Friday, August 27, 2021

A Majority of Americans Now Accept the Evolution of Humans from Earlier Forms of Life. The Bible Versus Darwin?

An article recently published in the journal Public Understanding of Science reports that 54% of Americans today agree with the statement "Human beings, as we know them today, developed from earlier species of animals" (Miller et al. 2021).  This is a remarkable increase from 2005, when only 40% of Americans agreed with that statement (Miller et al. 2006). 

In 2005, as compared with 34 countries, the United States had the second lowest public acceptance of human evolution.  Only Turkey was lower.  Today, despite the increase in American acceptance of evolution, it is still lower than in the European countries and in many other countries around the world.

This research suggests many questions.  Why does the U.S. still lag behind many other countries in the public acceptance of evolution? Is there some feature of American moral, religious, or political culture that creates a resistance to Darwinian evolution?  Why has the acceptance of evolution increased in America over the past 15 years?   And is there any way to improve the teaching of the American public about evolutionary science to make it more acceptable?

In their study of the public opinion surveys of Americans on the issue of human evolution, Jon Miller and his colleagues identify six factors that predict the acceptance or rejection of evolution.  The second most important factor is "civic scientific literacy": those who show a lot of knowledge of science tend to accept evolution.  The third most important factor is college science courses: those who have taken many such courses are more likely to accept evolution.  The fourth ranked factor is education: those with advanced educational degrees usually accept evolution.  The fifth ranked factor is age:  younger people are more inclined than older people to accept evolution.  The sixth ranked factor is ideological partisanship:  liberal Democrats are more inclined than conservative Republicans to accept evolution. 

But the most influential factor by far is American religious fundamentalism: religious fundamentalists usually reject evolution.  "Religious fundamentalism" is measured by how people answer five questions.  (1) They agree that "There is a personal God that hears the prayers of individuals."  (2) They agree that "The Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally."  (3) They report that they usually attend at least one religious service in a typical week.  (4) They report that they pray at least once in a typical week.  (5) And they agree that "We depend too much on science and not enough on faith."

Presumably, religious fundamentalists reject the Darwinian idea of human evolution from earlier species of animals because they believe this contradicts what the Bible says about God creating everything, including human beings, and about God as a Personal Deity who hears prayers and demands faithful obedience.  They think the Bible as God's Revelation contradicts Darwin's naturalistic science of evolution.

There is another influential feature of American fundamentalist religion that is not considered by Miller and his colleagues:  American fundamentalists often see biblical creationism in the Declaration of Independence, which claims "that all men are created equal" and "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights," and that this Creator is the source of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God," and also "the Supreme Judge of the World" who exercises "divine Providence."  Therefore if Darwinian evolution denies biblical creationism, it denies a fundamental principle of the American creed: that human beings have a unique moral dignity as created in the image of God, and as subject to His laws, His judgment, and His providence.  In the history of the American fundamentalist attacks on evolution, William Jennings Bryan in the 1920s was the first one to charge that Darwinian evolution denied the imago Dei teaching of the Declaration of Independence.

Here I will challenge both of these reasons for the fundamentalist rejection of Darwinian evolution.  First, I will argue that there has been no biblical revelation that clearly resolves the debate over creation and evolution.  Second, I will argue that there is no good reason to believe that the Declaration of Independence requires a biblical creationism that denies Darwinian evolution.

I will be drawing from some previous writing herehere, and here.


The theistic religiosity of evangelical Christians is grounded in their faith in the supreme authority of God's revelation--the special revelation of the Bible and the general revelation of nature, the "two books" in which God's revelation can be read by human beings.  Remarkably, however, neither biblical revelation nor natural revelation provides a clear teaching to resolve the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution. 

This becomes evident if one reads a book edited by J. B. Stump--Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design (Zondervan, 2017).  Four positions in the creation/evolution debate are represented by four leading proponents: Young Earth creationism (Ken Ham), Old Earth creationism (Hugh Ross), evolutionary creation (Deborah Haarsma), and intelligent design (Stephen Meyer).  This is the first time that these four people have engaged one another directly.  Each of the four has written a chapter, followed by responses from the other three, and then a rejoinder by the chapter's author.

In John 17, Jesus prays to God that all believers will be as one, that they will come to complete unity, "so that the world may believe that you have sent me."  It seems that Christians give witness to the truth of revelation by showing their agreement about that revelation.  In Stump's "Introduction" to Four Views, he says that a primary purpose of this book was to pursue unity in what revelation teaches about origins (16).  But in his "Conclusion" to the book, he laments that this has not been achieved: "I doubt that readers will come away from this book with the feeling that we are any closer to the goal of Christian unity on the topic of origins" (232).

There are three possible explanations for this.  Either there has been no revelation (through the Bible or through nature) of God's teaching about origins. Or there has been such a revelation, but it's so obscure that it conveys no clear message. Or the revelation does convey a clear message, but human beings have a stubborn bias that blinds them to that clear message.  Hugh Ross says that "since most humans will choose autonomy over submission to God," most humans will refuse to see the clear evidence of God's creative activity in nature (166).  But this atheistic bias cannot explain why faithful Christians--like the four authors in this book--would refuse to recognize the clear teaching of revelation.  So we are left with the first two explanations for why these Christians cannot come to agreement about origins: either there has been no revelation about origins, or the revelation is not clear enough to be understood.  All four of the authors believe that God has sent the Holy Spirit "to guide us persistently to truth" (71, 76, 107), but here the Holy Spirit has failed to guide them to agreement about the revealed teaching concerning origins.

Like the other three authors, Ken Ham (the young earth creationist) sees God's revelation both in Scripture and in nature.  But he thinks the biblical revelation is clearer and more truthful than natural revelation, because after Adam's Fall, God cursed creation, and so "the creation gives a confusing message about the Creator" (19).  The creation reveals the Creator to all people, but it does not teach us how and when God created.  For that, we must go to the Bible (101).

Ham insists that the "clear teaching" of the Bible, particularly in the first 11 chapters of Genesis, is that God created everything over six literal days about 6,000 years ago; and therefore the claim of evolutionary science that life and the universe evolved naturally over billions of years is false.  But Ham is silent about the fact that the dating of Creation at 6,000 years ago is not in the Bible.  This date was inferred by Bishop James Ussher, who relied not just on the Bible but also on non-biblical documents.  So this is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  Moreover, Ham admits that "most Christians" or "many Christians" do not agree with his interpretation (24, 28, 31, 34, 38, 44, 46).

Ham also claims that the Bible is clear in declaring that God created all the forms of plant and animal life by creating distinct "kinds" (Hebrew min), and that these created kinds correspond to what in modern taxonomic classification would be called the family (not species or genus) (41, 105).  Thus, new species can arise by natural evolution, but this evolutionary change is within the boundary of a "kind" or "family."  Ham is silent, however, about how, prior to Darwin, "kinds" were interpreted as species.  Once Darwin had shown how species can emerge by natural evolution, some creationists, beginning with Frank Marsh in 1941, began to argue that the Hebrew min was an "imprecise term," and that it should be interpreted not as species but as family.  (I have written about this here.)  Ham has adopted this interpretation without acknowledging that it is an interpretation that is not a "clear teaching" of the Bible.  (I have written a post on Ham's debate with Bill Nye in 2014.

Thus, Ham is silent about there being a fifth form of biblical creationism--the creationist theory of God's special creation of fixed species that Darwin refuted in The Origin of Species.  This form of creationism is not represented in Stump's book, although it was the most common form of biblical creationism before the publication of Darwin's Origin in 1859.

Against Ham, Hugh Ross (the old earth creationist) insists that the Bible clearly teaches that the six days of creation in Genesis 1 are not literal 24-hour days but "ages"--long expanses of time that correspond to the billions of years for the creation of the universe, the earth, and life that has been confirmed by modern science.  And yet, while disagreeing with Ham about dating, Ross agrees with Ham in reading the Genesis story literally.  So, for example, he agrees with Ham that the human species was originally created with God's creation of Adam and Eve; and he predicts that genetic models will eventually show an initial human ancestral population of 2.  The creation narrative in Genesis is "in perfect accord--both descriptively and chronologically--with the established scientific record" (83).  The Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature are in concord.

Ross believes that the evolutionary history of the universe and life show gaps that cannot be explained by purely natural evolutionary processes, because these gaps arise from God's miraculous intervention. For example, there is an unbridgeable gap between human beings and all other animals, because the creation of Adam and Eve was a miraculous work of the Creator.  Similarly, mass extinction and mass speciation events show God's interventions into natural history.

