Secular rationalists are always trying to debunk religious myths but invariably substitute even more fantastic ones of their own. Did you ever anything so grandiosely crackers as Marx’s dialectical materialism? And if you read The Origin of Species you will see that Darwin presents Natural Selection (the capitals are his) in just as highly mythologized a way as Paley’s watchmaking God whom he dethroned, except that Paley’s creator was benign whereas Darwin’s was decidedly nasty. Though it must be said that Darwinism was never quite able to scale the heights of moral obfuscation that Christianity achieved in turning the command to love your neighbour into permission to burn him alive (in the kindest possible way I’m going to burn you alive because you wouldn’t want to start believing the wrong thing would you?). Still, with the unfortunate decline of Christianity, it turned out that Darwinism’s capacity to give moral permission to be nasty was pretty good.
Ostensibly Darwin was exposing Paley’s mythical and metaphysical designing Deity and replacing him with scientifically attested laws of nature. But, most curiously, he does this in language implying not a physical replacement but an alternative metaphysical being. No Medieval poet celebrating Dame Nature could have committed the pathetic fallacy – or more accurately, perhaps, the unpathetic fallacy, for in Darwin’s horrified account nature is emotionally quite unconcerned with the creatures she so brutally exterminates – with more enthusiasm. Natural Selection is ‘a power incessantly ready for action’. ‘Man selects only for his own good; Nature only for the good of the being which she tends’. ‘It may be said that natural selection is daily and hourly scrutinizing, throughout the world, every variation, even the slightest; rejecting that which is bad, preserving and adding up all that is good.’ ‘Natural selection will modify the structure of the young in relation to the parent, and of the parent in relation to the young. In social animals it will adapt the structure of each individual for the benefit of the community…..’ ‘Though nature grants vast periods of time for the work of natural selection, she does not grant an indefinite period……if any one species does not become modified and improved in a corresponding degree with its competitors, it will soon be exterminated’ If this is not language describing a cosmic designer it is difficult to know what is. There is, in fact, no meaning to the word select which does not involve the conscious, intelligent and deliberate choosing of one candidate and the rejection of another, with the corollary that selection is therefore the one thing nature cannot possibly do. Why did Darwin choose an expression for his central concept implying the precise opposite of what he meant?
It seems that mankind cannot do without myths, so if you’re going to have one (given that most people suffer from a surfeit of certainty as to the nature of ultimate reality ‘Oh yes it is’ ‘oh not it isn’t’) it might as well be the most beautiful and inspiring of all myths, even though Christians have so disgustingly debased and distorted their own beautiful and inspiring myth.