Back in January we reported on a new book which argued that a hatred of slavery did much to form Charles Darwin’s views on natural selection as he sought to prove that blacks and whites had a common ancestor and were not separate species or products of “separate creations” as many of the 19th century defenders of white supremacy maintained.
I did a blog at the time to draw attention to my colleague Mike Collett-White’s story on “Darwin’s Sacred Cause” by Adrian Desmond and James Moore and said that it had piqued my curiosity enough that I might be tempted to read it. I have done just that and think it raises a couple of issues that will be of interest to readers of this blog. (Photo: A portrait of Charles Darwin is displayed as part of an exhibition in Darwin’s former home Down House, Kent, England, 12/02/2009, REUTERS/Stringer, UK)
For starters, much of the credit for the anti-slavery movement has been taken by evangelicals and other Christians such as the Quakers, who were indeed often the driving force behind it. There was much excitement in U.S. evangelical circles two years ago about the release of the movie “Amazing Grace” about British anti-slavery pioneer William Wilberforce who was an ardent evangelical. Much ink has been spilled on this topic, notably in 2005 by Adam Hochschild in his superb book “Bury the Chains: The British Struggle to Abolish Slavery.”
But no one would mistake the father of modern biological science for an evangelical. Most of his biographers agree (based on overwhelming evidence) that Darwin gradually lost his own faith. Another leading abolitionist in Darwin’s day was his cigar-smoking dining companion Harriet Martineau, who was also a self-proclaimed atheist. Darwin’s own family — which had its share of religious sceptics, notably his father, as well as devout believers– was also heavily involved in the anti-slavery movement.
So it seems that the secular humanist crowd also has an old and some would say noble tradition of anti-slavery agitation which it can draw on — and it was an issue that united it with evangelicals. Similar bridges are being built today between secular and evangelical leaders on issues like climate change, torture and even the modern slave trade.