scilogs Biology of Religion

Charles Darwin about the Evolution of Religion

from Michael Blume, 16. December 2011, 21:46

On very rare occassions, scientific writing can be clear and poetic at the same time. As I prepared my lecture about Charles Darwin's evolutionary hypotheses concerning religion for the European Society for Evolutionary Biology (ESEB) this year, I was amazed by the dense information and sheer beauty of the introduction Darwin gave to the religion subchapter in his "Descent of Man" (1871), page 65.

Let us take a look at those five introductory sentences framing Darwin's evolutionary perspective on "Belief in God - Religion".

"There is no evidence that man was aboriginally endowed with the ennobling belief in the existence of an Omnipotent God. On the contrary there is ample evidence, derived not from hasty travellers, but from men who have long resided with savages, that numerous races have existed and still exist, who have no idea of one or more gods, and who have no words in their languages to express such an idea.”

In his opening sentences, Darwin is refuting the idea of an "Urmonotheismus", a primordial monotheism. Instead, he asserts that some "savage" traditions have no concept of higher deities (such as mono-, poly- or henotheism), thereby bringing up his central argument: That contemporary beliefs and religions evolved from very simple beginnings, too.

“The question is of course wholly distinct from that higher one, whether there exists a Creator and Ruler of the universe; and this has been answered in the af-firmative by the highest intellects that have ever lived.”

Proving his sound education in anglican theology (the only university degree Darwin mastered throughout his life), Darwin then explains that evolutionary (that is: empirical) studies of religiosity and religions neither proves nor disproves the existence of (a) God. Instead, these questions are to be discussed in the metaphysical realms of philosophies and theologies. Darwin is adding a curteous nod to (evolutionary) theists, many of whom - i.e. Alfred Russel Wallace - accompanied and supported his scientific mission.

“If, however, we include under the term "religion" the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies, the case is wholly different; for this belief seems to be almost universal with the less civilised races. Nor is it difficult to comprehend how it arose.”

If theistic religions evolved from earlier forms, we would need a broad and workable definition. Darwin is offering "the belief in unseen or spiritual agencies" - in contemporary words: supernatural agents (or, even more precisely: superempirical agents). Ancestors, spirits, angels are encompassed by this definition as are sentient mountains and trees, Buddhist bodhisatvas, Jain tirthankaras, Shintoist khami or even Raelian space aliens and, of course, any poly-, heno- or monotheistic deities.

It is an interesting coincidence that, although only a small number of contemporary colleagues are aware of Darwin's own works on the matter, contemporary definitions of supernatural (superempirical) agents became the most successful and prevalent working definitions in interdisciplinary studies of religion.

For that, I am assuming a single reason: Charles Darwin had been right on this topic.

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  1. Carl del Prado Monotheism
    17.12.2011 | 13:29

    The universal belief that some spiritual agencies had higher power produces polytheism. This belief evolved, to monotheism, the which was solidified by Moses and the prophet Elijah.

    The change from monotheism to politheism, is attributed to "Revelation" (the intrusion of the top spiritual agency into human affairs).

    Evoutionists, have done an excellent job explaining evolution on earth, but there is an enormous missing link:
    how the Big bang carried the possibility of producing life as we know it, even from randomness,specially rationality. Is the god particle the answer?

  2. Michael Blume @Carl de Prado
    18.12.2011 | 18:58

    Thank you for your thoughts!

    I'd just like to add that evolutionists can be theists, too. Actually, evolutionary theism existed from the start of evolutionary theory (think of Alfred Russel Wallace, Antoinette Brown Blackwell, Teilhard de Chardin etc.) and it is on the rise in contemporary religion(s) and culture(s). Cp.:

    Best wishes!

  3. Cris Evolution for Christians
    18.12.2011 | 22:11

    Hi Michael,

    My sister is a Christian old earth creationist, and I was talking with her about this recently and trying to explain that her Christian beliefs need not be in conflict with evolution. Can you recommend any good books (for the layperson) that address this issue? Beginner level stuff would be best.

    Many thanks!

  4. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    19.12.2011 | 10:46

    Some Creationists have found that they can no longer argue against Evolution. So they have simply accommodated it.

    The faithful have always dealt thus with science that can no longer be denied but which contradicts their canon; Copernicus, Galileo, Lyell, Darwin.

    In the past 30/40 years - maybe since 1976/'The Selfish Gene' - evolutionary theory has featured much more prominently in the media leading to a somewhat better general understanding. I suggest that any current upsurge of interest in Evolutionary Theism is due to the realization by some Theists that it is no longer possible to argue, rationally, against Evolution; so 'let's claim it for God'.

  5. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    19.12.2011 | 15:05

    Over the past 500/600 years, religion has been in full retreat from the advance of science and moral philosophy. As I have argued above, on the whole, after considerable kicking and screaming, its eventual response has been 'accommodation'. Examples -----------

    Life on Earth was not created.

    The Earth is not static at the centre of the universe.

