It can be intellectually stimulating and fruitful, and it can be very frustrating, but over several years I have occasionally engaged with theists in online forums talking about many elements of religious belief. The forums I tend to frequent are moderated. The conversations can be sharp-edged but are typically well structured, and mostly polite and respectful.
In those conversations one of the persistent recurring arguments I’ve heard from theists is… Atheism is a religion.
To be fair, when someone makes an assertion like this, if you’re going to respond to it you are obligated to think it through and part of that involves asking the question from their point of view — is it? Is atheism a religion?
It isn’t, and there are many counterarguments that clearly dismantle the atheism-as-religion assertion.
But it has occurred to me that if atheism were a religion, there is one place on the planet that might serve as a sacred shrine, a temple, a holy place — Down House, in the pastoral countryside of Kent in southern England.
Down House was the home and intellectual refuge of Charles Darwin. It is the place where he spent decades looking deep into the mysteries of the natural world. It is the place where he wrote On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life.
I don’t think it is possible to overstate Darwin’s incredible contribution to science and knowledge and to the intellectual evolution of our species. Certainly Copernicus and Galileo can be credited with introducing and promoting the paradigm-shattering idea that the earth revolved around the sun, and not the other way around, an idea that challenged the “scientific” and religious consensus of the day. But Darwin’s dangerous idea, the gift he left us, was bigger than that, much bigger.
The theory of evolution by natural selection, more than any other scientific discovery in the history of our species, freed us from the shackles of ancient ignorance and superstition, and allowed us to engage with the natural world — our planet and its biology, the living things all around us, our home — with a previously unattainable level of understanding, and wonder and awe.
Here’s what a few people have said about Charles Darwin and the gift he gave humanity:
Evolution by natural selection is perhaps the most powerful idea ever to occur to a human mind. The genius who thought of it was Charles Darwin. That idea changed forever our view of the world and our place in it. What Darwin achieved was nothing less than a complete explanation of the complexity and diversity of all life.
Darwin’s dangerous idea unifies the world and the world of inquiry more than any other idea. Before Darwin it was impossible to understand the gap between the living and the non-living.
Evolution, Darwin’s idea, is one of the supreme intellectual achievements of human beings.
Darwin is the founding father of scientific zoology and botany. He was intellectually bold but he wasn’t aggressive because I think he knew that the majority of society would have found it deeply blasphemous to suggest that we were descended from simian ancestors. He was a courteous, kind human being. He was an extraordinary man.
Sir David Attenborough
If atheism were a religion, Down House could certainly serve as a shrine. And I know what religious shrines are. Twenty years ago my wife, Alison, and I visited the church of the holy sepulcher in Jerusalem as part of a trip to Israel and Jordan. The church is said to contain the two holiest sites in Christianity. According to traditions dating back to at least the fourth century, the church contains the site where Jesus was crucified, at a place known as Calvary or Golgotha, and Jesus’s empty tomb, where it is claimed he was buried and resurrected.
It was a strange visit. There were many pilgrims there, coming and going with clasped hands, speaking softly to themselves, and several Eastern Orthodox priests in profoundly ornate robes. The building is stone. The interior is cool, and darkly candle-lit. Alison actually found the experience spooky and couldn’t wait for the visit to be over.
In contrast, a few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit Down House, Darwin’s home in southern England. It isn’t a shrine. It’s a museum where people come to wander through the buildings, read the historical plaques, and see the room and the desk where Darwin worked. The main house sits on a vast estate with beautiful gardens and outbuildings where Darwin conducted many of his biological experiments.
There were no atheists wandering around the property with clasped hands mumbling to themselves, just tourists and school children. It was a beautiful, unseasonably warm sunny day in April. At one point I sat on a bench in the garden and closed my eyes. Probably due to my consumption of English bitters in a local pub the night before, I found myself taking a 15-minute nap to the sound of birds singing and children playing in the distance.
Charles Darwin was born February 12, 1809. He wasn’t a saint. He lived a life of financial and educational privilege. To his credit and to our benefit he used that privilege to dedicate himself to understanding the natural world, and left us with an incredible gift of knowledge.
In his words…
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or one…from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful, have been, and are being evolved.
Happy birthday, Charles.