Darwin’s Pious Idea

Darwin’s Pious Idea July 4, 2016

Conor Cunningham’s book Darwin’s Pious Idea is an impressive effort, aimed at challenging the shared view among fundamentalists (whether religious or atheist) of what the implications are of Darwin’s theory of evolution. I am grateful to Eerdmans for having sent me a gratis review copy.

The book begins by problematizing the essentialization of many aspects of and concepts related to biological evolution that are in reality quite blurry: the self, the species, and the gene get particular attention. A key concern early on is to make clear that, far from there being one monolithic understanding of evolution and its philosophical implications (represented by Dawkins and Dennett), there is significant diversity in relation to both, with many fascinating unanswered questions. All along the way, Cunningham offers insightful observations, such as when he points out the inherent “gnosticism” of the view that evolution and religion are incompatible, based as it seems to be on the assumption that matter – and thus material explanation and processes – are antithetical to spirituality (p.133).

The term “gnostic” gets bandied about a bit too frequently. But Cunningham’s overall point appears to be a valid one, and that is that ultra-darwinism of the kind Dawkins and Dennett promote is self-defeating. Cunningham tells the story of someone criticizing Frederick Temple, the Archbishop of Canterbury, saying he only believes as he does because he was brought up to. Temple responded that his critic only belived this about him because that is what he was brought up to believe (p.255). The attempt to engage in reductionist philosophy is self-contradictory. Cunningham compares new atheists to tea totalers: the abuse of either religion or alcohol does not provide proof that total abstinence is the best response (pp.272-3).

Cunningham’s book ranges not only across philosophers, neuroscientists, and theologians, but also biblical texts and church fathers. It can at times be meandering and repetitive. And yet even in its repetitions, its central points are made in new and striking ways, and so I found it managed to remain engaging for the most part. In concluding the enormous volume, Cunningham writes, “when it comes to their ‘theology’ (for the creationist) or their ‘atheology’ (for the ultra-Darwinist), it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for beauty, truth, goodness, and indeed a person to get into their respective kingdoms, not to mention hesitation, complication, and doubt” (p.421).

Darwin’s Pious Idea is not an easy volume, and so this isn’t an ideal book to share with your average young-earth creationist. Indeed, it is aimed much more at the use of evolution by atheists than in the opposite direction. But in providing this case, it illustrates the falsity of the central claim of young-earth creationists, namely that evolution and atheism are natural allies, inherently intertwined. And so, in atkonsponse to our primary focus in this review series, perhaps Cunningham’s most important contribution is to have demonstrated that YEC, in addition to being wrong about the Bible, science, theology, and philosophy, is also wrong about atheism as well.


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  • John MacDonald

    God is still waiting for scientists to create organic material out of inorganic matter.

    • arcseconds

      Then he isn’t paying attention.

      Urea was synthesized in 1828, acetic acid by 1845, amino acids by 1850, dipeptides by 1901, short polypeptides by the 1930s, and entire enzymes by the 1990s.

      In fact we have gone beyond nature in various respects, including creating peptides with unnatural amino acids, and creating our own novel DNA-analogues.

      • John MacDonald

        But can science create LIFE (Frankenstein)? lol

        • arcseconds

          Well, Venter and his team substituted an entirely synthetic genome into Mycoplasma capricolum, that’s sometimes been called the first synthetic life.

          But it’s still reliant on a pre-existing lifeform, and the genome was determined by a fair bit of trial and error. Attempts to completely design the genome from scratch failed.

          However, we know how most of the machinery works, and we can create quite complex components from scratch. Putting it all together is a bit tricky, but what would it prove if we could? We can’t build our most advanced tools without the aid of our previous generation of most advanced tools either, but what is the significance of the fact that you can’t just start with some sand, some rocks, some ore, and some coal and create your own silicon chips de novo?

        • arcseconds

          But I suppose Venter’s creation is kind of a move-Frankenstein-monster, stichted together out of bits of other organisms. I seem to recall in the book Frankenstein is deliberately coy about how he made the monster, but it sounds like it involved chemicals and electricity…

    • Meanwhile, I am still waiting for God to create organic material out of inorganic matter. He has provided no evidence for such an ability.

    • momtarkle

      I am still waiting for any evidence of a god or gods, other than that which theists have constructed in their own minds.

