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Finding Darwin's Real God

Even since the publication of Ken Miller's Finding Darwin's God, the Brown University biologist and leading spokesman for theistic evolution has claimed to have found deity in "the coherent power of Darwin's great idea" (p. 292). Miller sees no contradiction between Charles Darwin's theory and the three great Abrahamic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. For him, there is "no reason for believers to draw a line in the sand between God and Darwin" (p. 267). Francis Collins seems to suggest much the same in his Language of God. Of course they weren't the first; long before Miller and Collins there was Charles Kingsley (1819-1875).

But is the god of Darwin really a "coherent" power for these faiths, wholly compatible with any or all of them? Wishful thinking aside, a little investigation reveals the true theistic evolutionary equation: Darwin + god = Man. Put more simply Darwin's god was Man. To see this clearly we must go to Darwin's own writings.

Darwin frequently claimed to be in a theological muddle. He often assumed this posture in letters to close friends and colleagues. But when it came to taking a stand on religion, the separation of the Atlantic Ocean seemed to have emboldened him. This is evident in his staunch support of American freethinker Francis Abbot (1836-1903), founder of the Free Religious Association and editor of its radical weekly voice, The Index. In the December 23, 1871, issue Darwin gave a rare and unequivocal glimpse of his religious beliefs. Responding to Abbot's radical manifesto Truths for the Times, he wrote that he admired Abbot's "truths" "from my inmost heart; and I agree to almost every word," adding, "The points on which I doubtfully differ are unimportant." So what exactly were those "truths" to which Darwin gave his complete -- even passionate -- approval?

Abbot proclaimed religion to be man's effort to perfect himself, and that Jesus Christ was a great spiritual teacher who nonetheless "shared the spirit of an unenlightened age, and stands on the same level with Gautama or Mohammed." Abbot called for the "extinction of faith in the Christian Confession" and its replacement with so-called "Free Religion" that he defined as "faith in Man as a progressive being." Without mincing words, Abbot concluded that "The cornerstone of Christianity is faith in Christ. The cornerstone of Free Religion is faith in Human Nature." Instead of "the Church," Abbot saw "the coming Republic of the World, or Commonwealth of Man, the universal conscience and reason of mankind being its supreme organic law or constitution." Rather than "the suppression of self and perfect imitation of Jesus of Christ," Free Religion called for the "free development of self, and the harmonious education of all its powers to the highest possible degree." In short, Abbot's Free Religion was "organized Faith in Man." Today we call this secular humanism.

So there is Darwin's god -- man himself! Now it could be argued that what Darwin believed is irrelevant, an example merely of the genetic fallacy. But Darwin's theory reflects its father's notions intrinsically and explicitly. Why else would he have written in Descent of Man that "The idea of a universal and beneficent Creator does not seem to arise in the mind of man until he has been elevated by long-continued culture"? In other words, man was not created in God's image but rather god was created in man's image. Understood in that context Darwin's endorsement of Abbot's "Faith in Man" makes perfect sense. What does not make sense is theistic evolutionists claiming Darwinism's compatibility with the three Abrahamic faiths. For them the mirage of god floats vaguely behind the stochastic operations of Darwin's chance and necessity.

Darwin's secular humanism and radical materialism was no late additions to his thinking either. In the spring of 1838, long before he had unveiled his theory to the world, Darwin asked in his private notebook, "Why is thought, being a secretion of brain, more wonderful than gravity a property of matter? It is our arrogance, it is our admiration of ourselves." Ironically, by dethroning god Darwin committed the greatest hubris of all: admiring only his theory and pacing his faith in man.

In light of this there would seem to be only three choices for theistic evolutionists. First, simply accept the incompatibility -- learn to live with the contradictory idea that a God of purpose and intentionality has created and sustained a universe of (in John Herschel's famous phrase) "higgledy-piggledy." After all, God can do what He wills.

But of course as C. S. Lewis reminded us,

meaningless combinations words do not suddenly acquire meaning simply because we prefix to them the two other words "God can.' It remains true that all things are possible with God: the intrinsic impossibilities are not things but nonentities. It is no more possible for God than for the weakest of His creatures to carry out both of two mutually exclusive alternatives; not because His power meets an obstacle, but because nonsense remains nonsense even when we talk it about God.
This leaves either humanism (hardly amenable to any of the three orthodoxies of Judaism, Christianity, or Islam) or nihilism. There are times when it seems Darwin did indeed go down that last cul-de-sac. In a famous letter to William Graham on July 3, 1881, he confessed,
You have expressed my inward conviction . . . that the Universe is not the result of chance. But then with me that 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?
But then why trust the theory that emanated from Darwin's mind any more than those of a monkey's? Whether it's his theory of evolution or his ideas about god that emanate from it, the monkey is still on Darwin's back.

Professor Flannery is the author of Alfred Russel Wallace: A Rediscovered Life (Discovery Institute Press) and other books.