Susan Jacoby, who’s just written a new book on atheist writer Robert G. Ingersoll, has called my attention to a really fine essay he wrote in 1872: “The Gods” (full reference below). It’s free online, and twenty pages long when printed out in 12-point type, but lengthen your attention span and read it. You’ll be amazed at how much Strident New Atheism was going on back then, for the tone is very strong—worthy of a Hitchens. And it’s so reasonable. “How can a religious person read it”, you’ll think, “and not see that the whole business of faith is ridiculous?” Over the next few days I’ll be putting up a few quotes from it.
In the first, Ingersoll goes after the creationism of his era, and the argument from design. Remember that this was written only 13 years after Darwin published On the Origin of Species. Here, as in other parts of the essay, Ingersoll—like Jesus—speaks in parables.
A devout clergyman sought every opportunity to impress upon the mind of his son the fact that God takes care of all his creatures; that the falling sparrow attracts his attention, and that his loving kindness is over all his works. Happening, one day, to see a crane wading in quest of food. the good man pointed out to his son the perfect adaptation of the crane to get his living in that manner. “See,” said he, “how his legs are formed for wading! What a long slender bill he has! Observe how nicely he folds his feet when putting them in or drawing them out of the water! He does not cause the slightest ripple. He is thus enabled to approach the fish without giving them any notice of his arrival” “My son,” said he, “it is impossible to look at that bird without recognizing the design, as well as the goodness of God, in thus providing the means of subsistence.” “Yes,” replied the boy, “I think I see the goodness of God, at least so far as the crane is concerned; but after all, father, don’t you think the arrangement a little tough on the fish?”
Indeed, though some theologians like John Haught try to turn the scientific fact of evolution—once the greatest belief-killer around—into a spiritual virtue, it’s not convincing to many. That’s why, for instance, 29% of American Catholics (a faith that officially accepts evolution) are still creationists.
Look at it this way: if you were an omnipotent god, and wanted to create life, would you do it through the tortuous and torturous process of evolution, in which not only many species suffer unspeakable horrors, but which has led to the extinction without issue of 99% of the species that ever lived? No, you’d do it by fiat: the way it’s described in Genesis. No rational God, unless he loved suffering, would create through evolution.
Darwin realized this, too. In a famous passage from a letter to Asa Gray written on May 22, 1860 (my emphasis), he clearly understood and absorbed the theological implications of his theories:
With respect to the theological view of the question; this is always painful to me.— I am bewildered.— I had no intention to write atheistically. But I own that I cannot see, as plainly as others do, & as I shd wish to do, evidence of design & beneficence on all sides of us. There seems to me too much misery in the world. I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent & omnipotent God would have designedly created the Ichneumonid&ae; with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice. Not believing this, I see no necessity in the belief that the eye was expressly designed. On the other hand I cannot anyhow be contented to view this wonderful universe & especially the nature of man, & to conclude that everything is the result of brute force. I am inclined to look at everything as resulting from designed laws, with the details, whether good or bad, left to the working out of what we may call chance. Not that this notion at all satisfies me. I feel most deeply that the whole subject is too profound for the human intellect. A dog might as well speculate on the mind of Newton.— Let each man hope & believe what he can.—
Note that at this stage of his life Darwin, while repudiating a personal God, is still flirting with deism, suggesting that the laws of nature were created by God. But at the end he punts completely: “Let each man hope & believe what he can”!
h/t: Susan Jacoby
Ingersoll, R. G. 1876. The gods and other lectures. D. M. Bennett, New York.