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Critiquing Intelligent Design in First Things, Stephen Meredith Seeks to Serve Two Masters

Feb2014_120-01-15-2014-101005.jpgMy response to Stephen Meredith’s article, "Looking for God in All the Wrong Places," in the February issue of First Things concludes by examining his flawed view of Charles Darwin’s theological position. (See my earlier post here.) Meredith insists that "Darwin’s rejection of religion was based mainly on a narrow definition of it: the dubious religious doctrine of a six-thousand-year-old earth and the constancy of species since creation." In fact, Darwin’s views on theism generally and Christianity specifically were much broader and pervasive than a mere rejection of the design argument of William Paley (1743-1805) or the 6,000-year-old earth of Archbishop Ussher (1581-1656).

It is true that Darwin often used Paley as his theological starting point, but it is his end point that matters. Consider this from his Autobiography: "The old argument from design in Nature, as given by Paley, which formerly seemed to me so conclusive, fails, now that the law of natural selection has been discovered. . . . There seems to be no more design in the variability of organic beings, and in the action of natural selection, than in the course which the wind blows." The essential question is, what did this randomness suggest to Darwin?

More than a glimpse is offered in his exchange with Ludwig B�chner (1824-1899) and Edward Aveling (1849-1898). It can be found in the latter’s publication, The Religious Views of Charles Darwin, which is the author’s detailed account of their meeting. It was published in 1883. The discussion occurred at Down House on September 28, 1881, after lunch. Darwin’s son Francis joined the three in conversation. Aveling indicates that it was Charles Darwin, not he or B�chner, who brought up religion. Darwin wanted to know why B�chner and Aveling called themselves atheists. They replied that they did not "commit the folly of god-denial" but instead "were Atheists because there was no evidence of deity, because the invention of a name was not an explanation of phenomena, because the whole of man’s knowledge was of a natural order, and only when ignorance closed in his onward path was the supernatural invoked."

As Aveling tells it, Darwin found himself corrected in his assumption that "we were deniers of god, and he found the order of thought that was ours differing in no essential from his own." Darwin’s objection was one of emphasis. "Is anything gained," he asked, "by trying to force these new ideas upon the mass of mankind? It is all very well for educated, cultured, and thoughtful people; but are the masses yet ripe for it?" So the issue was merely strategic; it was not a question of validity. All parties seemed to agree that "’Agnostic’ was but ‘Atheist’ writ respectable, and ‘Atheist’ was only "Agnostic’ writ aggressive."

So historian Maurice Mandelbaum is right in asserting that Charles Darwin’s "agnosticism" was "merely an undogmatic form of atheism" ("Darwin’s Religious Views," Journal of the History of Ideas). Darwin had written to Aveling on this topic before:

Though I am a strong advocate for free thought on all subjects, yet it appears to me (whether rightly or wrongly) that direct arguments against Christianity & theism produce hardly any effect on the public; & freedom of thought is best promoted by the gradual illumination of men’s minds, which follows from the advance of science. It has, therefore, been always my object to avoid writing on religion, & I have confined myself to science. I may, however, have been unduly biased by the pain which it would give some members of my family, if I aided in any way direct attacks on religion. [Letter #12757, dated October 13, 1880.]

Darwin’s quiet but firm scientism is obvious. Yet he was not wholly silent on the subject. As any reading of Descent of Man makes clear, for Darwin the concept of deity could be compared to the devotion of a dog to its master or a monkey to its keeper with "the idea of a universal and beneficent Creator" simply an invention of man, an outgrowth of social development and culture (pp. 80-83, 321). The point here is that Meredith is wrong to ascribe Darwin’s objection to religion to a "narrow definition" of the term. His objections ran deep and were in fundamental agreement with those of B�chner and Aveling.

This was a matter of no little embarrassment to his son Francis, who added a note trying to distance his father from their views. But even Francis had to admit that "Dr. Aveling gives quite fairly his impression of my father’s views" (The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, edited by Francis Darwin, Vol. 1, p. 286). Francis tried to rely upon the difference in emphasis as being of prime importance, an unconvincing pleading that amounts to sweeping their essential agreement under the rug.

Apparently, for Meredith, Darwin’s numinous language about the "grandeur" of nature, meant that he "derived a sense of telos — end, purpose, or, as Aristotle put it, the ‘why’ of a thing — in nature." Meredith adds, "Though denying any theological significance to teleology, Darwin was far from denying the existence of telos in such beauty." This odd statement hardly accords with Darwin’s own words on the subject. Darwin declared bluntly in his Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication: "For brevity sake I sometimes speak of natural selection as an intelligent power, . . . but I mean by nature only the aggregate action and product of many natural laws — and by laws only the ascertained sequence of events" (p. 7). He admitted in his autobiography that he lost all interest in music, art, poetry, and literature. "I retain some taste for fine scenery," he added, "but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did" (Darwin Online). This is a mighty flat "telos."

