Charles Darwin is reviled by many evangelical Christians. Some of them have suggested that Darwin’s theory of evolution is a godless philosophy that removes the sacred from the world. I disagree. Not only that, I turn this around 180º. Darwin’s theory of evolution is a theory of great and profound beauty. In fact, I think it is profoundly religious.
To Darwin, all life is one. All organisms are different branches of the same tree of life. This is a deeply marvellous idea that all of life, including human life, is united on this planet. There is solidarity to all of life. I do not find this notion anti-religious. In fact I would say this goes back to the original root of the word religion from its Indio origin, which was ‘connection.’ This is the original meaning of “religious”. In fact I would go so far as to say that any so-called religion, which leads to separation of humans from each other, or from all of life, is deeply un-religious.
Typically fundamentalists around the world, whether Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu or whatever, try from time to time to usurp the meaning of religious to their own narrow purposes. When they try to expropriate the meaning of the world “religious” for their own restrictive and exclusive purposes they ought to be resisted strongly.
The most extreme versions of these religious beliefs have in the past turned to murderous doctrines. Some famous examples include the Christian crusaders, Muslim terrorists, and Sikh assassins, to name only a few from a vast legion of candidates. To these people I would suggest that as the button my wife Chris owned said, ‘When religion turns to hate, it is no longer religion.’ Religion that does not help us to connect with others, or connect with the world, is no religion worth having. It is actually sacrilegious.
Darwin’s views in this sense are fundamentally religious. In Darwin’s day the claim that humans and chimpanzees had a lot in common was a radical claim. Remember there was no science of genetics or DNA at that time. Since then of course a lot of confirming evidence has been gathered. First, there has been substantial fossil evidence which suggests that chimpanzees and humans had a common ancestor as Darwin claimed, and as many have been loath to admit ever since. Remember Elmer Gantry, played by Burt Lancaster in the movie about the travelling evangelical preacher who had a chimp on stage and said to the crowd, ‘this may be your uncle, but he sure ain’t mine.’
In the late twentieth century scientists started gathering convincing evidence from DNA, which has led to the same conclusion. Scientists have found that all living things have DNA. For example organisms as diverse as frogs, bacteria, and humans all have DNA and the DNA evidence has been used to show how close the various species are to each other. The DNA of humans and chimps is very similar. DNA sequences which are read letter by letter indicate that humans and chimpanzees are in fact a stunning 98% identical. They are basically the same. Cut from the same cloth. Scientists in fact now generally believe that the DNA evidence indicates that humans and chimpanzees did in fact have a common ancestor only a few million years ago. This is very recently on the evolutionary time scale. This could be compared with humans and rats who also had a common ancestor, but this was more like 80 – 100 million years ago. This shows that greater changes occur over a greater period of time, but also shows that even humans and rats, which do not feel much fellow feeling for each, once had a common ancestor.
There is even growing evidence that humans and chimpanzees think and act in similar ways. This is further evidence of their commonality, or close relationship. Researchers have found that chimps can gain complex cognition and even have the ability to count. They don’t learn to count in the wild, because it is not necessary for their survival, but they can learn to count. Chimps can even grasp complex notions like the concept of zero. Such evidence too suggests that chimps have a great deal of commonality with humans. Humans and chimps even share the same blood types.
Many scientists now believe that this evidence points to the fact that chimps and humans did in fact have common ancestor as Darwin suggested.
For some reason the line of development or evolution, which led to humans led to an explosive development of mental capacity. Natural selection favoured the evolution of organisms that could communicate, manipulate symbols, and construct language. These were obviously evolutionary advantages for this species.
Some see this view of Darwin’s as basically irreligious since it seems to remove the concept of a divine creator from the world. It actually doesn’t. Darwin himself believed in God. However, this does not make these views irreligious. As I have said, I think these views instead demonstrate a fine sense of true religion in its original Indio sense of connection. Darwin himself said in his monumental Origin of the Species, “there is a grandeur in this view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one, and that whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the 6th law of gravity from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been and are being evolved.” Darwin did not remove God, but he did naturalize creation.
In my view the thought of Darwin is deeply religious. Much more than the views of murderous fundamentalists or noisy evangelicals who so often seem to hog the stage. Even though many people hold that Darwin removed God from science, he found an elemental connection between man and all living things. I cannot think of anything more religious than that. And that is what religion is ultimately about. Connection. It is not about what narrow beliefs one has about what to eat on what days, or whether the world was created exactly 4004 years ago. No, religion is about a lot more important things than that, no matter what narrow-minded people think and preach.
Darwin’s view that we are all connected on the tree of life, is contrasted starkly by the views of Christian fundamentalists, and extremists of all religions, that they are superior to all others. They want to be separate and apart from heathens, to say nothing of all life. They believe that they will go to everlasting pleasure in heaven while others will go to everlasting pain in hell. Such fanatics see an unbridgeable gap between them and other humans, to say nothing of them and other organisms. These are the most profoundly irreligious views imaginable. Nothing could be more sacrilegious than that. I much prefer Darwin. In fact, I think he was one of the greatest of religious thinkers.
3 thoughts on “Darwin: The Greatest Religious Thinker?”
I think I understand why you apply the term religious to Darwin, but I also disagree with it somewhat. Normally, I think, religion carries with it connotations of supernaturalism. A religious person usually believes in some reality that is not of this world. What Darwin did is give a completely natural explanation for the diversity of life without the need for any divine intervention. So in that sense he undermined religion. At least that is how I like to think of him.
I also think I understand what you are saying but I also disagree “somewhat.” You are absolutely right that Darwin undermined fundamentalist religion, but I think he reinforced what I refer to as expansive religion. This is religion without supernatural elements or without claims to a monopoly on truth. That is the religion I support. I also think this fits in with the original conception of religion as that which connects people to each other and the world. Nothing supernatural is needed to do that. I think evangelicals/fundamentalists have usurped jurisdiction here to such an extent that a religion without the supernatural to many people seems impossible. Buddhism, among other religions, proved that was not the case.
I just have a hard time calling the desire to connect to others and to nature religion. But you are probably correct that it is a religious impulse to want to do that.