Although most of the time I’ve encountered Darwinian evolution as a theory it has been within the context of apologetic debates, I’ve never before heard someone from the other side of the debate admit the truth that is very obvious to many Christians. This truth is, namely, that Darwinism functions much like a religion.
To many, the assertion that Darwinism has religious traits is offensive. After all, the reason some adhere to Darwinism is not because they have rationally examined it and accepted it over alternatives, but because it provides a set of defeater beliefs against traditional religions, especially Christianity. In fairness, some have examined Darwinism in comparison to the creation story in Scripture and believe that atheistic evolution better explains the universe than does the possibility of creation by a deity, no matter how long it may have taken. However someone who affirms a form of Darwinian evolution should recognize there are faith structures at work.
Michael Ruse is no proponent of creationism or Christianity, but his thesis is pretty simple: “I argue that evolutionary thinking generally over the past 300 years of its existence, and Darwinian thinking in particular since the publication of [his] two great works . . ., has taken on the form and role of a religion.”
Ruse is not claiming that evolutionists believe in a supreme being, but rather, “in the way that evolution tries to speak to the nature of humans and their place in the scheme of things, we have a religion, or if you want to speak a little more cautiously a ‘secular religious perspective.’”
What Ruse does argue is that the are ordering principles and moral demands that people have derived from evolutionary thought during its rise and sustenance. Just as deities have inspired beautiful poetry and prose, so, too, have authors used the muse of random chance plus time to serenade the world with their art. Darwinism has become for some a suitable replacement for the Christian God.
This volume is an analysis of pre-Darwinian and Darwinian evolutionary thought. He begins with the rudimentary ideas of evolution that preceded Darwin. He offers a quick summary of Darwin’s theory and its early reception, emphasizing the many of those who heard his theories early on recognized the potential for them to serve in replacement for the creator God. These are the first four chapters. The sub-thesis of these chapters is that Darwin’s most signal contribution was being able to transition evolutionary thought from pseudoscience to popular science.
In Chapter Five, the emphasis shifts. Beginning in this section through the end of the volume, Ruse is demonstrating that through Darwin, evolutionary thought “became a secular religion, in opposition to Christianity.” Ruse recognizes that evolutionary thinking requires faith just as Christianity requires faith; it posits thinking in traditional theological categories just as Christianity does. In fact, because of its competition with Christianity for dominance in the world, Ruse spends the remainder of the volume outlining, to some extent, a systematic theology of evolution.
He begins with God. Ruse argues that evolutionary thinkers like Thomas Huxley active sought to replace God with evolution. Thus, he and others had to deal with topics like suffering and meaning in life. Something had to be used to fill the God shaped vacuum and some evolutionary thinkers sought to do that through Darwinian evolution. Meaning, then, becomes not about glorifying the creator God, but fulfilling your evolutionary destiny. For some that appears to have been enough.
Evolutionary thinking is largely seen by some Christians as a theory of origins. It is, in fact, on these lines that the greatest Christian criticism of non-theistic evolution is levied. Instead of seeing God as the eternal creator, they tended to begin with the material as inexplicable and eternal. This left some, like Thomas Hardy presenting the world in somewhat pagan terms in order to avoid the hopeful message of Christianity.
Ruse traces literary evidences of other doctrines, like humanity, race and class, and ethics. Another sharp critique against evolutionary thought from Christians has been the difficulty in founding morality. Thus, Ruse’s efforts to explain how Darwinian thinkers produced a new formula for ethics. It is basically that morality is founded in the evolution of pro-social behaviors in culture. This explanation worked for the likes of Herbert Spencer, George Eliot, and Thomas Huxley, but it worked in part because of the Christian ethos of the culture. There was division even among evolutionary thinkers on the foundations of morality, as Ruse shows that even Jack London anticipated some source for morality besides a properly evolved human nature. Whether one agrees with the foundations of morality developed by evolutionary thinkers or not, Ruse’s chapter is invaluable in showing how they attempted work it out in their literature.
There are similar formulations for topics such as sex, sin and redemption, and the future in Ruse’s book. His exposition of these themes, which are direct answers to Christian questions, are well done. Ruse effectively shows how evolutionary thought has developed in categories that correspond to most theistic religions. He closes out the book with chapters on Darwinian theory as it developed and is developing and reflects on the continued strife between traditional Christian understandings of the world and Darwinian thought.
The summary above does not do justice to the subtlety and significance of Ruse’s demonstration of the religious aspects of Darwinism. He is working from the works of poets, novelists, and playwrights. While they might not be as ideologically precise as a professional philosopher, artists tend to reflect a more full-bodied, authentic expression of ideas than the careful, precise, sometimes defensive words of those engaged in philosophical fencing. In other words, writers tend to say what they actually think something means, not just the pieces of the puzzle that are defensible. Apologists tend to be more coy and to phrase their counter-arguments less clearly when they are difficult to defend.
As Ruse covers his selected topics through literature, it becomes clear that the sense of religiosity that Christians tend to find in evolutionary thinking is actually there. In other words, Ruse exposes that Darwinism is really a religion, with tenets of faith, concern for orthodoxy and the like.
Demonstrating the religiosity of Darwinism doesn’t automatically discount its credibility, but it does put it on an even footing with Christianity in terms of its content. In other words, instead of being able to claim that evolutionary theory is an impartial, scientific truth, Ruse shows that as it is often proclaimed—by Darwinists, neo-Darwinists, and other evolutionary apologists—evolutionary theory is simply a competitor to other religions.
This is an important step, because if this reality is accepted, it means that Darwinian thinking and its later evolutions should be subjected to the same sorts of rationalist critique as revealed religions such as Christianity. It means that apologists for evolutionary faith over against Christianity must do their leg work to engage the Christian faith and demonstrate the value of their own faith system. Ruse is helping the discussion to be more honest.
Such a calling to honest self-evaluation and openness to legitimate discussion is a good thing for the dialog for evolutionary thinkers and Christians. Recently proponents of unguided evolution have come to ridicule anyone that presupposes a divine being who is engaged in design and creation. They claim this is because of science, but as Ruse shows, the basis of their assertion is really a serious of quasi-religious faith assumptions. After all, evolutionists must still grapple with where it all came from and why there is something rather than nothing. That isn’t science, it needs religious thinking to explain it. Simply positing that aliens sent life to earth is really just cheating, because it isn’t far from aliens to God in reality—at least not as far as the need for belief. In fact, given the possibility of revelation, there is much less evidence of aliens than there is God.
Darwinism as Religion does not end any discussions. It is a solid literary analysis by a well-read, fair-minded author. Instead of killing discussions or proving anyone’s point absolutely in the whole evolution vs. Christianity debate, it shows that the debate is necessary and that those who dismiss Christianity as irrationally faith based need to pay attention to the faith assumptions that got them where they are.
Ruse has done a great work to produce this volume. It adds to the field of scholarship on the topic and is a great addition to the library of both Christians and atheists seeking to understand the historical and literary presentation of evolutionary thought.
NOTE: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.