  • Atheism is disbelief in a god or gods, nothing more, nothing less, so there is no more a possibility that someone can be a “fundamentalist atheist” than there is a possibility that someone can be a “liberal atheist”. Also, I’m not even sure what an “Ultra-Darwinist” might be – someone who believes Darwin is god, maybe? If so, I doubt any such people exist. Darwinian evolution is a scientific theory which has been confirmed by experimentation time and time again over the past 150 years. As such, it is a fact. People can either accept it, in which case they are rational, or they can dismiss it, in which case they are irrational.

    So the idea that there are “fundamentalist atheists” who are “Ultra-Darwinists” is, frankly, ridiculous.

    • arcseconds

      Just because some statement is true doesn’t mean people can’t take the idea and run it to extremes.

      For example, it’s undeniable that technology solves problems, antibiotics being a great case in point. But in their enthusiasm for technology some people assume that there will always be a technological solution to any given problem (as Levitt and Dunbar do in Superfreaknomics with respect to global warming), and thus that there’s no need for people’s behaviour to change.

      As for atheism, unless one is preciously dogmatic about definitions (which I don’t recommend, as it isn’t warranted by the way language actually works and just leads to all sorts of trouble and nonsense) to the point where this is interfering with one’s perceptions, it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there are books, people, websites, organisations, etc. that call themselves ‘atheist’, yet these people etc. have more in common than merely disbelief in god.

      It’s perhaps an unfortunate choice, because it appears to confuse people, but c’est la langue.

      • “Just because some statement is true doesn’t mean people can’t take the idea and run it to extremes.”

        Atheism doesn’t have extremes. It’s a statement of disbelief. That’s all.

        “…there are books, people, websites, organisations, etc. that call themselves ‘atheist’, yet these people etc. have more in common than merely disbelief in god.”

        So what? It’s not as if anyone is forced to call these books, people, websites, organisations, etc. “atheist” when they’re criticizing them for the other non-atheist things these books, people, websites, organisations, etc. have in common.

        • arcseconds

          I was referring to ‘ultra-darwinism’ with the first half of my post, but atheism even in the narrow sense can certainly be taken to extremes. One could bring it up at every opportunity, insist that all mention of gods be expunged from the public record, force people to recant theism at gunpoint, etc.

          With every other group on the planet it’s OK to have a short noun that the group is by and large happy to use for themselves, and then refer to German literature, punk music, goth fashion, etc.

          Note also that ‘German literature’ does not mean the literature of an unknown tribe mentioned by Julius Caesar, punk music does not mean the music of prostitutes, and goth fashion does not mean the fashion of the East German tribes.

          Why do atheists need to be treated any differently?

          • “…atheism even in the narrow sense can certainly be taken to extremes.”

            No, it can’t, because atheism is simply disbelief in gods. How on Earth can anyone disbelieve in gods “to the max”?

            What you’re talking about is not atheism. It’s antitheism. Atheists can be antitheists, but they are not the same thing.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m a tentative agnostic. I think there are currently no reasons to believe there are gods, and I don’t think there is currently any evidence suggesting there are no gods.

          • So you’re an atheist. That is precisely the atheist position. You don’t need to have evidence suggesting there are no gods to be an atheist – atheism is not a belief that there are no gods – it’s simply lack of belief in gods.

          • arcseconds

            Historically this has not been how the word has been understood. It’s always been used for people who deny the gods, either that they exist, or that they are worthy of worship. Not for people who aren’t sure.

            And this is generally understood by, say, dictionaries, for example:

            Merriam-Webster: ‘a person who believes that God does not exist’

            cambridge: ‘someone who believes that God does not exist’

            Longman ‘the belief that God does not exist’

            The OED’s historical examples are informative:

            1571 A. Golding in tr. J. Calvin Psalmes of Dauid with Comm. Ep. Ded. sig. *.iii, The Atheistes which say..there is no God.
            1604 S. Rowlands Looke to It 23 Thou damned Athist..That doest deny his power which did create thee.
            1699 Ld. Shaftesbury Inq. conc. Virtue i. i. 8 To believe nothing of a designing Principle or Mind, nor any cause or measure or rule of things, but Chance..is to be a perfect Atheist.
            1876 W. E. Gladstone in Contemp. Rev. June 22 By the Atheist I understand the man who not only holds off, like the sceptic, from the affirmative, but who drives himself, or is driven, to the negative assertion in regard to the whole Unseen, or to the existence of God.

            So I’m afraid you’re just wrong about this. Some sources do admit your use, but usually as a secondary meaning, and there is no support whatsoever for it being the only meaning. The most attested use is to refer to people who believe that God does not exist.

