Fundamentalism and the Darwin anniversary

Posted on December 28, 2008


I was in Oxford recently, for the latest conference of the excellent Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism in Britain project (website). Focusing on the first half of the twentieth century, almost every paper was interesting and serious. Particular highlights for me included insight into the British contributors to the Fundamentals and a strikingly revisionist account of the 1909 split between the Student Christian Movement and the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union, but really, there were no weak points amongst the main papers.

Listening to an exchange between Martin Wellings (whose paper on Methodist Fundamentalism was also very good) and Andrew Atherstone, I finally came up with what, for me, is the perfect definition of ‘fundamentalism’: Andrew cited Methodist leaders who shared platforms with the fundamentalists, and held to many of the same doctrinal points, even quoting one as saying that he would sooner cut his own arm off than compromise. Why were these people not considered fundamentalists, he asked? My answer: a moderate threatens to cut his own arm off; a fundamentalist is after someone else’s…

Rob Warner gave an interesting and entertaining paper on two fictional accounts of children rejecting the Evangelical religion of their parents, in the classic novels Father and Son and The Way of all Flesh. Both reflect the late Victorian crisis of faith in personal, powerful and (in the case of Butler particularly) bitingly humorous narrative, and Rob brought the themes out well.

The 2009 Darwin anniversary (bicentenary of his birth; 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species) will generate all sorts of events (see here…). Many of them will assume a historical account that views Darwin’s discoveries as the key moment in the crisis of faith, and so of Western secularisation: evolution disproved a literal reading of Genesis and so led to the gradual, but inexorable, decline of religion in Europe and the USA.

No need, I trust, to rehearse the multiple errors in this account here, but one aspect, that interests me, and that I have commented on before, came up in Rob’s paper, entirely in passing. In a list of the intellectual failures of their parents, both the narrators of the novels mention the influence of uniformitarian geology. Long before Darwin ever published (1830-33), Charles Lyell had argued for the antiquity of the earth on geological grounds. I have on my shelves Pye Smith’s attempts to reconcile geology and Scripture, first published in 1840; also a book claiming that a survey of American churchgoers in the 1840s demonstrated already a significant move away from a ‘literal’ reading of Genesis 1.

The idea that Darwin is the cause of the crisis of faith is, as far as I can see, simply false, derived essentially from reading back events from 1920s America into 1850s Britain. At best, Darwin was a minor contributor to a cultural mood; more realisitically, as Butler and Gosse implicitly demonstrate, orthodox Christianity, often evangelical, remained culturally normal through the second half of the nineteenth century. If a scientific challenge to this was felt, it came (rightly or wrongly) from geology, not biology.

Worth remembering as the year’s hype builds, perhaps…

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