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Nature 437, 815-816 (6 October 2005) | doi:10.1038/437815a; Published online 5 October 2005

A secular religion

John Hedley Brooke1

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Should evolutionism be viewed as a modified descendant of Christianity?

BOOK REVIEWEDThe Evolution–Creation Struggle

by Michael Ruse

Harvard University Press: 2005. 336 pp. $25.95, £16.95

Few disputes have generated as much emotion, bitterness and incomprehension as the enduring conflict between darwinians and their creationist opponents. Those conversant with classical Christian theology know that the doctrine of Creation speaks of the ultimate dependence of everything on a transcendent power: it doesn't need supernatural conjuring tricks to account for each new species. Even Charles Darwin's 'bulldog', T. H. Huxley, insisted that the theory of evolution had no more implications for theism than had the first book of Euclid. Why then, and in North America especially, has there been such a highly polarized, emotive and undiminished debate?

In The Evolution–Creation Struggle, Michael Ruse tries to explain this puzzling cultural phenomenon. He is well known as a committed darwinian philosopher, experienced in gutting claims that creationism and 'intelligent design' can be a form of science. His aim in this book, however, is not to attack but to understand. For that he wisely turns to history — specifically to the history of evolutionary theory itself and the cultural contexts in which it was forged, refined and publicized.

The purpose of Ruse's admittedly streamlined history is to identify two divergent responses to a crisis in Christianity arising from Enlightenment critiques. One response was a belief system in which a high value was placed on social and intellectual progress, into which ideas of biological progress (and eventually a science of evolution) would comfortably fit. The other response was a mutation of Christianity itself, epitomized by the evangelical spirit of Methodism, a defensive attitude to the authority of the Bible, and a millenarian vision in which, after testing man's devotion, God would allow the return of Christ for a 1,000-year rule of a perfected human society.

Ruse's argument is that these antithetical responses graduated into the two competing world-views that lie at the heart of the contemporary conflict. His thesis leads to a radical conclusion. Although we are used to speaking of a conflict between science and religion, to do so misses the point: it is rather a conflict between religion and religion, he claims. There is a sense in which it is an intra-family feud, and this explains its bitterness.

Superficially this may sound paradoxical, if not perverse. Surely scientific theories of evolution cannot be paraded as examples of religious belief? Of course not. But Ruse has in mind a distinction between evolution as a fact, evolution as a theory that offers mechanisms for evolutionary change, and 'evolutionism' — a metaphysical, naturalistic world-view imbued with values as well as a strictly scientific narrative. It is evolutionism that has repeatedly functioned as a secular religion, offering seductive images of progress and translating naturalistic methods of enquiry into doctrinaire assertions about what can and cannot be believed about the meaning of human existence.

Ruse asserts that for many evolutionary biologists, "evolution was their profession...evolutionism their obsession". From the earliest prominent evolutionists (Erasmus Darwin, Jean-Baptiste Lamarck and Robert Chambers) to latter-day darwinians such as Richard Dawkins, proponents of biological evolution have tended to be deists or free-thinkers who have self-consciously rejected Christianity, only to replace it with a substitute system that presumes to answer the same basic questions.

As justification for treating evolutionism as a religion, Ruse observes that it supplies a story about origins; it reaffirms a unique role for humans in shaping the future; it has not uncommonly made moral prescriptions (some, such as eugenics, now blacklisted); it has opposed other religious systems; and, with recurrent insistence on progress, it has its own view of how the world might end. Strikingly, the language used by champions of an evolutionary world-view underlines its religious character. Ruse quotes Dawkins: "All the great religions have a place for awe, for ecstatic transport at the wonder and beauty of creation. And it's exactly this feeling of spine-shivering, breath-catching awe — almost worship...that modern science can provide." Ruse makes no secret of his admiration for E. O. Wilson, whose call to repentance on the subject of biological diversity reminds him of an old-time preacher.

Whether a secular world-view should properly be described as 'religious' is ultimately a matter of definition. In reflective moments, Ruse opts for the qualified 'quasi-religious'. Ultimately, his justification for such labels stems from an insight that I first encountered in E. L. Tuveson's study Millennium and Utopia (University of California Press, 1949). This is that the modern idea of progress arose in seventeenth-century Europe through a secularization of millenarian theology. Biblical texts were reinterpreted to suggest that through human effort, including scientific and technological innovation, the Earth could be brought to a state of paradise appropriate to Christ's return. To some this will sound quaint. But the fact remains that a science-based utopia, with its supreme confidence in the technological fix, had at least some roots in a newly conceived religious imperative: to hasten the millennium.

It is therefore possible to argue, as Ruse does, that the struggle between evolution and creation is a contest between rival versions of millenarian theology. The world-view and conservative moral values of the creationists tend to be informed by a theology in which God alone can instigate a more perfect society through human redemption. The world-view of the popularizers of evolutionary biology tends to be informed by the legacy of an alternative reading in which humans had to take responsibility for shaping the future. Not for nothing did Julian Huxley describe his evolutionary humanism as a "religion without revelation".

Ruse knows that not all of Darwin's disciples can be shoehorned into his scheme. Indeed, he takes trouble to discuss exceptions. The late Stephen J. Gould is an obvious one, given his aversion to progressive readings of the fossil record and his equally adamant line in Rocks of Ages (Ballantine, 1999) that the respective magisteria of science and religion must not be allowed to overlap. For Ruse, Gould is the exception that proves the rule — not least because, on closer analysis, his reduction of religious provenance to questions of morality places him squarely in the secularizing tradition. And one might add that a close analysis of Gould's controversy with Simon Conway Morris shows that his well-known take on the fossils of the Burgess shale was, by his own admission, informed by his own social values.

This book is aimed at a general audience. Ruse's style is chatty and informal, sometimes incongruously so. His historical treatment of Christianity will be too sketchy for fastidious scholars. But let us not underestimate the importance of his message. His appeal is to all who love science; his exhortation is that we "must do more than simply restate our positions or criticize the opposition". A prerequisite of progress in this cultural struggle is that we should recognize the metaphysical assumptions underlying dogmatic forms of scientific naturalism, and be willing to investigate the concerns that motivate criticism.

Ruse has done his best to reveal both. He declines to be a prophet of doom, but precisely because creationism is linked in America with perceived moral and political threats impinging on society, he cannot see it vanishing any time soon. Insofar as he has a remedy, it is that Christian and secular evolutionists should not waste time sniping at each other but collaborate instead. In this regard he would be pleased to learn that Richard Harries, the bishop of Oxford, has joined the evolutionist Richard Dawkins in alerting the British public to defects in creationist rhetoric (unlike an unhappy predecessor, Samuel Wilberforce, who in 1860 tried to outwit Huxley). In a joint article published in The Times on 10 June 2005, the two Richards gave complementary reasons why the promotion of creationism in schools should be resisted.

  1. John Hedley Brooke is at Harris Manchester College, University of Oxford, Oxford OX1 3TD, UK.

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