Unlike both Ham and Ross, Deborah Haarsma (the evolutionary creationist) does not see the creation story in Genesis as a literal history of nature's origins, and she does not see gaps in evolutionary history that require miraculous interventions by God to create what cannot arise by natural evolution.  She writes: "Evolutionary creation is the view that God created the universe, earth, and life over billions of years, and that the gradual process of evolution was crafted and governed by God to create the diversity of all life on earth. Thus, evolution is not a worldview in opposition to God but a natural mechanism by which God providentially achieves his purposes" (125).

Compared with the other three positions, Haarsma's evolutionary creation is closest to Darwin's idea of "dual causality": Darwin speaks of the laws of nature as manifested in evolution as "secondary causes," which leaves open the possibility of God's creative power acting through "primary causes" to create the original order of nature itself.  I have written about this here and here.

Haarsma has carefully chosen the term "evolutionary creation" as an alternative to the term "theistic evolution," because the later term often suggests a deism in which the divine First Cause lacks the personal and providential traits of the Biblical God.  Haarsma's Creator chooses to act through the evolutionary laws of nature rather than miraculous interventions, which distinguishes her position from that of Ham and Ross.  But her Creator does engage in those miraculous acts that are necessary for human salvation--such as the incarnation and resurrection of Christ.  Her Creator hears and answers prayers.  Her Creator really is the Biblical God and not just Meyer's Intelligent Designer.  (As I have indicated in another post, Darwin would have disagreed with Haarsma on this point, because he did not see any clear evidence that the Bible was a divine revelation.)

According to Haarsma, Genesis does not answer the how and when questions of science, but it does answer the who and why questions (131).  Much of the Genesis story repeats the creation stories of the ancient Near East that the Israelites would have known.  God accommodated his teaching to these beliefs.  He could have corrected this cosmology, Haarsma observes, but he chose not to do that.  God's only concern was to teach that there is only one God who is the sovereign creator of all, which departed from the ancient origin stories (128-30).  In this interpretation, Haarsma follows the lead of John Walton, who argues that the Bible was written first to the peoples living in the ancient Near East, and therefore we should not expect that the cosmological teachings should correspond with a modern scientific understanding. (I have written about this here.)

But as Ham points out, this "accuses God of using error to teach truth" (156).  If God had corrected the errors of ancient Near Eastern cosmology, wouldn't this have confirmed God's revelation as truth that was beyond human understanding prior to modern science?  If there is no correction of ancient cosmology, does this imply that this is not really a revelation of a truth beyond the human beliefs of that time?

Haarsma might respond that we can see this was a true revelation because it corrects ancient theology in teaching a monotheistic religion of a creator God that was new.  But if we're going to read the Bible within its cultural setting, then we might notice that parts of the Bible seem to accept the polytheistic idea that different peoples have different gods (for example Judges 11:24).  We might then wonder whether Yahweh was originally one of many gods who at some point was elevated to be the one universal and transcendent god of Israel, which is the argument of Thomas Romer in The Invention of God (Harvard, 2015).  So why isn't God a cultural invention?  To deny this, it would help to have a revelation in the Bible of cosmological truths that correct traditional cosmologies in ways that people of the ancient Near East could not have understood, but which might be confirmed by modern science.

To all of this, Stephen Meyer (the intelligent design theorist) responds by arguing that although he personally believes in biblical revelation, he sees that the case for an intelligent designer as an alternative to materialist natural science is best made on purely scientific grounds without any appeal to biblical authority.  He claims that the evidence of science based on our natural observations of the world point to the existence of an intelligent designer to explain the appearance of design in the natural world that cannot be explained plausibly by Darwinian evolutionary science.

I have argued in another post that Meyer's reasoning is dishonest and sophistical.

Here, I only want to make the point that the disagreement over origins among these four faithful Christians who have carefully studied both the Bible and science suggests that there has been no divine revelation that clearly resolves the debate among evangelical Christians over creation and evolution.

So what?  What difference does this make for orthodox believing Christians?  Sometimes the authors in this book say the debate over origins is only a "secondary issue" for Christians, because one can be a believing Christian without resolving this debate (44-45, 60).  But then Ham contends that the literal truth of Genesis 1-11 is the "foundation" of all the other doctrines of Christianity--it is "the foundation of the whole rest of the Bible" (18).  If this is so, then those who disagree with Ham's interpretation of Genesis are destroying Christianity.

Ham refers to the famous case of Anthony Flew, the British philosopher who argued for philosophic atheism until he was persuaded to accept the argument for intelligent  design, and he became a deist.  Ham observes that since Flew never accepted the clear revelation in the Bible of God as Creator and Jesus as Savior, he died "as a Christ-rejecting sinner who sadly will spend eternity in Hell" (210).  So those who fail to receive the correct revelation of Biblical creationism will go to Hell!  (My posts on Flew can be found herehere, and here.)

Even if they don't go to Hell, professors at Christian schools who don't receive the correct revelation of creationism might lose their jobs.  For example, the editor of Four Views--Jim Stump--was for many years a respected professor of philosophy at Bethel College in Indiana.  But then the College adopted this declaration as part of their statement of  faith: "We believe that the first man, Adam, was created by an immediate act of God and not by a process of evolution."  Since Stump is a proponent of evolutionary creation, who works for Haarsma's BioLogos, the organization promoting evolutionary creation, he believes that Adam was indeed created by God through a natural process of evolution.  Consequently, he was forced to resign from Bethel College.  (I have written about the Adam controversy here.)

So why are faithful Christians unable to reach any agreement about this question of creation, evolution, and ultimate origins?  If the revelation of God's teaching in the Bible or in nature about origins is untrustworthy or unclear, why should they believe that there has been any revelation at all?

It seems that the Holy Spirit failed them.


It is often claimed that a Darwinian science of human evolution denies the political theory of natural rights in the Declaration of Independence by denying the Declaration's appeal to God as the Creator who has endowed human beings with unalienable rights.  Darwin seemed to clearly deny this when he wrote: "Man in his arrogance thinks himself a great work, worthy of the interposition of a deity, more humble, and I believe true, to consider him created from animals" (1987, 300).  If human beings have been "created from animals," it might seem that they have not been specially created by God in His image and thus endowed with that moral dignity that sets them apart from other animals.

For this reason, William Jennings Bryan (1922, 1924) warned that Darwinian evolution was an assault on the American political theology of the Declaration, which was one of his reasons for joining the prosecution in the famous Scopes trial in 1925, where John Scopes, a public school teacher, was charged with teaching that human beings evolved from a lower animals, in violation of a Tennessee law prohibiting such teaching.

As an alternative to teaching Darwinian evolution, Bryan and his followers have argued for teaching "creation science" or "intelligent design theory."  Proponents of intelligent design have been motivated by their belief that Darwinian evolution promotes a culturally degrading materialism that denies the creationist theology that is foundational not only for American life but for Western civilization in general.  The Discovery Institute, the leading organization promoting intelligent design theory, made this point clear in 1998 in the founding document for its "Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture," which has a reproduction of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" painting on its cover, and which begins:
"The proposition that human beings are created in the image of God is one of the bedrock principles on which Western civilization was built.  Its influence can be detected in most, if not all, of the West's greatest achievements, including representative democracy, human rights, free enterprise, and progress in the arts and sciences."
Thus, the Darwinian denial of the creationist theology of the Declaration of Independence can be seen as a general denial of the whole idea of human rights.  Theorists of human rights like Michael Perry (1998, 2007) have contended that international norms of human rights must be founded on the principle of the sacredness of human life as created in God's image (the subject of a previous post).

Against my argument for "Darwinian liberalism," Adam Seagrave (2011) and many others (Dilley et al. 2013), including the Straussians, have insisted that the Lockean liberal conception of natural rights depends on Locke's creationist anthropology, which is contrary to Darwin's evolutionary science (the subject of posts here and here).

Similarly, Carl Becker in his classic study in 1922 of the Declaration of Independence concluded that modern Darwinian science had refuted the Declaration's recourse to "God or the Transcendent Idea." After all, Becker explained, Darwin had shown how all forms of life could be explained as the result of purely natural material causes:
"When so much the greater part of the universe showed itself amenable to the reign of a purely material natural law, it was difficult to suppose that man (a creature in many respects astonishingly like the higher forms of apes) could have been permitted to live under a special dispensation.  it was much simpler to assume one origin for all life and one law for all growth; simpler to assume that man was only the most highly organized of the creatures (the missing link would doubtless shortly be found), and to think of his history accordingly, as only a more subtly negotiated struggle for existence and survival" (Becker 1941, 274-75).
This dispute over whether Darwinism contradicts the theology of the Declaration depends on how one identifies the God of the Declaration. If one interprets the Declaration's deity as a transcendent creative agent working against the laws of nature in  miraculously endowing human beings with a supernatural soul, that would contradict the Darwinian account of natural human evolution.  But if one interprets the Declaration's deity as an immanent creative power working through the laws of nature for the emergent evolution of human beings, that would be compatible with Darwinian science.  In this case, we could see the appeal in the first sentence of the Declaration to "the laws of Nature and of Nature's God" as implying that God and Nature are two ways of talking about the same thing.  Nature's God is the God of the deists, the God of Spinoza, a way of talking about God without invoking the supernatural God.

