February 12 used to be known in classrooms across the nation as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. But over the last decade, an increasing number of schools and community groups have decided to celebrate the birthday of the father of evolution instead.
The movement to establish February 12 as “Darwin Day” seems to be spreading, promoted by a evangelistic non-profit group with its own website (www.darwinday.org) and an ambitious agenda to create a “global celebration in 2009, the bicentennial of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origins of Species.”
Darwin Day celebrations provide an eye-opening glimpse into the world of grassroots Darwinian fundamentalism, an alternate reality where atheism is the conventional wisdom and where traditional religious believers are viewed with suspicion if not paranoia.
Promoters of Darwin Day deny that their activities are anti-religious, but their denial is hard to square with reality.
According to the Darwin Day website, the movement’s inspiration was an event sponsored by the Stanford Humanists and the Humanist Community in 1995. Since then the honor roll of groups sponsoring Darwin Day events has been top-heavy with organizations bearing such names as the “Long Island Secular Humanists,” the “Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin,” the “Gay and Lesbian Atheists and Humanists,” the “Humanists of Idaho,” the “Southeast Michigan Chapter of Freedom from Religion Foundation,” and the “San Francisco Atheists.” The last group puts on an annual festival called “Evolutionpalooza” featuring a Darwin impersonator and an evolution game show (“Evolutionary!”).
Given such sponsors, it should be no surprise that Darwin Day events often explicitly attack religion. At a high school in New York a few years ago, students wore shirts emblazoned with messages proclaiming that “no religious dogmas [were] keeping them from believing what they want to believe,” while in California a group named “Students for Science and Skepticism” hosted a lecture at the University of California, Irvine, on the topic “Darwin’s Greatest Discovery: Design without a Designer.” This year in Boston there is an event on “Biological Arguments Against the Existence of God.”
A musical group calling itself “Scientific Gospel Productions,” meanwhile, mocks gospel music by holding annual Darwin Day concerts featuring such songs as “Ain’t Gonna Be No Judgment Day,” the “Virgin of Spumoni” (satirizing the Virgin Mary), and my favorite, “Randomness Is Good Enough for Me,” the lyrics of which proclaim: “Randomness is good enough for me./ If there’s no design it means I’m free./ You can pray to go to heaven./ I’m gonna try to roll a seven./ Randomness is good enough for me.” The same group’s website offers for sale a CD titled “Hallelujah! Evolution!”
The original “honorary president” of Darwin Day was biologist Richard Dawkins, author most recently of The God Delusion. Dawkins is best known for such pearls of wisdom as “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate,” and “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”
The Darwin Day group’s current advisory board includes not only Dawkins but Eugenie Scott of the National Center for Science Education (an original signer of the “Humanist Manifesto III”), philosopher Daniel Dennett (who praises Darwinism as the “universal acid” that eats away traditional religion and morality), and Scientific American columnist Michael Shermer (an atheist who writes that “Science Is My Savior” because it helped free him from “the stultifying dogma of a 2,000-year-old religion”).
Perhaps in an effort to revise the image of Darwin Day as merely a holiday for atheists, last year a professor from Wisconsin urged churches to celebrate “Evolution Sunday” on or near Darwin Day. But the fact that some liberal churches have now been enlisted to spread the Darwinist gospel cannot cover up the anti-religious fervor that pervades the Darwinist subculture.
Darwin Day celebrations are fascinating because they expose a side of the controversy over evolution in America that is rarely covered by the mainstream media. Although journalists routinely write about the presumed religious motives of anyone critical of unguided evolution, they almost never discuss the anti-religious mindset that motivates many of evolution’s staunchest defenders.
On the few occasions when the anti-religious agenda of someone like Dawkins is even raised, it is usually downplayed as unrepresentative of most Darwinists.
What Darwin Day shows, however, is just how ordinary the anti-religious views expressed by Dawkins are among grassroots Darwinists. Far from being on the fringe, Dawkins’ views form the ideological core of mainstream Darwinism.
Not that this should come as a shock. According to a 1998 survey of members of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), nearly 95 percent of NAS biologists are atheists or agnostics. A look at the major critics of the theory of intelligent design reveals similar views. Barbara Forrest, co-author of the anti-intelligent design harangue Creationism’s Trojan Horse, is a long-time activist and board member with a group calling itself the “New Orleans Secular Humanist Association,” although she fails to disclose that fact in her book, and reporters studiously avoid asking her about her own religious beliefs.
The anti-religious outlook of many of Darwin’s chief boosters exposes the hypocrisy in current discussions over Darwin’s theory. The usual complaint raised against scientists who are skeptical of Darwin’s theory is that many of them (like the vast majority of Americans) happen to believe in God. It is insinuated that this fact somehow undermines the validity of their scientific views. Yet, at the same time, defenders of Darwinism insist that their own rejection of religion is irrelevant to the validity of their scientific views—and most reporters seem to agree.
Of course, in an important sense these defenders of Darwinism are right. Just because leading Darwinists are avowed atheists or agnostics does not mean that their scientific beliefs about evolution are wrong. Scientific propositions should be debated based on their evidence, not on the metaphysical beliefs of those who espouse them.
But if Darwinists have the right to be debated based on evidence, not motives, then scientists who are supportive of alternatives to Darwin’s theory such as intelligent design should have the right to expect the same treatment.
If Darwin Day helps expose the blatant double standard about religious motives operating in the current evolution debate, then its evangelistic boosters will have performed an invaluable public service—however unintentionally.
John G. West is a senior fellow at the Discovery Institute and author of Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest.