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Darwin, Lyell, and Demythologization

Neil Thomas
Photo: Bust of Rudolf Bultmann, by Dbleicher (Diskussion), CC BY-SA 3.0 DE , via Wikimedia Commons.

The term demythologization is today most frequently associated with the mid 20th-century German theologian Rudolf Bultmann and his thesis that many mythological accretions of the Bible were in their literal form no longer credible or even comprehensible to people of the modern, scientific age. Such miraculous Biblical accounts as those concerning Noah’s Flood, Hell, the Virgin Birth, Jesus walking on water, et al. were, Bultmann urged, not be believed literally but interrogated as to their metaphorical or allegorical meanings: they were to be demythologized for the modern, scientific age.1 He offered the following gloss on the spatial/ ontological status of Heaven as an example of his approach:

According to mythological thinking, God has his domicile in heaven. What is the meaning of this statement? The meaning is quite clear. In a crude manner it expresses the idea that God is beyond the world, that He is transcendent.2

Yet although it fell to Bultmann to give lexical currency to the commonly referenced term (Entmythologisierung), he was very far from being the first to pursue the project of demythologization itself. The concept behind the term and the ways in which it was progressively rolled out in Western thinking have a considerably longer history to which a very substantial contribution was made by the scientist whose work Charles Darwin was to take as the methodological blueprint for his Origin of Species, namely Sir Charles Lyell. Both as a geologist and as a churchman Lyell was to find himself thrust involuntarily into the vanguard of the movement tending towards demythologization. 

From Geology to Biology

In his Principles of Geology (three volumes, 1830-3)3, Lyell set out to oppose what he took to be mythological accounts of the earth’s history found in the Old Testament, referred to collectively at the time under the name of (geological) Catastrophism. Adherents of that older theory favored what was known as the diluvial theory of the Biblical Flood and the related story of Noah’s Ark as related in the Old Testament. In the earlier decades of the 19th century the Catastrophist theory had been firmly fixed in most congregants’ minds as an accepted canonical narrative featuring a stirring geotheological drama of death and rebirth spanning the eons. Gigantic floods and other seismic events, proverbially known to this day as “disasters of Biblical proportions,” were believed to have brought a life-extinguishing end to intervening periods of calm and stasis. All life was supposed to have ended at these catastrophic points, only to be restored through renewed acts of divine creation. At each successive stage of renewal, life took on a more advanced form in a vertical movement culminating in the eventual emergence of mankind.

Because Catastrophism viewed the planet as having been molded by forces more powerful than any observable at the present day, it was commonly supposed that these forces must have had a supernatural causation and have been specifically set in train and guided by God himself. Lyell by contrast saw no need to invoke the mythical notion that each and every terrestrial catastrophe had been specially orchestrated by God. In fact, he thought such metaphysical speculations better banished in the name of the newly overhauled, empirical science of geology which he himself had been instrumental in establishing. Against what he judged to be a purely mythological schema,4 Lyell advanced the more prosaic, decidedly non-supernatural theory of “uniformitarianism” — meaning the non-divinely directed development of geological features over large tracts of deep time due to the largely inscrutable effects of terrestrial and subterranean pressures.

In this wholly naturalistic interpretation of the evidence, Lyell differed conspicuously from his geological predecessor, James Hutton. Hutton’s version of uniformitarianism, first advanced in his Theory of the Earth (1788), postulated an ultimately divine origin for nature’s designs. Conceiving of the terrestrial environment holistically as an interconnected whole in a way somewhat reminiscent of the modern Gaia hypothesis,5 Hutton had argued that the purpose of the earth was to maintain vegetable and animal life for the benefit of mankind. Animal life was dependent on plant life, plant life upon soil; soil originates through disintegration of solid rock, and so on.6 It was therefore inevitable that Lyell’s non-theistic approach to the subject, which noticeably advanced no aim or purpose for geological change, would assume revolutionary implications for many people’s faith.

Lyell as Darwin’s Inspiration 

On account of his well-known religious doubts Darwin was inclined to side not with Hutton but with Lyell’s strictly naturalistic interpretation of the geological record. The Lyellian analogy encouraged him to use the geologist’s logic to downplay the notion of supernatural “saltations” (that is, jumps, or individual creative acts) in the biological world. This led him to oppose the belief that God had actively intervened to create various animal species in a single leap. For him, speciation — the development of different animal-types — was not a matter of special creation but had occurred over an extensive period of truly geological time in a process where originally simple organisms had modulated biologically into more complex animal forms by that automatic process he chose to term natural selection.

Under Lyell’s influence Darwin came to see in biology and geology comparable patterns of gradualistic evolution resulting from random forces. So far so good, one might say. But serious disagreement between the two men arose when it came to the interpretation of their respective findings. That disagreement sprang not only from Lyell’s conviction that Darwin was misapplying the analogy of the inanimate sphere of geology to the infinitely more complex sphere of organic life, but also from the two men’s very different conceptions of how religious faith should be defined.

On Monday I will examine those respective ideas of faith.


  1. “This conception of the world we call mythological because it is different from the conception of the world which has been formed and developed by science since its inception in ancient Greece and which has been accepted by all modern men. In this modern conception of the world the cause-and-effect nexus is fundamental. Although modern physical theories take account of chance in the chain of cause and effect in subatomic phenomena, our daily living, purposes and actions are not affected. In any case, modern science does not believe that the course of nature can be interrupted or, so to speak, perforated, by supernatural powers.” Rudolf Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology (London: SCM Press, 1960), p. 15.
  2. Bultmann, Jesus Christ and Mythology, p. 20.
  3. Charles Lyell, Principles of Geology, edited by James Secord (London: Penguin, 1997).
  4. There are mythological correlatives in Hindu ideas of a recurring life cycle and in Norse ideas of death-and-rebirth — which might be taken as support for Lyell’s view of the mythical nature of suchlike narratives.
  5. Cf. Michael Ruse, The Gaia Hypothesis: Science on a Pagan Planet (Chicago: Chicago UP, 2013).
  6. For further discussion of this point see Sir Edward Bailey’s Charles Lyell (London: Thomas Nelson, 1962), p. 17.

Neil Thomas

Neil Thomas is a Reader Emeritus in the University of Durham, England and a longtime member of the British Rationalist Association. He studied Classical Studies and European Languages at the universities of Oxford, Munich and Cardiff before taking up his post in the German section of the School of European Languages and Literatures at Durham University in 1976. There his teaching involved a broad spectrum of specialisms including Germanic philology, medieval literature, the literature and philosophy of the Enlightenment and modern German history and literature. He also taught modules on the propagandist use of the German language used both by the Nazis and by the functionaries of the old German Democratic Republic. He published over 40 articles in a number of refereed journals and a half dozen single-authored books, the last of which were Reading the Nibelungenlied (1995), Diu Crone and the Medieval Arthurian Cycle (2002) and Wirnt von Gravenberg's 'Wigalois'. Intertextuality and Interpretation (2005). He also edited a number of volumes including Myth and its Legacy in European Literature (1996) and German Studies at the Millennium (1999). He was the British Brach President of the International Arthurian Society (2002-5) and remains a member of a number of learned societies.



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