Faith in Focus

Was Darwin Responsible for a Slide into Unbelief?



"Science has as yet done nothing but good. Willanyone tell me what harm it has ever done?"

Charles Kingsley

Late-Victorian England was a society searching forsolutions. Beset by profound problems and economic and socialupheaval, answers were needed. Stale tradition had failed. Supernaturalexcuses for natural phenomenon were becoming openly ridiculed,but without rational foundation. What was needed was a 'sensible'alternative that could explain life without God's intrusion. Anexplanation for man's existence. What they got was Darwinism.What they got was a new religion, one where man's raison d'êtrewas not an Adam created in the image of God, but a puddle-shapedamoeba. It sounded like a viable option. But was Darwinism soviable as to be responsible for the subsequent slide into unbelief?I suggest that though it wasn't solely responsible, it did playa central role in the undermining of religion by scientific naturalism.

To clarify the point of this article, a brief outline and explanationis required. Darwinism refers to the ideas proposed by CharlesDarwin in his published works. For the purpose of the article, I will only consider the period which runs from the 1860s, (theperiod immediately after the appearance of the Origin of theSpecies) to early this century. Essentially, this piece attemptsto answer the question, were the ideas of Darwin responsible forthe decline in belief in God, and Christianity, from the late-1800son?

Prior to the arrival of 'Origin of the Species' in November1859, a growing number of intellectuals had been suggesting unorthodoxscientific theories. Immanuel Kant, the great German philosopher,had proposed the theory of cosmic evolution. He had consideredapplying the same idea to the organic world, but shrank from it,fearing the inevitable furore. Almost simultaneously, Comte deBuffon questioned the age and structure of the earth. After conductinghis study, he concluded the earth was old and had been formedgradually. Kant's fear had been well justified, for de Buffonhad to soon recant as church pressure become too great. At theturn of the century, the two were joined by influential naturalistswho began querying the accepted order of things. Their queriesfound support in other disciplines such as geology. Come 1859and the groundwork had been laid to shake the foundation of thereligious world:

"the initial success of the Origin can be attributed toits perfect adaptation to the environment at the particular timeat which it appeared. The time was right, the ground had beenprepared in innumerable ways."

The seventeenth-century scientific revolution sparked by Copernicuswas the root of the nature of the new thought. Many of the practicalproblems facing England were being solved through scientific means.Public health campaigns, the drive for agricultural efficiencyand the necessity of meeting German industrial competition closelytied science to everyday life and the concerns of business. Sciencewas constantly taking on greater significance. It was really onlya matter of time before science would challenge Christianity forreligious supremacy.

Darwin's theories as expounded primarily in 'Origin of theSpecies' and 'The Descent of Man', hit like a T-rexplaying hopscotch in an amoeba colony. Though the reaction wasvery mixed, few were dispassionate. Some rejected it outrightas heretical such as the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce.Others accepted it with equal ferocity, some of whom would furtherthe Darwinist cause almost more than Darwin himself. Men suchas Thomas Huxley, Darwin's notorious 'bulldog', and Herbert Spencer.Yet others didn't know what to think and left the decision-makingto more interested minds. Whatever Joe Bloe thought of Darwin'stheories, almost all would have agreed it was exciting.

The force of Darwin's message was intensified by the impeccableaccuracy found in the detailing of his evidence. He hadn't justproposed something heretical. It was a radical proposal with apparentsubstance and empirical data to endorse it. His case seemed formidable.

At first, many saw the debate between Darwinism and the religiousestablishment as a straightforward battle between progressivetheory and traditional theological doctrine. In 1860, Huxley cameface to face with the Bishop of Oxford. The confrontation becamelegendary, exemplifying this perceived struggle. Many saw Huxley'svictory over Wilberforce as the emancipation of science from theshackles of oppressive religion. One exchange between the twotruly resounded throughout England and represented the blow opponentsof Darwinism were suffering:

"Referring to the ideas of Darwin, who was absent on accountof illness, he (Wilberforce) congratulated himself in apublic speech that he was not descended from a monkey. The replycame from Huxley, who said in substance: "If I had to choose,I would prefer to be a descendant of a humble monkey rather thanof a man who employs his knowledge and eloquence in misrepresentingthose who are wearing out their lives in the search for truth."

This failure of religious opponents to Darwinism to crush thetheory and its disciples had a profound impact upon later developments.Competent opposition to Darwin was either shy or non-existent.As such, the public credibility of Darwinism became ever greater.Further damage was caused by the split amongst church leaders,some of whom actively supported Darwin and others who declaredhim a heretic. What was the public to believe? While the intellectual'sarguments echoed in academic chambers, the masses were left tobelieve whoever made the most effort in convincing them. It isquite possible that without Huxley, Darwinism would never havehad the same effect upon society:

"In the course of the 1860s, the efforts of Huxley andother early supporters were enough to bring about a revolutionleading to the general acceptance of evolutionism. From an attitudeof hostility, or at best of 'wait and see', the majority of biologistswere converted to open support for the basic idea that new speciesoriginated from old ones by a process of transmutation. The 'Originof the Species' had clearly played a major role in precipitatingthis change, and many volutionists chose to call themselves 'Darwinians'or 'Darwinists' in acknowledgment of the fact that Darwin had led them to confront this new area of biology."

