(We are posting here an interesting review of a programme on religion and Darwin. Although we would have some doubts about some of the thgings raised here – including the question of memes – we feel that the review raises many interesting and important points. We welcome any comments on this article)
Did Darwin Kill God?
This title was borrowed from a documentary screened on BBC2
in May. Its presenter, clergyman Conor Cunningham of Nottingham
University, predictably said No, Darwin did not kill God.
His was the latest shot in the long war between Science and Religion. Darwin, it seems, opened
up a new front, but was it the decisive one? Is Science killing
God? Is Darwinism the final nail in the coffin?
In the beginning was the word, and the word was God.
is a very strange word. Unlike any
other word it seems to be Ok to use it to mean just about anything you want. If
I was to decide that from henceforth to me the word "turnip" means the sky and
all that’s in it, you would naturally think
I was mad. If I was to decide that the word God means the one who answers my
prayers, or the instigator of the big bang, or that statue over there, you
might give me a daily morning slot on Radio 4. You might even make a sympathetic documentary about me.
Origin Of Species
is an empty vessel into which human beings pour whatever they wish. In essence it
is the idea of an entity that transcends the physical world and is sustained by
faith. As an idea it can’t be killed,
but as a theory: as an explanation for the way things are, that is another
many people around 1859, the year of the publication of Darwin’s ‘Origin
of Species’, belief in God was based on the so-called ‘argument from
design.’ The idea was popularised by an English theologian called William
Paley. He posed the question: if you found a pocket
watch on the ground how would you know
it had been designed by someone with intelligence? You would know because of the intricacy of its parts and how
they work together to fulfil its
function. This is the feeling we have when we see life and nature, Paley
argued, this is how we know it has a
those whose belief rested on Paley’s argument Darwin
did kill God, if by this we mean
demonstrated how the complexity of life can arise naturally. Conor Cunningham’s
argument is that such people were never more than a minority. Paley’s idea just
happened to be strong in England
day. It had taken hold in a very
particular strand of English Protestantism.
idea of seeing the beauty of God in his creation is probably as old as
religion. What makes Paley’s
argument new is that it is an argument. It is a response to the rise of
Science; an attempt to prove God’s existence; an attempt to jump from the shaky ground of faith on to the safer ground of reason.
Paley’s argument survives today incidentally, rebranded as ‘Intelligent
it caught on in England
was no accident. England
was, at the time, the powerhouse of Science. That the pocket
watch analogy was popular in Darwin’s
time is also no accident. Victorian capitalism imagined itself ordered like clockwork according to God’s design, carrying its
engineering wonders along with its economic system, to the world.
Darwin’s theory of evolution
by natural selection is a God-free alternative. Darwinism and Religion got off
to a bad start. Then things got worse.
1925 teaching that humans had evolved from apes was illegal. A teacher called
John Scopes defied the law and was prosecuted. A bizarre Court case was held
that became centred around the argument between Creationists and Darwinians.
holds that the world and all the life that lives on it were made by God in six
days, in the order described in the first few chapters of the Bible. The
evidence for it is just that: that it is written in the Bible. Darwinism holds
that the world is at least millions of years old and that life evolved on it by
a process of random variation and natural selection. It has copious geological
data, fossils, anatomical and speciation evidence in its favour. It had quite a
lot even in 1925. It should have been an open and shut case.
big problem was that the case for the defence became associated with ‘Social
Darwinism’, the reactionary ideology based on the slogan ‘the survival of the
fittest.’ This is the theory that the capitalists are rich and powerful because
they are the fittest and the workers
are poor and oppressed because they are weak:
and so it should always be. It is contentious whether the chief lawyer
defending Scopes, Clarence Darrow, believed in this idea or not. What is clear
is that he did not put up a strong case against it.
prosecutor defending Creationism, William Jennings Bryant, was a Socialist, at
least in so far as he hated Social Darwinism and wanted a society of equality.
He was no fundamentalist and rejected literal interpretations of the Bible in
favour of figurative and allegorical interpretations. His was a moral case: it
was in defence of the poor and oppressed and it took
place in the midst of the long interwar capitalist crisis characterised by
Creationists won the case. The result held back
the teaching of evolution in American schools for decades. It gave confidence
to the fundamentalists who played on the fears and prejudices of the large,
rural middle class of the USA.
