Neither God nor Darwin?

Atheists & Agnostics Who Dare to Doubt

To hear it from the New Atheists, ­Darwinism is the atheist's creation story, the Genesis from which no Exodus follows. As Richard Dawkins is often quoted as saying, Darwinism enables an atheist to be intellectually fulfilled. If so, there are a number of atheist and agnostic thinkers out there who are intellectually deprived. Or are they?

Consider, for example, the Humean philosopher Antony Flew (1923–2010). In 2005, at the age of 81, after fifty years as the world's leading intellectual (as opposed to polemical) atheist, he asserted that—as the title of his 2007 book puts it—There Is a God. He concluded this from the design of the universe and its life forms.1

Many saw in Flew's change of mind a sign of failing mental health, attributable to his advanced age, yet, as late as 2008, Flew displayed enough clarity to label Dawkins a "secular bigot" because of the latter's increasingly frenzied attacks on religion. There were also rumors that Flew had been frightened into his "conversion" by approaching death, but he did not, so far as is known, ever embrace a religion or believe in an afterlife. His was not a full-fledged conversion in that sense; he simply saw that the evidence was moving away from the arguments that had, for him, cemented atheism, and so he changed his views accordingly.

Commonsense Reasoning

But Flew was hardly alone. A pair of Australian commonsense philosophers, David Stove (1927–1994) and Hiram Caton (b. 1936), both agnostics, also fell afoul of contemporary Darwinian culture. Commonsense philosophy holds that the basic principles by which we reason and form beliefs can guide us to true knowledge of the world. Such a philosopher would dismiss cognitive scientist Steven Pinker's claim that our brains are shaped for Darwinian fitness, not for truth, by responding that the measure of a brain's fitness is its ability to perceive truth.

Stove, sometimes considered "the funniest and most dazzling defender of common sense," wrote a brilliant takedown of evolutionary psychology, Darwinian Fairytales.2 Evolutionary psychologists claim to explain everything from voting conservative to why children dislike vegetables by speculating on how the behavior supposedly aided the survival of our ape-like ancestors and thus got encoded in our genes. Stove admitted that his only professional qualification was "40 odd years' acquaintance with Darwinian literature, and a strong distaste for ridiculous slanders on our species." That was quite enough. Caton has responded3 to the recent frenzy of almost-literal Darwin worship in recent years by keeping track of these idiocies and excesses on a website.

Another commonsense philosopher, the American materialist atheist Jerry Fodor, has also broken ranks with the Darwinists. In What Darwin Got Wrong (Profile, 2010), co-authored with the evolutionary biologist Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, Fodor writes dismissively of the "plethora of spooks" haunting Darwinism. By "spooks" he means "Mother Nature, selfish genes, imperialistic memes"—ghosts without corpses really, because no one has ever confirmed the existence of these entities. Fodor wants a naturalistic account of evolution, but he realizes that an increasingly embattled Darwinism cannot supply it.

Somewhere near Fodor's camp we also find the agnostic mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski. Among his several skeptical books on Darwinism is The Devil's Delusion (Basic Books, 2009), which is aimed, of course, at Dawkins's The God Delusion. Berlinski writes,

One of the reasons that people embrace Darwinian orthodoxy with such an unholy zealousness, is just that it gives them access to power. It's as simple as that: power over education, power over political decisions, power over funding, and power over the media.4

The Mind Is Real

Other atheists get off the train to nowhere at the origin of life or the origin of the human mind. In his famous essay, "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?", Thomas Nagel provides a sensitive account of the limits of human understanding of animals' minds.5 Less well known is the fact that he named Steven Meyer's ID-friendly Signature in the Cell (Harper One) a Book of the Year for 20096 and that he questions whether human intellect is explicable on Darwinian principles.7 Yet this is a man who also says, "I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that."8

Similarly, atheist philosopher Raymond Tallis denies9 that Darwinism can explain the human mind, which largely defeats the theory's purpose in the view of most evolutionary biologists, who are pure naturalists (i.e., no God and no free will).10

Lastly, among the younger set, agnostic Warwick University sociologist Steve Fuller and atheist University of Colorado philosopher Bradley Monton both question the current fear of design in nature. Indeed, Fuller appeared in the Expelled documentary, where he observed to host Ben Stein that a Darwinian mindset leads logically to abortion and euthanasia. He has also noted that "the greatest scientific advances presuppose something that looks very like the mind of God."11 In a recent book, Seeking God in Science: An Atheist Defends Intelligent Design (Broadview Press, 2009), Monton offers a sympathetic hearing to the idea of design in nature, using what amounts to a Socratic method. The young, after all, will gamble.

So can people profess agnosticism or atheism and still doubt Darwin? Yes, and it seems that some do. But they need a deep common sense, and they must actually be smart instead of just pretending to be. They should also believe that the mind is real and that humans are different from animals.

But if they are going to live so far outside current mainstream culture, they might as well believe in God, too. They will have all the same enemies but many more friends. •

Denyse O'Leary is a Toronto-based author, editor, and blogger and the co-author of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul.

1. Here is a video interview with Flew on his change of mind:
2. For a long review of the book by this author, go here:
3. At
4. Quoted by Gil Dodgen, "David Berlinski on Science, Scientists, and Darwinism," Uncommon Descent (5 February 2008);
5. Excerpts are available here: http://­
6. Thomas Nagel, "Books of the Year 2009," The Times Literary Supplement (November 25, 2009);
7. Denyse O'Leary, "Philosopher Thomas Nagel disowning Darwinism," Post-Darwinist (May 10, 2009);
8. Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford University Press, 1997), pp. 130–131;
9. Raymond Tallis, "The unnatural selection of consciousness," TPM: The Philosophers' Magazine, issue 46 (July 23, 2009);
10. Gregory W. Graffin and William B. Provine, "Evolution, Religion and Free Will," The American Scientist (vol. 95, 294ff));
11. Steve Fuller, "Science in God's image," The Guardian (3 May 2010);

From Salvo 17 (Summer 2011)
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is a Canadian journalist, author, and blogger. She blogs at Blazing Cat Fur, Evolution News & Views, MercatorNet, Salvo, and Uncommon Descent.

This article originally appeared in Salvo, Issue #17, Summer 2011 Copyright © 2024 Salvo |


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