Meredith misses the point. It wasn’t the rejection of Paley’s design argument or the notion of a young earth that ultimately distressed Darwin, it was the implications of his theory that he now equated with science and "Truth" itself. As John C. Greene has observed:

Science, in discovering the secret of man’s lowly origin and the equally humble origin of his highest thoughts and aspirations, seemed to Darwin to have destroyed confidence in man’s reason and in his deepest intuitions when confronted with the ultimate questions of human existence. Darwin himself confessed to an "inward conviction" that the universe was not the result of chance. "But then," he added, "with me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind." . . . These were gloomy thoughts, and they were but little relieved by Darwin’s rather ambiguous belief in the progress of man. [p. 724]

This was the bitter pill of atheism masked with the thin gloss of agnosticism. The consequences of a life spent with methodological naturalism? Perhaps.

There are some who will say that none of this matters. Whatever Darwin’s personal feelings and beliefs were are irrelevant to the theory he formulated. But Darwin’s personal religious beliefs are quite germane to his brand of evolution, premised upon materialism and founded upon methodological naturalism. There are two points of extreme relevance here.

First, when Darwin told B�chner and Aveling that he didn’t leave Christianity until he was forty, he was either deceiving them or himself. Anyone who has read his private notebooks can see that he abandoned theism long before 1849. Ernst Mayr (1904-2005), a leading spokesman for Darwinian evolution, has stated with some accuracy:

It is apparent that Darwin lost his faith in the years 1836-39, much of it clearly prior to the reading of Malthus. In order not to hurt the feelings of his friends and of his wife, Darwin often used deistic language in his publications, but much in his Notebooks indicates that by this time he had become a "materialist" (more or less = atheist).

Many others agree (see Gertrude Himmelfarb, Howard Gruber, Stanley Jaki, Benjamin Wiker, and Michael Flannery). The point is that for all of Darwin’s insistence that he merely followed the evidence objectively wherever it might lead, facts suggest otherwise: his materialism actually preceded his theory by several years, a clear case of the metaphysical tail wagging the evolutionary dog.

This leads to the second key point. A theory like Darwin’s that purports to explain all of nature and of life itself cannot be separated from the metaphysical commitments of its founder. Theories such as this are in an important sense begotten not made. Darwin said as much himself in response to Alfred Russel Wallace’s call for an "Overruling Intelligence" to explain the complexity of human beings. Sensing trouble from his colleague, Darwin nervously wrote to Wallace: "I shall be intensely Curious to read the Quarterly: I hope you have not murdered too completely your own & my child" (Letter #6684, March 27, 1869). The word "child" is deeply meaningful here. C.S. Lewis has observed that there’s a difference between making and begetting. "When you beget," he writes, "you beget something of the same kind as yourself. A man begets babies, a beaver begets little beavers and a bird begets eggs which turn into little birds. A bird makes a nest, a beaver builds a dam, a man makes a wireless . . . ." (Mere Christianity, pp. 134-135). Darwin’s deep intellectual commitments to his theory as "his child" shows that he in the most meaningful sense of the term begot a materialistic theory of common descent hidebound to methodological naturalism. Darwin had begotten something of the same kind as himself. To suggest that his beliefs aren’t relevant to his theory simply ignores how those beliefs are inherent in the theory itself.

For all these reasons, Meredith’s downplaying of Darwin’s religious views as a mere rejection of the young earth design argument � la William Paley is seriously misleading. Meredith winds up serving as an apologist for methodological naturalism at the expense of viable theism. He isn’t the first to be so deluded. What apparently is true of God and money is also true of God and Darwinism: "No one can serve two masters" (Mattew 6:24).

Michael Flannery

Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Michael A. Flannery is professor emeritus of UAB Libraries, University of Alabama at Birmingham. He holds degrees in library science from the University of Kentucky and history from California State University, Dominguez Hills. He has written and taught extensively on the history of medicine and science. His most recent research interest has been on the co-discoverer of natural selection, Alfred Russel Wallace (1823-1913). He has edited Alfred Russel Wallace’s Theory of Intelligent Evolution: How Wallace’s World of Life Challenged Darwinism (Erasmus Press, 2008) and authored Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press, 2011). His research and work on Wallace continues.