The Common Good

How Creationism Deconstructs Itself and Why Darwin’s Fish Might Be a Bully

I’ve got this idea for a T-shirt. It would have that little Jesus fish and the two-legged Darwin fish turned toward each other, kissing, and the caption would say, “Jesus Loves Darwin.” My wife has forbid me from producing this T-shirt, because, as she reminds me, we both hate Christian T-shirts and bumper stickers. They just seem a little demeaning to the Creator of the universe. Anyway, now I discover someone else beat me to it. It’s survival of the fittest, you know.

Jesus Loves Darwin T-Shirt, Image via Cafe Press
Jesus Loves Darwin T-Shirt, Image via Cafe Press

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This T-shirt idea grew out of some negative energy, so maybe it was a bad idea from the start. I was reading Marilynne Robinson’s brilliant essay “Darwinism,” and it reminded me how much that little Darwin lizard bothers me. Here’s why: The “modernist” tale of history says that enlightened men like Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche helped to free Western civilization from religion’s oppressive regime: unnatural moral constraints, thought policing, irrationalism, anti-scientism, Empire, Crusades. The church was a big, bad bully, and free-thinking people threw off its chains, so the story goes.

But the Jesus I worship has very little to do with any of these things — and I don’t even have a Jesus fish on my car or anywhere else but it strikes me as oppressive, narrow-minded, arrogant and imperialistic — in a word, bullying — to take someone else’s precious spiritual symbol and commandeer it for your own ideological purposes. If you don’t like the public display of religion, OK, but why make yourself guilty of the same modernist “sin?" 

If you want to talk about science, great, but Darwinism goes way beyond science — it’s a comprehensive doctrine of naturalism, drawing conclusions the scientific method can’t ever draw. As Robinson eloquently argues, it is NOT value neutral. If you try to answer the question of why we’re all here, and your answer is mere survival, things can get ugly in a hurry. She wrote:

“I am speaking, as I know it is rude to do, of the Social Darwinists, the eugenicists, the Imperialists, the Scientific Socialists who showed such firmness in reshaping civilization in Eastern Europe, China, Cambodia, and elsewhere, and, yes, of the Nazis (40). In the 20th century, ‘scientific’ policies of extermination, undertaken in the case of Stalin to purge society of parasitic or degenerate or recalcitrant elements, and in the case of Hitler to purge it of the weak or defective or, racially speaking, marginally human, have taken horror to new extremes. Their scale and relentlessness have been owed to the disarming of moral response by theories authorized by the word ‘science,’ which, quite inappropriately, has been used as if it meant ‘truth.’ Surely it is fair to say that science is to the ‘science’ that inspired exterminations as Christianity is to the ‘Christianity’ that inspired Crusades. In both cases the human genius for finding pretexts seized upon the most prestigious institution of the culture and appropriated a great part of its language and resources and legitimacy.”

Even granting this benefit-of-the-doubt, Robinson shows the clear link between the Holocaust and Darwin’s theory of natural selection. I’m not saying having a Darwin fish means you believe this stuff, and German Christians certainly failed as a whole in standing up to Hitler; it’s just that genocide is the logical conclusion when you turn survival-of-the-fittest into a grand meta-narrative of life on planet earth. 

In Origin of Species, Darwin argued that high-population countries are more politically powerful because there are more people to compete for survival, so the weak die off faster. The subtitle, for crying out loud, is the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. Or, as Robinson smartly summarizes it, “Bigger countries have better people in them” (34).  In Descent of Man, Darwin wrote that one day evolution would make the gap between humans and monkeys wider “even than the Caucasian and some ape as low as a baboon, instead of as now between the negro or Australian and the gorilla (see Robinson, 35). … We civilized men … do our utmost to check the process of elimination: we build asylums for the imbecile, the maimed, and the sick; we institute poor laws; and our medical men exert their utmost to save the life of everyone to the last moment. … Thus the weak members of civilized society propagate their kind. … Excepting in the case of man himself, hardly anyone is so ignorant as to allow his worst animals to breed” (43).

How enlightened.

But this brings me back to my T-shirt. It’s a crying shame that Jesus and evolution have been set against each other like they have. (After reading these quotes, we’re all probably glad Jesus has been set against Darwin himself.) Robinson noted the “distinction here between evolution, the change that occurs in organisms over time, and Darwinism, the interpretation of this phenomenon which claims to refute religion and to imply a personal and social ethic which is, not coincidentally, antithetical to the assumptions imposed and authorized by Judaeo-Christianity” (30). … “[Darwin’s] achievement would be impressive if even a tiny core of scientific insight survived such an explosion of new understanding of the nature of things as has occurred in the last century and a half ” (31).

But the Darwin lizard is anti-religious (and, therefore, religious) politics, not science. “The Creationist position has long been owned by the Religious Right, and the Darwinist position by the Irreligious Right,” Robinson wrote (40). “Creationism is the best thing that could have happened to Darwinism, the caricature of religion that has seemed to justify Darwinist contempt for the whole of religion.”

There’s a lot at stake here. By trying to turn the Jewish poetry of the Genesis story into a scientific-historical text that would stand against evolution, Creationism, as an ideology, serves to diminish the account of human dignity established in the Creation story that might, in fact, represent a worthy alternative to Darwinism. Says Robinson: “People who insist that the sacredness of Scripture depends on belief in creation in a literal six days seem never to insist on a literal reading of ‘to him who asks, give,’ or ‘sell what you have and give the money to the poor.’ In fact, their politics and economics align themselves quite precisely with those of their adversaries, who yearn to disburden themselves of the weak, and to unshackle the great creative forces of competition. The defenders of ‘religion’ have made religion seem foolish while rendering it mute in the face of a prolonged and highly effective assault on the poor.”

It was not always so. Robinson gives us a sort of people’s-history of William Jennings Bryan, that much-maligned “winner” of the Scopes Monkey Trial. “It requires a little effort,” she writes, “to remember that his attack on Darwinism came from the left, from the side of pacifism and reform. … [H]is tradition of ‘fundamentalism’ had behind it abolitionism, the higher education of women, and the creation of the public school system” (64).

The question is not whether the Creation story can accommodate evolutionary science. The question, for Robinson, is whether Darwinist ideology can accommodate an account of human spirit that would justify empowering the powerless, rather than just letting them die off, or worse. Just because the “fittest” among us humans can open sweatshops, or impose our political ideologies on other nations, or sell silly T-shirts on the World Wide Web, it doesn’t mean we should.

Jesse James DeConto spent 11 years as a newspaper reporter and editor with the Xenia (Ohio) Daily Gazette, thePortsmouth (N.H.) Herald and the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. He now works as a contributing editor for Prism magazine and a regular contributor to The Christian Century. He blogs at http://jessejamesdeconto.com.

Jesus Loves Darwin T-Shirt, Image via Cafe Press

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