Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Darwinism Is Not Atheism: The Darwin Fish, The Jesus Fish, and The Dawkins Fish

The primary reason why some conservatives oppose Darwinian science is clear: They assume that Darwinism is atheism. They are wrong.

Beginning with the first Christians in ancient Rome, a schematic drawing of a fish has symbolized Jesus Christ. Recently, in the United States, some Christians have put Jesus fish medallions on the back of their cars. Some people have responded to this by putting Darwin fish medallions on their cars. I once saw a car with a bumper sticker that showed a giant Jesus fish eating a tiny Darwin fish. Under the picture, it said "Survival of the Fittest."

I do not have either a Jesus fish or a Darwin fish on my car, because I do not accept the idea that these fish are predatory competitors. I think the Jesus fish and the Darwin fish can swim together without one eating the other.

Although conservatism does not require religious belief, most conservatives believe that religious traditions support morality and social order. As a result, many conservatives object to Darwinism in so far as it seems to promote atheism. They think that when the Darwin fish meets the Jesus fish, one must eat the other.

In defense of Darwinian conservatism, I argue that Darwinian biology is compatible with religious belief, and particularly with Biblical theism. Although Charles Darwin was probably not an orthodox Christian at the end of his life, he recognized that questions about ultimate first causes could not be answered by natural science, which left an opening for religious belief. He also thought that religious belief reinforced morality. Darwinian conservatism sees that religion satisfies some of the deepest desires of human nature as shaped by evolutionary history.

To see the importance of theistic religion for Darwin, one only needs to glance at the beginning and end of The Origin of Species. He begins the book with an epigram from Francis Bacon: "Let no man out of weak conceit of sobriety, or an ill-applied moderation, think or maintain that a man can search too far or be too well studied in the book of God's word, or in the book of God's works; divinity or philosophy; but rather let men endeavour an endless progress or proficiency in both." This metaphor of God as speaking through two books--the Bible as His word and nature as His works--was commonly used by Christians to justify the scientific study of nature as compatible with reverence for the revelation of Scripture.

Darwin's last sentence in The Origin of Species conveys a vivid image of God as Creator. "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved."

In The Descent of Man, Darwin stressed the importance of religion for morality. "With the more civilized races, the conviction of the existence of an all-seeing Deity has had a potent influence on the advancement of morality." In particular, he saw the Biblical statement of the Golden Rule as "the foundation-stone of morality."

But you will never see anything like this in the writing of Richard Dawkins! Dawkins is a dogmatic atheist who never tires in his widely publicized attacks on religious belief. Although Dawkins is a distinguished evolutionary biologist, he cannot really support his claim that evolutionary science dictates atheism. Here I agree with Carson Holloway in his recent piece on Dawkins for National Review Online. As Holloway indicates, Dawkins derives his atheism not from his science but from his own doctrinaire scorn for religion. Modern natural science cannot rule out the possibility of supernatural, ultimate causes behind the natural, proximate causes of ordinary experience.

And yet conservatives like Richard Weikart, Peter Lawler, and Ann Coulter agree with Dawkins in his claim that Darwinian science must be atheistic. The rhetoric of the Discovery Institute in its attacks on Darwinian evolution relies on this claim. But this ignores the compatibility of Darwinian science and the conservative respect for religion.

For conservatives, it is the moral and political utility of religious belief that is decisive, and Darwinian social theory can support that insight. But Darwinian science can neither affirm nor deny the transcendent theology of Biblical religion.

The human search for ultimate causes that would explain the universe culminates in a fundamental alternative. Either we take nature as the ultimate source of order, or we look beyond nature to God as the ultimate source of nature's order. Our natural desire to understand is satisfied ultimately either by an intellectual understanding of nature or by a religious understanding of God as the Creator of nature.

Darwinian conservatism cannot resolve these transcendent questions of ultimate explanation. But it can secure the moral and political conditions of ordered liberty that leave people free to explore the cosmic questions of human existence and organize their lives around religious or philosophical answers to those questions.

The Darwin fish cannot offer us supernatural redemption from earthly life and entrance into eternal life, which is the promise of the Jesus fish. But when it comes to earthly morality and social order, the Darwin fish and the Jesus fish are swimming in the same school.


John Pieret said...

While I agree with your general point that evolution need not be incompatible with religious belief and that atheism is not a necessary precursor to acceptance of evolutionary theory, I think you need to be careful using final paragraph of the Origin as an argument here. First of all, the phrase "by the Creator" did not appear in the First Edition as can be seen here. Second, in a letter to J.D. Hooker on March 29, 1863, Darwin wrote:

. . . I have long regretted that I truckled to public opinion, and used the Pentateuchal term of creation, by which I really meant "appeared" by some wholly unknown process. It is mere rubbish, thinking at present of the origin of life; one might as well think of the origin of matter.

