used evolution to attack?
    > The important point is that we should recognize when people are going
    > the strict science, moving into moral and social claims, thinking of their
    > theory as an all-embracing world picture. All too often, there is a slide
    > from science to something more, and this slide goes unmentioned --
    > unrealized even.
    > For pointing this out we should be grateful for the opponents of
    > The Creationists are wrong in their Creationism, but they are right in at
    > least one of their criticisms. Evolution, Darwinian evolution, is
    > science. Let us teach it to our children. And, in the classroom, let us
    > leave it at that. The moral messages, the underlying ideology, may be
    > worthy. But if we feel strongly, there are other times and places to
    > that gospel to the world.
    > Michael Ruse is professor of philosophy and zoology at the University of
    > Guelph. His next book, Can a Darwinian be a Christian? The Relationship
    > between Science and Religion, will be published this fall.

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