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Darwin and the “New Atheists” 

Neil Thomas
Photo credit: Fronteiras do Pensamento [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

The somewhat superannuated 19th-century “conflict model” once used to define embattled evolutionary and religious claims to truth status has in our own time made an unheralded comeback in the writings of a diverse group of social commentators widely referred to as the “new atheists.”1 For much of the 20th century that older, conflict model, represented by the writings of the late Victorian era Andrew Dixon White2 and others, was modified in light of intellectual developments which came preponderantly to view science and religion as separate domains, each with its own sharply defined epistemological boundary.3 In the last few decades, however, some ideologically engaged scientific activists and commentators with erstwhile Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins at their head have seized the opportunity to weaponize Darwinism to push an atheist agenda against the backdrop of what they see as a dangerous uptick in global religious sentiment. In this and two subsequent posts I wish to explore how justified the group’s appropriation of Darwinian ideas is.

Darwin’s Doubts

First of all, there is surely some historical irony in the attempt to enlist Charles Darwin posthumously in defense of the atheist cause when he persistently resisted efforts to drag his name into a conflict which he felt to be none of his choosing. In his lifetime Darwin pointedly opposed efforts to instrumentalize his ideas in the cause of militant atheism, most signally when he declined to give Britain’s first openly atheist Member of Parliament, Charles Bradlaugh, his seal of approval. From that polite but firm refusal it may be inferred that Darwin, had he lived, would have given latter-day Bradlaughs similarly short shrift. As the later course of his scientific career demonstrated, Darwin’s preferred way was the quietist one of avoiding conflict and controversy, made manifest in his dedication of the latter decades of his life to the uncontroversial subject of barnacles. Yet Darwin’s temperamental desire for an uncontroversial life tells only a part of the story. The more substantive reason for his disinclination to join the contemporary ranks of Bradlaugh, Annie Besant, and other materialist proselytizers was that with older age came the grace to disavow any implicit claims to omniscience. At that stage of his life he felt duty-bound to candidly acknowledge that he was not completely convinced of his own theory.

Darwin had always believed that his grandfather’s writings on evolution had been excessively speculative. And in truth there was very little of substance that Erasmus was able to offer that distinguished his ideas from the first human being to speculate on evolution since written records began, namely, the Greek Anaximander in the sixth century BC — he having been a natural philosopher who commands respect even in our own day.4 Reading Erasmus’s Temple of Nature or Zoonomia one still encounters the same underlying narrative of organic life emerging from primordial slime and evolving and diversifying from an organic ground zero as that advanced by Anaximander and his follower Anaximenes.5 And like the Greeks, Erasmus advanced no empirical evidence that would allow his claims to be tested. Not surprisingly then, evolution was widely regarded before 1859 as the minority preoccupation of a group of eccentrics rather than as a key to unlocking the mysteries of human existence.

Fast forward to a century later and we find that Charles Darwin was acutely aware of the checks and balances set up by modern science in order to establish any given theory as a demonstrable fact. Realizing that his grandfather’s ideas did not meet modern standards of proof, he looked for a sounder causal foundation for the Erasmian contribution to evolution. This he was to find in the theory of natural selection which he derived and developed from the writings of Thomas Malthus. It was via Malthus that Darwin thought to have discovered a mechanism or vera causa to underpin his grandfather’s ideas. In time, however, he began to harbor doubts about what he had first confidently hoped would be his game-changer with the capacity to bring evolutionary thought into a new era of acceptance and public prestige.

