The Powell and Petraeus shows »« The history of western atheism-4: Atheism spreads to the masses

The history of western atheism-5: The religious climate in Darwin’s time

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) was aware of all the religious debates swirling around him as a young man, although they did not seem to divert him from his passionate pursuit of collecting beetles. In the early to mid-1800’s, England was in a reaction against the radicalism and turmoil following the French revolution of 1789 which had dethroned the religious hierarchy there. The Tories (which later became the Conservative Party) were strong supporters of the authority of the King and the Anglican Church and traditional Biblical teachings of the special creation. They were ascendant over the Whigs (which later became the Liberal Party), who wanted “extended suffrage, open competition, religious emancipation (allowing Dissenters, Jews, and Catholics to hold office) and the abolition of slavery.” (Darwin: The Life of a Tormented Evolutionist, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, 1991, p. 24).

In such a Tory-dominated climate, evolution-related ideas such as that the mind and consciousness were not separate entities and that the body was purely a creation of the brain were strongly frowned upon because they raised disturbing questions such as “[I]f life was not a supernatural gift, if the mind was not some incorporeal entity, what became of the soul? With no soul, no after-life, no punishment or reward, where was the deterrent against immorality? What would stop the downtrodden masses from rising up to redress their grievances?” (Desmond and Moore, p. 38, my italics). We thus see that advocacy or religion and the suppression of atheism has always been a key element in the strategy of those who want to preserve power in the hands of the elite few.

What is interesting is that during this time there was widespread “antitheism,” the active opposition to theism. The working classes perceived the established Anglican Church in England, which (like the Roman Catholic Church in France) lived in luxury, as an oppressor and were calling for its abolition.

Science entered into this discussion because the idea that species were immutable had been used to support the hereditary power of the elites. The idea that god had specially created species once for all time was used to imply that social classes were also fixed and ordained by god, and that to challenge them was to challenge god’s plan.

The rising popularity of the idea of the transmutation of species proposed by Jean-Baptiste Lamarck (1774-1829), and the spread of other radical ideas from European mainland, were undermining this idea and fuelling atheistic ideas, along with generating calls for a radical restructuring of society in England and the dethroning of the Anglican Church from its privileged position.

At that time blasphemy was a crime because Christianity was part of the law of the land. The Anglican Church was wealthy because they could impose taxes in the form of tithes on the population, just like the Catholic Church did in France. While the Whigs were for reform and greater democracy, they too were wary of letting the masses get too much power, preferring to have reform-minded elites run things. They feared that loosening the faith of illiterate workers would lessen their ability “to bear up against the pressure of misery and misfortune.” (Desmond and Moore, p. 70)

The theologian William Paley (whose famous book Natural Theology (1802) has the famous watchmaker analogy so beloved of intelligent design creationists and reincarnated by them as Mount Rushmore) was very frank about the social function served by religion in keeping the masses from complaining about injustice. He said that “Christian revelation. . . established the existence of ‘a future state of reward and retribution.’ And retribution in the next life is eminently useful for regulating human conduct in this one. Without the threat of eternal torture, men ‘want a motive‘ to do their duty, and ‘their rules want authority.’ Promise them future rewards, on the other hand, and a perennial problem is solved: the unequal and ‘promiscuous distribution’ of power and wealth. The swilling masses will put up with their hardships and degrading ‘stations’ once they accept that any injustice will be rectified hereafter.” (Desmond and Moore, p. 78)

Thus religion served the purpose it still serves today, to help preserve injustice by making the victims accepting of the status quo because they are fearful of divine retribution if they do otherwise. It persuades people to accept injustice and their current exploitation by promising them non-existent rewards that will supposedly receive in the non-existent life after death.

It was in this religious and political climate that Darwin proposed his dangerous idea. He was someone who sought respectability and avoided controversy. It was not in his nature to be a rebel and risk vilification by the Church and the bourgeoisie society in which he was so comfortably ensconced. He knew that his model of how species evolved would cause a stir and he risked being accused of blasphemy.

But at the same time, he was scientifically ambitious and knew that what he was proposing was a grand new idea that would increase his already considerable standing among the scientific peers who understood it and were not blinded by religious dogma. So he developed his theory in secret, sharing his ideas with just a few trusted colleagues, collecting vast amounts of evidence so that when he was finally prodded to publish On the Origin of Species in 1859 by the sudden appearance of Alfred Wallace’s similar theory, his work was on a solid empirical foundation that withstood critics’ attacks.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

POST SCRIPT: Supply Side Jesus

An alternative Biblical story.

Comments

  1. Cindy says

    I watched the documentary, which was quite interesting once he got into the history. I think he made a good point about the role of philosophy in developing modern atheism. I did take note at the end when he said he suspected the human mind might be too complex for science to figure out. It seems like many atheists still have their own areas that they kind of want science to stay out of. And if it’s not the afterlife, it’s neuroscience.

  2. says

    Actually, I think that he was not suggesting that science should stay out of the mind, but that it really is too hard and too complex a system. Scientists are studying the mind (I just came from a seminar on the topic!) and there is no reason not to. My own feeling is that any aspect of the world should be completely open to scientific investigation.

  3. Anonymous says

    I actually didn’t get the impression that he was saying any areas shouldn’t be open, or that people shouldn’t try to figure out the brain. It just seemed to me that he personally hopes that the brain turns out to be too complex, and that theory of mind remains the domain of philosophers instead of scientists. It’s definitely a minor point relative to the rest of the documentary. :)

  4. Cindy says

    I actually didn’t get the impression that he was saying any areas shouldn’t be open, or that people shouldn’t try to figure out the brain. It just seemed to me that he personally hopes that the brain turns out to be too complex, and that theory of mind remains the domain of philosophers instead of scientists. It’s definitely a minor point relative to the rest of the documentary. :)

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