It contributed to the solid backbone
of support for US
capitalism that held back the
political development of the working
class in the most powerful country in the world.
in many parts of the world, and even in the USA, religion is seen as a doctrine
of resistance. It is clung to as a beacon of morality in a dark and frightening world. Capitalism is a world of
corruption, conspiracy, violence, raw power, naked
self-interest and the survival of the fittest.
people deny that Science and Religion are in conflict. What they really mean is
that Science and Religion don’t need to be in conflict: If they can be
compatible in your mind why can’t they be compatible in everyone’s?
and Religion are not compatible in the mind of Adnan Oktar
(aka Harun Yahya) whose brand of
fundamentalism threatens Turkey’s tentative
grip on secularism and civil rights. His campaign against evolutionary theory
has exposed the weakness of career
politicians who dance to the clerical tune. He boasts that he sent a copy of
his ‘Atlas of Creation’ to Tony Blair,
who he credits as a supporter. The position of the Tony Blair Faith Foundation isn’t clear on the subject.
problem is the one we began with: God means different things to different
people. For Oktar and others, God
must have an intelligence, which is like,
but much greater than, ours. If not how could he speak
to us?; God’s word must be true, since if you doubt his word that he is the
creator, how can you not doubt his laws too? If you doubt his laws where then
thrives whenever it holds a moral torch to capitalism. In power, its morality,
in the form of God’s unquestionable law, becomes a stick
to beat the masses. Its brutal imposition continues to blight the lives of
millions of people in the world, for example in Saudi
and it now threatens millions more in Pakistan.
recently, a girl of twelve was stoned to death for defying God’s law against
sex outside of marriage. She had been raped by a gang of God fearing men.
the conflict between Science and Religion will not make
it go away. It rages while moderates, like
Conor Cunningham, with their different definition of God, look on bemused. Cunningham says:"For
me God is the source of the gift of life, of all life. God is he in whom we
live, move and have our very existence. And this is what traditional
Christianity tells us: God is existence itself, he is the creator of time
believe in existence and time. If I decided God meant these things then I would
believe in God too. But I, like Oktar, can’t help thinking
that a true God would have intelligence and a sense of purpose, otherwise what
would be the point? He might as well be dead.
definition of God is also shared by prominent atheists like
Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.
They argue that Darwin
effectively killed God by showing
that all life could come about without intelligent design and without purpose.
calls them Ultra-Darwinists, who have abused Darwin’s idea. He is part of a strong current
of thought that wants to redraw the line of division so that it falls not
between Science and Religion, but between moderates, who see Science and
Religion as compatibility, and militants, who are intent on a fight.
demonstrate this compatibility the moderates are always trying to find a place
for God in the folds of scientific theory, for example, in the phenomenon of
convergent evolution. Cunningham, in his documentary, talked
about the recently discovered and barely explored fact that some birds have
independently evolved common song patterns. In a telling throwback to the argument from design he took this example of what evolutionary theorist call
‘convergence’ as a hint of the divine mystery.
that William Paley did not simply stumble upon his idea. He put forward the
argument from design in response to the challenge of rational Science. He was
trying to rescue God from the increasingly shaky
ground of faith. Whenever they step off this ground however, religious ideas
are swept away. They seek the
credibility of Science while looking
for gaps to sneak God in. True
Science however, not only accepts the facts but seeks
only for the facts.
Judging by the ubiquity of
religion there is little sign that God is dead. Why does it remain such a
powerful and pervasive idea?
Dawkins and Dennett argue that ideas spread and are
subject to selection just like
genes. They call ideas ‘memes’: partly because it sounds a bit like genes (to stress the analogy) and partly because
it looks a bit like ‘me, me’, which captures an important concept. A
meme is like a ‘copy-me’ program
that can spread like viruses do
through the internet. The meme, like
a program, only has to have the inclination and the means to copy itself. In
short, its survival does not depend on any quality besides its self-copying
Cunningham is unhappy with this, particularly the way that it explains why religion
is so widespread and successful. He says disdainfully: "all that matters is
which memes survive, and their survival has nothing to do with their truth."
is a common misconception. Our minds are like
the Islands of the Galapagos, each is an isolated
environment in which ideas, like
species, either thrive or go extinct. We harbour different memes because some
minds select ideas based on truth, while others select ideas based on comfort
idea of memes helps us to understand how ideas propagate. It shows us how
cultural phenomena, like fashions or
beliefs for example, are selected, not by design but by stickability. It tells us nothing about what makes some ideas come and go while others stick. In this way it is the same as Darwinian
evolution, which tells us, for example, that finches with long beaks evolved into a new species because they survived
on a particular island. If we want to know
why they survived on that island we would have to look
at its environment.
