Darwin and Atheism

02/15/2011 12:52 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Michael Ruse Professor of Philosophy, Florida State University

Trawling through the blogs on Darwin Day, February 12th, the 202nd anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, I came across a photograph of someone proudly flying an atheist flag -- white with a big red "A" -- and started to wonder just how appropriate this action was. Don't get me wrong. If someone wants to fly a flag saying "Bring Back George W. Bush," I am all for their right to do so. But it doesn't mean to say that I am terribly keen on it, and I am not sure that I am terribly keen on atheist flags on Darwin Day. (To be frank, I am not terribly keen on Darwin Day itself -- it is a bit too parallel to Christmas Day for my tastes. Celebrating the birth of the founder of our religion and that sort of thing.)

Let me say the following things. First, Charles Darwin himself would be embarrassed greatly by atheist flags associated with him, especially atheist flags flown in celebration of his birthday. He was an upper-middle-class, English gentleman, and one simply did not flaunt religion, for or against, in that sort of way. I think the Darwin family always found Thomas Henry Huxley a bit vulgar because of that. Certainly, on a day-to-day basis, Darwin's best friend was the local vicar. They may have disagreed, but they were fellow gentlemen and being rude in public about the beliefs of the other was simply not done. In later life, Darwin did not conceal his thinking but he was certainly not about to make a spectacle of it.

Second, Darwin never became an atheist. He started as a sincere member of the Church of England, accepting the thirty-nine articles, and intending himself to become a parson. His beliefs started to change and fade during the Beagle voyage, and for many years -- including the years of writing and publishing the Origin -- he was some kind of deist, accepting a God who set things in motion and who did not then interfere. Darwin became more and more alienated from Christianity, mainly (with many other Victorians) on theological grounds. He could not accept the doctrine of eternal punishment for non-believers. Later in life, certainly the last decade, Darwin became an agnostic. But that was the limit of his non-belief.

Third, there is no doubt that by the time of writing the Descent of Man, in 1871, Darwin was pretty unconvinced that any religion around today really would work or be true. He spends a lot of the Descent not just accepting morality but trying to show how it came about through natural selection, and why overall it is a good thing. Religion also gets a naturalistic explanation, but basically as a side-effect of the evolutionary process. Darwin likens religious belief to the mistakes that his dog made in thinking a parasol blowing in the wind is alive. Darwin stresses that this doesn't necessarily make religion false but he certainly leaves the impression that he doesn't rate it highly. I would say that his treatment of religion is about at the level of Dan Dennett in Breaking the Spell. (I am not now making a personal judgment on either Darwin or Dennett.)

Fourth, I personally agree with Richard Dawkins. After Darwin and only after Darwin was it possible to be an intellectually respectable atheist. Before Darwin the argument from design simply could not be ignored. After Darwin showed how, thanks to natural selection, you can get design-like effects without a designer, that was the end of the argument -- and attempts at revival by physicists through the so-called anthropic principle are doomed to failure. I don't think that showing that the argument from design doesn't work now means that one should be an atheist. But I do think it makes it possible to be one.

So I guess in the end I think that if someone wants to fly an atheist flag on Darwin's birthday -- I mean specifically in celebration of Darwin's birthday -- there is some reason why it is appropriate to do so. But I wouldn't, because I think the issues are more complex and should not be glossed over. Although I will say that if some evangelical calls to congratulate me on making a wise choice, I shall be hauling out a bed-sheet and that old, red, flannel nightgown and making my own flag. Ultimately, I am just not a gentleman like Charles Darwin.