Huxley's almost fanatical zeal in promoting the cause of evolutioncould have only one outcome. Had the anti-evolutionist camp matchedhis zeal and ferocity in a conclusive and authoritative exposureof Darwinism, it is doubtful it would have gained as much support.However, there was no such opposition. The evolutionary movementcontinued to make large inroads, first into the scientific andthen into other academic communities. Then, too, followed thetrickle-down from these circles to the masses.

Within the church, acceptance, or at least accommodation, of Darwinismwas becoming widespread. The belief was growing that the Biblewas really an allegory containing good morals spiced with inspirationaltales of great men and women. One could pick and choose what toaccept or discard from the Good Book. This was nothing less thana turning down Unbelief Alley. Scientific naturalism (with Darwinismat its centre) was the signpost directing the traffic. Peoplewere beginning to put their faith into an explanation of creationrather than the Being who created it all. The highpoint of religiousacceptance (at least in the Church of England) of evolution camein 1896 when Frederick Temple, Headmaster of Rugby, a well-knownsupporter of evolution and the scientific method, was appointedArchbishop of Canterbury. He and F. R. Tennant later wrote variousworks attempting to completely re-explain Christianity in evolutionaryterms.

Darwinism's effect upon Victorian society can also be traced throughthe literature of the period. Following the appearance of theOrigin in 1859, popular literature as well as criticalessays and poetry began to question the established order of society.There were challenges to the infallibility of the church. Explorationof deviations became more common and the darker side of early-Victoriantimes was being highlighted more often. Charles Dickens pokedfun at Victorian conceit and smugness as represented by Mr Podsnapin Our Mutual Friend. John Ruskin and Matthew Arnold questionedmuch of the pride and prejudice of the age. Essays and Reviews,a review of fundamental religious questions by a number of liberalthinkers caused huge controversy in 1860. The mood was definitelyshifting. It was no coincidence that such a mood swing came sosoon after Darwin's works were published and had achieved a significantlevel of acceptance. Huxley, too, noted the changing climate:

"Darwin's disciple, Thomas Huxley, an influential popularizerof science had noted during the 1870s that everything was in question- opinions, institutions and conventions - and the questioningthereafter never stopped . . . The writers of the last decadesof the 19th century included iconoclasts like George Bernard Shawand deviants like Oscar Wilde. For both, as for many others likethem, all that was established was now suspect. Some commentatorswrote of a general revolt against the accepted canons . . ."

Wordsmiths weren't the only ones getting in on the Darwinist act,so were many political, social and even economic theorists. KarlMarx and Adam Smith both adapted Darwin's theories of survivalof the fittest (adopted later by Hitler and other tyrannical Frankensteins)and natural selection to their socio-political and economic concepts.Others recognised in the survival of the fittest theory, a rationalexplanation for social hierarchies and the conflict inherent inand between societies:

"in England and other countries, Darwin was quoted bysocialists in support of socialism: if the struggle for existenceled to the survival of the fittest or the supremacy of the superior,then all must start out with equal opportunities."

How does this relate to a slide into belief? This adaption ofDarwin's ideas to these various fields of thought doesn't constitutea decline in belief in God does it? Yes it does. The key pointto recognise here, is that no longer was man's mind looking toGod for explanations, but to man and his earthly environment.The outlook was becoming humanistic. In all spheres of life, Godwas slowly being eliminated from the picture until He became anobject of nostalgic sentimentality. The sweet little bubby ina manger. Unbelief was the only possible result.

To illustrate what happened and Darwin's role, imagine societyas a sheet of paper. Iron filings are scattered across it. Eachfiling represents a viewpoint which might question accepted beliefsand/or challenge established Christianity. These filings mightbe clustered into disciplinary and/or cultural groups such asgeologists, biologists, philosophers, political theorists, theologians,socialists, poets etc. Before 1859 they remained scattered, lackinga common point of reference, or foundation. They required a rationalexplanation outside of the Bible.

November 1859 witnessed the arrival of a magnet for the filings.Origin gave the Minds what they needed. In the decadesthat followed, filings jumped onto the magnetic bobsled and slidtheir way down towards a humanistic outlook on life. Each groupincorporated in their ideas something from Darwinism. Anthropologistssaw survival of the fittest and natural selection as the explanationfor 'superior' races. Socialists saw society as an organism. Laissez-faireeconomists used the survival of the fittest concept as a methodof operating the economy most efficiently.

Darwin in his Beagle had sailed away with the imaginationsof millions who were disenchanted with traditional religious institutions.By the time his theories came into port, society at large wasalready on the docks waiting for the something tangible to freethem from what they saw as religious oppression. The church hadfailed. Economic collapse, social problems brought on by industrialisationand a belief in science's potential to solve all, had driven societyto a point where they were ready to accept beliefs outside ofChristianity. It was Darwin who obliged them.

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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / gmilne@ihug.co.nz / revisedOctober 1998 / Copyright 1998