Is Evolution a Secular Religion?

Is Evolution a Secular Religion?

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Does God have a sense of humour?  It is in fact an interesting theological point.  We usually think that a person with a sense of humour is better than one without – indeed, to say of Jaques in As You Like that “he is pretty humourless” is to say that Jaques lacks something which makes for a full human personality.  Yet, so often humour requires that one pick on the weaknesses or foibles or misfortunes of others (the Bill and Monica type jokes) or the slightly off-colour (the Bill and Monica type jokes).  Shakespeare’s audiencewould have appreciated that melancholic Jaques’s name was that used for the privy (still called the “jakes” in parts of Britain when I was a kid).  But can one really imagine God telling the Archangel Michael a joke about the rabbi, the priest, and the parson?  Nor does the martyrdom of the saints seem much of a giggle.  So, on the one hand, if God has all perfections then a sense of humour seems to be required, and yet, on the other hand, if God has all perfections then a sense of humour seems to be precluded.

Yet when I learnt that Phillip Johnson was born just three days before me – he on June 18 and I on June 21, 1940 – then I did suspect that sometimes a wry smile passes across God’s face.  Phillip Johnson, I should explain, is the scourge of the Darwinians.  Trained as a lawyer, he has taken on evolution and its acolytes with true nineteenth-century vigour.  His Darwin on Trial has the old man tried, convicted, and led away in chains well before you reach the bibliography.  If Thomas Henry Huxley was Darwin’s bulldog, then Johnson is Creationism’s terrier – always snarling at the heels and regarding kicks and curses as friendly invitations to further combat.  Michael Ruse, I should also explain, is the Darwinian’s Darwinian.  I see adaptation everywhere and natural selection is its only cause.  I look upon Richard Dawkins as a bit of a wimp, especially when turning to humans he starts spouting silly nonsense about memes and such things.  Give me a good honest selfish gene and a struggle for existence any day.

If ever there was a proof of the existence of the Big Fellow in the Sky, it is the nigh instantaneous appearance of Johnson and Ruse.  We are as teleologically designed for each other as bacon and eggs and fish and chips.  He hates Darwinism with a passion and I love it with no less passion, and we both have a terrific amount of fun taking each other on.  More than this, apparently we give others fun also.  About a year ago, Johnson, I, and Michael Behe (anti-evolutionist author of Darwin’s Black Box) made a talk-show programme, which was so successful that the producer picked up the trimmings from the studio floor and made a second helping!  (Incidentally, at the risk of simply being a self advertisement, these two half-hour programmes are just the best introduction I know to the whole evolution/Creation debate.  Funny, informative, and deadly serious.  And I can tell you from experience that they are terrific for class-room use.  Details on their availability are to be found at the end of this column.)

 Johnson and I are having a whale of a time: non-stop showing off.  Do we ever learn anything from each other?  I cannot answer for Phil – at least, I can answer and it would not be very polite!  – but I do know that the Johnsonians think that I have learnt and that this represents one of the great triumphs of  the evolution/Creation controversy.  I refer to “The Great Ruse Recantation at the AAAS.”  As you will know, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has an annual meeting with public symposia, and several years ago (early 1990s) I was invited to participate in a symposium on Creationism and the threat to evolution.  Coming at the end of a three-hour symposium, nursing a hangover from a night spent well but not wisely, listening to one after another of my evolutionism friends declaim the iniquities of Creationism and the pure virtues of evolution, something within me snapped.  To the horror of Eugenie Scott (of the National Center for Science Education) who had organized the session, instead of joining in the hymn of praise I switched sides somewhat and – using the kinds of examples and arguments I used in my recent Metanexus review of Ed Wilson’s Consilience – I castigated us evolutionists for our hypocrisy.  I pointed out that religious though the Creationists undoubtedly are, anyone who thinks that evolutionists are not likewise religious — and right in the middle of their evolutionism — is very naïve, or self-deceiving, or dishonest indeed.

My recantation, if such it be, was immediately taken up, transcribed, given a crowing editorial by Johnson, and sent out across the Net – there for all to see.  From that day on, I am cited — more with pride than with contempt — as the evolutionist who was forced to see the error of his ways by the logic and truth of Darwinism’s critics.  Score one for the other side!  Even my dear friend and former student, Jitse Van der Meer – a gentler soul than which it cannot be imaged – could not resist a dig in his recent very kind Metanexus review of my Monad to Man [Harvard University Press, 1996].

