Is Charles Darwin the “Poster Boy” for the New Atheists? December 31, 2008

Is Charles Darwin the “Poster Boy” for the New Atheists?

(This is a guest post by Trina Hoaks. Trina is the Atheist Examiner at

In her article, Darwin shouldn’t be hijacked by New Atheists — he is an ethical inspiration, Madeleine Bunting accuses atheists of using Darwin as their poster boy, so to speak. With this in mind, it is not so hard to understand why she has such a bad reputation in certain circles. Her article, if nothing else, can be seen as controversial, as the original article has generated approximately 600 comments since it was posted yesterday. Add to that another 100+ comments to the same article on Richard Dawkins‘ site and it is obvious that people are outraged.

It is funny how she, who accused atheists of kidnapping Darwin and his work, used the upcoming 2009 dual Darwin anniversary as an excuse to point her condemning finger at atheists.

Pot, kettle — kettle, pot?

In her article, she pretends to know what Darwin’s reaction to atheists embracing his work would be. She said that “what would have baffled Darwin is his recruitment as standard bearer for atheism in the 21st century.”

I suppose now we can add the title “Psychic” to her professional repertoire.

She went on to say:

Yet bizarrely, the whole 19th-century collapse of faith is now pinned on Darwin. While he was poring over his pigeons, biblical scholars were hard at work radically revising the historical understanding of the Bible and arguably doing as much as he ever did to undermine the possibility of a literal reading of scripture. The work of the Victorian geologist Charles Lyell debunked the idea of seven days of creation in Genesis long before Darwin.

Does anyone else sense Bunting’s downplay of the significance of Darwin’s contribution to the understanding of life in her paragraph? Perhaps it was just poor wording choice on her part or faulty inference on my part. Speaking of “poor wording choice,” one can only hope that that is the reason she makes it seem that she thinks that Darwin was intentionally working to undermine the Bible. That is one of the greatest false contentions of religious anti-evolutionists — that scientists do their science to debunk religion.

When will these people realize not everything is about them? As I said in my own book, “[i]t is the misguided person who does not comprehend that when scientific evidence challenges religion it is, by and large, purely incidental.”

Bunting called out a couple of atheists who will be participating in celebratory events honoring Darwin in a less-than-favorable way. She said:

The fear is that the anniversary will be hijacked by the New Atheism as the perfect battleground for another round of jousting over the absurdity of belief (a position that Darwin pointedly never took up). Many of the prominent voices in the New Atheism are lined up to reassert that it is simply impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin’s theory of evolution; Richard Dawkins and the US philosopher Daniel Dennett are among those due to appear in Darwin200 events. It’s a position that infuriates many scientists, not to mention philosophers and theologians.

Dawkins wasted no time in posting a comment to Bunting’s article, included here, unedited, in its entirety.

A telling litmus test of an ignoramus on the subject of Darwin is their rendering of the title of his great book. The [diagnostic] solecism — remarkably common — is to stick a ‘the’ before ‘species’. Sure enough, Madeleine Bunting falls right into it, exactly as you would expect. The correct title, of course, is On the Origin of Species.

It is true that Darwin declined to call himself an atheist. But his motive, clearly expressed to the atheist intellectual Edward Aveling (incidentally the common-law husband of Karl Marx’s daughter) was that Darwin didn’t want to upset people. Atheism, in Darwin’s view, was all well and good for the intelligentsia, but ordinary people were not yet “ripe” for atheism. So he called himself an agnostic, largely for diplomatic reasons..

In any case, what Darwin chose to call himself, as a pillar of his local parish in the nineteenth century, is of less interest than the cogency of the arguments themselves. Before Darwin came along, it was pretty difficult to be an atheist, at least to be an atheist free of nagging doubts. Darwin triumphantly made it EASY to be an intellectually fulfilled and satisfied atheist. That doesn’t mean that understanding Darwin drives you inevitably to atheism. But it certainly constitutes a giant step in that direction.

Richard Dawkins

So, what say you?

Are atheists “shoplifting the pootie” from Darwin? (Sorry for the Jerry McGuire reference. I couldn’t help myself.)

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • MH

    I think it is a risky strategy to link Darwin and atheism. First, the man is dead and can’t speak for himself. Second, if you force people to choose between science and religion, a huge chunk of our society will choose religion. Think about the negative implications for our society.

  • Doog

    I agree with MH about linking Darwin to atheism. Forcing people to make a choice (rather than offering one and trying to be persuasive) can override their thought process and they end up going with their gut, in which case they’ll pick religion.

    But what my main beef with this article is her accusing us of “hijacking” Darwin for our own ends. What about answers in genesis’ “year of darwin”?