One of the first of America's revolutionaries to declare his belief in "Nature's God" was Thomas Young.  In 1770, three years before he would become the instigator of the Boston Tea Party, Young responded to a sermon by the revivalist George Whitefield denouncing American Deists as Satanic atheists.  In the Boston Evening Post (August 27, 1770), Young proudly professed his deist faith in the God who could be known by reasoning about nature rather than from biblical revelation: "That the religion of Nature, more properly stiled the Religion of Nature's God, in latin call'd Deus, hence Deism, is truth, I now boldly defy thee to contest."

To better understand this "Religion of Nature's God," Young recommended "[Alexander] Pope's little Essay on Man, confessedly deduced from the inspiration of Lord Bolingbroke, and perhaps every sentence adopted by me."  Indeed, the first appearance of the term "Nature's God" in English was in Pope's Essay on Man, a philosophical poem published in 1734, where in explaining how "Virtue alone is Happiness below," he observes:
"Slave to no sect, who takes no private road,
"But looks thro' Nature, up to Nature's God" (4.331-32)
Echoing the monistic naturalism of Epicurus, Lucretius, and Spinoza, Pope speaks of Nature and God interchangeably, in denying sectarian religion in favor of a natural religion in which "true piety," as Lucretius declared, is not to bow before the gods, but to contemplate nature's wondrous order (On the Nature of Things, 5.1197-1203).

Pope's Essay on Man also shows the first published use of the phrase "science of Human Nature" (Pope 2016, lv, 4).

Pope's book was dedicated to Henry St. John, Viscount Bolingbroke (1678-1751), who became notorious for his posthumously published Philosophical Works that attacked Christianity and promoted an Epicurean and Spinozist atheism or natural religion.  "The law of nature is the law of God," he explained, and therefore the laws of the Bible that contradict nature cannot truly be God's laws.  As a young man, Thomas Jefferson copied this and many other passages from Bolingbroke into his Literary Commonplace Book (sec. 36).

In his private correspondence, Jefferson affirmed his Epicurean materialism: "I too am an Epicurean" (letter to William Short, October 31, 1819).  In his correspondence with John Adams, he rejected the "spiritualism" of traditional Christianity and defended a monistic conception of human nature in which mind is an activity of the physical brain.  (I have written about that here.)  He thought that Jesus was originally a great teacher of natural morality, but then his moral teaching was corrupted by a tradition of Christian miracle-working spiritualism.  He edited his own personal version of the New Testament in which he cut out all of the stories of miracles and of the divinity of Jesus.

Although Jefferson kept all of this private during his lifetime, his published writing--and particularly his Notes on the State of Virginia (written in 1781 and published in 1787)--provided enough evidence for him to be generally identified as an "infidel."  In the presidential election of 1800, ministers published sermons warning Christians not to vote for this "open infidel."  John Mitchell Mason (1991 [originally 1800]) quoted one of the most infamous passages in the Notes on Virginia: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others.  But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty Gods or no God.  It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg."  Mason identified this as a clear statement of infidelity or atheism, because it affirmed that a society could be founded in atheism, and that religion was not necessary for social order.

Remarkably, Mason said that many Christians in 1800 were saying that "there is no prospect of obtaining a real Christian, and we had better choose an infidel than a hypocrite" (1991, 1468).  His reply was to argue that it was better to vote for hypocrites like George Washington and John Adams--who hide their infidelity behind their professions of religion--than to vote for an open infidel like Jefferson, because at least hypocrites show public respect for religion.  The fact that the Constitution of the United States never mentions God makes it even more imperative, Mason observes, for Christians to elect either Christians or hypocrites rather than open infidels, if there is to be any chance of slowing America's decline into atheism.

But even if Jefferson was infected with the Epicurean infidelity of Lucretius, Spinoza, Bolingbroke, and Pope, one might assume that the political theology of the Declaration of Independence echoes the Christian creationism of John Locke.  But many of Locke's Christian critics--including Bishop Stillingfleet, Leibniz, and William Carroll--accused Locke of hiding his Epicurean and Spinozist infidelity behind his pretensions of orthodox Christianity.  Carroll argued that Locke had advanced a "double View, double Design, intended to fool the pious while promoting Spinozism."  After all, a careful reading of Locke shows his slippery language--sliding between "the laws of God," "the laws of Nature," or "the laws of God and Nature," and moving from "God has designed" to "Nature has designed"--so that his deity looks like Spinoza's: "God or Nature" (see The Second Treatise of Government, secs. 1, 4, 60, 66, 142, 195; Essay Concerning Human Understanding, 2.9.12, 2.10.3).  (For a meticulous account of how Epicurean naturalism was transmitted through Lucretius, Spinoza, and Locke to the American founders, see Matthew Stewart's book Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic.)

How one interprets the theology of the Declaration of Independence is connected with one's interpretation of its Lockean morality of natural rights.  A transcendent conception of the Declaration's deity will support a transcendent conception of its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon the supernatural authority of God's commands as revealed in the Bible.  Consequently, infidelity or atheism will deny that morality.  By contrast, an immanent conception of the Declaration's deity will support an immanent conception if its morality, so that its Lockean morality will depend upon human reason's grasp of a natural moral law known by human experience without any need for supernatural revelation.

The Declaration is open to both interpretations.  The openness to a transcendent deity was enhanced by the changes made to Jefferson's first draft.  In that first draft, "Nature's God" was Jefferson's only reference to a deity.  Later, other members of the Congress added three more references to deity: "they are endowed by their Creator" in the second sentence; "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intensions" in the penultimate sentence; and "with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence" in the last sentence.  God as Creator, as Supreme Judge, and as Providential Caregiver does suggest a divine agency above or beyond the natural world that might intervene miraculously in the natural world against natural law to serve His purposes, and thus enforcing a transcendent morality.  (On the drafting of the Declaration, see Becker's book.)

So, for example, as I indicated in my previous posts, some American charismatic evangelicals can appeal to "the protection of divine Providence" in their belief that God intervened in the presidential election of 2016 to give Donald Trump a miraculous victory in response to prayers from Christians asking for His aid.

But if one interprets "Nature's God" as the immanent creative power of nature itself, one could affirm a natural Lockean morality rooted in human nature and reason.  That was Jefferson's position in arguing for a natural moral sense that did not necessarily depend on believing in a transcendent God of the Bible who enforced morality with supernatural rewards and punishments.  Darwin agreed with this, and it has been reinforced by recent developments in the evolutionary psychology of morality.

When Jefferson and Adams resumed their correspondence in 1812, after it had broken off during their period of being political opponents, much of what they wrote over the next 15 years was about their hope that Nature's God of the scientific Enlightenment would finally prevail over the priestly superstition enforcing tyranny over the human mind.  In his letter of September 14, 1813, Adams wrote to Jefferson saying that he would be happy to hear that the British Parliament had passed a bill to repeal the provisions of the Toleration Act of 1689 that made it illegal to deny the Christian doctrine of the Trinity; and he declared:
"The human Understanding is a revelation from its Maker which can never be disputed or doubted.  There can be no Scepticism, Pyrrhonism or Incredulity or Infidelity here.  No Prophecies, no Miracles are necessary to prove this celestial communication.  This revelation has made it certain that  two and one make three; and that one is not three; nor can three be one.  We can never be so certain of any Prophecy, or the fulfillment of any Prophecy; or of any miracle, or the design of any miracle as We are, from the revelation of nature i.e. nature's God that two and two are equal to four.  Miracles or Prophecies might fright Us out of our Wits; might scare us to death; might induce Us to lie; to say that We believe that 2 and 2 make 5. But We should not believe it. We should know the contrary" (Cappon, 1987, p. 373).
Clearly then, Nature's God is not three (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but one with Nature itself; and Nature's God is known not by faith in miracles but by human understanding of the natural order of things.

Some of these points are elaborated in posts hereherehere, and here.