Think of your mind as if it was a living eco-system in
which ideas live, die and interact as wild creatures do in a forest. Like islands that produce strange creatures in
isolation, as Mauritius
gave us the Dodo, so humans go mad when cut off from the company of others. Most
of the time most of us are, whether we like
it or not, stuck with each other.
Our minds are in the midst of heavy traffic. We are less like tropical islands and more like Motorway service stations.
are thrown together by our unique way of producing and reproducing ourselves.
Only a few species of insects come close to the complex division of labour that
makes us what we are. Our social
environment is about getting a wage, making
a home, staying healthy, raising children, enjoying leisure, etc. It is, above
all, about economics. Ideas that serve our economic life; make it more productive, more cohesive, more
tolerable, will be selected.
human mind is a good environment for the God meme, but if our experience of the
social and physical environment shows anything it is that things do not stay
the same. The future will bring changes, like
the climatic changes that have driven on the evolution of species.
he is sometimes portrayed as the Anti-Christ, Marx said very little about
religion. His most famous lines are not nearly as vicious as his slanderous
detractors would like them to be:
"Religious distress is at the same time the expression of real distress
and the protest against real distress. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed
creature, the heart of a heartless world, just as it is the spirit of a
spiritless situation. It is the opium of the people."
is the real reason why God is not yet dead. Belief in God does not rest on
evidence but on faith, and this faith does not exist solely, or even primarily,
to explain the world. It exists for other purposes: because of the impotence of
being, the fear of death, comfort for the loss of loved ones, for the social
support provided by a church, etc. Who would begrudge the poor and oppressed
the little comforts belief in God brings?
people can look to religion in the
fight against oppression and exploitation. In the absence of an alternative,
people will accept ideas that are morally acceptable over those which have
material evidence in their favour. This was the case in the Scopes trial. In Tennessee in the 1920’s
human minds were more open to memes of resistance than memes of truth:
Creationism was preferable to ‘social Darwinism.’
theory of ‘Social Darwinism’ incidentally, has no legs to stand on. It simply
takes the status quo as indicative
of fitness and imposes a distorted morality on to it. In short, it says:
because we rule we ought to rule. The point of Darwinism however is to
take purpose and morality out of the
equation: whatever you think ought
to be the case is a class perspective and is as unscientific as believing God
made you on the Sixth day.
problem with religion is that alongside its comforts, it can also give people a
sense of belonging and identity, which can influence their politics. Religion
often creates a false alliance between the millions who seek comfort and the few who seek
power and privilege.
the world capitalist states, from the Christian USA to Muslim Somalia, sanction
and defend exploitation: they kill
in the name of God: they exercise class morality disguised as God’s morality.
holds that society is divided into antagonistic classes. Moral clashes are an
expression of this antagonism. By claiming a universal morality religion
invariably imposes the morality of one class upon another. A trail of
persecution, war and violence perpetrated in the name of God stretches way back into history. It can only finally be ended by a
classless society through the final victory of the working
propagandists of Capital try to scare people into thinking Socialism would mean
the suppression of religion. The opposite is the case. Most persecution of
religions happens at the hands of other religions. Capitalism has a long
history of fostering and profiting from it. A Socialist society would allow
absolute freedom of thought, and the right to hold and practice any religion.
does not, as the so-called Ultra-Darwinists may be accused of, challenge
religion without proposing something to be put in its place. A Socialist
society would allow Science to flourish as never before. It would end the
impotence, fear and the need for comforting illusions that characterises life
under capitalism. It would set the mind free. To continue Marx’s point:
The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is
required for their real happiness. The demand to give up the illusion about its
condition is the demand to give up a condition which needs illusions.
Darwin did not kill God, just because God means different things to
different people. His theory has helped to undermine faith. This is what
animates theologians, whether moderates who want to find a place for God in the
story, like Cunningham who sees God
in the ‘mystery’ of convergent evolution, or militants, who run scared back to creation myths and the idea of ‘intelligent
unleashed Social Darwinism: an ideology of raw class power. Likewise it has helped us shake
off the illusions that stand between the working
class and the realisation of its power. Freed from faith we can break the false alliances that help to maintain this
system of exploitation. In the Communist Manifesto Marx and Engels argued that
capitalism itself, with its unrelenting rationalisation of human relations,
eventually exposes class power in its raw form:
"uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all
earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and
venerable prejudices and
opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can
ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man
is at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life,
and his relations with his kind."