  • Josh Spinks

    There’s a lot of talk about evolution among atheists, for the obvious reason that it is a good example of how religion promotes faith at the expense of reason. I don’t see that much focus on Darwin himself, so the claim that atheists are hijacking Darwin strikes me as groundless. Methinks the author has seen too much of creationist claims that atheists worship Darwin and just assumed that atheists must fixate on Darwin or why would creationists say that? (because they’re profligate liars, of course)

  • I have not yet read the article linked (I hope to do so tommorrow or Friday, when things are a little less hectic), but I think that MH makes an important point. Darwin is dead, and while we can look at what he did write and say to others regarding atheism, it’s a bad idea to put words into his mouth or to assume that we know the full context and content of what he had to say on the matter when he is not present to discuss it himself.

    That being said, while I have not read all of the “New Atheist” (how I detest that label) books, those that I have read have made it clear that an understanding of evolution does not necessarilly force someone to become an atheist, but simply removes an obstacle – the stumbling block of “how did we get here, anyway?”

    So, if an atheist claims that understanding evolution forces atheism, they are not only wrong (we all know religious people who have no problem with accepting evolution), but they are also playing right into the hands of the half-wits and demagogues of the world who require that the equation “Darwin=Atheism=immoral societal collapse” be true in order to further their own agenda.

    In other words, the truth is on our side, we shouldn’t overplay our hand.

  • lunarmagpie
  • Eric

    What about those of us who are biologists and atheists? Are we hijacking Darwin too? I would think that the man who revolutionized biology and who also renounced his faith would be the perfect representative for us.

  • Jesse

    What annoys me most about her article is that she seems to assume that a scientific theory needs an ethical standpoint or basis in some sort of worldview – be it atheism, abolitionism or anything else. The study of reality stands on its own.

  • I believe she is correct in the sense that evolution is a very poor an unnecessary argument for atheism. However, she is attacking a straw man, because afaik, even Dawkins doesn’t argue that it’s “impossible to believe in God and accept Darwin’s theory of evolution.” IMO Dawkins is a little too gung ho about evolution and whatever he thinks the philosophical implications are, but then what else would we expect from an evolutionary biologist?

    Beyond that, I’m not sure what she expects. I refuse to apologize for liking Darwin while incidentally being an atheist.

  • Aj

    Evolution never factored into my atheism. Creationism did and has factored in many people’s theism. Darwin didn’t start evolutionary thought but his theories were instrumental in resolving problems and wide adoption of evolution. I believe Dawkins is right in his estimation of the importance of Darwin towards atheism.

    Madeleine Bunting joins a long list of people who readily lie about Dawkins, and more rarely lie about Dennett. She shows her stripes when she writes that Darwin’s refutation of scientific racism was driven by a moral impulse instead of a truth impulse. Placing Darwin anywhere near to Freud or Marx is an insult to him, and shows us where her priorities are i.e. not in science.

  • SarahH

    I think that Bunting’s article would have been best left ignored. She’s free to spout her shrill fear-mongering about atheists, but in this case, I think responding is simply giving her what she wants, and what people like her interpret as more ammunition, in some cases.

    Anyway, I say anyone and everyone who appreciates Darwin’s work – philosophers, scientists, atheists, theists, writers, bloggers, everyone! – should join in the celebrating, and appreciation for his work (and yes, its fruits in different areas) shouldn’t be overshadowing by bickering and finger-pointing.

    Incidentally, I think this quote is pure gold: “[…]when scientific evidence challenges religion it is, by and large, purely incidental.” Spot on.

  • bobxxxx

    That doesn’t mean that understanding Darwin drives you inevitably to atheism. But it certainly constitutes a giant step in that direction.

    Dawkins said it perfectly. Of course a good understanding of evolution can make any theist doubt his childish religious beliefs. Evolution threatens not just the magical creation myth. It completely kills the idea that people are special. Special enough to go to heaven, or special enough for a god fairy to notice them.

  • I agree with Professor Agazzi, who says: If you read Darwin’s books, Darwin directly, You can see that he was never opposed to the idea of Creation. Never. He was always opposed to the idea of individual species being created by God or by Someone, Separately rather than being the result of a transformation. What happens nowadays? Unfortunately once again in the United States there is a minority of fundamentalist Evangelicals, Seeking to take the Bible word for word, as a discourse that tells us how the world was created. They call themselves creationists. Once again the term has been seized for another use. The term “creationists” does not mean in the slightest. That the book of Genesis should be taken as a true story about the Cosmos. But for them it does. They say yes, here is something that at the very least. Should be taught alongside the theory of evolution.. Once again a mistake has been made. And people say, Creationists are enemies of science and enemies of Evolution.
    Santiago Chiva
    Granada, Spain

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