Here is the beginning of the second sentence in Thomas Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration of Independence:  "We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable."

Here is that same passage as it appears in the final version: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights."

Although the first version conveys the idea of human beings as created equal and deriving rights from that equal creation, the addition of "by their Creator" in the final version makes it clearer that the agent of creation is the divine Creator.

Here is the last sentence in the first edition of Charles Darwin's Origin of Species published in 1859: "There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed 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 second edition of this book, Darwin added the phrase "by the Creator" after the word "breathed."  Darwin's language here about creation through "breathing" echoes the language of the King James translation of Genesis 2:7--"And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul."  As in the revision of the Declaration, Darwin's addition of "the Creator" makes the implication clear that there's a divine agent at work in the origin of life.

In the Biblical story of Creation, there seems to be something special about God's creation of human beings, and that human specialness is emphasized by the Bible's declaration that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them" (Genesis 1:27).  There is also a suggestion of human specialness in the Declaration's claim that human beings are endowed by their Creator with rights.

In Darwin's text, however, the powers of life were originally breathed by the Creator "into a few forms or into one," implying that human beings were not specially created but rather evolved from lower forms of life.  And, in fact, Darwin explicitly rejects the "theory of special creation"--the theory that the Creator had to miraculously create each species of life separately--in affirming "the theory of natural selection"--Darwin's theory that all living species of life have naturally evolved over millions of years from one or a few primordial forms of life.

The exact dating of creation is not clear either in the Bible or in the Declaration.  "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).  But Genesis does not give us a date for "the beginning." God's acts of creation are said to be spread out over six days, and yet it's not clear whether these are meant to be literal 24-hour days.  In the seventeenth century, Bishop James Ussher tried to calculate the chronology of Biblical history, and he estimated that the "beginning" of creation was 4,004 years before the birth of Christ; so that the whole world was no older than 6,000 years.  But the Bible does not clearly state this.  And the Declaration takes no position on this dating.

Although it was impossible for Darwin to date the history of life precisely, he saw that the natural evolution of all forms of life would require at least hundreds of millions of years.  One of the achievements of geology in the first half of the nineteenth century was reaching a general agreement that the Earth was surely much older than 6,000 years.  Nevertheless, by the beginning of the twentieth centuries, there were some "young-Earth creationists" who defended Ussher's dating, although the "old-Earth creationists" were willing to concede that the geological evidence was against Ussher, and that the "days" of creation in Genesis should be interpreted as "ages" much longer than 24 hours.  William Jennings Bryan, for example, was an old-Earth creationist.

So is the Darwinian science of human evolution compatible with what the Declaration says about the creation of human beings by the Creator?  Well, it depends on what one means by "creation" and "the Creator."  As I have already indicated, there are different kinds of creationism, and while some kinds clearly contradict Darwin's science, some do not--as suggested by Darwin himself in his reference to "the Creator."  A Creator whose creative activity is always against the laws of nature denies Darwin's science.  But a Creator whose creative activity works through the laws of nature--who acts as Nature's God--is compatible with Darwin's science.

There are six kinds of creationism--the theory of special creation, young-Earth creationism, old-Earth creationism, intelligent-design creationism, evolutionary creationism, and Spinozistic creationism.  Spinozistic creationism is completely compatible with Darwinian science, and evolutionary creationism is largely so.

Most scientific creationists today concede that Darwin refuted the "theory of special creation"--the idea that the Creator had to miraculously create every plant and animal species separately.  The Bible speaks of God as creating the "kinds" of life, but these "kinds" are not necessarily all the "species" of life.  Some creation scientists claim that "created kinds" correspond not to "species" but to groups of plants or animals at a taxonomic level higher than species, perhaps at or near the taxonomic rank of family.  So, for example, Todd Wood concedes that Peter and Rosemary Grant have presented convincing evidence for the evolution of diverse species of "Darwin's finches" on the Galapagos Islands as adaptations to the environment of the Galapagos.  But still, Wood argues, all of these species of finches belong to a single "kind" created by God.

Wood also concedes that the human species might have evolved from ancestral primate species, so that human beings and apes might belong to some "kind" that was originally created by God with the genetic potential for evolving into all of the primate species.

Unlike the young-Earth creationists (like Wood), the old-Earth creationists (like Hugh Ross) concede that the universe is billions of years old, and so Ussher's dating of 6,000 years is false.  But over those billions of years of cosmic history, Ross argues, God had to miraculously intervene at critical points for supernatural creative activity that cannot be reduced to natural evolution.

The evolutionary creationists (or theistic evolutionists) like Francis Collins and Deborah Haarsma believe that God could have acted as First Cause in originally creating the general laws of nature, but then He could have allowed natural evolutionary history to unfold just as evolutionary scientists have explained it, without any need for God to miraculously disrupt the natural order of things.

Darwin introduces the idea of dual causality into The Origin of Species: God's establishment of general laws constitutes the primary causes of the universe, while the natural scientist studies the secondary causes that govern the observable world. (I have written about this herehere, and here.)

The signers of the Declaration of Independence were familiar with a similar conception of dual causality in Isaac Newton's version of deistic religion.  The universe is a "machine" governed by the mathematical laws of nature.  But God is the "Maker" of the machine.

This Newtonian conception of the "clockmaker God" creates a dilemma, however, for anyone who wants to see God as a transcendent being beyond the immanent order of nature.  As Gottfried Leibniz pointed out in his debate with Samuel Clark, either God must intervene regularly to rewind or repair the clock, which shows that God is an incompetent clockmaker; or the clock works fine all by itself, and God the clockmaker is indistinguishable from God the clock.  If it's the latter, then Newton's God is Spinoza's God, who is the same as Nature.

In one of the most influential statements of Lockean political philosophy in the eighteenth century--Cato's Letters--John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon resolved this debate in favor of Spinoza.  In their essay on how to dispel "superstitious fears" by recognizing that what appear to be miraculous events are probably works of natural causes, they argue:
"The works of Almighty God are as infinite as is his power to do them.  And 'tis paying greater deference to him, and having higher conceptions of his omnipotence, to suppose that he  saw all things which have been, are, or ever shall be, at one view, and formed the whole system of nature with such exquisite contrivance and infinite wisdom, as by its own energy and intrinsick power, to promote all the effects and operations which we daily see, feel, and admire; than to believe him to be often interposing to alter and amend his own work, which was undoubtedly perfect at first" (no. 77, Liberty Fund edition, 2:565).
This same Spinozistic idea of identifying God and Nature was adopted by Darwin.  After reading one of the first copies of The Origin of Species, Charles Kingsley--a prominent clergyman of the Church of England and a friend of Darwin--wrote a letter to Darwin, which included this remark:
"I have gradually learnt to see that it is just as noble a conception of Deity, to believe that he created primal forms capable of self development into all forms needful pro tempore & pro loco, as to believe that He required a fresh act of intervention to supply the lacunas which he himself had made."
Darwin wrote to John Murray, his publisher, that Kingsley's "capital sentence" should be inserted into the second edition of Origin, "in answer to anyone who may, as many will, say that my Book is irreligious."  This sentence was introduced into the concluding section of Origin as showing that there is "no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one" (Origin of Species, Modern Library/Random House, 1936, pp. 367-68).

But can the creation of human beings "in the image of God" arise by purely natural evolution without any miraculous intervention by God?  Pope John Paul II and Pope Francis--and Catholics generally--have embraced theistic evolution in conceding that Darwin's theory of evolution has been verified.  But they have also declared that the creation of the human soul requires an "ontological leap" through a miraculous divine act that transcends natural evolution.  (I have written about that here.)

Darwin suggests, however, that even the creation of the soul might be explained by natural evolution. Here is the last sentence of The Descent of Man:
"I have given the evidence to the best of my ability; and we must acknowledge, as it seems to me, that man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system--with all these exalted powers--Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin."
Darwin's reference to the "god-like intellect" of human beings suggests that there might be some truth in the biblical idea that human beings bear the image of God.  But still, Darwin argues, all of the "noble qualities" of humanity can be explained as products of a natural evolution from lower animals.

To support this conclusion, Darwin offered evidence of the anatomical, behavioral, and mental similarities between human beings and other animals.  But he also saw that human beings were unique in their capacities for language, self-conscious reflection, and the moral sense.  Now, recent research in evolutionary neuroscience allows us to explain the emergent evolution of the mind in the brain, which includes the human mind's capacity for moral judgment, which allows us to recognize our natural rights, such as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Jefferson foresaw this, because he studied some of the earliest neurological experiments showing how mental activity was correlated with the stimulation of the brain, which Jefferson took as evidence of how mind arises naturally from the material brain.  This came up in his correspondence with John Adams: "Why may not the mode of action called thought, have been given to a material organ of peculiar structure? as that of magnetism is to the Needle, or of elasticity to the spring by a particular manipulation of the steel?" (letter to Adams, March 14, 1820).  (I have written about this here.)

