What Darwin Could Teach Richard Dawkins and the Mormons

RussellMormon 17 Comments

Man with all his noble qualities, with sympathy which feels for the most debased, with benevolence which extends not only to other men but to the humblest living creature, with his god-like intellect which has penetrated into the movements and constitution of the solar system – with all these exalted powers – Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.–Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man

Incidentally, this post will say precious little of Rhodesian man, “missing links,” or opposing thumbs. I’m not a scientist. I don’t pretend to be. Believe it or not, this post is about kindness, about skepticism, indeed, even about forbearance. Most importantly, it’s about how creationists, Latter-day Saints, and Richard Dawkins might have something to learn from Charles Darwin. Much—too much to summarize—has been written on Charles Darwin’s views towards organized religion. As a young boy with parents of the British Liberal tradition (quite different from American liberalism, to be sure), Darwin’s parents were of mixed religious convictions—a common story in the love tales of the great men’s familial upbringing (JS comes to mind). His father was not affillated while his mother took young Charles to a Unitarian Church. Unwilling to rock the boat with the local Anglican church, his father allowed the children to participate in religion. Darwin was raised in a free-spirited household that was open to a variety of religious/intellectual influences.

What caused Darwin to lose faith? He never cited his evolutionary theory; indeed, during his famed Voyage on the Beagle, he still was reciting Biblical verses on points of morality, even though he had given up the Old Testament as being correct in any real sense. Later, following the publication of On the Origin of Species, he wrote to his collaborator, Asa Gray, that he could not view the world around him as being evidence of the God he had been taught: “There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars or that a cat should play with mice.” Yet, he qualified his disbelief in phrasing that resonates somewhat to the Mormon mind: “On the other hand, I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe, and especially the nature of man, and to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance” (emphasis mine). Darwin never deviated from this avowed agnosticism, though he did decry the exclusivism of the Christianity of his day: “the plain language (Mormons would argue, on the contrary, that the plainness had actually been lost to them through years of apostasy) of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” For the Mormons, this is damnable indeed.

Most importantly, his reaction to these answers were not bitter lash-backs against the religious establishment. When he moved to Downe, Kent, he became friends with the local Reverand, John (later Brodie) Innes, supported his work, and even donated monetarily to the Church. In spite of a later kerfuffle over some issues regarding pedagogy with the school, Darwin retained his friendship with the Reverand. He never rallied picketers, created his own Darwin fish, nor started propaganda campaigns to look religious folks look silly. His own son wrote just such an article denouncing all religion as absurd. Darwin urged his son if he “think[s] it new & important enough to counterbalance the evils” that his article would invite.” His work would certainly invite “the evils [of] giving pain to others.” In spite of his own lack of faith, he recognized the need for discretion in attacking the faith of others. This was no mere political move to win over the masses. He cared about causing pain, about bringing others down.

Darwin would later say, in mostly as a lament: “I may say that the impossibility of conceiving that this grand and wondrous universe, with our conscious selves, arose through chance, seems to me the chief argument for the existence of God; but whether this is an argument of real value, I have never been able to decide. I am aware that if we admit a first cause, the mind still craves to know whence it came from and how it arose…The safest conclusion seems to me to be that the whole subject is beyond the scope of man’s intellect; but man can do his duty.” Incidentally, the Mormons insist that there is no first cause in the sense that there is no “first” in eternity.

For those of you who have read/seen any of Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, et. al., I would ask what resemblances you see between their crowd and Darwin. I simply see overzealous (though, in Dawkins case, brilliant) talking heads who have let the culture war’s Zeitgeist get to them. Similarly, I wonder if certain religion faculty in CES (I can think of a bombastic fireside at Ricks College back in the day) would be as comfortable as Darwin in recognizing their ignorance about “the first cause” (which the Lord has never seen fit to explain in detail).  In fact, I might think that at least some of Darwin’s questions about his Father have been answered in the afterlife (probably as taught by Henry Eyring, Sr.). But I could be wrong?


Comments 17

  1. Fascinating thoughts. How does Huxley fit into this spectrum of attitudes? Darrow? Darwin’s patient and unoffensive stance is the sort that many people may take today, but the rumormongers at CNN and FNC can’t find any profit in it, and thus we have Maher and Hitchens.

    Agnosticism is a far more honest philosophical stance to take than the god-hating bigots do. It seems more of a question of ethics, then–is what we have developed today as a result of centuries of Christianity and Western civilization close enough to God’s original morality that we can justly accuse Him of being unjust? I doubt it.

