Why Darwin Day is Hosted by the Wrong People

Darwin Day is hosted by the wrong group of people. To understand why, you first need to know who hosts Darwin Day. Here are the easily accessible facts: The International Darwin Day Foundation (IDDF), which hosts Darwin Day, is itself managed by the American Humanist Association (AHA). The AHA represents “a variety of nontheistic views” and, accordingly, the IDDF’s advisory board includes noted anti-theistic figures like Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and Michael Shermer. Thanks to the open and transparent connections between the American Humanist Association, the International Darwin Day Foundation, and Darwin Day itself, we can safely conclude that the promoters of Darwin Day believe that their celebration implicitly promotes secularism at the expense of theistic worldviews. But as we will see, it is philosophically remarkable that a secular organization hosts Darwin Day.

Let’s first look at what Darwin Day is designed to celebrate. Then we’ll consider three sets of questions to highlight why the American Humanist Association is a poor host for this celebration, and why a Christian organization should host Darwin Day in its place. Throughout this post I have endeavored to demonstrate respect for humanists as people, primarily by appealing to their minds with reasons, even as I seek to demonstrate the more abstract, philosophical problems facing their worldview and the celebration of Darwin Day.

What does Darwin Day celebrate?

According to the Darwin Day website, the celebration is “an international celebration of science and humanity.” In particular, it celebrates Charles Darwin because he “described biological evolution via natural selection with scientific rigor.” More generally, it celebrates “the advancement of humanity,” science as “our most reliable knowledge system,” and the genetic similarity of humans, a scientific fact that “fosters a deeper sense of respect and appreciation for all life.”

In sum, Darwin Day celebrates certain moral values, the primacy of science as a source of knowledge and progress, and seeks to unite people across cultures in a way that implicitly undermines the importance of religion. These values are honored primarily by recognizing Charles Darwin as a hero, in recognition of his life and work.

The outstanding question is this: do these commitments make sense in light of the stated values and beliefs of the American Humanist Association?

To see why Darwin Day stands at odds with humanist principles and in line with Christian ones, we need to look at three distinct issues. First, we need to take a look at what humanists believe about morality and progress. Second, we need to consider the power and limits of science. And third, we’ll examine how Christianity provides a proper framework for celebrating scientific progress, the common good, and human flourishing.

What do humanists believe about morality and progress?

One of the most fundamental humanist beliefs is that everyone should have the right to believe whatever they find to be the most reasonable position. This makes it hard to find an “official” humanist position. Nevertheless, as a rough proxy, the American Humanist Association features an essay by Fred Edwords on the question, “Without God, how can you be moral?” We will look at this essay in an attempt to fairly describe mainstream humanistic thinking about morality and human progress.

Edwords’ essay first attacks religious groundings of morality as insufficient. Then he proposes that, by contrast, the ability of humans to develop their own moral systems, according to the reasons they find persuasive, is good enough. As he puts it, “Morality, then, emerges from humanity precisely because it exists to serve humanity.”

The main thrust of his argument for a humanistic moral system is to point out the fact that humans do engage in moral activity. Therefore, they are self-evidently able to be moral agents. To develop this point, Edwords showcases our common need to survive and grow, as well as the many ways that humans are similar, drawing from diverse fields of knowledge including genetics, psychology, and sociobiology. He then asserts that this common ground provides the basis for shared moral systems. Therefore, as he writes, “It is clear that our morals are in large part a product of our common emotional responses, thereby allowing us to propose improvements in those morals by making appeals to the feelings of our fellows.”

Fundamentally, this argument ends up redefining the terms into a meaningless tautology. Edwords essentially says, ‘because we engage in moral reasoning, we have moral reasoning.’ At the same time he himself admits, “So we can see that without living beings with needs, there can be no good or evil.” In Edwords’ usage, as featured by the American Humanist Association, morality is redefined as a merely human invention, largely dependent upon how we feel. Therefore, whatever we decide together is right, well, by definition, that is what is right.

A number of foundational problems follow. Here are just two:

  1. Under this definition of morality, there is no possibility of moral progress. Whatever any culture says is right, at any particular time, is, by this definition, exactly what is right for them. But there is no transcultural standard by which we can measure whether there is moral improvement or regression within a given culture or across cultures.
  2. Apart from moral standards, there is no consistent way to declare that someone is a moral exemplar or immoral failure. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter. To celebrate anyone as a hero—including Charles Darwin—is to commit cultural imperialism, arrogantly proclaiming that the selected person’s values are better than the values of other people and cultures.

Because humanists lack any grounding for their moral preferences, what they choose to celebrate becomes a totally arbitrary decision. Pick a society at random – whatever they believe is moral, those beliefs are what is truly right and wrong for them. So our own moral beliefs are no better than anyone else’s: they are simply different. This creates a tremendous problem for humanists when they wish to celebrate anything – including the celebration of science.

What’s wrong with the humanist celebration of science?

At the most basic level, the humanist sponsors of Darwin Day have confused the difference between a useful tool and the normative ends which the tool serves.

For instance, (sad as it is to admit) a hammer is one of the most powerful tools in my home. But what is the hammer to be used for? To drive nails into the walls that we might display pictures? Or to demolish the wall altogether so we might expand into our neighbors’ apartment? The fact that a hammer can accomplish either task is indeed impressive. But the hammer’s functionality is entirely and categorically distinct from what the hammer should be used to accomplish. And in any case, the power of the hammer instrumentally depends upon the muscular strength and accurate aim of its user. (Personal note to my landlord and neighbors: we are quite content with the current layout of walls in our apartment building).

