Monday, July 16, 2007


Missionary Redux

Back on July 3, I posted a piece calling into doubt an article in the Journal of Religious History by Mark Graham titled, "The Enchanter's Wand: Charles Darwin, Foreign Missions, and the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle.”

Charles Darwin, wrote Graham, was at best noncommittal about the Christian missionary activity surrounding him for most of the Beagle’s voyage. “He emerged from the voyage, however, as an enthusiastic and outspoken proponent of missions.”

I wrote the post based on an article about it by Dan Vergano published in USAToday and the abstract of Graham’s article. I did not, at the time, have access to the full article. Any alarm bells going off yet?

Rushing in where angels fear to tread, I nevertheless wrote that I doubted Graham’s conclusion that Darwin supported Christian missionary work all his life.

A number of readers helpfully sent me the full article to read for myself and, in a couple of e-mails, Mark Graham gently, and generously, pointed me in the right direction, as well. In the weeks since that post, “Missionary Position,” I’ve spent quite a bit of time browsing the Darwin Correspondence Project, reading Darwin’s letters, and learning that I was wrong. Quite wrong.

Having read any number of Darwin biographies, I was aware of Darwin’s religious trajectory from prospective clergyman, to professional scientist and agnostic. The broad outlines of the story are well known to almost everyone.

I had no problem believing that the young Darwin, who was sometimes teased by his shipmates for his religiosity, was a supporter, perhaps even an ardent one, of Christian missionary work, but I doubted that the older, agnostic Darwin would still support their efforts.

As always a little bit of knowledge – especially in a highly combustible mix with ignorance – can be a very dangerous thing.

Missionary work, as Graham points out, was controversial in Darwin’s day and remains so today. While secular types like Red State Rabble might oppose missionary activity as a tool of imperialism that resulted in the destruction of indigenous culture, practicing Christians then and now might harbor their own objections, as well.

There was tension among missionaries in Darwin’s day, writes Graham, over “which should come first: Christianization which would lead to ‘civilization,’ or ‘civilization’ which would lead to Christianization.”

Simply knowing then, whether someone, Darwin let’s say, was a believer is not enough to predict whether or not they were also supporters of missionary activity. Likewise, even an agnostic, such as Darwin became later in life, might well support the “civilizing” of indigenous people – not to mention bringing them into the sphere of British imperialism – without also defending their Christianization.

In writing the post, I allowed myself to become a victim – another in a long line – of a now discredited paradigm. And to add insult to injury, it’s one I’ve argued against many times here at Red State Rabble. This hoary archetype, long discarded by historians and philosophers of science, which nevertheless remains a fixture of nearly everyone’s mental landscape is: The war between science and religion.

The idea that there’s been a centuries-long battle between the forces of enlightenment represented by a clearly demarcated and progressive science, opposed tooth and nail at every turn by legions of reactionary – and equally united – churchmen, persists because it’s simple and seems to explain so much.

It got its start with John William Draper’s History of the Conflict between Religion and Science published in 1874 and Andrew Dickson White’s two-volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom published in 1896.

“The history of Science is not a mere record of isolated discoveries; it is a narrative of the conflict of two contending powers, the expansive force of the human intellect on one side, and the compression arising from traditionary faith and human interests on the other,” wrote Draper in launching the conflict thesis on its long voyage.

The problem with uncomplicated explanations that seem, at first glance, to explain much is that they tend, like an advertising jingle, to stick in our minds and, much like a comic book version of War and Peace, they rarely deliver what they promise.

It would be a mistake to assume, for example, that Darwin was a hardened atheist who fashioned evolution to undermine belief. He was not and did not. It would even be a mistake to suppose that Andrew Dickson White – one of the key architects of the conflict thesis – was an atheist, for he was indeed, quite devout.

All truly great stories – like the unraveling of evolutionary theory – are rich, complex, and very, very human in a way that no shorthand can quite capture.

I find it fascinating that the man who creationists caricature as the very devil himself entered adulthood with the ambition to be a clergyman. A pillar of Victorian society, he was never the radical creationists now paint – or perhaps even some of his defenders would like -- him to be. He was a very conservative man who used the decades after he first came to understand the mechanism underlying evolution to gather evidence and build his case.

In the end, Darwin published only because his hand was forced. Origin of Species went into print only because another naturalist, Alfred Russell Wallace also came to understand its workings and intended to publish his findings.

Equally intriguing is the fact, which Graham has now brought to our attention, that a man who lost his faith, perhaps when he lost his beloved daughter, Annie, continued to support the work of Christian missionaries.

The facile tale of the conflict between religion and science simply doesn’t fit the facts. There's plenty of sound and fury there, but in the end they signify nothing.

Note: Although I regret rushing my doubts about Darwin and missionaries into print without having first read Mark Graham's paper, I don’t regret the experience. It’s given me a chance to dig into Darwin’s correspondence for the first time. And that will provide plenty of grist for the mill that is Red State Rabble.


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