Toward the end of a recent debate between myself and a believing Presbyterian fundamentalist, my opponent offered the following poem from C.S. Lewis:
Lead us, Evolution, lead us
Up the future’s endless stair;
Chop us, change us, prod us, weed us
For stagnation is despair:
Groping, guessing, yet progressing,
Lead us nobody knows where.
The satirical intent of this verse can be gauged from the way in which Lewis so heavily capitalizes the word Evolution. I didn’t spend so many years in chapel for nothing, and so at once I was able to remember at least the first verse of the hymn from which this poem was borrowed:
Lead us Heavenly Father, lead us
O’er the world’s tempestuous sea;
Guard us, guide us, keep us, feed us
For we have no help but thee:
Yet possessing every blessing,
If our God our Father be.
The hymn, which has been set to beautiful organ music, was written by James Edmeston (1791–1867) and concludes (as I later remembered): “Thus provided, pardoned, guided / Nothing can our peace destroy.”
Now I ask you: first, which of the two verses above is the most self-evidently absurd? Even C.S. Lewis’s sarcasm cannot disguise something about the theory of evolution and its building blocks (with the “endless stair” perhaps doing a secondhand stand-in for the double helix). In its closing lines, it does convey, however reluctantly, the idea that the future of the species cannot be known—or should I say “divined”?—in advance. For Lewis, the very thought that things were not predetermined for us by scriptural and supernatural authority was horrible.
James Edmeston had already gone the necessary further stage and called aloud for a paternal dictator who would supply material provisions, as well as positive reinforcement, to his kept and chosen underlings. At the end, a bliss of forgiveness envelops those who agree to be provided for and guided.
For me, the choice between an unending and supposedly benign but exacting supervision (which demands continual praise) and the chance to participate in the risky adventure of being a self-critical primate (which demands constant inquiry and doubt but at least the chance of discovery) is no choice at all. But this does not begin to exhaust the difference between myself and my debating partner. This was Pastor Douglas Wilson of New St. Andrew’s University in Idaho, about whom I have written once or twice before. Wilson’s refusal to accept that the world is a material one is based not so much on any evidence that argues against that conclusion but on the premise that the conclusion cannot be true because it would be upsetting!
Many a time he has stated this full out. (You can see him do so if you get hold of our debate movie Collision.) If we are merely protoplasmic, says the pastor, then life is essentially no more than “matter in motion,” and all debates on the grand issues of right and wrong are conducted between mere flasks of fizzing fluid. Our only option, then, would be despair.
I might want to change despair to stoicism in that syllogism, but long before that I would have wanted to decide the question: Is this Darwinian stuff really the goods or is it not? You can’t take a position against it on the mere ground that it might make humans feel small. (Incidentally, isn’t religion supposed to make people feel small and worthless: mere sinners created from dust by an angry and jealous deity? Our own well-charted descent from lowly amoebae and bacteria is surely nothing as humiliating as that.)
I suppose you could argue that my next question is to some extent a matter of taste and therefore ultimately undecidable, but how is it more uplifting to human beings to compare themselves to well-tended but helpless farm animals, grateful for any favor from the owner and not believing themselves able to manage any sustenance without a corresponding guardianship? This, to take a non-Christian example, is precisely the theory of the Islamic Republic of Iran, which defines all citizens as wards and children of the mullahs—as so many lost orphans if they are not under the watchful eye of the holy. To be a product of natural selection by random mutation may not be a definition of nobility or angelhood, but at least it means that one is not a slave to nonexistent celestial beings or to their self-anointed representatives among other primates. In addition, the theory of evolution shows every sign of being testable and true (and sometimes even beautiful), which is a great deal more than can be said for the primitive notion that we were fashioned from clay or blood clots by a capricious master who can shatter us back into dust or punish us without end if we fail to please.
Most arguments for religious belief are based to an extent on wish-thinking, especially insofar as they dangle the false promise of an escape from death. But not all of our wishes and desires are by any means idealistic: we may wish for a hell (for other people), and we may prefer servitude and security to freedom. This is how faith makes its main appeal, and it is also why that appeal must be staunchly resisted.