So, if I am right about this, two of the major arguments against Darwinian evolution made by American fundamentalists are unjustified.  There is no clear biblical revelation denying Darwinian evolution.  And there is no reason to believe that the Declaration of Independence requires a creationist theology that contradicts Darwinian science.


Becker, Carl. 1942. The Declaration of Independence: A Study in the History of  Political Ideas. New York: Random House.

Bryan, William Jennings. 1922. In His Image. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Bryan, William Jennings. 1924. Seven Questions in Dispute. New York: Fleming H. Revell.

Cappon, Lester J., ed. 1987. The Adams-Jefferson Letters. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Darwin, Charles. 1987. Charles Darwin's Notebooks, 1836-1844. Ed. Paul H. Barrett et al. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Dilley, Stephen, ed. 2013. Darwinian Evolution and Classical Liberalism: Theories in Tension. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.

Jefferson, Thomas. 1989. Jefferson's Literary Commonplace Book. Ed. Douglas L. Wilson. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Mason, John Mitchell. 1991 (orig. 1800). "The Voice of Warning to Christians." In Political Sermons of the American Founding Era, 1447-1476. Ed. Ellis Sandoz. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.

Miller, Jon D., Eugenie Scott, and Shinji Okamoto. 2006. "Public Acceptance of Evolution," Science 313: 765-766.

Miller, Jon D., et al. 2021. "Public Acceptance of Evolution in the United States, 1985-2020." Public Understanding of Science, 1-16.

Perry, Michael. 1998. The Idea of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Perry, Michael. 2007. Toward a Theory of Human Rights. New York: Oxford University Press.

Pope, Alexander. 2016. An Essay on Man. Edited and with an Introduction by Tom Jones. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Seagrave. S. Adam. 2011. "Darwin and the Declaration." Politics and the Life Sciences 30: 2-16.

Stewart, Matthew. 2014. Nature's God: The Heretical Origins of the American Republic. New York: Norton.

Stump, James B., ed.  2017. Four Views on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Tuesday, August 24, 2021

Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism: A Reply to Wiley, Price, and Sunshine

Conservatives need Charles Darwin.  

Explaining why that is so was the purpose of my article in the Fall 2010 issue of The Intercollegiate Review. My article was entitled "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism."  This was followed by John West's article criticizing my argument entitled "Darwin, Scientism, and the Misguided Quest for Darwinian Conservatism."  My article can be found online.  Some of the writing in this article came from blog posts herehere, and here.

Last week, the Theology Pugcast had a one-hour podcast discussion of my article.  The three discussants were C. R. Wiley (a pastor in Vancouver, Washington), Thomas Price (a professor at Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary), and Glenn Sunshine (Professor Emeritus of History at Central Connecticut State University).  (I am grateful to Clifford Bates for drawing my attention to this podcast.)

The three discussants reach a common conclusion: Arnhart is wrong because he disagrees with us.  They offer many assertions about how they are right, and I am wrong.  But they offer very little evidence or argumentation to prove their assertions.  Watch the video, if I am wrong, please correct me.  Notice how Price laughs at the beginning, as if it is ridiculous that anyone would disagree with them.

I will comment on nine points of disagreement.


Wiley begins by saying that he was shocked to see my article in The Intercollegiate Review, because while he generally agrees with the articles in IR, he disagrees fundamentally with my article.  When he saw the title of the article, he assumed it would criticize Darwinian Conservatism and support Metaphysical Conservatism; and so he was deeply disturbed to see that it actually defended Darwinian Conservatism.

At first, he seems to deny that there are any Darwinian conservatives, because after all conservatism must be anti-Darwinian.  But then he says that maybe there are some Darwinian conservatives, although he implies that they can't be real conservatives.

He is silent about my history of the incipient ideas of evolutionary conservatism beginning with David Hume, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, of how those ideas were picked up by Charles Darwin in his account of the evolution of morality, and of how those ideas were revived by conservatives like Friedrich Hayek and James Q. Wilson.

I set this empirical and evolutionary line of conservative thought against the transcendent and metaphysical conservatism of people like Russell Kirk and Richard Weaver.  Kirk said that the "first canon" of conservative thought was "belief that a divine intent rules society as well as conscience, forging an eternal chain of right and duty," and consequently "politics is the art of apprehending and applying the Justice which is above nature," which assumes "a transcendent moral order."  He connected this to "Burke's description of the state as a divinely ordained moral essence" and Burke's view of history as "the unfolding of Design."  According to Kirk, the primary enemy of this metaphysical conservatism was Darwinian science.  Similarly, Weaver insisted that a healthy cultural order required a "metaphysical dream of the world," so that people could imagine their cultural life as a "metaphysical community" fulfilling a cosmic purpose.  And like Kirk, Weaver worried that Darwin's theory of evolution denied this "metaphysical dream" of cosmic order by explaining human beings as products of a natural evolutionary process governed by material causes that were not directed to any cosmic purposes.

Against this metaphysical conservatism, Hayek objected to the "obscurantism" of a conservative attitude that rejected Darwin's theory of evolution as morally corrupting.  He elaborated his view of Burkean "Old Whig" liberalism as belonging to a British empiricist evolutionary tradition contrasted with a French rationalistic design tradition.  In the evolutionary tradition of Hume, Smith, and Burke, Hayek explained, "it was shown that an evident order which was not the product of a designing human intelligence need not therefore be ascribed to the design of a higher, supernatural intelligence, but that there was a third possibility--the emergence of order as the result of adaptive evolution."  Hayek suggested that Darwin's theory of biological evolution was derived from the theories of social evolution developed by the Scottish philosophers.

Notice that both sides of this debate appeal to Burke.  As I show in my article, one can see in Burke's writings the split between the metaphysical and evolutionary versions of conservatism.  On the one hand, Burke says that human morality must be grounded in a religious metaphysics of cosmic design; and he cites Plato's political theology of design (in Book 10 of Plato's Laws): the authority of human laws must be founded on a religious belief in cosmic moral order as part of a divinely designed universe in which the good are rewarded and the bad punished.  

On the other hand, Burke rejected Richard Price's religious metaphysics of history and the Christian Platonism of his moral philosophy.  Price argued against the moral naturalism of Hume and the Scottish moral sense philosophers, and he scorned the idea that morality was rooted in natural moral sentiments. He contended instead that moral knowledge was a rational activity of the mind in grasping the eternal and immutable metaphysical truths of God.  Against Price's metaphysical morality, Burke evoked those "natural feelings" and "moral sentiments" that show "the natural sense of right and wrong" and "the moral constitution of the heart" as the empirical foundation in human nature of moral experience.  Here he showed his agreement with the ideas of Hume and Smith, which would later be taken up by Darwin.

Early in his life, Burke had expressed his skepticism about metaphysical causes in his Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  He had explained that in looking for the "efficient cause" of sublimity and beauty, he did not pretend to explain the "ultimate cause," because he was pursuing a purely empirical inquiry into sense experience:

"That great chain of causes, which linking one to another even to the throne of God himself, can never be unraveled by any inquiry of ours.  When we go but one step beyond the immediately sensible qualities of things, we go out of our depths.  All we do after, is but a faint struggle, that shows we are in an element which does not belong to us."

I assume that Wiley, Price, and Sunshine would say that I am completely wrong about this history of conservative thought as split between empirical evolutionary ideas of natural morality and transcendent metaphysical ideas of cosmic moral order.  But I can't be sure because they are silent about all of this.


They do say a lot, however, in criticizing the title of my article.  "Darwinian Conservatism Versus Metaphysical Conservatism" implies that Darwinian conservatism is not metaphysical.  On the contrary, they say, my Darwinian naturalism is actually a metaphysics; and so the dispute here is between two different metaphysics.  This must be so because any fundamental view of reality must depend on some metaphysical first principles about the ultimate ground of all things.  A naturalistic metaphysics assumes that Nature is the ultimate ground of Being.  A theistic metaphysics assumes that God is the ultimate ground of Being. 

If we define metaphysics as the branch of philosophy concerned with the first principles of all things, then Darwinian naturalism might seem to be metaphysical.  But as I indicated in my article (pp. 22-23), I was using the word metaphysical in the sense of supernatural or transcendent, which is recognized in the Oxford English Dictionary, and in that sense Darwinian naturalism is not metaphysical.