  2. There are agnostic belief systems that I respect better than others. Many of the things about religion that agnostics see as false or extreme truly are false and extreme, and I can’t begrudge someone for making a valid observation in that regard. When Adam and Eve are depicted as “not believing” the false religious notions of philosophies of man, that’s depicted as a good thing.

    I’ve long thought that many of the Lord’s elect that are distributed throughout the world currently fall in the agnostic or doubting camp simply because the religious philosophies they’ve been exposed to haven’t rung true. It’s unfortunate that while rejecting the false teachings they’ve heard, they also reject the truths of religion as well, including ours.

    I don’t have a problem with Darwin — the man or the scientist or the doubter. I do have a problem with the non-existent religious philosopher Darwin that people like Dawkins and Maher seem to think has given us all we need to explain God away. Dawkins’ and Maher’s rhetoric doesn’t strike me as the “false philosophy-phobic” brand of agnosticism that I can respect. Their’s seems more of an “in love with a different set of lies” brand of highly arrogant (and intellectually dishonest) agnosticism and atheism.

    In other words, I’m not threatened by those who doubt because they desire truth and don’t know where to find it. They live in the more neutral “philosophies of men” realm. Dawkins, Hitchens and Maher’s ilk, on the other hand, seem to be anxiously engaged in a bad cause.

  3. I’m sure I’m going to regret this, but Dawkins just says that the evidence against God is greater than that for him, in Dawkins’ opinion. He is not the fanged creature you make him out to be.

  4. I don’t think Dawkins is that bad either, although I do think he has very little understanding of why religious people are religious. Maher is just a comedian who’s carved out a niche for himself by saying things that go against conventional wisdom but are usually pretty obvious. But Christopher Hitchens, OTOH, that guy is everything Russell says and more.

  5. Lincoln:

    For one unexpected similarity between Dawkins-ism (if you will…and maybe you won’t) and Mormonism, take a look here (and ignore the heading: “God and Aliens”–though some critics might argue that it’s all too fitting!)

    Evolutionary deification? With a heaping spoonful of imagination, one might be able to see the (albeit limited) wisdom in Dawkins’ remark:


  6. Janet Browne in her definitive biography of Darwin makes a convincing arguement that the key factor that lead to Darwin’s loss of faith was not his discovery of Evolution and Natural Selection but the his grief over the death of his 10 year old daughter Annie in 1851

  7. Darwin, in his poshumous autobiography wrote about his transition from faith to something close to atheism. I’ll quote.

    ….During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the novelty of the argument that amused them. But I had gradually come by this time to see the Old Testament, from its manifestly false history of the world, with the Tower of Babel, the rain-bow as a sign, &c., &c., and from its attributing to God the feelings of a revengeful tyrant, was no more to be trusted than the sacred books of the Hindoos, or the beliefs of any barbarian….
    ….Thus disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rate was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.” [Darwin’s Autobiography, section “Religious Beliefs, roughly page 50”.]

  8. Darwin didn’t believe. He had a wife that he loved as much as anyone could love anyone. He didn’t wish to cause her any more grief than possible; he confessed his disbelief prior to their marriage on, we even know the date, Nov. 11, 1838, against the wishes of his father who was also an unbeliever, as was his brother. Emma and Charles were married in 1839, in spite of their religious differences. It is a fools errand to invoke Darwin as, uh, anything other than a deeply loving husband who wished to keep his wife’s grief at his unorthodoxy at a minimum.

  9. Oh, and Piltdown man is an English fake known as soon as the Brits let someone actually see it–it seems they were jealous of the wide variety of proto humans the Germans kept turning up. Even France and Spain had a few. Please use another example. I’m not trying to be mean, just the name may raise a few hackles of those of us with a bit of scientific training.

  10. “I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother, and almost all my best friends, will be everlastingly punished. And this is a damnable doctrine.”

    Sounds like Darwin was an unknowing Mormon. I hadn’t known that. Thanks, djinn. 🙂

  11. I agree, Why Be Anon, that Darwin objected to everlasting punishment, but he also was, like, you know, a Darwinist. Your conclusion feels painfully like baptizing holocaust victims.

  12. djinn, I read #11 as firmly tongue-in-cheek, particularly given the emoticon. At worst, it comes across to me as a friendly poke at you, nothing more.

    Nice, Andrew!

  13. Post


    You speak the truth. And we can’t be inviting heckles. Note the change above. Piltdown man (regardless of his veracity) was the quickest example that came to mind, so I thought nothing of invoking his (albeit fabricated) memory. But there’s no need to touch raw nerves in our science-reading audience when we could just as easily use another example.

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