“How Great Thou Art” Doesn’t Work Anymore

Wiped out by Darwin’s close study of nature

When David Attenborough was asked why he didn’t give God credit for the splendor of creation, he offered a good reason:

"They always mean beautiful things like hummingbirds. I always reply by saying that I think of a little child in east Africa with a worm burrowing through his eyeball. The worm cannot live in any other way, except by burrowing through eyeballs. I find that hard to reconcile with the notion of a divine and benevolent creator."

Attenborough’s suspicion of theism was shared by Charles Darwin, who wrote in a letter to Asa Gray in 1860:

“I own that I cannot see as plainly as others do, and as I should wish to do, evidence of design and beneficence on all sides of me. There seems to me to be too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonidae with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.”

There is a very strong tradition in Christian thought, however, that the brilliance of God is evident from nature. In the first chapter of his Letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul complained about wicked people (vv.19-20):

“For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.

So, yes, hummingbirds, sunsets, rainbows, and “purple mountain majesties” have prompted adoration of a creator god who, supposedly, wanted to put on a show for us. But this idealized view doesn’t hold up, as the Attenborough and Darwin quotes illustrate. They spoke inconvenient truths.

But It Was Darwin Who Changed the World

If you haven’t done any homework lately on Darwin, there’s a new book to help with that: Darwin’s Apostles: The Men Who Fought to Have Evolution Accepted, Their Times, and How the Battle Continues, by Dr. David Orenstein and Dr. Abby Hafer. This is a highly readable, richly detailed account of the discovery of evolution by natural selection—and the hysterical pushback, right from the start, from the ecclesiastical establishment.

See also: • Abby Hafer, The Not-So-Intelligent Designer: Why Evolution Explains the Human Body and Intelligent Design Does Not

• Abby Hafer, “Intelligent Design Isn’t Science, and It Doesn’t Even Try to Be Science,” in the John Loftus anthology, Christianity in the Light of Science

• David Orenstien and Linda Ford Blaikie, Godless Grace: How Nonbelievers Are Making the World Safer, Richer and Kinder

The Facebook page for Darwin’s Apostles is here. The book’s website is under construction.

We need to keep in mind the magnitude of Darwin’s achievement: what’s happening in our time demands it. As Orenstein/Hafer state at the end of their book, “Sadly, we live in an era when the idea of scientific truth itself is being disparaged by some of the most powerful people in the world.” (p. 320)

Darwin published On the Origin of Species in 1859, and the theological reaction was intense. Orenstein/Hafer open their account with a description of the annual meeting of The British Association for the Advancement of Science at Oxford University, 30 June 1860:

“The atmosphere was not like a scientific meeting today—more like a cross between a Pittsburgh Steelers football game and a charismatic church service.” (p. 1) The church folks were there to be heard in the debate on Darwin’s book, which had been published just seven months earlier.

The Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, spoke at the meeting…

“…even though he was not a scientist and had never done any science.” He had a place on the platform “…because this was back in the day when the thoughts of bishops were considered to be intellectually and socially important. The mass of clergy in the room loved it and made a point of laughing at all the right places, and cheered loudly and often.” (p. 2)

Wilberforce selected the approach, and set the tone, for generations of anti-evolutionists to come:

He “…stated that he based his objections to evolution only on scientific, rather than religious grounds. But he lied. He lied in the way that denialists often lie, by mixing it in with so much overwhelming verbiage that it can be hard to keep track of when he’s ignoring the facts, when he’s contradicting himself, and simple when he’s getting things horribly wrong.” (p. 3)

Of course, the panic of Wilberforce and the laughing clergy is understandable:

“Evolution by natural selection presents an inherent conflict with theology because it dethrones humans by placing humanity in with the rest of nature. It does this while simultaneously denying special creation—the fundamental creationist idea that all life in the universe was created through miraculous processes by a supernatural force—on the grounds that there is no evidence for it.” (p. 32)

The alarm, we can be sure, is about the blasting of hope for heaven: the old eternal life gimmick that has worked forever. The devout are on a faith adventure—evidence doesn’t matter—but what does matter is resisting challenges to heaven. Anything that undermines God and his special relationship to humans must be opposed.

Once natural selection is understood—utterly impersonal forces shaping nature for millions of years, creating new species, rendering others extinct—a creator god is left with nothing to do. There is no hard evidence for a creator deity anyway. The money quote in the Orenstein/Hafer book has to be:

“It was Nietzsche who proclaimed ‘God is dead.’ But we know that it was not old age or illness that ended the life of the divine. It was Charles Darwin’s natural selection that killed him.” (p. 224)

But theology is fond of piggybacking onto science to squeeze God into the picture. After physicist (and Catholic priest) Georges Lemaître had proposed the primordial explosion that we now call the Big Bang, he cautioned the pope not to claim that Genesis had thus been “proved.” Lemaître knew very well that there was no evidence for that—no hard data—and that cosmologists might one day discover an explanation involving no god at all.

Hard data is what Charles Darwin relied upon. He possessed acute observation skills, put to use so famously during his almost five year voyage on The Beagle. During subsequent years he figured out natural selection, before the discovery of genetics and DNA. But someone else was thinking along the same lines, whose name is not as well known: Alfred Russel Wallace, who spent years studying plants and animals in the Amazon rainforests and the Malay Archipelago. Darwin realized, based on correspondence from Wallace, that they had arrived at the same conclusions—and rushed to get his much-delayed book on natural selection published.