            (I’m sure you’ll be tempted to appeal to the etymology of the word. Before you do that, please reflect on whether atoms are indivisible, and perhaps go and learn something about how language works)

          • You are using definitions from dictionaries that are not current. You do know word meanings evolve, right? Oh, that’s right – you retards don’t believe in evolution.

          • I need to make several points. First, you may be confused about the character of this blog and the views of people who frequent it. You will be hard pressed to find a regular commenter who engages in denial of mainstream science.

            Second, this is a blog for serious discussion, and so any substitution of insult in the place of substance is unacceptable. But doing so using a reference to mental health, which is a serious matter and not one that should be used in this way, is beyond the pale.

            Kindly adjust your rhetoric and your discussion content to the high level that the blog aspires to.

          • arcseconds

            So, it’s evolved to mean what you want it to mean, but it hasn’t evolved beyond what you want it to mean?

            That’s pretty convenient 🙂

          • arcseconds

            oh, yeah, here’s the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy‘s take: “‘Atheism’ means the negation of theism, the denial of the existence of God. “

          • Maybe that’s why I’ve never even heard of the “Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy”. Also, why are you using an encyclopedia of philosophy as a dictionary?

            I use the Oxford English Dictionary – the single most authoritative source of English word meanings in the fricken universe. Maybe that’s why I know what words mean, while morons like you keep insisting words mean things they haven’t meant in half a century.

          • Not knowing one of the major online reference works is something to be embarrassed about.

            You sound like the disappointing students who start an essay with “Webster’s Dictionary defines…” Dictionaries are descriptive, and do not do justice to instances like this one where words are at the center of contested cultural identities. For instance, Richard Dawkins considers himself an atheist. By your terminology, he ought to be using the term “antitheist.” You are free, of course, to take the matter up with him. But a better course of action, in my opinion, would be to recognize that words are often used in more than one way, and thus the question of whether there can be an “extremist atheism” will probably have to be settled in a manner other than consulting a dictionary.

          • arcseconds

            So, it’s your position that the term ‘atheist’ hasn’t been used to mean ‘denies the existence of God’ for the last 50 years (or perhaps that the use has been extremely marginal)?

            That’s a pretty strong claim, especially as it seems to me that it’s used all the time to mean exactly that, including on this blog.

            Have you got any proof for this?

          • John MacDonald

            Hence, a-theism.

          • Mark Z.

            That’s the “preciously dogmatic about definitions” that arcseconds warned about earlier.

            There’s “atheism” in the extremely narrow negatively-defined sense. There is also an atheist community, which has many affirmative beliefs such as “gods do not exist”, “the supernatural in general does not exist”, and “nobody should engage in religious practices”.

            (No, not everyone in that community believes all of those things; that’s not how community beliefs work. However, those are statements one could make in the atheist community and probably not be challenged.)

            What I see you doing here is using your narrow definition of atheism as a hook to drag people into the atheist community. You think the existence of God is not really well-supported by evidence at the moment? Great, you’re an atheist, come join us and start absorbing all of our values! The narrow definition isn’t meant to facilitate productive discussion; it’s a recruiting ploy.

          • “That’s the “preciously dogmatic about definitions” that arcseconds warned about earlier.”

            It’s a fricken dictionary definition. Look it up. Yes, dictionary definitions are dogmatic – that’s the only way they can be useful. The moment words mean whatever anyone wants them to mean, that’s the moment we may as well give up using language.

          • You are putting the cart before the horse. Words mean whatever people use them to mean. Dictionaries try to describe those forms of usage at any given time.

          • arcseconds

            You said just before that words evolve, but here you are appealing to the authority of a dictionary and saying words evolving would be a terrible thing!

            Is this a joke, or are you truly unaware of how inconsistent you are being?

            Again, I would recommend reflecting a little further on how words acquire new meanings. Perhaps you might want to find a linguistics primer.

          • John MacDonald

            I’m pretty sure I’m not an “atheist.” I’m a “tentative agnostic.”

            If we take language as our clue, the alpha privative in “a-gnostic” suggests a lack of knowledge one way or the other (nothing tipping the scales in favor of “atheism” or “theism”). It is an epistemological claim. On the other hand, if we take the alpha privative in “a-theist,” we have an ontological claim of the “lack of gods.”

            I stand by what I said: the current evidence I am aware of doesn’t persuade me one way or the other. I am open to the fact that I may one day encounter new evidence, or re-think evidence I am already aware of, that will tip the scales in favor of “a-theism” or “theism”.

            But for now I’m “a-gnostic.”