    The universe is not

  6. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    19.12.2011 | 15:17


    The universe is not

  7. John Jacob Lyons Subject
    19.12.2011 | 15:20

    There appears to be a s/w problem. My comments are being truncated.

    Divine judgement of my atheism??

  8. Martin Huhn @ Lyons
    19.12.2011 | 16:25

    Are you use angle brackets? They don't work.

  9. J. A. Le Fevre @ JJL
    19.12.2011 | 21:34

    Sixteen hundred years ago Christian theologian St. Augustine of Hippo wrote in his "The Literal Interpretation of Genesis" that to insist on a literal interpretation would bring mockery upon Christianity. A truth not warn by time and recognized as well by the Pope and the Arch Bishop of Canterbury as reported by Richard Dawkins in his ‘The Greatest Show on Earth’. Christians are far from one mind on that subject.

  10. J. A. Le Fevre @ Cris
    19.12.2011 | 21:39

    You might look at: 'The Language of God' by Francis Collins.

  11. John Jacob Lyons @J A Le Fevre
    20.12.2011 | 10:16

    Addressing the literal interpretation of Genesis, you write,

    "--- Christians are far from one mind on that subject."

    What a sad indictment of our intellectual progress since St Augustine's warning this is!! As we know, Creationism is, even now, a potent (and well funded) force in the land.

    Of course, Augustine was addressing the relatively few literate intellectuals of his time; the uneducated masses were still being regaled with the Genesis story from the pulpit. (Many still are.)It satisfied their need for an answer to the ultimate and perennial question - Where did all this come from? (It still does.) It bolstered the awe felt by the people for the clergy that conveyed the story to them as well as for their, relatively educated, lords and masters. Common belief was (and still is) an important constituent of the glue that binds society. The State-The Clergy-The Law-The People: a society in equilibrium.

    Science has given us some of the answer to the Ultimate Question of course: the 'Big-bang', quantum theory, abiogenesis, evolution. Mysteries remain and they are subject to rational inquiry. But isn't it time that the literal interpretation of Genesis was confined to history?

  12. J. A. Le Fevre Evolution will win in the end?
    20.12.2011 | 17:36

    Evolution is a slow process and the noted phenomenon suggests that a close knit community has been more important to survival than an accurate understanding of celestial mechanics. It is only very recently that an understanding or acceptance of evolution could play any role in increasing the competitive posture of a community. On the flip side, Michael’s studies show that a rejection of religion serves a decidedly destructive role in a community’s competitive posture, which very likely serves to slow the acceptance of evolution. Rather ironic, that.

  13. John Jacob Lyons @J A Le Fevre
    20.12.2011 | 18:59

    It would indeed appear that the religious tend to be more fecund than the non-religious. I'm not clear on how you define "A community's competitive posture" but it is clear to me that measuring the success of a community simply by assuming a positive correlation with the number of heads is a very unwise and impoverished notion. In some countries, the problems generated by over-population are, even now, leading to the need to restrain the fecundity of both the religious and the non-religious.

    Also, as we have noted before, the rejection of the Genesis story in favour of evolutionary theory is not only a function of differential fecundity. Other cultural factors (eg reading Mr Dawkins) can cause very significant apostasy.

    Personally, I would regard Denmark as a relatively successful society despite its small population and its secularism. On the other hand, as you know, there are several societies that are both more religious, have all the problems of over-population and could hardly be considered successful or an example we would wish to emulate.

  14. 23.12.2011 | 07:15

    You might want to show your sister an evolutionary song sung by Christians - and thanking God for Evolution. ;-)

    As a text, I could recommend those of the eminent biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky whose title coined the prominent quote: Nothing in Biology makes Sense except in the Light of Evolution.

    Best wishes

  15. John Jacob Lyons Dear Michael
    23.12.2011 | 11:57

    Despite my earlier comments, I want to applaud the suggestion that erstwhile creationists are moving toward 'evolutionary theism'. This is certainly a significant step away from irrational belief in a rather mischievous human construct and toward the light of a rational interpretation of the evidence.

    Lord Alfred Tennyson wisely wrote " There lives more faith in honest doubt, believe me, than in half the creeds". My hope is that the step toward evolutionary theism that we discern will encourage 'honest doubt' and, in due course, lead to the revelation that we are solely responsible for living the one life that the evolutionary processes have given us.

    Hope you, your family and all contributors to this blog have a very happy Xmas and a peaceful New Year.

  16. J. A. Le Fevre @ JJL - Succumbing to the thrall of Dawkins
    03.01.2012 | 22:59

    One need not embrace apostasy to accept Darwin over genesis, and I would not contrast Denmark with Darfur for this exercise. I was considering rather Europe (individually and collectively): As devout Christians, dominating the world for 500 years – politically, economically and militarily. Though maintaining their acumen, secular Europe has lost much of its will to express competitive challenge and has withdrawn to internal contemplations, its borders guarded by foreign troops.

  17. GregM reshaping evolution
    25.06.2012 | 12:05

    Darwin would find it very difficult to define evolution in this techno age. He might need some help from the Khanna's new book about human -technology co-evolution. Fascinating new framework.

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