Now let me say that, large though my ego may be, I am never too proud to take instruction and advice from any source and any quarter.  One’s critics are far more use to an intellectual than one’s friends.  What I need, what we all need, is opposition not agreement.  One of the wisest things that my father ever said to me was that the person in the majority was the person in the wrong, so if it was indeed the influence of Phil Johnson – who argues with every breath that Darwinism is not true science but a secular religion – who finally pushed me over the edge when I found myself on a panel with one contributor after another preaching the virtues of Darwinism, then let me be the first to thank him publicly and openly.

As it happens, I am inclined to think that things are a little more complex than this, good story though it may be.  Like many of my generation, I grew up thinking that science is the way, the truth, and the life – and Karl Popper is its prophet, to mix up metaphors.  I thought that there is a real world out there, that science’s job is to map this world, and by george it does a pretty good job at it.  Then in the 1960s, along came Thomas Kuhn with his Structure of Scientific Revolutions, and nothing was ever quite as simple after.  Themain thing that Kuhn did for me, as he did for others, was to send me scurrying to the real science and its history.  As one who was already interested in the conceptual nature of biology, that meant going to Darwin and the Origin of Species, and the rest (as they say) really is history.

Or at least, for me it is history being used to try to understand the nature of science – past, present, and future.  I will be sharing some of my discoveries and insights (if I might somewhat pretentiously so term them) with you in future columns.  But here and now let me share with you my discovery – one which shocked me deeply and which I think goes back long before I had ever heard of Phillip Johnson – that evolution from its birth two and a half centuries ago has been a vehicle for social and cultural and religious values,as much as (and often a great deal more than) it has been a straight objective scientific theory.  Now I am not saying that it never can be such a theory – more on this at a later time – but I am saying that it very often has not been such a theory.  Secular philosophy or religion would be a better description.

I document this at length in my Monad to Man, a discussion of the role of the ideology of progress in evolutionary thought.  This is a long book which, as my friend David Hull is wont to say, tells you all you need to know on the subject and much, much more.  Here, let me simply say that evolutionism began in the eighteenth century (a hundred years before Darwin) and that the only reason to accept it was as a support for the social belief that society is capable of improvement, and that human effort is the key.  Early evolutionists (like Charles’s grandfather Erasmus Darwin) read this social doctrine of improvement into the rocks, and then in good circular fashion read their evolutionism outof the rocks as support of their social beliefs!

And so it went on down through the ages.  Evolution as ideology and ideology as evolution, usually with a moral message attached.  Not all bad, I hasten to add.  In a future column, I will talk about “Social Darwinism” and try to convince you that there was much to be said for it.  (Much to be said against it also, but of what is that not true?)  For now, I will rest with saying that making more of evolution – especially more of Darwinism – than mere science, is still with us.  If you doubt what I say, read my Meta review of Ed Wilson’s Consilience, and if that does not convince you go on to read Wilson’s book itself.  He tells you that he wants to make more of his evolution thanscience.  He wants to make a religion of it.

So is evolution nothing but a religion, existing simply to match Michael Ruse and Phillip Johnson in an unending battle to the end?  A lot of people are pretty cross with me for (as they see it) traitorously letting down the side.  I of all people – someone who stood up for evolution as an ACLU witness at the Creationism trial in Arkansas in 1981 – should know that the Phillip Johnsons are out there, like sharks circling, looking for traces of blood and ready to pounce.  Whatever I may think privately about evolution, I should keep mythoughts to myself.  Some of the reviews of Monad to Man have been really quitehostile.

My own feelings are quite otherwise.  I do not think evolution is simply secular religion.  I think it is a wonderful, wonderful theory, and I shall be telling you why.  But unless we who love science are prepared to be as critical as are our enemies about our science, then in the end we are no better than they.  Popper may not always have been right about science, but he was right that one must always be prepared to put to the test the most cherished and  dearly held of thoughts and beliefs.  The day we cease to do that will be a sad day for both science and religion.

To obtain the tape featuring a discussion/debate between myself, Phillip Johnson, and Michael Behe, write to:
Jay Wesley Richards
Senior Fellow and Director of Program Development        
Center for the Renewal of Science and Culture        
Discovery Institute        
1402 Third Avenue, Suite 400        
Seattle, WA 98101-2109        
(206) 292-0401 x 112        
(206) 682-5320 fax
Ask for the Technopolitics tapes. The cost is $20 including postage.