The Lessons of the Spiritualist Challenge to Darwinism
At the end of the nineteenth century, it was obvious to the informed observer that materialism would triumph in Europe. The fruits of this victory were not hard to imagine: a decline in religious belief, an exaltation of humanity, and a rejection of traditional morals. Many conservative social and political leaders in Great Britain saw this coming destruction of their way of life and attempted to head it off.
Chief among the prophets of this coming cultural apocalypse was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Most famous as the creator of Sherlock Holmes, Doyle was a doctor, humanitarian, war hero, and academic polymath. Though he rejected the traditional Catholicism of his childhood, he fully embraced the values of late Victorian and Edwardian England. He was distressed by the rise of feminism, the decline in patriotism, and the crude manners of the machine age. Under the influence of his mother, he longed for a more chivalrous age.
Secular thinkers like Doyle believed that Darwin had delivered the mortal blow to traditional religious faith. Many English clerics and scientists felt that God could somehow be inserted into the evolutionary process. In this way, they hoped to preserve their academic and cultural viability. It would be impossible to think of a more disastrous move. It is possible to accommodate almost any two views with a strong enough motive to do so, but that does not mean that most people will buy into a compromise that they perceive as ad hoc.
Such was the case in England after Darwin. Men of good will would claim that the naturalism in Darwinism was an unnecessary philosophic extrapolation from an innocuous scientific theory. But such good-hearted men were philosophically naive. Darwinism most naturally fits with naturalism. When combined with an overwhelming bias toward methodological naturalism in science, it is no surprise that the culture moved toward naturalism and away from theism.
This article first appeared in the September, 2005 issue of Touchstone magazine.
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