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Darwin, Racism and Christianity

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It is not a stretch to put Charles Darwin near the top of the list of people who have changed the world. His theory of evolution by random mutation and natural selection is viewed by most academics as providing the foundation for understanding the origins of life and biological diversity. Perhaps even more significantly, it supposedly eliminates any need for a divine Creator that give rise to it all.

As a result, evolutionary theory has become a key foundation and article of faith for atheists and atheistic movements around the world. As renowned god-denier Richard Dawkins famously declared in his 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker: “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

Not as well known, however, are Darwin’s opinions of the primitive, indigenous peoples he encountered during his voyages aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. Upon reaching the southernmost tip of South America and encountering the natives of  Tierra del Fuego, for example, he wrote that these “miserable, degraded savages” were “the most abject and miserable creatures I anywhere beheld.” They lived “in a lower state of improvement than in any part of the world. … These poor wretches were stunted in their growth, their hideous faces bedaubed with white paint, their skins filthy and greasy, their hair entangled, their voices discordant, and their gestures violent. Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow creatures and inhabitants of the same world.” (Charles Darwin, A Naturalist’s voyage round the World, (Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle under the Command of Captain Fitz Roy), John Murray, London,1845)

Such observations no doubt played a part in inspiring the subtitle for his 1859 landmark book, On the Origins of Species by Means of Natural Selection:

“or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.”

Two years later, in his second book on evolutionary theory, The Descent of Man, Darwin made it very clear who “the favoured races” were and where the indigenous people inhabiting much of the non-European world were to be placed on his theoretical tree of life: somewhere between monkeys and modern (read: white) men. In addition, his new naturalistic faith had, like all good religions, a vision for the future (eschatology) and man’s ultimate destiny: “At some future period, not very distant as measured by centuries, the civilized races of man will almost certainly exterminate, and replace, the savage races throughout the world.” (Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man, John Murray, London, p. 156, 1887.)

As time went on, however, Darwin softened his opinion of native people, allowing that they may not be as far from white Europeans on the evolutionary ladder as he once believed. What brought about this change? The work of Christian missionaries among tribal people. Darwin was amazed, for example, to learn of the impact that Allen Gardiner, Thomas Bridges, Waite Hocking Stirling and other Gospel ministers had on aforementioned Fuegians. During that last half of the 19th century, hundreds of the them were converted, educated and in other ways civilized. So impressed was Darwin by the transformation that in 1867 he sent a donation to the South American Missionary Society and then continued to contribute to the Society for the next 15 years until his death in 1882.

Darwin became acquainted with similar transformations that took place among “savages” in the South Pacific, Africa and other parts of the world. All of this inspired him to write in his Journal of Researches into the Natural History and Geology of the Countries Visited During the Voyage of H. M. S. Beagle Round the World (London: 1852):

“On the whole, it appears to me that the morality and religion of the inhabitants [of Tahiti] are highly creditable. There are many who attack, even more acrimoniously than Kotzebue, both the missionaries, their system, and the effects produced by it. Such reasoners never compare the present state with that of the island only twenty years ago; nor even with that of Europe at this day; but they compare it with the high standard of Gospel perfection. … In as much as the condition of the people falls short of this high standard, blame is attached to the missionary, instead of credit for that which he has effected. They forget, or will not remember, that human sacrifices and the power of an idolatrous priesthood – a system of profligacy unparalleled in another part of the world – infanticide, a consequent of that system – bloody wars, where conquerors spared neither women nor children – that all these have been abolished; and that dishonesty, intemperance, and licentiousness have been greatly reduced by Christianity. In a voyager to forget these things is base ingratitude; for should he chance to be at the point of shipwreck on some unknown coast, he will most devoutly pray that the lesson of the missionary may have reached thus far.” (p.414)

“All this is very surprising, when it is considered that five years ago nothing but the fern flourished here. Moreover, native workmanship, taught by the missionaries, has effected this change… The lesson of the missionary is the enchanter’s wand. The house has been built, the widows framed, the fields ploughed, and even the trees grafted by the New Zealander.” (p. 425)

“From seeing the present state, it is impossible not to look forward with high expectations to the future progress of nearly an entire hemisphere. The march of improvement, consequent on the introduction of Christianity, through the South Seas, probably stands by itself on the records of the world.” (p. 505)

And Darwin is not alone among skeptics and champions of modern atheism in having the intellectual integrity to acknowledge the fitness – the salutatory benefits – of Christianity as a meme or great, tipping-point idea.

Journalist H.L. Mencken – arch skeptic, fan of “God is dead” philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and champion of Clarence Darrow and the theory of evolution at the famous Scopes trial – nevertheless admitted, speaking of Christianity:

“No heritage of modern man is richer and none has made a more brilliant mark upon human thought, not even the legacy of the Greeks.” (Treatise on the Gods. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1930))

English novelist, journalist, sociologist, and historian H.G. Wells said this about Jesus in an article he wrote on the “greatest men in history” for American Magazine (July 1922):

“He left no impress on the historical records of His time. Yet, more than nineteen hundred years later, a historian like myself, who does not even call himself a Christian, finds the picture centering irresistibly around the life and character of this simple, lovable Man… So the historian, disregarding the theological significance of His life, writes the name of Jesus of Nazareth at the top of the world’s greatest characters.”

More recently, veteran British politician and self-described atheist Roy Hattersley was interviewed by the BBC  (Saturday 2nd January 2010). The interview centered in part on a biography he had written on William and Catherine Booth, founders of the Salvation Army. When asked about the relevance of such organizations today, Hattersley replied:

“I can only look with amazement at the devotion of the Salvation Army workers. I’ve been out with them on the streets and seen the way they work amongst the people, the most deprived and disadvantaged and sometimes pretty repugnant characters. I don’t believe they would do that were it not for the religious impulse. And I often say I never hear of atheist organizations taking food to the poor. You don’t hear of ‘Atheist Aid’ rather like Christian aid, and, I think, despite my inability to believe myself, I’m deeply impressed by what belief does for people like the Salvation Army.”

Matthew Parris, another British politician, author and atheist (apparently the UK is awash with them) wrote an article in The Times (12/27/2008) entitled “As an Atheist, I Truly Believe Africa Needs God.” Among his observations:

“I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.”

Facing the ire of atheists, skeptics and “Do What Thou Wilt” moralists in the battle for the soul of western culture, I have at times wished that God would allow them to experience for just one day the “Bedford Falls” (think It’s a Wonderful Life) that would result if their desires were granted, if the meme of Christianity was removed and completely replaced by philosophical materialism. I have no doubt that if they were still capable of rational thought (which is unlikely) the one cry that would erupt from their blighted souls as they drink in the virtual hell now surrounding them would be “God have mercy!”

(I should note here that one day this Bedford Falls will, in fact, exist. And it will last a lot longer than a single day.)

Skeptics, atheists, and follow-your-hearters can rejoice that Darwin’s theory is absolutely true when it comes to the world of ideas. Cream in time does rise to the surface – and the fittest ideas survive. And one day the knowledge of the Lord will cover this earth like the waters cover the seas. (Isaiah 11:9; Habakkuk 2:14)

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