Darwin on Christian Theism
William D. Dennison
While Calvinists celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Calvin's birth this year, secularists are celebrating the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth. On this occasion, let's examine Darwin's argument against Christian theism as stated in his autobiography.
Darwin claims that he gradually lost his "orthodox" Christian beliefs during his famous voyage on the Beagle from 1836 to 1839. However, his "Christianity" was only a religion of morality, based on his mother's Unitarianism. Moreover, he disdained the God of the Old Testament as a vengeful and untrustworthy "tyrant."
Four more points were important in Darwin's thinking. First, the more science reveals the "fixed laws of nature, the more incredible do miracles become." Second, the Synoptic Gospels differ on "important details" and thus do not provide the accurate reportings of eyewitnesses. Third, only science can explain the modern world. Finally, Christianity cannot be true because of the "damnable doctrine" of everlasting punishment. Darwin realized that the Bible teaches that reliance on the mediating work of Jesus Christ is necessary for one to be saved. But since that teaching would exclude members of his own family and most of his friends from salvation, Darwin would not even "wish Christianity to be true."
Darwin did not think more about "the existence of a personal God" until the latter part of his life. During that period, he reminisced about his student years, when William Paley's argument for God's existence, based upon the evidence of design in nature, seemed conclusive. But Darwin's defense of natural selection in The Origin of Species (1859) made Paley's argument passé. Darwin had decided that "everything in nature is the result of fixed laws." The laws of nature, apart from God, can explain the "beneficent arrangement of the world." Darwin combined empirical naturalism (natural selection) and his utilitarian worldview (the principle of "happiness") in order to explain the "beneficent arrangement of the world."
Utilitarianism was a prominent feature of nineteenth-century English thought, and Darwin was committed to its core belief, that human activity is right to the degree that it promotes happiness for the greatest number of people. In order to maintain this belief, Darwin had to assume that ethical activity was an essential part of nature. That is, the "law of natural selection" had to explain the "beneficent arrangement of the world." But Darwin faced a problem: how does all the suffering in the world fit into the beneficent arrangement of the world? Darwin admitted that it was difficult to prove on the basis of natural selection that happiness prevails in the end. Nevertheless, Darwin made his case.
Darwin recognized that pleasure and suffering coexist in the world. But he argued that if suffering took hold as a prevailing characteristic of a species, it would cease to procreate and thus die out. In contrast, species that procreate "generally" enjoy "happiness." Moreover, said Darwin, species have an inherent urge to survive, and so will pursue happiness and pleasure. Thus, the "well adapted" creature will guard itself against serious and sudden evil. In the human species, this is most noticeable in its nurturing habits of pleasurable labor, exercising the body and the mind, being a social creature, and engaging in reciprocal relationships with family members. As these habits of pleasure become frequent, an "excess of happiness over misery" becomes the overwhelming theme for "most sentient beings," even though "many occasionally suffer much." Even when much suffering occurs, it "is quite compatible with the belief in Natural Selection, which is not perfect in its action, but tends only to render each species as successful as possible in the battle for life with other species" (p. 90).
For Darwin, therefore, suffering is compatible with the development of "organic beings" through "variation and natural selection," but is not compatible with an "omnipotent and omniscient being" who is supposed to be benevolent. Darwin admitted that this was an old argument, but he found it compelling. He explained:
A being so powerful and so full of knowledge as a God who could create the universe, is to our finite minds omnipotent and omniscient, and it revolts our understanding to suppose that his benevolence is not unbounded, for what advantage can there be in the sufferings of millions of the lower animals throughout almost endless time? (p. 90)
As we respond to Darwin, we should first notice that he cannot satisfactorily explain the origin of suffering and evil. One might think that the law of natural selection is his explanation. But as we work toward the core of his thought, we find a problem. If there is no intelligent Creator, then Darwin's so-called natural law of the survival of the fittest is a product of what Cornelius Van Til calls a "chance-created universe." But Darwin cannot explain how law evolves out of chance, nor how chance gives birth to the inherent tension between suffering/pain and happiness/pleasure within the law of natural selection. In fact, Darwin cannot explain why the human species is conscious of a tension between suffering/pain and happiness/pleasure. Hence, Darwin's mythical naturalism provides no solution with respect to the origin of suffering, pain, and evil.
Meanwhile, Darwin presupposed, without any intelligent foundation, that the utilitarian principle of happiness/pleasure guides the natural order. But does happiness truly survive if all sentient beings die, often with pain? Given this result, it is not clear that the utilitarian principle of happiness/pleasure guides the natural order.
Moreover, Darwin's claim that happiness/pleasure triumphs over suffering/pain is also dubious. It all depends on whose eyes are surveying the global landscape. For example, do you really think that those people who were the recipients of European imperialism and colonialism under the banner of "social Darwinism" in the last quarter of the nineteenth century triumphed in this happiness/pleasure paradigm?
As Darwin rejected Christian theism, he must, as Van Til says, have presupposed the condition of the world as God made it and sustains it. Specifically, as Darwin discarded Christian theism, he must have presupposed the factuality of special and natural revelation in order to suppress the truth in unrighteousness, to exchange the truth for a lie, and to worship the creature instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:18-25). As an idolatrous participant in Satan's lies, Darwin grounded his thought in a rationality that limited reality to what he perceived to be the self-sustaining natural world. Accordingly, he exchanged God's good creation for a world of mythological naturalism. He traded the sovereign Creator for a creation that is conceived by chance. Darwin bartered away man as created in God's image for sentient beings who can evolve into a higher being by the development of "corporeal and mental organs." Moreover, man, who was initially created upright by his Creator, is sold by Darwin into the slavery of naturalism; that is, he binds man to the evolutionary process of the survival of the fittest. In this construct of natural law, the human species evolved onto the scene in which there is constant tension between happiness/pleasure and suffering/pain. Once people see themselves as a product of chance and stuck in pleasure/pain tension, it is no wonder that they turn to skepticism, nihilism, cynicism, and existentialism, and experience psychological neurosis, angst, Sartrean nausea, and the like.
When Darwin claims that suffering and a good God are incompatible, he demonstrates his own blindness to the truth. At the heart of his blindness is his declaration that God's revelatory activity is "foolishness." Ironically, Darwin attacks Christian theism because of the suffering in the world, but God counters by demonstrating that the suffering of Christ on the cross, God's own "foolishness," is wiser and stronger than the wisdom of man, including Darwin (1 Cor. 1:22-25; cf. 2:14).
Darwin, in his blindness, denied Adam's fall from his upright position and his responsibility for ushering in a world of pain and suffering, but God turns the effects of Adam's fall upside down and makes suffering the means of redemption. Indeed, how God confounds the thought of unbelief! God takes what will always be a serious "stumbling block" to unbelieversthe relationship between suffering and a good Godand makes it the cornerstone of the gospel. In light of the Fall, Christ must come into the world, suffer, and rise from the dead in order to remove the curse of the Fall and liberate the world from sin and death (Matt. 16:21). Only in Christ's work is the future reality and inheritance of life in God without suffering and pain (Rev. 21:3-4).
Darwin, like many others, exchanged this liberation and hope for a perpetual existence of anxiety and alienation in the tension of happiness/pleasure and suffering/pain, in which the strong surviveuntil they die. In arrogance and pride, the human species survives by the narcissism of power over other species or within its own species. In contrast, the gospel of our God meets suffering and pain right at its core. Through Christ's suffering, pain, and humiliation on the cross, together with his resurrection, there is true victory over suffering and pain by means of Christ's exaltation. Indeed, God is good!
The author, an OP minister, teaches at Covenant College. Reprinted from New Horizons, July 2009.