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A "cowardly flabbiness of the intellect afflicts otherwise rational people" when it comes to confronting the faults of religion. Thus noted Richard Dawkins, the Oxford University zoologist and passionate advocate of evolutionary theory, berating the rest of us for failing to realize that not only can one be an "intellectually fulfilled atheist," but that the "universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference." Dawkins has spoken of a conversion experience when he realized the power of Darwinism. His conversion experience, his total devotion to Darwinism, his insistence that evolution answers all questions and other views of creation answer none, sounds an awful lot like ... a religion.

Such is certainly the suspicion of the noted paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould of Harvard University, who has labeled Dawkins and certain other current evolutionists "Darwinian Fundamentalists," likening the fanaticism of their cause to the Biblical literalists who opposed the teaching of evolution and who precipitated the Scopes' "monkey trial" in 1925. Of course, Gould has his own axes to grind, from his own Darwin-amending theory of "punctuated equilibria" -- evolution by leaps and bounds -- to his notion that science and religion occupy different domains and thus logically cannot come into conflict. But perhaps, for all that, he has a point.

The history of evolutionary thought shows that it has long been more than just a scientific hypothesis. For Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather, it was an upward march through the animal kingdom, leading to humankind: a progressive vision, endorsing and justifying the British success in the Industrial Revolution, and rivaling the then-prevalent Christian Providentialism. Far from needing God's grace, Erasmus Darwin believed, the forward arrow of evolution proved that humans can go it alone. It wasn't just that natural selection theory had to be proven; theology had to be disproven, too.

Similar views were held by "Darwin's bulldog," the late 19th century biologist and science-popularizer Thomas Huxley. Seeking a secular alternative to the Anglican establishment that he and others saw as opposing the social reforms required by mid-Victorian Britain, Huxley actively promoted evolution as the new religion for the new age. In a deliberate echo of Biblical language, he implored us to sit down before facts as a little child, and be guided by our senses. He was known in the contemporary press as "Pope Huxley."

Today, likewise, we see that evolutionism has its priests and devotees. Entomologist and sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University tells us that the "evolutionary epic is mythology," depending on laws that are "believed but can never be definitively proved," taking us "backward through time to the beginning of the universe." Wilson knows that any good religion must have its moral dimension, and so he urges us to promote biodiversity, to amend our original sin of despoiling the earth. There is an apocalyptic ring to Wilson's writings, and in true dispensationalist style, he warns that there is but a short time before all collapses into an ecological Armageddon. Repent! The time is near!

Am I arguing that natural selection theory, and Darwinism specifically, is merely a secular answer to religion? Certainly not. Most of the work done by most evolutionary biologists most of the time is as stolidly scientific and as powerful as you could wish. Am I arguing that making a religion out of science is necessarily bad? Certainly not. If Wilson finds it spiritually helpful to think of his science as he does, and if this worldview leads him to campaign for the preservation of the rainforests, who could object to that?

I am saying that when I hear people with spiritual views accused by scientists of "cowardly flabbiness of the intellect," I suspect that there is more at stake than factual disagreement. In that context, when evangelicals complain that it is unfair if a secular religion (evolution) is allowed into classrooms but competing theological views are not, I start to feel sympathy. Not for creationism, which is pernicious nonsense, but for stacking the deck against religious thought, by allowing dogma in science but not in theology. If creationism has no place in the classroom, then neither does a secular religion based on evolution. We who care passionately about science should know when to keep the science and religion separate and remember always when it is appropriate to teach the one and not the other.

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