Friday, 2 September 2016

Essays on Freethinking and Plainspeaking by Leslie Stephen (1873)


Darwinism and Divinity. (Essay)
What Stephen has to say about the challenge of Darwinism to Christianity is not substantially different from many agnostic moderns. I speak of the more sophisticated nay sayers who turn up regularly at the Opininator of the New York Times. Savour this piquant mythopoetic analysis of religion:

One would say at first sight that religion is no more likely to leave the world because we have new views as to the mode in which the world began, than poetry to vanish as soon as we have ceased to believe in the historical accuracy of the siege of Troy. Man pos-
sesses certain spiritual organs, whose function it is to produce religion. Religion could only be destroyed by removing the organs, and not by supplying them with slightly different food.

For spiritual organs instert God Neurons to make it current. Is there any truth in this view? Squint at it sideways and talk about Sanathana (Eternal) Dharma and the nature of consciousness itself and you will be ghostly met as The Cloud of Unknowing might say with a sly smile because you have taken the bait. Stephen's M.O. is to unpack your innocent acceptance. Let us see how he does it.

He mentions an argument for the necessity of the infusion of a rational soul into the hominid which is still current:

It is substantially an attempt to prove that the gap between the brute and the human mind is so wide that we cannot imagine it to be filled up by any continuous series. It is argued at great length that instinct differs from reason not in degree but in kind, or that brutes do not possess even the rudiments of what we call a moral sense.

He spoils his defence of dogs as bearers of rudimentary consciousness with:
Certainly no beast has framed an abstract conception of duty. Neither, it is said, have some savages risen to that idea.

He may be right about the possibility of a gradual ascension to self awareness but his way of putting it is classical racism:
We may thus proceed by perfectly imperceptible stages, and in the course of three or four thousand generations we shall get a man-monkey fully equal in intelligence to the average Hottentot.

He insists that materialism is dead and to confute it is to slay the slain. One may as well impugn the 'all is fire' manifesto of Heraclitus. He finds it a degrading turn. It is not clear why. Materialism may have been a killer objection for the Victorians much as racism is in our time.

He likens the Theory of Evolution to the startling knowledge that the universe was very large as was the world and the numbers of Christians as compared to heathens very small.
The recognition of these two facts, that there were millions of heathens, and that the universe was a very large place, really upset the old theology.

That of course is nonsense. The challenge was to convert all nations and they were well aware that was in sporting terms 'a big ask'.

He mentions the Catholic Church which possibly to his chagrin was not caught out in denial of the science behind Darwinism:
It is permissible, it appears, I for orthodox Catholics to hold that the series of facts alleged by Mr. Darwin actually occurred, I and that the ape changed by slow degrees into the man; only they miist save themselves by calling the process miraculous, and thus, for a time at least, the old theory may be preserved.
No doubt there were Jesuit prevaricators behind this 'cute move. Which reminds him - Cardinal Newman and his asserted obviousness of the priority of conscience in the development of the human mind and the sense of sacrifice as atonement being primal.

Stephen makes the valid point that when anthropological data is required Christianity is glad to use other religions it but will in other respects discount them. Well it would do is the answer to that, true in some respect does not imply that it might be true in all respects.

Here is an early adaptation of the anti-teleological view that Darwinism is taken to espouse.
For Darwinism is, in fact, the scientific embodiment of that attack upon final causes which was already explicitly set forth by Spinoza, and which animated some of Hume's keenest logic.

we confine ourselves to remarking that the development of eyes is part of the great process of the adaptation of the organism to its medium.
Is not this quest for knowledge of the environment part of the general goal, an end, a telos?
He mentions a problem for religion even of the anemic sort that Stephen would accept:
Does not the new theory make it difficult to believe in immortal souls? If we admit that the difference between men and monkeys is merely a difference of degree, can we continue to hold that monkeys will disappear at their death like a bubble, and that men will rise from their ashes?
One doubts that he would be much impressed by Indian theories of transmigration. Nothing would lessen the disdain he had for religion which is a curious fact given that those that he was reared amongst are taken to be examples of the benign power of religion in society. Would the slave trade have been abolished in a peaceful manner in the British Empire without them when one considers that it took bloody war to do so in America?

He gets distracted from his consideration of the impact of Darwinism on religion by the opportunity to insist that the belief in immortality buttresses the higher impulses of our nature and it is from those impulses that it draws its strength rather than from metaphysical arguments purporting to found immortality as a rational belief.

In his summing up:
But we may be sure that it (the new doctrine of Darwinism) will not take root till in some shape or other it has provided the necessary envelopes for the deepest instincts of our nature. If Darwinism demonstrates that men have been evolved out of brutes, the religion which takes it into account will also have to help men to bear in mind that they are now different from brutes.

2 comments:

skholiast said...

I have forgotten now which collection of L.S. it was that I was reading, but I realized I was completely charmed by the style and had not absorbed so much as a sentence of the content, and had to start over. Not that he is the greatest of writers. But I had been reading a steady diet of 20th c exposition, and in contrast, Lo, here was a paragraph which wended this way and that for line upon line until somewhere towards the end the language finally got to where the thought might be beginning. Not a "topic sentence" in sight. In short, ladies and gentlemen -- the Victorians.

ombhurbhuva said...

I agree and your comment sparked a confession and a reflection which staggered on to a post.