G.K. Chesterton’s Answer to the Question, “What Can Evolution Teach Us about Religion?”

It works (even as naturalism flounders for justification and adherents):

The point of Darwinism was that the bird with the longer beak could reach worms (let us say) at the bottom of a deeper hole; that the birds who could not do so would die; and he alone would remain to found a race of long-beaked birds. . . . But the point was that the fittest did not need to struggle against the unfit. The survivor had nothing to do except to survive, when the others could not survive. He survived because he alone had the features and organs necessary for survival. And, whatever be the truth about mammoths or monkeys, that is the exact truth about the present survival of religion. It is surviving because nothing else can survive.

And according to Chesterton, why does religion outdo its naturalist competitors? In part because it gives humans the hope of freedom and transcendence from determinism, which he sees as naturalism’s Achilles’ heel

The whole trend of it, which began as a drive and has ended in a drift, is towards some form of the theory that a man cannot help himself; that a man cannot mend himself; above all, that a man cannot free himself. . . . We are practically told that we might as well ask a fossil to reform itself. We are told that we are asking a stuffed bird to repent. We are all dead, and the only comfort is that we are all classified. For by this philosophy, which is the same as that of the blackest of Puritan heresies, we all died before we were born. But as it is Kismet without Allah, so also it is Calvinism without God.

In other words, for Chesterton, evolutionary naturalism is bleaker even than Calvinism. In Calvinism, if you are amongst the elect, you at least have a hope of heaven and release from the miseries of this determinate world. But if you are a naturalist, you don’t even have that. All you have is chemistry and physics doing blind and determinate things for which you, ultimately, are contingently, and without any purpose, tagging along.

In short, naturalism loses contact with humanity’s collective sanity and common sense (that we obviously have free will). Naturalism, because it cannot ultimately acknowledge this crucial measure of our own collective control, flounders for broad acceptance where religion does not. And so Chesterton says of naturalism:

It was nonsense that could not be made the basis of any common system, such as has been founded upon common sense.

And that’s one reason that religion is so robust a social creature—even if its basic assumptions (that God is real and people have free will) may, in fact, be utterly false.

The above quotes from Chesterton come from his essay “The Return to Religion” (from his 1935 book The Well and the Shadows ).

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to G.K. Chesterton’s Answer to the Question, “What Can Evolution Teach Us about Religion?”

  1. Matt says:

    I find this argument really interesting. But while I can understand the argument, the feelings I find within myself are the exact opposite.
    I find the idea of a naturalistic universe, in which life like ours may be incredibly common or incredibly rare (either case is fascinating), and the idea that we have the opportunity to make of it what we will, so much more life-affirming and rewarding than the notion of a God, benign or otherwise, running the show for his amusement.

  2. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    You wrote that “the idea that we have the opportunity to make of it what we will” is pleasing, but Chesterton’s point is that a naturalist world—a world that is ultimately physics and chemistry playing out in the void—is a determinate world. Our perceived “opportunity” is, in fact, an illusion.

    I like what Rorty once asked: “If the universe is atoms and the void, why do we seem to be always talking about something else?”

    That’s a paraphrase of Rorty—not an exact quote—but you get the idea.

    —Santi

  3. Matt says:

    It may be an illusion, but I don’t see how religion in any way changes that or renders it more palatable, except in an equally illusory fashion.
    If we’re looking for ‘comfort’ then I’m on the side of understanding as much as we can and genuinely improving things, rather than just pretending it’s something it’s not.
    I’m even perfectly comfortable with it all being illusory, given that my conscious awareness of it would also illusory.
    It may be just atoms in the void, but in that context isn’t music just strings and wind?

  4. santitafarella says:

    Matt:

    I agree with you that religion doesn’t handle the question any better, but it does feel like we’re stuck. How did a determinate universe make creatures in it that have this sensation of being free and conscious?

    I like your “just strings and the wind” analogy, but my response would then be this: does the chess board make the game? Or is the chess board just the platform for the game?

    Whence all these higher level games on the atom and void platform?

    Strange world.

    —Santi

  5. Pingback: Biologist Anthony Cashmore thinks belief in free will is akin to belief in “magic” and we have “free will genes” actively deceiving us into believing that we have free will! « Prometheus Unbound

  6. Pingback: A great interview with Anthropologist Lionel Tiger about the origin of religion « Prometheus Unbound

  7. Pingback: Free will denial watch: Jerry Coyne calls himself “a molecular puppet” « Prometheus Unbound

  8. Pingback: Biologist Anthony Cashmore thinks belief in free will is akin to belief in “magic” and we have “free will genes” actively deceiving us into believing that we have free will! | Prometheus Unbound

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s