          • arcseconds

            How on Earth can anyone disbelieve in gods “to the max”?

            I’ve already explained this, but you seemed to have ignored it.

            But this is a more interesting line of discussion. I’ve never heard fundamentalism described as believing something “to the max” before.

            What is it to believe in something “to the max” and how does this relate to fundamentalism as is normally understood?

            No, it isn’t antitheism I’m describing. I’m saying that there is a community who use the word ‘atheist’ to describe themselves, their activities, their products and their leaders, just as there is a community that adopted the word ‘goth’ for themselves.

            These cases seem analogous: ‘goth’ didn’t originally mean someone who dresses in black, dies their hair black, wears offbeat silver jewellery, and listens to gloomy music. The original meaning was to pick out an East German tribe. But most of us are prepared to accept that such people can call themselves what they like, at which point the word has acquired a new meaning and now picks out a contemporary subculture and all that’s associated with it.

            So why should the same not apply to the word ‘atheist’? Or do you think this is a misuse of ‘goth’, too?

            (I’m kind of repeating myself here, of course… perhaps you could pay more attention to what I’m saying?)

          • jekylldoc

            I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know how it uses “ultra-Darwinist”, but there are some examples which don’t fall in the category of “anti-theist”. For example, many evolutionary behaviorists take their working assumption literally and argue that all psychological phenomena can be explained by evolutionary forces, or at least as malfunctions of those evolutionary forces.

            A more sensible and moderate view acknowledges that evolutionary biology can set boundaries on behavior without explaining everything going on within those boundaries. Just because you can’t get published in a journal of evolutionary behaviorism without a link to evolutionary forces doesn’t mean there is nothing else going on in the world.

            More in the anti-theist direction, there is a lot of rejection of liberal theology based not on rational critique but based on the fact that it is theology. Their opposition to the general social phenomenon of religion leads them to reject modernist versions, such as process theology, often without considering those versions beyond the merest first hearing. In the extreme case they tar people like Rowan Williams as allies of jihadist murderers.

      • I agree that there are individuals who call themselves atheists -especially on internet forums ;^) – who have similarities to fundamentalists in their thoughtless dogmatism, and knee-jerk responses to opposition. But I see the term “fundamentalist atheist” commonly used to compare people like Richard Dawkins, Dan Dennett, and Sam Harris to the likes of Ken Hamm.

        I can’t take comparisons of Richard Dawkins to Ken Hamm seriously.

        • David Evans

          True. I can’t think of a well-known atheist who is in any way comparable to Ken Ham. A few bloggers, maybe.

          • Yes, the atheists normally compared to Hamm are generally esteemed academics with PhD’s and prominence in their fields.

            With his BA in biology and high school teaching career, Hamm isn’t nearly in the same league.

        • arcseconds

          Dawkins is in a different league to Ham in the sense that Dawkins is a recognised expert in something whereas Ham is an expert in nothing, not even the Bible or Christianity.

          But is it a necessary feature of fundamentalism that they be ignorant across the board? I don’t think so. They are fundamentalist in respect of their religious beliefs (in the case of a Christian fundamentalist) but that doesn’t mean they can’t be an expert in some area (like Damadian, whom I don’t know is a fundamentalist, but I don’t conclude he’s not just because he pioneered the use of nuclear magenetic resonance as a medical diagnostic tool).

          To my mind, the things that characterize fundamentalism are a certainty of belief, black-and-white thinking, and an us-versus-them attitude. Fundamentalists firmly believe that they have the truth, and that anyone who disagrees is on the wrong side, and is an enemy, or collaborating, enabling, or accommodating the enemy. Alongside these features, and strongly connected to them, are authoritarianism, literalism, a kind of simplistic essentialism, a tendency to demonize those they see as their opponents, eliminationism (their work won’t be done until their enemies no longer exist) and isolationism (refusing to engage in meaningful dialogue with even people who are nominally on a similar page). As a kind of a tertiary layer, they also tend to be misogynist and often racist.

          And I think Dawkins and Harris actually do fit the bill here.

          Note that while they do have fields of competence, neither of them are experts in religion, in the sense that neither have credentials analogous to what we’d expect of someone to be taken seriously in a scientific field. Neither of them are religious anthropologists, historians of religion, academic philosophers. They can not even claim extensive experience within a religious tradition (except maybe movement atheism?), as Harris had an entirely secular upbringing, and Dawkins became a atheist as a teenager.

          That’s just to say there’s no reason to be impressed with their expertise when commenting on religion, let alone to defer to them.