Actually, I have argued that while Darwinian science, like all natural science, requires a methodological naturalism that allows for the possibility of a metaphysical theism, it does not require a metaphysical naturalism that denies metaphysical theism.  A methodological naturalism means that we must adopt as a methodological principle that all of our scientific explanations must be grounded in the laws of nature without any appeal to supernatural revelation.  But this methodological naturalism leaves open the possibility that as a matter of faith we might move beyond nature to nature's God as the First Cause of nature.  This is the basis for those scientists who have embraced theistic evolution or evolutionary creation--the idea that God created the Big Bang and the laws of nature that have allowed the evolutionary unfolding of cosmic history. 

In fact, Darwin himself was open to a theistic metaphysics, because as I have indicated in a previous post, he accepted the Thomistic principle of "dual causality" in distinguishing "secondary causes" from "primary causes." While God might by understood by faith as the First Cause of all things, the evolution of species occurred through the "secondary causes" of natural evolutionary laws, and consequently there was no need for God to miraculously intervene in nature to specially create each species.  Thus Darwin allowed for the theistic evolution that has been embraced by people like C. S. Lewis, Francis Collins, Deborah Haarsma, and Alvin Plantinga.  I have written about this in a previous post.

Darwin concluded--in both the Origin and Descent--that there was no necessary contradiction between his theory and religious belief. In the concluding chapter of the Origin, he declared: "I see no good reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of any one." He quoted a remark by the Reverend Charles Kingsley: "it is just as noble a conception of the Deity to believe that He created a few original forms capable of self-development into other and needful forms, as to believe that He required a fresh act of creation to supply the voids caused by the action of His laws."

His famous last sentence of the book evoked the image of the Creator as First Cause, borrowing language that echoes the Biblical book of Genesis: "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."

This opens the possibility of a theistic evolution for those who seek a reconciliation of religious belief and evolutionary science.

At some times in his life, Darwin identified himself as a theist.  At other times, particularly in his later years, he identified himself as a skeptic or agnostic.  But he always insisted that he was not an atheist.  In any case, he never believed that the Genesis story of Creation in six days was to be taken literally.  I have written about some of this here and here.

Nevertheless, the critical point for my argument is that Darwin could explain the evolution of morality and social order as a purely natural process.  He recognized that while religious belief was often important in the cultural evolution of morality, this moral evolution could be understood as a matter of natural law without any necessary appeal to a supernatural revelation.

Wiley, Price, and Sunshine repeatedly say that this naturalistic explanation of moral evolution must fail because nature isn't self-explanatory without God.  Nature must have its transcendent source in God.  Ultimately, we must ask: Why is there anything at all?  The only possible answer, they say, is God.  But then, of course, we must ask: Why is there a God?  And why is He the way he is?

Here we face the problem of ultimate explanation: all explanation depends on some ultimate reality that is unexplained.  All explanation presupposes the observable order of the world as the final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained.  To the question of why nature has the kind of order that it has, the only reasonable answer is that we must accept this as a brute fact of our experience.  That's just the way it is.

Why is there something rather than nothing?  Well, why not?  

There is nothing in our experience of the world that would make it likely, or even comprehensible, that something would have the power to create everything in the world out of nothing.  Indeed, we cannot even understand absolute nothingness, because we have no experience of absolute nothingness.  Therefore, if we are reasoning from our ordinary experience of the world, the existence of an omnipotent God who created everything out of nothing is highly improbable or even incomprehensible.

If we appeal to the existence of God as the ultimate cause of nature's order, we still cannot explain the ultimate cause of God.  Burke pointed to this problem in speaking of the futility of looking for the "ultimate cause."  It might seem very unlikely that a universe would exist uncaused, but it is just as unlikely that God would exist uncaused.  Since we have never directly observed God creating everything out of nothing, but every day we observe the causal regularities of nature, the existence of an uncaused nature is to the skeptical thinker far more probable than the existence of an uncaused God.

As Darwin said, "the mystery of the beginning of all things is insoluble by us."  Metaphysical conservatives like Wiley, Price, and Sunshine say the mystery is solved by believing in God as the Creator ex nihilo.  But that commits the fallacy of explaining a great mystery with an even greater mystery.

Moreover, it should be noted that the Bible never says that God created everything ex nihilo.  That "out of nothing" doctrine was imposed by some Christian theologians.  But the first two chapters of Genesis suggest that the Creator was working on some preexisting formless matter, which is not nothing!

Consequently, in our search for ultimate explanations, we must appeal either to nature (if we're a skeptic) or to God (if we're a believer) as the unexplained ground of all explanation.  Thus does the natural desire to understand lead us to this most fundamental of choices--nature or God, reason or revelation.

Darwin was a Socratic scientific philosopher who chose reason over revelation, but with the understanding that reason cannot refute revelation.

I have written many posts elaborating these points.  Some can be found herehereherehereherehere, here, and here.


At this point, we might wonder whether this metaphysical debate makes any difference for our moral and political life.  If I am right, it does make a difference, because metaphysical conservatism inclines towards theocracy.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine object to this by saying that a theocratic (or God-centered) metaphysics does not necessarily dictate a theocratic politics.  "We're all in a theocratic reality," Price asserts.  But this need not dictate theocratic politics, Sunshine says, if we see that God is interested in human liberty.

In my article, I pointed to some examples of metaphysical conservatives who support theocracy.  I noted that the Intercollegiate Review had published an article by Remi Brague with the title "Are Non-Theocratic Regimes Possible?"  His answer to the question was "No."  He argued that moral and political order is impossible without the theocratic appeal to the law of God as the metaphysical standard for all human action.  

I also noted Dinesh D'Sousa's book The Enemy at Home: The Cultural Left and Its Responsibility for 9/11, in which he tried to persuade American conservatives that "conservatives must move closer to the traditional Muslims."  Traditional Muslims believe that America's liberal morality will destroy their religion and their way of life.  American conservatives, D'Souza insisted, should admit that the Muslims are right.  America really is morally corrupt.  American conservatives should join with fundamentalist Muslims in fighting against secular morality and fighting for theocratic morality.

Wiley, Price, and Sunshine are silent about D'Sousa's book.  But Wiley asserts that I have distorted Brague, because what he calls theocracy does not mean theocratic politics.  After all, Wiley observes, some conservatives like Doug Wilson have argued for "theocratic libertarianism."

This is a confusing use of the word "theocracy" that departs from the root meaning of the word.  The English word "theocracy" is a translation of the Greek word theocratia that was coined by Josephus as a term for ancient Israel as ruled by the Mosaic laws.  The Oxford English Dictionary defines "theocracy" as 

"A form of government in which God (or a deity) is recognized as the king or immediate ruler, and his laws are taken as the statute-book of the kingdom, these laws being usually administered by a priestly order as his ministers and agents; hence (loosely) a system of government by a sacerdotal order, claiming a divine commission; also, a state so governed: esp. applied to the commonwealth of Israel from the exodus to the election of Saul as king."

This doesn't look like libertarianism to me.  On the contrary, it looks more like the theocratic regime sought by conservative Catholic integralists who argue that politics must order the lives of citizens to direct them to the eternal salvation of their souls, and for this the temporal power of government must be subordinated to the spiritual power of the Church.  Some integralists point to the Sacramental Kingdom of St. Louis IX in medieval France as their model.  This is a Christian version of Israel under the Mosaic law or of Plato's theocratic city in the Laws. 

This suggests to me that deciding whether a G0d-centered metaphysics requires a theocratic political regime will depend upon whether one is looking to the God of the Old Testament or the God of the New Testament.  As I have indicated in a previous post, Roger Williams was expelled from the Massachusetts Bay Colony for denouncing the Puritan rule there as a theocracy enforcing Mosaic law that was contrary to the New Testament, where the Christian churches were voluntary associations that did not persecute heretics or unbelievers.  In Rhode Island, he established a political order that tolerated all religions and even atheists.  This showed how God-centered Christians could reject the theocratic God of the Old Testament and embrace the Lockean liberal principles of toleration and religious liberty suggested in the New Testament.  One can see this, for example, in the Christian Lockean liberalism of C. S. Lewis.


In a Lockean liberal society with religious liberty, where people will not be persecuted for heresy, blasphemy, or atheism, some people will be guided by a religiously-informed cosmic teleology, while others will be guided by the immanent teleology that is part of our evolved human nature.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine say that evolutionary science cannot support any teleology.  Price says that I illicitly import formal and final causes into my reasoning.  But they assert this without responding to my argument that while the evolutionary explanation of morality cannot appeal to the cosmic teleology of the metaphysical conservatives, the evolutionary explanation does recognize the immanent teleology of living beings.  

