A couple days ago I was flipping through a creationist book from my shelf, and I couldn’t help but notice that the author rarely ever used the word “evolution” when describing the theory of evolution by natural selection. Instead, he almost always called it Darwinism. Of course, we know what someone means when they say Darwinism, and even evolutionists often call it Darwinian evolution or Darwin’s theory of evolution. But I think that creationists have a very specific reason in using the term “Darwinism” instead of the word “evolution”. That is: they want to equate believing that evolution is true with belonging to a religion that worships Charles Darwin.
To be transparent, I don’t really feel strongly one way or another about Charles Darwin the person. In various books on evolution, I’ve read page-long summaries of Darwin’s life, but I’ve never read a biography and I’m really not an expert on him. I’m just not that interested.
Of course I have an immeasurable appreciation for his scientific “discovery” (if you can call evolution a discovery), but Darwin is one of many great names that come to mind when I think of evolution. There’s also Alfred Russel Wallace, who independently discovered the theory of natural selection (which, by the way, no one calls Wallacism or Wallician evolution, although, granted, it doesn’t have the same ring to it), Donald Johansen, who discovered the bones of Lucy, Francis Collins, who mapped the first human genome, and dozens, if not hundreds, more.
Darwin may have gotten the ball rolling on the study of natural selection, but making his name and the theory itself interchangeable ignores all of the great discoveries and work in the field of biology since Darwin’s time. Surely, there’s so much more evidence of evolution now than Darwin could have dreamed of! He knew nothing of hominid fossils or of the evidence of evolution within the field of genetics.
The science of evolution is so much more than a devotion to Charles Darwin. It’s people from so many fields of study experimenting and investigating, connecting dots and finding clues that continually point to the same conclusion. In a word, it’s dynamic.
You could think of atheists and skeptics in the same way. The freethought community is varied and dynamic, with no clear leader, and we’re doing just fine without one, thank you very much. But with any group, leaders emerge. In this case, predictably, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett, and Sam Harris are perceived as leaders. I think that this is especially the case with Dawkins, who is known for being the most outspoken.
Picking out the supposed leader of a group and seeing them as a representative of the whole group makes the opposition’s job easy. How many times have you seen apologists responding to the words of Richard Dawkins? It’s as if they think that if you’re an atheist, then you must idolize him and agree with his statements. As evolution is conflated with Darwinism, so is atheism conflated with Dawkinism.
It all comes back to the occasional allegation that atheism is just another religion. But if it were a religion, wouldn’t you be able to point to a person, or even a group of people, whose words are gospel? No one discovered unbelief in a supernatural deity, and no one wrote the holy text of atheism, as much as it may seem. It’s easy to see The God Delusion or The Origin of Species as the atheistic antitheses to the Bible or the Quran, but you can disagree with every other word that Dawkins wrote and still be an atheist. On the other hand, if you disagree with everything in the Bible, then it’s impossible for you to be a Christian.
The atheistic community isn’t run by one person with a book, and as a matter of fact, neither is the evolution community (if one could call it that). I think it can be hard for those of orthodox religions to understand that we can live and operate completely free of a god or even a god substitute. But it’s exactly that: free! We’re free from dogma and creeds, and we’re free to hold our own independent beliefs. You may never find two atheists who believe all of the exact same things, and that’s why it’s amazing to have a community with so many different voices of people who are willing to change, learn, and grow together.