At a July 1858 meeting of the Linnean Society of London, “…evolution by natural selection was first presented to British scientists.” “Consider the contrast,” Orenstein/Hafer advise: “…that raucous Oxford debate versus a real scientific meeting…” (p. 8) The audience heard a letter from Darwin explaining natural selection, and an essay penned by Wallace.

Orenstein/Hafer include a 38-page chapter on Wallace and his contribution to the discovery.

There are also chapters on each of the other Darwin apostles: Thomas Henry Huxley, Joseph Dalton Hooker, Asa Gray, and John William Draper. What a great cast of characters to advocate for this scientific breakthrough!

Huxley became known as Darwin’s bulldog; he was a firebrand, and did not suffer fools gladly. At the famous Oxford debate, Bishop Wilberforce supposedly said of Huxley, “Was it through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey?” Huxley replied that he “…was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth.” (p. 6)

Orenstein/Hafer point out that apostle means “messenger” or “a person on a errand,” but of course it carries heavy religious connotations. The apostles we’re used to hearing about occupy a niche in ancient fantasy literature, so the 19th century group that championed Darwin has a lot more going for them: “Perhaps the main difference between Darwin’s and Christ’s apostles is one of evidence and verifiability.” (p. 30)

After Jesus disappeared, various theologies about him became rampant—galloping off it all directions. But it is possible to research Darwin’s thought—and that of his advocates—because of the thousands of letters that survive: “From the perspective of Darwin’s apostles, having your mentor around for an additional two decades after he published his germinal work allows you time to ask questions and develop your own work. This full and direct experience can bolster your advocacy and tenacity, making you even more determined to see his ideas sprout, grow, and then become accepted.” (p. 30)

The arrogant and aggressive ignorance displayed by evolution denialists is indeed inexcusable. Orenstein/Hafer point out that the catalogue used by the Library of Congress “…has over 2,300 items on Charles Darwin. There are more than 24,000 books and other materials on human evolution, and more than 1,400 books on Origin of Species.” (p. 66)

“…the mountain to climb to dethrone Darwin and natural selection is so steep that one must inevitably fail, suffering a lack of credibility at every turn…The simple truth is that each and every detractor’s main argument requires an all-knowing creator to be behind the creation of life, not only on earth but of the universe itself. Such a concept is always theistic in nature and thus, as both reason and the courts have rightly claimed, is unevidenced and scientifically unprovable.” (p. 67)

Two especially helpful chapters in Darwin’s Apostles are Number 4, “Life and Times of Victorian England,” and 15, “The Storm Clouds Rise Again: Twentieth and Twenty-First Century Reaction to Natural Selection.” In the former we see how firmly tradition, aristocracy, and the church were in control; it took considerable courage for evolution advocates to continue their research and say their piece.

The latter is truly cause for alarm: the anti-evolution lobbyists are well funded and aggressive—and now have friends in high places. Who could have suspected that, after the 1925 Scopes Trial (described on pages 295-298), there would be the resurgence of theological fanaticism that we see today? Intelligent Design was invented as a disguise for Creationism; Charter Schools, homeschooling and The Good News Clubs are used to teach opposition to evolution.

Believing that the earth is flat can be dismissed as sheer silliness; denying that men landed on the moon is a one of the strangest manifestations of conspiratorial thinking. But then we move on to dangerous nonsense: claiming that there were no Jews in the World Trade Center on 9/11, or that the Holocaust never happened. Denial of evolution requires the same epic-level ignorance of the data. And the failure of science-based thinking will have dire consequences.

Some liberal believers have tried to work evolution into their theologies, e.g., God set evolution in motion for on-going creation: God did it after all. But: better NO god than a god who would do such a thing. Most species that have ever lived have gone extinct. What kind of planning is that? Every second of every day, billions of creatures eat billions of other creatures alive: nature is a realm of pain and terror. What kind of planning is that? There are thousands of genetic diseases, and we are at the mercy of nasty microbes—and the God who set everything in motion never even bothered to tell us. What kind of planning is that?

Evolution provides explanations for all these phenomena. A good, caring, powerful God doesn’t fit here at all.

Charles Darwin was one of the greatest discoverers who ever lived. As indicated earlier, there are thousands of works available to borrow into study of his amazing achievement; this refreshing new book by Orenstein and Hafer is a very good place to start.

Just How Wrong Can Piety Be?

In 2001, the hymn How Great Thou Art was ranked second in popularity behind Amazing Grace. It’s pretty clear than Christians have not been trained to think about nature, to examine it closely. Here is the hymn’s sophomoric slush about nature—and, oh by the way, what kind of god wants humans to sing songs of praise to it? Isn’t it mighty strange that the Christian god needs to be told how great he is?

O Lord my God,
When I in awesome wonder
Consider all
The works Thy Hand hath made,
I see the stars,
I hear the mighty thunder,
Thy pow'r throughout
The universe displayed,
When through the woods
And forest glades I wander
I hear the birds
Sing sweetly in the trees,
When I look down
From lofty mountain grandeur
And hear the brook
And feel the gentle breeze,
Then sings my soul,
My Savior God, to Thee,
How great Thou art!
How great Thou art!

Okay, it’s time to grow up!

David Madison was a pastor in the Methodist Church for nine years, and has a PhD in Biblical Studies from Boston University. His book, Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: a Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith, was published by Tellectual Press in 2016. Its reissued version in 2018 includes a new Foreword by John Loftus.

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