Cosmic teleology is the metaphysical conception of all of nature as an organic whole in which all beings serve a cosmic purpose set by an intelligent designer or Creator.  By contrast, the immanent teleology of organic life is manifest in the goal-directed generation, structure, and activity of individual organisms.  Even if evolution by natural selection is not purposeful, it produces organic beings that are purposeful.  Plants and animals grow to maturity, and once grown, they act for ends set by the functional nature of the species.  Human beings act to satisfy the natural desires of their evolved human nature.

Darwin recognized the teleological character of his evolutionary science.  In an article in Nature, Asa Gray wrote: "let us recognize Darwin's great service to Natural Science in bringing back to it Teleology; so that instead of Morphology versus Teleology, we shall have Morphology wedded to Teleology."  In response to this, Darwin wrote to Gray (June 5, 1874): "What you say about Teleology pleases me especially and I do not think anyone else has ever noted that."  When Darwin read some of Aristotle's biological works, he saw that he and Aristotle were in agreement about biological teleology.  I have written about this.


If Darwin has a teleology, Sunshine suggests, it must be an immoral teleology of survival of the fittest leading to genocide.  This must be so because Darwinian evolution is driven by competition within the species.  He quotes this passage from Darwin's Descent of Man:  "At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate and replace throughout the world the savage races" (1871, I:201; 2004 [Penguin ed.], 183).

When Sunshine says that evolution is all about competition within the species, he ignores Darwin's insistence that the evolution of human morality arises from human sociability and sympathy (Descent of Man, I:70-106; 2004, 120-151).  It is true, however, that Darwin recognized tribal conflict and group selection: "It is no argument against savage man being a social animal, that the tribes inhabiting adjacent districts are almost always at war with each other; for the social instincts never extend to all the individuals of the same species" (I.85; 2004, 132).  Darwin thought that one of the "chief causes of the low morality of savages" was "the confinement of sympathy to the same tribe" (I.97; 2004, 143).  

Nevertheless, Darwin looked forward to the cultural evolution of morality towards a universal humanitarian sympathy: "As man advances in civilization, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all the members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him.  This point being reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races" (I:100-101; 2004, 147).

This cultural evolution of morality allows us to recognize the immorality of tribal warfare, such as that endorsed by the Old Testament.  Moses said that Yahweh told him to wage holy war in which the captured enemy towns would be put under a "curse of destruction," so that "thou shalt save alive nothing that breatheth" (Deuteronomy 20:10-18).  So in the holy war against the Midianites, the soldiers of Israel killed all of the adult men, but they saved the women and children as captives.  When Moses saw this, he was enraged.  He ordered them: "So kill all the male children and kill all the women who have ever slept with a man; but spare the lives of the young girls who have never slept with a man, and keep them for yourselves" (Numbers 31:7-20).  Our evolved moral sense allows us to see the evil in such tribal brutality.

But then what should we say about the passage quoted by Sunshine, where Darwin speaks of the "civilized races" exterminating the "savage races"?  We should notice, first of all, that unlike Moses Darwin did not sanctify this as commanded by God.  We should also notice that Darwin was reporting what he had observed during his trip around the world on the Beagle, and that he recognized the evil in such tribal cruelty.  As I have noted in a post on this, Darwin condemned the Europeans who were exterminating the indigenous people of South America, Australia, and New Zealand.  Even if the Europeans were "a little superior in civilization" and superior in military power, Darwin observed, they were "inferior in every moral virtue."

Thus did Darwin show how an evolved moral sense could support his moral condemnation of European tribal brutality.


And yet Wiley, Price, and Sunshine say that Darwin failed to see that his morality was derived not from natural human evolution but from his Christian culture.  Although Darwin was not a Christian, he still held onto a Christian morality.  Even if he thought he was an atheist, he was a Christian in his moral practice.  Because if he had really been an atheist, who believed that there was no God to institute moral law by divine command, then he would have believed that "If God is dead, everything is permitted," and he would have become a murderous psychopath like Dostoevsky's Raskolnikov.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine talk a lot about this point when they say that atheists like Richard Dawkins and Jurgen Habermas are actually "Christian atheists" insofar as they show the cultural influence of Christian morality.  

Wiley, Price, and Sunshine have picked up this idea from some remarks by Friedrich Nietzsche and Jordan Peterson's interpretation of those remarks.  They are very enamored of Peterson, and they say they want to have him appear in a Theology Pugcast podcast.

I have criticized this Nietzsche/Peterson/Dostoevsky idea that morality is impossible without the Christian belief in morality as created by Divine Command.  Some of my posts on this can be found herehere, and here.  On a related point, I have argued that the modern idea of universal human rights can be grounded in Darwinian biology without any need for religious beliefs (look herehere, and here).

In these posts, I have argued that Peterson's reasoning is silly.  The only reason we don't commit murder is because we believe that God commands us not to murder.  So if we believed that God was dead, we would commit murder.  Therefore, if we don't commit murder, our actions show that we are not atheists.  But then, eventually, as modern atheism becomes such a deeply felt belief that it becomes expressed in our actions--once we have consumed God's corpse, and there's nothing more to eat--we should expect that we will all become murderers.

If this were true, we would expect to see empirical historical evidence that religious belief is correlated with a low homicide rate, and declining religious belief is correlated with a high homicide rate.  But there is a lot of evidence for declining violence over the past centuries, with some of the steepest declines in the less religious countries. 

In fact, even Peterson cites Steven Pinker's Better Angels of Our Nature as supporting this conclusion: "The probability that a modern person, in a functional democratic country, will now kill or be killed is infinitesimally low compared to what it was in previous societies (and still is, in the unorganized and anarchic parts of the world)" (58).  Oddly, Peterson does not notice how this contradicts his prediction that the modern death of God must necessarily turn us all into murderous Raskolnikovs.

It's surprising to me that in all the commentary on Peterson that I have read, no one has pointed out this fundamental contradiction in his arguments.

Moreover, Peterson ignores all the problems with his Divine Command Theory of morality.  For example, what should a father do if God commands him to murder his son (Genesis 22)?  Is murder the right thing to do when God commands it?  Amazingly, even Thomas Aquinas says that murder is right if God commands it (ST, II-II, q. 64, a. 6, ad 1).  Would Wiley, Price, and Sunshine agree with this?


But having argued that a naturally evolved moral sense is a more reliable guide to morality than Divine Command, I know that Wiley, Price, and Sunshine would object by saying, as Wiley does, that Darwinian morality is crudely reductionist because the only moral ends are survival and reproduction.

Surely, however, survival and reproduction are important moral ends.  Whenever Moses has to give a reason for the people of Israel to obey his laws, he says that obeying the law will allow them to live and propagate themselves (Deuteronomy 4:1, 4:40, 5:29, 6:1-3, 24, 8:1, 11:8-9, 20, 22:7, 23:9-14, 25:15, 30:15-20).  The natural desires for life and parental care are human universals.  Do Wiley, Price, and Sunshine deny this?

Of course, survival and reproduction are only the minimal conditions of morality.  I argue that the natural desires for life and parental care are only two of 20 natural desires that constitute the natural standards for moral order.  Wiley, Price, and Sunshine are silent about this.


In all of my responses here to Wiley, Price, and Sunshine, I have assumed the validity of Darwinian evolutionary science in explaining human nature and human morality.  But they say that Alvin Plantinga has proven that a purely naturalistic science cannot claim any rational validity unless it accepts a metaphysical theism. 

Plantinga argues that the theistic doctrine of the human mind as created by God in His image provides the necessary support for the validity of human thought, including the validity of modern science. If we embrace Naturalism--the view that nothing exists except Nature, and so there is no God or nothing like God--we are caught in self-contradiction: if human thought originated not from a divine Mind but from the irrational causes of Nature, then we cannot trust our minds as reliable, and thus we cannot trust our belief in Naturalism. Naturalism destroys itself by destroying the rationality of believing in Naturalism, or anything else. Insofar as science--including evolutionary science--depends on the validity of human thought, and insofar as theism is the indispensable support for trusting in the validity of human thought, science is not only compatible with theism, science depends upon theism.

Remarkably, however, Wiley, Price, and Sunshine invoke Plantinga's argument without even mentioning, much less answering, the powerful criticisms of that argument.  It's as though they think they need not concern themselves with the criticisms, because Plantinga agrees with them, and therefore he must be right.