Darwin's views about religion were often circumspectly expressed out of his concern for his wife's sensibilities and, what is more, they changed over time as can be seen in his Autobiography. There is no simple "sound bite" to sum them up.

Larry Arnhart said...

Darwin was not an atheist, although he was often evasive about his personal religious beliefs. His clearest and fullest statement on this, as you indicate, is in the AUTOBIOGRAPHY (in the edition edited by Nora Barlow).

When he sailed on the Beagle in 1831, he was an orthodox Christian. When THE ORIGIN OF SPECIES was published in 1859, he had moved away from orthodox Christianity and towards a simple theism. By the end of his life, he was an "agnostic," in the sense coined by Thomas Huxley--someone who is in such a state of uncertainty that he can be neither a dogmatic theist nor a dogmatic atheist.

And yet, throughout his life, he insisted that ultimate questions of First Cause--questions about the origin of the universe or the origin of the laws of nature--left a big opening for God. As he said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."

This is very far from the spirit of a village atheist like Dawkins.

NT said...

I have to strongly disagree with what you say about Darwinian evolution being compatible with Biblical theism. I don't know much about the bible but I was under the impression that certain myths state that the world was created in seven or six days and its age can be measured in the thousands, that all animals were created in the same form that they exist in today, and that man was created in the image of 'God'. Perhaps these are common misconceptions of those who have yet to read the bible so please correct me if I am wrong. Darwinian evolution clearly demonstrates that animals evolved over millions of years and hence the earth itself must be much older. I do not know if by Darwinian evolution you mean evolution in general, since Darwin's work is over a hundred years old and much advancement and perhaps a few revisions of his theories have since been made. But accepted theories of evolution also demonstrate that man has the same common ancestor as today's apes and cannot have been created in the image of God unless God resembled an ape.

Furthermore you also say, "Modern natural science cannot rule out the possibility of supernatural, ultimate causes behind the natural, proximate causes of ordinary experience". This seems like some wishful thinking since most of what was once explained by Greek, Egyptian, Christian and other mythologies can now be explained using modern science and its likely that with time mythologies with lose more and more ground. I also cannot see why the inability to rule out all the supernatural should be considered victory for the religious. It's alot like how some people bandy the statement, "God cannot be proven to exist or not exist" so triumphantly. Just because something supernatural cannot be disproven it surely doesn't mean that your myths have a greater chance of being correct. For example, if you say that I cannot disprove the existence of a supreme deity it does not follow that your deity in particular exists. With so many competing myths about the creation of the world and its existing deities, the odds are against you being right if you say, "My truth is the correct truth". This is unless you can somehow show that your myth has a greater chance of being correct than that of others, but since religious beliefs are not based on any empirical evidence this would surely be impossible.

It also seems odd that anyone would boast religion, whether true or not, as the "foundation stone of morality" (no matter who said it) since at least as much injustice as justice has been done in the name of religion.

Larry Arnhart said...

Yes, you are right that if one read the opening chapters of Genesis as a literal creation of everything in six days, that would contradict Darwinian evolution. But except for a few fundamentalist literalists (such as Henry Morris and Ken Ham), most Biblical believers do not read these chapters as literal history. Even William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial rejected a purely literal reading.

With the possible exception of Paul Nelson, the proponents of "intelligent design theory" are not "young-earth creationists." The calculation of the earth as no more than 6,000 years old is not found in the Bible. That calculation came from James Ussher at the end of the 16th century, who made this calculation based on estimating time in the genealogies in the Bible.

Kevin said...

Hi there

I totally agree with you that Richard Dawkins has a chip on his shoulder with regards to religion and I believe his anti-religious bias is tainting the general public’s view of evolution. As you rightly argue, and as I’ve said to many of my Christian and non-Christian friends, evolution does not disprove or prove the existence of god or gods. Both evolution and religion can co-exist with each other.

This is a great blog. I’ve added it to my newsreader.

All the best

Memoirs of an ex-Christian

Anonymous said...

NT, you are really quite something. On the one hand you admit unfamiliarity with the bible (at least you're honest about it, although that does not free you from the responsibility of your words). On the other, you make fairly bold statements about the meaning of bible passages you've never read or learned about (interestingly, your post also appears to be the longest exposition on the topic thus far - let's see if I beat you!). Let me ask you this: when you read (assuming that you read) poetry, do you approach it scientifically? I should hope not. And yet, important, and deep and possibly intangible truths can be conveyed through those verses as no other medium is capable of conveying quite so well.

