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Michael Ruse

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Is Darwinism a Religion?

Posted: 07/21/11 09:16 AM ET

Evolution is promoted by its practitioners as more than mere science. Evolution is promulgated as an ideology, a secular religion -- a full-fledged alternative to Christianity, with meaning and morality. I am an ardent evolutionist and an ex-Christian, but I must admit that in this one complaint -- and Mr. Gish [Duane T. Gish the Creation Scientist] is but one of many to make it -- the literalists are absolutely right. Evolution is a religion. This was true of evolution in the beginning, and it is true of evolution still today.

Well, what quote of yours do you want to have on your gravestone?!

I think this paragraph, the introduction to a book review (for which I was never paid) in a Canadian newspaper some 10 or so years ago, has received more attention and more repetition (especially on the Internet) than anything else I have ever written. More even than my claim that morality is an illusion put in place by the genes to make us social animals. No matter that I qualified it then and have qualified it before and ever since. "Ruse recants! Evolution is a religion! Read all about it!" Or more accurately, don't read all about it, because then you might find that that is not quite all that I had to say.

Is evolution, Darwinian evolution in particular, a religion? To sound like the philosopher that I am, it all depends on what you mean by "religion." It is "Intro to Philosophy of Religion," Lecture 1 material. Religion is not something like a right-angled triangle. Either you have a right angle or you don't, and that is the end of the matter. Religion calls for what we in the trade call a "polythetic" definition. There is no one feature that is necessary, but having several is sufficient. Belief in God? Very important, but what about the Unitarians or the Buddhists? Having a priesthood? Also important, but what about the Quakers? Having rituals or ceremonies? Quakers again. And so on.

What this means is that some things are clearly religions, some not and some on the border. Roman Catholicism has a priesthood, a moral code, a belief in God and much more. It is paradigmatically a religion. (This does not mean that it is better, but that it is clear cut.) Being an undergraduate at Florida State University is not joining a religion, even though on Saturdays in the fall at the football stadium one might wonder. What about the Freemasons? Well, really, you pays your money and you takes your choice.

So, what about Darwinism? I don't think believing that Charles Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection (his version or today's version) commits you to religious belief. I think that if, as I myself would, you extend the scope of the theory to an understanding of knowledge acquisition and justification and the same for morality -- evolutionary epistemology and evolutionary ethics -- then it can act as a religion substitute or alternative. It gives you a world picture that some people, starting with me, find entirely satisfying. I can't answer all of the questions -- Why is there something rather than nothing? How does the conscious mind arise from the physical brain? Is there a purpose to it all? -- but I am not sure that anyone can answer these questions in a satisfactory manner and I certainly don't go to bed worrying about them.

So, if someone like Richard Dawkins indignantly protests that his passion about these sorts of things -- the passion that drives the "God Delusion" -- should not be taken as a religious passion, I am happy to accept that. I do nevertheless think that often Dawkins and company show the sociological characteristics of the religious. This comes across particularly in what Freud calls the narcissism of small differences, the hatred of those who are close to them but not quite close enough. Just as evangelicals can differ bitterly over the true meaning of the host, so the New Atheists loathe people like me who (like them) have no religious belief but who think that science as such does not refute religion.

Having conceded this, I do also think that there are and have been Darwinians who have made something of a religion -- call it a secular religion, if you like -- out of their science. At the time of Darwin himself, his great defender Thomas Henry Huxley (grandfather of the novelist Aldous Huxley) set out consciously to make of Darwinism a phenomenon that not only substituted for religion but that gave the same emotional satisfactions of religion. Like those who were to follow, Huxley did not see the world (as would I and Dawkins) as blind and meaningless, but rather as something with a direction -- a direction upwards as evolution led progressively to our species. As the Christian sees the world made for humans, so Huxley saw the world preparing for humans, and as the Christian sees moral action centered on humans so likewise Huxley saw moral action centered on humans.

Huxley gave what he himself called "lay sermons," and he worked hard to promote his world vision. In one of the most interesting moves, he and fellow workers even set about building churches -- cathedrals -- to their new religion. Except they called them "museums of natural history." These were places where, instead of going to a Christian cathedral on a Sunday morning, a family could go on a Sunday afternoon and seen magnificent panoramas of past life: all of those fossil dinosaurs being dug up in the American West and shipped east for all to see and admire. On the principle that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, natural history museum after museum was built in the style of a gothic cathedral or earlier. Gaze at the Norman architecture of the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and you could be in Durham, England.

As it happens, toward the end of his life, Thomas Henry Huxley began to doubt the worth of his philosophy. He did not return to God, but he began to doubt that evolution had all of the answers. But this has not stopped his successors, starting with another grandson, Julian Huxley. This younger Huxley even wrote a book called "Religion without Revelation," where he saw Darwinian evolution working progressively up to our species and where he saw nature itself giving directives about proper action -- action to preserve and help humankind. Today, the world's most distinguished Darwinian, Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University, likewise thinks that evolution progresses up to humans and speaks of his world picture as a "myth" that must replace conventional religions.

So the answer to the question "Is Darwinism a religion?" is varied, interesting and insightful. But I bet a million dollars that for the next 10 years it will be the first paragraph and only the first paragraph of this piece that will be quoted and requoted by those who are more interested in using my words for their own ends rather than for understanding what I am really trying to say.