Back in July 2012, I put up a post about some of the false claims the Christian right makes about Darwin. It seems only fair that I give equal time to some of the nonsense coming from atheists.
One of the things I learned from Thomas Holt’s beautifully detailed The Problem of Freedom (on emancipation and its aftermath in Jamaica) is that we have never really left the 19th century. We are still living in that long century, as it has been called. Our obsession with so many ideas about life and ourselves comes from that era: Technology is the key to improving our lives, we are the end product of civilization, continual progress is ours for the asking, our civilization is more humanitarian than any other, the free market will never fail to improve our lives, the desire for luxuries is the engine of progress (this idea is actually older than the 19th century), people can learn to acquire this desire, if they don’t already have it, and more. All were there well over a century ago from our present. We are just living out their dream.
I will go back even further. I don’t think we are all that superior to ancient peoples. We like to think that the ancients were prone to inventing gods and myths, and were far less intelligent than us. We are not really any different. We often hold ideologies to be superior to any intelligent solution of a problem. We love mythmaking and we have no compunctions about playing fast and loose with the evidence to get there. Historical study of Charles Darwin is a case in point.
There of course was a real, historical Darwin, but scholars have manipulated the evidence to create a myth. The Darwin so many people believe in is quite a fiction.
I recently made some comments on an atheist website that Darwinists have deified him. I got a lot of flak for that. My main objection is that one cannot deify a man who was so cavalier about the extermination of native peoples. When I mentioned his racism, they were quick to deny it. When I presented just a little bit of evidence, they said, So what? I later realized that there is a fascinating bit of history that tends to confirm my point about the deification of Charles Darwin (which he would have hated, by the way; I don’t lay his glorification at his feet; this is strictly the fault of later academics).
Before it was known as the theory of evolution, it was known as the theory of development or the development hypothesis. It went by other names too (like the transmutation of species), but development was the most popular. Benjamin Disraeli wrote a hilarious satire of it which served as a scene in his 1847 novel Tancred. The satire was based on the theory as expounded by Robert Chambers, but it also reads like a send-up of Origin of Species a dozen years before it was published. Disraeli may not have been very fair, but it is incredibly funny all the same.
One of the interesting things about this theory in its early days is that atheists and atheist publications did a lot to promote the development hypothesis. No one did as much as Chambers (who was not an atheist), with the publication of Vestiges (1844), but atheists were instrumental in getting everyone used to the idea that species have developed from a common ancestor (or ancestors) and that this was a sensible suggestion.
Emma Martin, an atheist and active feminist, distributed 4,000 copies of her pamphlet First Conversation on the Being of a God just a few months before Chambers’ book appeared. Part of it argued for the development of species. Her friend Henry Hetherington wrote an article a couple of years earlier affirming the validity of the development of species, noting that the only mystery was how it happens. Atheists were interested in the theory because it meant you could explain life on earth without reference to God and, not incidentally, undermine the authority of religious teachers and clerics.
Actually, this was not so much about God as it was about challenging religious authorities’ control of society. It was about breaking free of the prison of theology and the claim of clerics to speak for God. One might say that the more things change, the more they remain the same. Today the prison is academic ideology and it takes just as much effort to challenge it as any old-time theology.
By the time Origin was published in 1859, probably a majority of people (except for the die-hard professional scientists) believed evolution was plausible. Darwin did not start a revolution, he joined one in progress, as I have said a number of times in my work.
Since atheists were instrumental in bringing this about, you would think that atheists today would celebrate this. But as far as I can tell (and I am no expert on atheism), atheists, like many academics, have erased this part of history. Why would they do that? Why would atheists ignore an accomplishment in their own history that they have every right to be proud of? One obvious answer is that they need to glorify Darwin as a unique revolutionary who had no equals—a lone, saintly hero battling reactionary forces. In short, a god. A god cannot have any competition.
This may not be the only reason for the peculiar attitude atheists have towards their own past, but I think it does demonstrate a tendency to glamorize Darwin beyond human dimensions. It is an intriguing irony that atheists would delete some important predecessors for the sake of making one man larger than life. It also illustrates the dangers of modern mythmaking. When the desire to create myths is so strong that it can cause people to alter and suppress parts of their own story, it is a force to be reckoned with. The drive to mythologize is alive and well in the 21st century, even among people who consider themselves perfect rationalists.
There is a lesson in this for all of us: Good science and scholarship require constant vigilance. They are never a fait accompli. Even an atheist can become a reactionary force.
© 2013 Leon Zitzer