It is important to know that not only were the books of the Bible written in prescientific ages, it would have also been pointless to write in a scientific language. How does, say, the knowledge of the mechanisms behind DNA transcription help in answering the ultimate questions? It doesn't. Enter philosophy...

Dawkins, as well as many others, suffer from an astonishing ignorance of the history and philosophy of science. Science did not magically spring from thin air on a whim. The formation of science was a long process, and within each civilization experienced what Jaki calls a still-birth. Even the Greeks, who in ancient times went further than any other civilization in this respect, did not manage to get very far. The philosophical foundations for a fruitful science were simply not there. Science did not reach it's full fruition anywhere save the Christian West, and there are very good reasons for it, among them the belief that the Universe had a beginning in time (versus the view that it is cyclic), the Incarnation which prevented Christianity from decaying into pantheism, the belief in a rational Creator and thus by extension, the belief in Man's rational nature. It may be hard to believe, with all the propaganda making its way around, but science would simply not have been had Christianity not have happened. This is something that can and needs to be acknowledged, whether you are Christian or not.

While Carson Holloway makes an interesting point on the possible social impact of Dawkins's books, I feel he is being far too tame and submissive. He spends most of the article relegating religion to nothing more than some Straussian social tool, or at least something harmless. Holloway does religion a disservice by taking the wind out of its sails to diffuse the debate. He tries to reach an awkward middle ground that sounds more like bargaining than a proper defense. It should be stated more assertively that science has its place in answering questions. There are questions which are scientific and ones that are not. Evolution is one of them. Cosmic purpose is not. And Dawkins suffers from an all too common egotistical disorder whereby he believes that by becoming well-acquainted in a single field, he is now somehow master of all that is known and unknown. I am convinced that what gives Dawkins a false (and absurd) sense of purpose are his vicious and mindless attacks on religion. Take that away, and maybe, just maybe, he may may come to his senses and realize the dead end his world view leads to.

In short, Dawkins is an intellectual yokel who, like the little boy that sticks his tongue out, must either be ignored or given a bit more than a weak slap on the wrist.

Tony Bartl said...

There are three things at the beginning of Genesis worth mentioning.
1. "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."
2. Subsequent to this comes the 7 days, wherein the forms of the word "to make" predominate, though forms of "to create" also appear.
3. Genesis 2:4 says, "These are the generations of the heavens and of the earth when they were created, IN THE DAY that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens."

So was it one day or seven? Was God always creating during that time, or was He making, fashioning out of the material he created in Genesis 1:1? Clearly, the text itself cannot mean 7 solar days, and even comes across at the end similar to our colloquial "back in the day ..."

Anonymous said...

Mr. Arnhardt -- You wrote about the ostensible incompatibility of Darwinism and religion in public discourse, but didn't specifically mention the battleground: Intelligent Design vs. Darwinism. For those who use a Biblical interpretations to describe the beginning of life, Darwinism and (the relevant) religions really are factually incompatible, and there is no way around that. So rather than support Darwin in that "[Darwin] recognized that questions about ultimate first causes could not be answered by natural science, which left an opening for religious belief" (i.e., addressing an overly-comprehensive interpretation of Darwinism by the Darwinism=atheism crowd), you can turn your argument around and say that for those who make Intelligent Design an integral part of their religious explanation of ultimate causes, Darwinism *is* atheism, and that that is the source of their mis-understanding (or rather, to them, an understanding). In other words, if you don't agree with the equivalency, you should say that the Darwinism=atheism crowd should stop believing in I.D.

I think that is the more likely source of the belief that Darwinism = atheism because it seems to me that it is the theists who conflate the two. Where does Dawkins claim that "evolutionary science dictates atheism"? Does anyone claim that? Darwinism obviously makes no claims on non-I.D. religion because (exactly as you point out) it has nothing to say about anything other than evolution. You might be confusing Dawkins' position with the atheist claim that science or the scientific method in general dictates atheism, which is above-and-beyond a belief in Darwinism alone.

Also, your point that "Darwin also thought that religious belief reinforced morality. Darwinian conservatism sees that religion satisfies some of the deepest desires of human nature as shaped by evolutionary history." is interesting, because it argues in favor of the atheism of Darwinian conservatism by suggesting that religion does not have intrinsic explanatory value, yet you seem to agree despite being a Darwinian conservative who believes in a higher power.