The Relevance of Darwin Day

Talk presented to the Atheist Society, Melbourne, 12 February 2008

Charles Darwin was born 199 years ago today (12 Feb 2008), Darwin Day, on the same day as Abraham Lincoln. After his voyages on HMS Beagle 1831-36, following much deliberation, Darwin published his seminal book in 1859. The original title was "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life". A cumbersome title perhaps, which was shortened in the 1872 edition.

The life of Darwin, perhaps understandably is not celebrated as much as Lincoln, which in the US is honoured with President's Day. In Australia however we do honour Darwin with the name of a capital city. Palmerston was renamed Darwin in 1911 by Andrew Fisher, the first Labor Prime Minister.

While Darwin's achievements were significant, he was probably not the greatest scientist that ever lived. The feats of creative inspiration by Isaac Newton and especially Albert Einstein would seem to lay a far more legitimate claim to that title. Developed with the assistance of his wife Mileva Maric, Einstein's cosmology was literally light years away from the flat earth cosmology of the Bible and the Koran.

So why should we celebrate Darwin Day? The reason is that unlike any other major finding in science, the validity of Darwin's contribution is not popularly accepted. The concept of evolution is not particularly inaccessible, and it is highly relevant understanding the human condition. Yet it is not accepted. Why?

Evolution is rejected because it contradicts the creation myths of the major religions. As soon as "Origin of the Species" was published there were calls by the religious to uphold creationist fundaments, which is where the term "fundamentalist" originated. The calls have been effective. Surveys today show that sixty percent of Americans still believe in creation and reject evolution. The proportion is presumably much higher in the Islamic world as the Koran also contains the biblical six-day creation, and the Koran cannot be contradicted by Muslims without incurring threats or punishment.

The continued mass popular rejection of evolution in favour of cherished cultural myths demonstrates like nothing else the power of religion to orchestrate mass delusion in defiance or reason and evidence. It is important therefore to celebrate Darwin Day, to promote science over superstition, reason over religion. The extent to which religion now injects an increasingly dysfunctional and divisive force into multicultural global society is what makes promotion of the celebration of Darwin Day necessary and desirable.

I leave the details of Darwin's contribution to evolutionary biology for others to elucidate. I prefer to focus here on the reasons for the popular rejection of Darwin, the consequences of it, and possible solutions. This is the major relevance of Darwin Day today.

Explaining what causes the mass rejection of the overwhelming evidence that supports the existence of the process of evolution is a task more suited to psychologists than philosophers. It seems that it arises from a socialised loyalty to cultural beliefs that result from little or no attempt to objectively evaluate truth criteria.

Sigmund Freud sought to explain belief in the monotheistic concept of a god, the invisible man who lives in the sky, as arising from an infantile projection of a father figure. Tamas Pataki, in his book "Against Religion" also seeks to explain religious belief as a fulfilment of emotional needs. Pataki draws comparisons between the fundamentalists of the major religions and provides psychological explanations of the observed behaviours. Like Freud, he sees the need for psychological attachment as the motivating factor. The god must be perceived as something like a person, in order to fill the psychological attachment need. Hence the god must be a "Him" rather than an "It".

Pataki finds Richard Dawkins in "The God Delusion" somewhat weak on the issue of psychological motivations. Evolutionary factors may provide clues to an innate propensity, but not to the specific nature of beliefs. Socialisation and indoctrination can explain the transmittal of beliefs but not their persistence. The key, according to Pataki, is to understand the concept of psychoanalytical narcissism and how religions fulfil subconscious emotional needs.

Religious groups are like "support groups for self-deception", Pataki says. Religions are hostile to reason because they claim to provide a general explanatory system. Reason undermines this claim. Believers are unable to distinguish between belief and knowledge, that is, they cannot effectively entertain the possibility that their beliefs could be false. It is a failure of insight with delusional characteristics and arises because their thought processes "have been abducted by unconscious wishes".

Like Pataki, Al Gore also laments the general lack of capacity for public reason, particularly in the United States. He does not lay the blame entirely at the feet of religion as is clear from the title of his book: "The Assault on Reason: How the Politics of Fear, Secrecy and Blind Faith Subvert Wise Decision Making, Degrade Democracy and Imperil America and the World." This is a remarkable book, for what the author is saying, and especially for the author who is saying it.

Gore argues that it is fear that robs the mind of reason, and that fear has been cultivated for political gain. Because fear is a primeval driver, deep in the brain, it can be used to push policies that appeal to basic instincts, with post hoc rationalisation substituting for reasoned debate. Manufactured fear then drives people to faith, subverting traditional US ideals, leading to the betrayal human rights, disastrous foreign misadventures in the so called "war on terror", and perversely further imperils national security.

Gore's analysis of the dire consequences of political fear campaigns is stunning, but his identification of the root cause is wrong. Like all religious believers, he is not quite able to achieve the clarity of perception that is possible once it is recognised that religions are simply mass delusions. It is not fear that drives people to faith but faith that drives people to fear, and faith that mobilises fear to the delusional ends. As George W Bush said, he invaded Iraq because his god told him to.

Faith is a rejection of reason and it is faith that is now the prime motivator of the violence that threatens the world with peril. The celebration of Darwin Day provides an opportunity to fly the banner of reason in defiance of the prevailing trends. Of course we should use every available opportunity to promote reason, humanist values and secularism.

Secularism is the forgotten solution to religious conflict. It is not inherently anti-religious. Although religious groups may resent the implication that secularism is a slight upon their beliefs, some may grudgingly admit that secularism may be good at keeping the peace between religions and also in providing a guarantee of religious freedom.

Most religious people however, are unlikely to strongly advocate secularism, even though as minorities, they may benefit from it. Further, non-religious people may hesitate in strongly advocating secularism, for fear of offending religious people. Stronger action is now needed, by those who are able, to advocate reason and secularism.

A greater popular understanding of the nature of religious beliefs may help us to overcome some of their most divisive consequences. By being aware of our psychological motivations, we need not be slaves to them. Secularism is the best way that this project can be advanced politically. The International Humanist and Ethical Union has adopted a three part definition of "comprehensive secularism". This consists of impartiality between religions, separation of religion from the institutions of state, and protection of human rights from religious doctrines and practices.

We observe perverse trends in the world today regarding secularism. In Muslim countries, only Turkey's rigorously secular constitution provides a (somewhat shaky) bulwark against creeping Islamisation. In the United Nations, human rights standards are under threat by those that seek limitation of freedom in order to advance religion. In Christendom (the "West"), church attendances are declining, the "no-religion" population is rising, yet separatist religious schools are increasingly being indulged with state support and funding.

Almost two hundred years after his birth, and a hundred an fifty years after the first release of his major work, Charles Darwin would have been be astounded to know that a Day in his honour is being globally celebrated. He would be even more astounded to know why the celebration is necessary. Technological advancement has not yet brought similar advancement in popular reason and enlightenment. May we always continue to celebrate his work. May we also continue to promote science in the cause of reason, and humanism in the pursuit of universal secular values, based on the principles of compassion, honesty, freedom and justice.

Dr John L Perkins is a Melbourne economist and is a founding member of the Secular Party of Australia.
 (C) Copyright 2008 John L Perkins