Darwinism as Religion

What Literature Tells Us about Evolution

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Michael Ruse
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , October
     328 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Michael Ruse is one of the world’s best-known philosophers of science, familiar from his many books in the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology. A staunch defender of evolutionary science against its critics, Ruse has now nevertheless written a book arguing that in addition to being a science, Darwinism has also functioned from the beginning as a kind of secular religion.

Ruse avoids the difficult analytical task of giving a universal definition of “religion.” Instead, he argues that we can define religion through “a list of features none of which is individually considered necessary but a number of which are considered sufficient” (82, n1). According to Ruse, we can speak of Darwinism as a religion because it has spoken to so many religious questions, such as our origins, our future, the existence of God, morality, and suffering. At the very least, we can speak of Darwinism as a “secular religious perspective” that has been widely perceived by many of its adherents and opponents as an attack against traditional Christian religious beliefs.

Darwinism as Religion begins with a survey of the overall intellectual landscape of Victorian Britain and an overview of the development of evolutionism. Ruse paints a picture of a Christianity unable to respond persuasively to the challenges posed by the idea of Progress (written with a capital P), the Enlightenment-era critique of religion, and the emerging historical-critical study of the Bible. While historians of science such as Peter Bowler and Bernard Lightman have argued that the Darwinian revolution was in many respects not a revolution, and not Darwinian, Ruse is at pains to emphasize the centrality of Darwin. Ruse admits that many scientists did not initially adopt Darwin’s idea of natural selection as the primary mechanism of evolution. However, Ruse considers Darwin to be central because it was Darwin who gave evolution scientific respectability, and because Darwin’s version of evolution was the most influential on the popular level. 

As Ruse documents, there have been many different interpretations of the implications of Darwinian evolutionary theory. Can we then be justified in speaking of Darwinism as a religion in the singular? Ruse argues that we can: “The essence of the position now being talked of takes Darwinian theory seriously and (we hope to show) sees it as having significant implications for our understanding of the nature of God—his very existence even—not to mention other parts of the Christian position” (87). According to Ruse, while Darwin himself was a deist, he and the primary popularizers of his theory would have agreed with this core thesis. Thomas Henry Huxley, in particular, wanted to “replace the old Christian theology with the new scientific theology of Darwinism” (83).

Ruse attempts to document the struggle of the “old Christian theology” and this “new scientific theology” in the Anglo-American literature, drawing on a collage of authors, both well known and less so. His analysis begins slightly before Darwin and ends with contemporary Christian author Marilyn Robinson. Ruse argues that popular views of God, human origins, sex, morality, race, suffering, sin, and the future were heavily impacted by Darwinism. Ruse’s handling of each individual topic is subtle, and he has clearly attempted to avoid painting an overly simplistic and monocausal picture of reality. The analysis is peppered with comments that reveal his own viewpoint. For instance, Ruse seems inclined to agree that Christian views of sex in the 1800s were “sterile and repressive” (187).

I found myself wishing for more philosophical analysis of the validity of the religious conclusions drawn from Darwinism. It seems easy to admit many have believed evolution to have wide-ranging moral, political, and theological implications. But should evolution really have such a central place, and can such conclusions be drawn without input from philosophy and theology? Historians have called attention to a wide variety of factors influencing the rise of secularism in the 1800s and 1900s. It would also have been interesting to see Ruse engage more with alternative accounts of the significance of Paley and Darwin for Christianity. For instance, William Paley’s design argument and its demise due to evolution are important elements of the story Ruse tells. However, some theologians (like recently Michael Hanby) have argued that aspects of Paley’s argument already represented a compromise of classical Christian theology.

In an earlier book (Can a Darwinian Be a Christian? Cambridge University Press, 2001), Ruse argues that Darwinism is compatible with Christianity. In this book as well Ruse refers to many writers who have defended the possibility of Christian belief after Darwin. And Ruse admits that evolutionary biologists need not subscribe to  Darwinism as a religion. Nevertheless, Ruse also seems to agree with the essence of his “Darwinistic religion” in the respect that Darwinism does, for Ruse, have significant implications for our understanding of God. For Ruse, in the post-Darwinian world “not only does nature not sing, it is hard to hear the tunes of Heaven either … After Darwin, meaning has been drained from the world and all is laid on faith” (282). It seems then that Ruse would agree with what he earlier termed the essence of Darwinism as a religion. However, Ruse does this by emphasizing the ambiguity of the world and its openness to many different understandings.

Though Ruse’s research seems solid overall, there are some places where his descriptions appear inaccurate. For instance, Paley did not “blithely ignore” objections to his design argument (16), but devoted sections of his Natural Theology to the problem of evil and other objections. Ruse argues that for C. S. Lewis, “scientific thought leads to materialism and a downgrading of human nature, something truly revealed only through the Christian religion” (258). However, Lewis emphasized that the problem is not science, but the ideology of scientism; not evolution as a scientific theory, but evolutionism as a philosophical worldview. For Ruse to say that Lewis was critical of “scientific thought” seems to imply that no valid distinction between science and scientism can be sustained, but I doubt this is Ruse’s intent.

Indeed, the point of Ruse’s book is not to analyze the details of the arguments for and against Darwinism as a religion. Rather, Ruse seeks simply to demonstrate the existence of such a religious perspective, and to show that its influence can be fruitfully studied by analyzing literature. In this task Ruse succeeds, and his book will surely inspire further research into the topic.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Erkki Vesa Rope Kojonen is Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Theology at the University of Helsinki.

Date of Review: 
September 17, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Michael Ruse was born in England in 1940. In 1962 he moved to Canada and taught philosophy for thirty-five years at the University of Guelph in Ontario, before taking his present position at Florida State University in 2000. He is a philosopher and historian of science, with a particular interest in Darwin and evolutionary biology. The author or editor of over fifty books and the founding editor of the journal Biology and Philosophy, he is a fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, a former Guggenheim Fellow and Gifford Lecturer, and the recipient of four honorary degrees.


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