          If you can’t see the similarities, then it might be worth starting with Dawkins’s ‘letter to muslima’, which amply demonstrates misogyny (amply!), racism, and demonization of religion (and of women who speak up against harassment), and how he reacts when his authority is challenged.

          • You’ve accused Dawkins and Harris of too long a list of “ills”, for me to address. They are not perfect men, but neither do I think you have portrayed them fairly. I also do not think that everything in your laundry list qualifies as descriptor of fundamentalism.

            Your reference to the Muslina letter is trickier. I would agree that Dawkins can speak insensitively and unthinkingly at times; but I think mysogeny is too harsh an assessment .

    • David Evans

      Darwinian evolution has indeed been confirmed as the dominant mechanism by which species change and new species arise (though with some competition from other mechanisms like genetic drift). However dogmatic materialists go further and say that there was no supernatural intervention at any point during evolution, nor at the origin of life. I don’t think those propositions have been confirmed – there just isn’t enough evidence. Intelligent design isn’t a scientific theory because it offers no testable predictions, but it remains a logically possible hypothesis.

      • By “dogmatic materialists” you must mean people who demand evidence before they believe something. That is not dogmatic, but merely rational. It’s why sane people don’t believe in the Easter Bunny, fairies, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, the Tooth Fairy or any other myth or claim that has no evidence supporting it, including God.

        Most materialists do not “say that there was no supernatural intervention at any point during evolution, nor at the origin of life.” What they say is that there’s no evidence for such intervention, so there’s no reason to believe it happened. That’s not dogma – it’s sanity. The whole problem with the history of the human race is that we have been far too willing to believe things exist without any evidence supporting such beliefs. I think it’s about time we grew up and started approaching serious questions with a serious attitude, including a method that ensures that what we believe in has at least some evidence.

        • David Evans

          I am sympathetic with your attitude, but some people think they do have evidence for the existence of God. (And, indeed, for the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. I take it that your worldview would not be shaken if either of those were discovered?)

          If one already believes in a God who created the world it’s natural to think that he might be responsible for particular features that we don’t understand. That’s not a scientific hypothesis but neither is it flatly irrational.

          • The people who think they have evidence for the existence of God are mistaken. Most of the ones I’ve run into don’t understand the difference between a claim and evidence.

            My worldview wouldn’t be disturbed even a little bit if anything, including a god were discovered. If evidence for a god were found tomorrow, I would be happy to believe in her, although I would still need assurances that she was benevolent before I started fawning over her like Christians do over their god.

            If one already believes in a god who created the world, when there is no evidence such a being exists, then the initial belief in a god is the problem, not the natural and rational ideas that come from that flawed belief.

          • I wonder where concepts such as a multiverse, and even a natural account of abiogenesis, fit into this. Aren’t these “claims” which are not at the very least involve believing something and then seeking evidence?

        • jekylldoc

          “The whole problem with the history of the human race is that we have been far too willing to believe things exist without any evidence supporting such beliefs.”

          The whole problem? Not rivalry for resources? Not reliance on violence to settle differences over cultural practices? The whole problem? This would be an example of overstatement motivated by a philosophical position.

      • A scientific hypothesis IS testable. “Intelligent Design” doesn’t even provide a process to test for. What is “intelligent design”?

        • David Evans

          I said “logically possible” not “scientific”. Intelligent design is the hypothesis that, sooner or later, we will discover some feature in the living world which cannot be explained by natural selection. It’s not refutable, because of that “sooner or later” get-out clause. But it still might be true. Visiting aliens might have intervened at some point.

          As a rough analogy, a player in a series of card games might come to the conclusion that something in the run of play can only be accounted for by rare episodes of cheating. This can’t be refuted, because a failure to find the cheat might just mean they have stopped for the time being. But it’s a logically possible hypothesis, and might be true and even provable.

          • Like many suggestions found in religious apologetics, this one mistakenly assumes that an “intelligent designer” is the logical alternative to any evolutionary process that can’t be explained by natural selection.

            Such vague, unsubstantiated hypotheses, deserve as much attention as the evidence that they fail to garner.

            “Criterion of Adequacy (CoA):
            As evidence accumulates, the degree to which the collection of true evidence statements comes to support a hypothesis, as measured by the logic, should tend to indicate that false hypotheses are probably false and that true hypotheses are probably true.”


            So, again, what – exactly – is “intelligent design”.

  • momtarkle

    It’s “teetotalers” or “teetotallers”.