Now, consider these same issues on a larger scale. Imagine with me the contrast between a peace-loving and a war-like society. The first might say, “nuclear weapons are a good thing because the threat of mutually assured destruction will promote world peace.” The second might say, “nuclear weapons are a good thing because they give us the power to destroy everyone we hate.” In either case, the amount of scientific knowledge is what distinguishes between the existence and non-existence of nuclear weapons in a given society. But moral knowledge and moral standards are what distinguishes between the good and bad outcomes that nuclear weapons make possible.

Fundamentally, it is simply beyond the reach of science’s most optimistic dreams to use data to prove that one of these societies has got it right. To say, “wait a second, you share genetic similarity with these other people” doesn’t even begin to mean “you have a moral duty to promote their welfare.” From the perspective of the war-like society, other considerations may be more morally significant, for example, “Those we hate have systemically abused and oppressed us for generations, and revenge is our right.” Put simply: the tool itself does not have the power to determine what it should be used for.

But even worse, let’s say that by some categorical miracle that science could somehow dictate to us what is right and what is wrong. This would create an additional contradiction for humanists. On the one hand, science would (magically) dictate morality to all of us, on the other hand, morality is a human construction that entails we should not force our values on other people. If one culture accepts the moral authority of science, fine; but if another culture rejects the moral authority of science, well, that is an equally satisfactory moral choice. But science is supposed to tell us what is truly right and wrong!

In addition, if science could dictate morality to us, another contradiction develops. Why? Because it is obvious that some kinds of scientific and technological progress are themselves immoral. For instance, PETA decries the abuse of animals in scientific testing, arguing that the increase in knowledge comes at the expense of doing great wrong. Many kinds of medical research on humans are banned. But how can some science be good and other science be bad unless there is a moral standard outside of science itself to arbitrate the dispute?

Therefore, humanism fails as a satisfactory framework for the celebration of Darwin Day for at least three reasons:

  1. Humanists lack the ability to identify what changes would count as genuinely human progress, in the way that is necessary for an international, cross-cultural celebration like Darwin Day.
  2. Lacking this, they also lack the ability to rightly identify moral heroes worthy of international, transcultural celebration and honor, including Charles Darwin.
  3. Because they lack a moral standard by which to measure progress, they have shifted their focus to a technological substitute, namely, the increasing amount of scientific knowledge. This means that humanists have arbitrarily decided that more scientific knowledge is good, without knowing what it is good for, apart from recognizing this is merely their own cultural preference, and without acknowledging that science is sometimes a tool for evil.

As demonstrated above, these are tremendous problems for secular humanism. Therefore, the American Humanist Association and The International Darwin Day Foundation are illegitimate sponsors of Darwin Day. By contrast, a Christian organization would be an excellent host for this unique celebration.

Why is Christianity the best framework for celebrating scientific progress and human flourishing?

Christianity, as a worldview, is well situated to overcome all the problems where humanism flounders, especially in respect to Darwin Day. Why is this? Because it provides a vision for an ideal human society, the requisite framework for the practice of science, and the basis for a transcultural ethical standard that promotes the common good.

First, Christianity offers a beautiful and true vision of the ideal human society. Because of this objectively good and actually real standard for human progress, the Christian worldview allows for the possibility of making fitting judgments about who is worthy of being celebrated for their contributions to human flourishing.

The Biblical story begins in a garden. But it ends with all humanity united in a multi-cultural city that is bursting with cultural development. For instance, in Revelation 21:24 we are told that “the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.” God’s dream is that the finest and best of every nation’s culture will be incorporated into our ultimate home. So Christians have a rational hope that their hard work to improve society through science, technology, and other means are honored and fulfilled in God’s good plan. We have an ideal that allows us to discern between those who contribute to human flourishing and those who oppose the good future that is to come.

Second, Christianity also offers a framework for the legitimacy of the practice of science. To engage in scientific investigation requires a number of basic assumptions. For instance, we need some version of the law of uniformity in order to extrapolate the results from one study to more general conclusions about how things generally are. We need confidence that humans are capable of acquiring knowledge, that our minds have the requisite ‘stuff’ needed to comprehend, analyze and explain the natural world.

Many other assumptions could be added, but the basic point here is that Christianity provides the essential intellectual commitments necessary for a coherent understanding of scientific practice and progress. To give one example, we are told that God has ordered all Creation in a good way that promotes human flourishing. And humans are strongly urged to seek after knowledge and understanding of the world God has made (e.g., Proverbs 23:12).

Finally, Christianity teaches that all humans are made in God’s image. In addition, it teaches that we are each obligated to admire and imitate God, and particularly so when it comes to loving our neighbor. Christianity therefore offers a transcendent ethic that intrinsically supports the unity and equality of all humans, regardless of whether or not anyone else endorses its vision for the dignity of all life. This provides a moral context for all of life, including the practice of science and the honoring of appropriate heroes.

In conclusion

For all these reasons, it would be most fitting if Darwin Day was hosted not by a secular humanist association, but by Christians with a coherent worldview that fosters love for God’s creation, the investigation of his world by scientific means, and the grand pursuit of human happiness. In the midst of all the cultural wars, and independently of whether or not a Christian accepts the entire system of evolutionary thought, it is nevertheless undoubtedly true that Darwin’s theory of evolution has led to tremendous innovation and discovery in hundreds of fields. Hopefully next year Christians will act in accordance with their worldview and properly celebrate an important figure in the development of human knowledge.

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