Ho hum, it’s Madeleine Bunting, who we’ve encountered before. Her essay starts out well enough, cheering on the coming Darwin celebrations, explaining how this is a great opportunity for the promotion of science, etc., etc., etc., but—there’s always a but—oh, deary me, it’s going to be hijacked by those dreadful atheists. We have to do something about all the baggage that has been piled on poor Darwin’s deceased back.
So the first imperative for the anniversary is to strip away the accumulation of mythology that has made Darwin such a villain.
Wait…for an article that is supposedly praising Darwin, what is this about his villainy? I certainly don’t think of him as one; the scientists I know are all on his side; it’s only those crazy ideologues, the creationists, who attach such opprobrium to his name. We quickly discover what equals villainy in Bunting’s mind: atheism.
In particular, what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century. Darwin kept his pronouncements on religion to a minimum, partly out of respect for his Christian wife. Despite continuing claims that he was an atheist, most scholars acknowledge that he never went further than agnosticism.
Yes, yes, we know. We’ve read his memoirs. We know he was unreligious, but was also conservative and cautious, and preferred to call himself an agnostic. No one knowledgeable is saying otherwise.
However, he would not have been baffled at all by atheists celebrating his ideas. He well knew himself that evolution stripped the need for a creator as a guiding force in the history of life — it’s one of the reasons he hesitated to publish, and he knew that it would be detested by the clergy. He felt that revealing his secret was “like confessing a murder,” and he knew that evolution was fully compatible with atheism but in conflict with many interpretations of religious belief. Baffled? Heck no. He expected us, even as he feared the consequences. Darwin removed one of the last obstacles to dispensing altogether with the notion of gods, and he knew it.
So certainly atheists will be celebrating this year. Is there something wrong with that? To Bunting, this is apparently deplorable.
The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up). Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin’s theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events. It’s a position that infuriates many scientists, not to mention philosophers and theologians.
Well? Should Dawkins and Dennett stay home this year? Should only professing Christians who are scientists be allowed to speak in praise of Darwin in public? She seems upset that atheists will actually be given a voice in the Darwin bicentennial!
Let those philosophers and theologians, and even those scientists, be infuriated. Religion is ridiculous, and we aren’t going to be silenced because a few people maintain a ludicrous deference for old myths.