In later decades of his life, however, Charles began to doubt whether his postulated theory of natural selection would have been enough on its own to effect all the extraordinary transmutations evidenced by the world’s profusion of widely different species. This thought even led him to flirt with Lamarckian ideas of evolution which he had previously scorned.6

The upshot of the author’s second thoughts was that the sixth edition of the Origin was very different from the 1859 version and in some cases quite inconsistent with the first iteration of his ideas.7 Most strikingly, there arose within him a growing tension concerning his public postulation of an evolutionary theory dependent on natural selection and his claim in older age to be a “Theist” (Darwin’s own capitalization).8 It therefore appears that the more valid historical parallel for the new atheists is not Charles himself but Charles’s grandfather. The preoccupation of the Darwin family with evolutionary speculation was something which grew by stages9 and it is at a much earlier stage that a less ambiguous correlation emerges between evolutionary thought and atheism. 

Atheists Old and New

What links Erasmus Darwin with the modern proponents of atheism is that the grandfather grew up against the background of that crypto-atheistical doctrine of deism according to which God had shrunk to the status of a deus absconditus or — to use the deprecatory contemporary cognomen — “absentee landlord.” Given such a backdrop of non-belief the question arises: Which came first in Erasmus’s thinking: the chicken or the egg? By which I mean: Was his desire to ponder possibilities of a purely material and naturalistic process of creation and evolution triggered by a deist conviction that, even if God had ever existed, he had now long since disappeared from human ken and was in that sense functionally irrelevant to human affairs? In other words, was his whole theory of evolution triggered by what is now called materialist confirmation bias (as one strongly suspects is the case of the new atheists)? For it is clear that if one has been convinced (or has convinced oneself) that there neither is nor can ever be evidence of divine direction in human affairs, then one is forced to speculate on some wholly material alternative, however illogical, impracticable, and physiologically improbable it might appear.

Next, “Erasmus Darwin and Credible Denial.”


  1. See The Four Horsemen: Dawkins, Dennet, Harris, Hitchens with a Foreword by Stephen Fry (London: Transworld/Penguin, 2019).
  2. A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (New York: Appleton, 1896).
  3. James Moore, The Post-Darwinian Controversies: A Study of the Protestant Struggle to Come to Terms with Darwin in Great Britain and America 1870-1900 (Cambridge: CUP, 1979). 
  4. See renowned quantum mechanics specialist Carlo Rovelli’s The First Scientist: Anaximander and his Legacy (Yardley PA: Westholme, 2011).
  5. See Erasmus Darwin, The Temple of Nature, facsimile of 1803 edition (Aldershot: Scolar Press, 1973), canto 1, ll. 295-315. 
  6. Erasmus Darwin may have been first to put forward the suggestion of life having emerged from the depths of the oceans and evolving into different species in response to a striving for perfection in different environments. This was the somewhat simplistic (and erroneous) conception of physiological adaptation by sheer will-power he shared with Denis Diderot and the French biologist, Lamarck. 
  7. See Peter J. Vorzimmer, Charles Darwin: The Years of Controversy: The Origin of Species and Its Critics 1859-1882 (London: London UP, 1972).
  8. As Neal C. Gillespie once pointed out, Darwin was successful in banishing God from his science but not from his worldview. See his Charles Darwin and the Problem of Creation (Chicago: Chicago UP, 1979).
  9. The absolute origin of the Darwin family’s abiding preoccupation can be traced as far back as the year 1719 when Erasmus Darwin’s father, Robert, discovered the fossilized skeleton of a large part of a plesiosaur, described in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of that same year and now on display in the Natural History Museum in London. For Erasmus the finding of an extinct organism was taken as proof that species over long ages must undergo quite radical morphological change, and this inference was to lead him to develop his theory of common descent for the world’s animal types. See Charles Darwin’s The Life of Erasmus Darwin, edited by Desmond King-Hele (Cambridge: CUP, 2003), Introduction, p. xiii. 

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.



absentee landlordAnaximanderAnaximenesAndrew Dixon WhiteAnnie BesantatheismbiologyCharles BradlaughCharles Darwinconflict mythdeus absconditusErasmus DarwinHistorymaterialismNew AtheistsOn the Origin of SpeciesParliamentRichard DawkinsTemple of NatureThomas MalthusZoonomia