Had Charles Darwin released The Origin of Species or The Descent of Man in the late 16th century, he may have found himself a roommate of Galileo Galilei under lifelong house arrest, or worse, burned at the stake like Galileo’s contemporary Giordano Bruno. Fortunately for Darwin, the Church had lost its authority to try, convict, confine, torture and murder for the crime of heresy by the time the first of Darwin’s two books was published in 1859. Not since the time of Galileo have the truths of our world discovered through science so directly challenged religious dogma and political authority. Galileo’s truth was that Copernicus was correct: the Sun, not the Earth, was at the center of the Solar System. Further, he found that the Earth was not unique. The other bright lights in the sky were planets, not wandering stars, and some had moons just like the Earth. There were other worlds besides Earth, and Galileo was the first to suggest that these other worlds could be inhabited. These facts ran head first into the theocracy that sustained its authority through the inerrant veracity of biblical scripture. A challenge to the dogmatic view of Earth and Man at the center God’s creation undermined the supposedly divinely inspired policy. If the Church had it all wrong, what else were they wrong about? And how could they be wrong if the dogma was divinely inspired?
Other great truths about our world have emerged since Galileo: Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity represented a major advancement by extending classical Newtonian mechanics and gravitation and demonstrating the equivalence between mass and energy. Quantum physics, associated with great scientists like Heisenberg, Pauli, Schrödinger, and Feynman, was able to unify two of major fundamental forces: electromagnetism and the weak nuclear force. As great as the achievements in quantum physics and relativistic physics were, however, it did not directly challenge religious dogma or the basis for political authority. Both religion and the political system could get along fine with or without the new physics at some fundamental level.
Darwin’s work on biological evolution through Natural Selection was a different matter. It did provide both a challenge—more like a deathblow—to dogma and to the basis for political authority. If humans descended from a proto-human ancestor that descended from a non-human ape that ultimately has a common ancestor with one-celled organisms, then it follows that God did not create Man. There was no Adam and Eve. Hence, there was no Original Sin. Darwin was far worse for the Church than Galileo. The Judeo-Christian creation story revealed itself as nothing more than a myth. Noah did not sequester two animals of each kind from a global flood, rather the current variety of animals evolved. Most importantly, Darwin’s Theory of Evolution pulled out from underneath Christianity its entire foundation: Jesus died for the sins of Man, the greatest of which was Original Sin. Without Original Sin, the very fabric of Christianity unwinds.
Not surprisingly, the greatest opposition to the fact of Evolution is from Judeo-Christian religious institutions. As recently as 2008, over 40% of the U.S. adult population did not accept the evolution of humans from an earlier species with an additional 20% being unsure (Miller et al, 2006). Acceptance of evolution requires an abandonment of the underpinning of faith, or a transition to a weak, accommodationist view that struggles to square away the inescapable truth of science with metaphorical biblical contortions. In reality, it is a struggle that has effectively been lost at an intellectual level, with God now retreating to the vanishingly small gaps quickly being filled by science. Any God that might exist is a puny, powerless being more insignificant than Man on his tiny pale blue dot in a massively expansive and mostly empty Universe—hardly a god at all. As firm as Darwin’s evidence was at the time he postulated evolution through natural selection, The Theory of Evolution is now on as solid of ground as any scientific fact that we take for granted. Evolution can be denied no more easily than gravitation.
At the political level, the acceptance of evolution, particularly in the U.S. remains a battle. This is undoubtedly a result of the false notion that morals are derived from God, as exemplified by a statement from current GOP Presidential Candidate Newt Gingrich (GOP Presidential Debate October 18, 2011): “How can you have judgment if you don’t have faith, and how can I trust you with power if you don’t pray?” The same undertone of God-given rights is found in The Declaration Independence, which begins by stating that it is necessary to dissolve political bands to assume the powers “to which the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God entitle them”, and further declares it “self evident” that “all men are created equal [and] that they are endowed by their Creator worth certain unalienable Rights”. Setting aside the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were deists, the implications that there exists absolute, divinely-inspired morals and rights is part of the history of our country. The Declaration of Independence, while simultaneously recognizing the authority of mankind to govern itself, provides a divine justification for the creation of the United States of America. Evolution not only undermines religious faith, it directly threatens a key tenet of political authority. Rejection of faith leads to rejection of divinely inspired morals which, in the mind of the True Believer, will surely lead to anarchy and utter disdain for the value of life. Evolution means Man was not created. Man evolved. And the rights of Man were not endowed by a Creator, but by the intellectual and philosophical reasoning of Man himself. It is up to us to govern ourselves with morals that we develop. Morals belong to Man, not to a God.
On February 12 we honor the genius of Charles Darwin who epitomizes the power of science and reasoned thought. Through painstakingly precise observation obtained primarily during his journey on H.M.S. Beagle, he demonstrated how a simple mechanism of nature—inexact reproduction and competition for survival—could explain the complex variety of organisms in nature. But the celebration of Darwin Day is in many ways more than just recognition of Darwin’s monumental scientific achievement. Darwin effectively drove a stake through the heart of religious dogma and the false political authority propped up by discredited mythology. He was well aware of the power of his idea and its religious implications, an idea Daniel Dennett would later describe as a “universal acid” that eats away at “just about every traditional concept and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view”. The National Atheist Party joins with those individuals and organizations that embrace knowledge over dogma, reason over faith, and the inescapable end game derived from The Theory of Evolution: It is up to us and us alone to govern ourselves. Science will provide the facts and tools we need to do this. Reason will show us the way.