This is the third and final post commenting on philosopher Michael Ruse's The Evolution-Creation Struggle (see Part 1 and Part 2). Ruse thinks evolutionism (his term for the popular side of evolution) is something of a secular religion. Why?
It helps to start at the beginning and put evolution in its social and historical context. England in the second half of the 19th century was full of talk about progress and reform. Pre-Darwinian evolution was no stranger to this discussion, and Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection was sucked into this ongoing conversation. This was in part due to the prominent role of Thomas Henry Huxley, the most active pro-Darwin voice of that era.
Huxley and his fellow reformers rightly saw the Church of England as allied with all of the reactionary forces against which he was fighting. He realized that he needed a rival ideology, a kind of secular religion, that he could use to fight traditional Anglican Christianity. ... Evolution fit perfectly into this slot. It gave answers to cosmic questions, including where did we come from? It reserved a special place for humankind .... And it offered much else, all in a materialistic and agnostic (a word invented by Huxley himself) fashion. Natural selection, with its whiff of natural theology, was if anything a detraction, so Huxley minimized or ignored it in his public lectures, but he championed evolution.
And just what is a secular religion? Ruse notes that "the concept of a religion is notoriously hard to define, but one thinks in terms of a world picture, providing origins, a place (probably a special place) for humans, a guide to action, a meaning to life." (Emphasis added.) Evolution provides all that. Other features one might associate with religion in general such as a belief in a deity and a distinct priesthood are not, in fact, essential. Buddhism is nontheistic. Many religions have little institutional structure above the level of local assemblies of adherents.
Ruse continues by showing links between postmillennial thinking and evolution. "Strengthening the case for the religious nature of post-Darwinian evolutionism was its link to millennial thinking, which began to flourish in a major way in popular culture in the nineteenth century." I think that as 20th-century fundamentalism adopted premillennialism and dispensationalism and rejected evolution, the postmillennial approach of most liberal Christians became associated with the sympathetic view many liberal Christians took toward evolutionary thinking. Mormonism is firmly attached to premillennial dispensationalism (in part absorbed, along with young-earth Creationism, from fundamentalist Christians in the first half of the 20th century). This perhaps explains why Mormons often find it natural to reject evolution despite the absence of an official LDS position for or against evolution.
What about today? Does evolution in the 21st century still have a religious component? Ruse considers the question of whether modern evolutionsm (popular evolution) is still a secular religion in two parts.
First, is evolutionary thinking used to combat or deny other religions, specifically the validity of some or all forms of Christianity? Second, is evolutionary thinking used to promote a world picture with norms of its own, which may or may not coincide with those of the religious but which are proposed (and justified) essentially on evolutionary grounds alone? To extend this last question to the extreme, does evolution entail its own brand of postmillennial theology?
I can't easily summarize Ruse's discussion, which goes on ten or twelve pages, with lengthy quotes from the likes of Stephen Jay Gould, Edward O. Wilson, W. D. Hamilton, and Richard Dawkins. But he essentially answers a firm yes to both questions. He concludes:
[E]volutionary biology ... continues to function as a kind of secular religion. It offers a story of origins. It provides a privileged place at the top for humans. It exhorts humans to action, on the basis of evolutionary principles. It opposes other solutions to questions of social behavior and morality. And it points to a brighter future if all is done as it should be done, in accordance with evolutionary theory. Wilson may be right that he has shucked the literal apocalyptic commitments of his childhood, but if he is not committed to a postmillennial theology, I do not know who is.
I'd be happy to end with that quotation, but I'd better make a couple of points in closing to avoid any misunderstanding. Describing evolution (or evolutionism, if that term makes you happier) as a secular religion is not a criticism of evolution. Ruse is a philospher, not an offended believer. His point in the book was to explain why evolution and conservative Christianity seem locked in an ongoing ideological struggle. Understanding that evolution functions in part as a secular religion helps us understand the struggle: proponents of evolution and believing Christians rightly sense some rivalry and typically act to defend their turf. I certainly recommend the book to anyone interested in a balanced discussion of the evolution-creation struggle.