The weak link in Plantinga's argument for metaphysical naturalism as self-defeating is his assumption that adaptive behavior is completely unrelated to true belief. The evidence of evolutionary history suggests that evolution produces cognitive faculties that are reliable but fallible. The mental abilities of animals, including human beings, are fallible because evolution produces adaptations that are good enough but not perfect, and this results in the mental fallibility that is familiar to us.

But despite this fallibility, the mental faculties cannot be absolutely unreliable. Even Plantinga concedes (in his debate with Daniel Dennett) that in the evolution of animals, "adaptive behavior requires accurate indicators."  So, for example, a frog must have sensory equipment that allows him to accurately detect flies so that he can catch them with his tongue. Similarly, the immune system of the human body must accurately indicate the presence of foreign bodies and then accurately devise responses to destroy the invaders. But then Plantinga argues that these accurate indicators don't require true beliefs. It's not clear that the frog has any beliefs. And the human being is probably not even aware of what the immune system is doing exactly.

What this shows, of course, is that much of an animal's adaptive behavior through mental activity does not require conscious reasoning at all. But for those animals who do develop some capacity for conscious reasoning--and most preeminently human beings--the accuracy of this conscious reasoning will be important for adaptation. The highest mental capacities of human beings are so biologically expensive in terms of the investment of energy they consume that it is implausible that evolution would have produced them unless they improved the ability of human beings to track the truth about themselves and their environment. Again, this is going to be fallible, but it's implausible that human beings could be naturally evolved for being in a state of complete and perpetual delusion.

And yet that's exactly what Plantinga asks us to imagine--that we could have been naturally evolved for a state of complete and perpetual delusion. Having taken this step of absurd Cartesian skepticism, he then tells us that the only escape from such skepticism is to assume that God would never allow this to happen. But as always is the case for the Cartesian skeptic, this all depends on imagining scenarios that are utterly implausible and unsupported by even a shred of evidence.

Only those who find Cartesian skepticism plausible will find Plantinga's argument plausible.  Indeed, Plantinga's argument originated with Descartes.

For example, consider this possibility for human evolution suggested by Plantinga:

So suppose Paul is a prehistoric hominid; a hungry tiger approaches. Fleeing is perhaps the most appropriate behavior: . . . this behavior could be produced by a large number of different belief-desire pairs. . . .

Perhaps Paul very much likes the idea of being eaten, but when he sees a tiger, always runs off looking for a better prospect, because he thinks it unlikely that the tiger he sees will eat him. This will get his body parts in the right place so far as survival is concerned, without involving much by way of true belief. . . . Or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a large, friendly, cuddly pussycat and wants to pet it, but he also believes that the best way to pet it is to run away from it. . . . or perhaps he thinks the tiger is a regularly recurring illusion, and, hoping to keep his weight down, has formed the resolution to run a mile at top speed whenever presented with such an illusion; or perhaps he thinks he is about to take part in a sixteen-hundred-meter race, wants to win, and believes the appearance of the tiger is the starting signal; or perhaps . . . . Clearly there are any number of belief-cum-desire systems that equally fit a given bit of behavior.

Sunshine quotes from this passage about Paul the prehistoric hominid as an example of Plantinga's profound insight.

Well, yes, these weird stories are all logically possible, as modern philosophers like to say. But they are also utterly implausible, because there is no evidence that anything like this could have happened in human evolution. Plantinga's claim that there is no clear connection between adaptive behavior and true beliefs in evolutionary history depends on fantasies of his imagination unsupported by evidence. He has to do that, because if he actually looked at the evidence of human evolutionary history bearing upon the emergence of human mental faculties, he would be faced with evidence for the evolution of human cognitive capacities for exploring the world that are generally reliable, even if fallible.

He would also see evidence that human beings can use their fallible mental capacities to correct their mistakes. After all, the very capacity to recognize our fallibility presupposes our skill for reliable reasoning about ourselves and our world. There are good reasons to believe that this can be explained as an outcome of a natural evolutionary process in which divine intervention was not necessary.

I have written about Plantinga's argument hereherehere, and here.


One example of our evolved ability to use our fallible mental capacities to correct our moral mistakes is our ability to see that while slavery has been practiced for thousands of years, it has always been "a great crime," as Darwin called it (2004, 141-42).  And here using our evolved moral sense to correct our mistakes includes correcting the Bible's endorsement of slavery.  

I developed this argument in the last section of my Intercollegiate Review article.  Remarkably, however, Wiley began the Theology Pugcast podcast by saying that they would ignore this section of the article.  He offered no explanation for this except to say that I had "an ax to grind" in this section.

In this section of the article, I claimed that the contrast between metaphysical conservatism and evolutionary conservatism was illustrated in how they differ in their understanding of the moral debate over slavery.  Darwinian conservatism can recognize the immorality of slavery as contrary to our evolved moral sense.  Against this, my critics have argued that any moral condemnation of slavery must ultimately rest upon a religious metaphysics that sees slavery as contrary to God's law.

Hume, Smith, and Darwin saw slavery as a violation of the moral sentiments--particularly, those sentiments that enforce justice as reciprocity.  Slavery is a form of social parasitism, as can be seen in slavery among ants.  And since human slaves are not naturally adapted to their enslavement, they will resist their exploitation; and slaveholders will have to impose their rule over their slaves by force and fraud.  In the effort to justify slavery, slaveholders will espouse a fraudulent ideology of paternalism that claims that the slaves are naturally benefited by their enslavement.  Proslavery ideology in the American South asserted that black slaves were physically, morally, and intellectually inferior to whites in their biological nature, and so these black slaves were happier when they were enslaved to white masters.  One of the primary motivations for Darwin's writing of The Descent of Man was to refute this ideology of scientific racism by showing that all of the human races were members of the same human species with the same moral sense that condemned slavery as parasitic exploitation.

The critics of Darwinian conservatism have insisted, however, that a Darwinian account of morality cannot sustain a moral case against slavery, which requires a universal morality based upon the cosmic moral law of a religious metaphysics as taught by the Bible.  The problem with this reasoning is that the Bible supports slavery.

Metaphysical conservatives like Richard Weaver have admired the "older religiousness" in the American South before the Civil War, and they have recognized that part of the Southern religion was faith in the Bible as supporting slavery.  According to Weaver, slavery "is well recognized in the Old Testament, and it is not without endorsement in the New; indeed, a strict constructionism interpretation almost requires its defense."  Similarly, historian Mark Malvasi (writing in the conservative journal Modern Age) has seen the American South as the last bastion of the "Old Republic," which was founded on "a genuinely Christian slavery."

Malvasi identified the Reverend Frederick Ross's Slavery Ordained of God, published in 1857, as one of the best statements of the biblical justification for slavery.  Ross adhered to a divine command theory of morality.  Ross insisted that to look to natural standards of right and wrong independently of God's will was atheism.  (He condemned the "self-evident truths" of the Declaration of Independence as an expression of Thomas Jefferson's atheism.)  We know what is right and wrong only because, and to the extent that, we know whether God has declared it right or wrong.  And for this, we must turn to the Bible as God's revelation of His will.  Therefore, we cannot know whether slavery is right or wrong except by seeing what the Bible teaches about God's will as to slavery.

Ross noted that the Old Testament clearly endorsed slavery.  The ancient Israelites practiced it, and God commanded it.  Similarly, in the New Testament, the Christians accepted slavery as practiced by the ancient Romans.  Paul taught slaves to obey their masters, just as he taught children to obey their parents and wives to obey their husbands.

The dispute over the Bible's handling of the slavery issue divided the Christian churches in America before and during the Civil War.  Americans had looked to the Bible as the revelation of the sacred order of the universe that would resolve all moral disputes by the cosmic authority of God's law.  But in this greatest moral crisis in American history, the Bible failed to provide any clear answer in the dispute over slavery between North and South.  As Abraham Lincoln observed in his Second Inaugural Address, "Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other."

In such a situation, human beings must appeal to some natural moral sense like that espoused by Hume, Smith, and Darwin.  Darwinian conservatives can explain this moral sense as rooted in evolved human nature and as shaped by moral sentiments, moral traditions, and practical judgments.  Unlike the metaphysical conservatives, who claim that all social order must conform to some supernatural order of intelligent design or divine creation, evolutionary conservatives see social order as the product of ordinary human experience as guided by nature, custom, and prudence.

That's why conservatives need Charles Darwin.

I have written about the debate over slavery and the Bible here and here.

I have invited Wiley, Price, and Sunshine to write a response to this post.  If they do so, I will be happy to post it here.