Curb Your Enthusiasm: High Priests, Holy Writ and Excommunications - How Did Humanism End Up Acting Like a Religion?
In February this year, there was a clash of Titans. In one corner, Richard Dawkins, former Oxford professor, Darwinian biologist, brilliant science writer, scourge of the sloppy, and above all the Platonic Form of Atheist. In the other, Dr Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, himself no intellectual slouch, acknowledged as one of the West’s foremost scholars of Russian literature. The issue at stake: are you for a world devoid of ultimate meaning or are you for a world infused with purpose? Are you, as Benjamin Disraeli, the nineteenth-century prime minister, asked, on the side of Darwin or of the angels?
Although Dawkins is fully committed to the exclusive disjunction — science or religion but not both — Williams would have been surprised and appalled to be forced to choose between the two.
And here’s the rub: I, like Dawkins, am a non-believer. Yet I, like Williams, refuse to put science and religion at war. This is partly because I do not think they have to be — I see them as asking different questions. But it is also because I think there is something socially and psychologically unhealthy about the course that the debate has taken, especially by those on my side of the fence. I do not think the faults are all on one side, but let me speak to the side to which I might naturally be expected to belong.
With the Dawkins-Williams confrontation, history was repeating itself. In 1860, a year after the publication of On the Origin of Species, the British Association for the Advancement of Science met at the Oxford University Museum. Darwin himself had long ceased to go to this kind of gathering, which was designed to explain and celebrate the achievements of science both to scientists and to the general public. He was always sick and had, moreover, grown to dislike the physical aspects of controversy — getting up and confronting opponents in person. No such qualms were felt by his most devoted and closest followers, the botanist Joseph Hooker and the anatomist and paleontologist Thomas Henry Huxley. They knew that Darwin’s theory of evolution through natural selection was going to be the topic of the day and that the critics were spoiling for a fight. In a way, it was a holy mission — the two knights out there to promote and protect the reputation of their sick leader. If only Wagner had been an Englishman: instead of Parsifal, we might have had Darwin.
No one was disappointed. The climax was the clash between the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce (who had been primed by the eminent anatomist Richard Owen), and Huxley, who was professor of natural history at the Royal School of Mines in London. Wilberforce, who was known for his oratory (not always favourably — his nickname was ‘Soapy Sam’), supposedly turned to Huxley and asked him if he was descended from monkeys on his grandfather’s side or his grandmother’s side. Huxley supposedly responded that he would rather be descended from an ape than from a man of learning who misused his talents to make a scoring point in a debate. Word got out later that Huxley said he would rather be descended from an ape than from a bishop of the Church of England. In short, everybody had a grand time, keyed up by the fact that Admiral Robert Fitzroy, the man who captained HMS Beagle when Darwin took his trip around the world in the 1830s, had become a fervent Evangelical. He rushed around the museum brandishing a bible and crying: ‘The book, only the book.’