Six ways of thinking about the world have dominated the recent history of Western civilization. For millions they are the six great ideas of our time.
From an early age we have absorbed these ideas from our teachers and mentors without much questioning. As long as an idea is sound, this way of acquiring knowledge poses no problem. But when an idea is simply wrong and we do not question it, the result can be catastrophic. It seems that the ideas we accept as young, impressionable adults cause us the biggest problem, because they are often caught up with our identity—who we are and what we want to be.
Patrick Glynn is a classic example of one who bought a particular party line and paid the price of intellectual confusion for many years. Today Glynn is associate director and scholar in residence at the George Washington University Institute for Communitarian Policy Studies in Washington, D.C. Atypically he is also a believer in God—but one who came to believe only after a reexamination of the ideas that formed his outlook.
He writes of his journey: “I embraced skepticism at an early age, when I first learned of Darwin’s theory of evolution in, of all places, Catholic grade school. It immediately occurred to me that either Darwin’s theory was true or the creation story in the Book of Genesis was true. They could not both be true, and I stood up in class and told the poor nun as much.
“Thus began a long odyssey away from the devout religious belief and practice that had marked my childhood toward an increasingly secular and rationalistic outlook. . . .
“By the time I graduated from Harvard, I had thoroughly absorbed this modern, secular viewpoint. But I remained a genuine ‘agnostic.’ I thought the existence of God very, very unlikely, but I did not know. So, after a year at Cambridge University on a fellowship, I returned to graduate school at Harvard to plumb the depths of Western philosophy. By the time I received my Ph.D. at the end of the 1970s, I was a convinced atheist.”
With that pedigree, Glynn is the unlikely author of the 1997 book God: The Evidence. He admits, “After many years of being a philosophical atheist or agnostic, I finally realized that there was in fact a God.”
The Power of Ideas
In part Glynn’s realization resulted from his eventual conclusion that some of the great ideas of our time are profoundly in error. Yet if he had been better informed in the 1970s as he studied at university, he could have challenged these important ideas much earlier in his life.
He might have read, for example, a book authored by a man whose life’s journey had taken him from Germany to Oxford as a Rhodes scholar, through an interest in Marxism to Buddhism to Roman Catholicism. E.F. Schumacher, a thinker who was not afraid to go against the intellectual tide, wrote Small Is Beautiful: Economics As If People Mattered in 1973. In that book he recognized that ideas have great power. He also maintained that some of the fathers of the 19th century had wreaked havoc in the mental and spiritual life of their 20th-century offspring.
Writing with biblical foreboding, he noted: “The ideas of the fathers in the nineteenth century have been visited on the third and fourth generations living in the second half of the twentieth century. To their originators, these ideas were simply the result of their intellectual processes. In the third and fourth generations, they have become the very tools and instruments through which the world is being experienced and interpreted. Those that bring forth new ideas are seldom ruled by them. But their ideas obtain power over men’s lives in the third and fourth generations when they have become a part of that great mass of ideas, including language, which seeps into a person’s mind during his ‘Dark Ages.’”
“Those that bring forth new ideas are seldom ruled by them.”
Both Schumacher and Glynn arrived at a disturbing conclusion—that some of the most significant 19th-century underpinnings of Western civilization are the product of flawed thinking, bringing with them catastrophic results. Even if people have only a muddled concept of them, these ideas have caused many to live in a kind of quiet despair, suspecting that life is meaningless.
What are the six ideas that have influenced and now govern the thinking of most people? The first two come from Charles Darwin, father of the theory of evolution and its associated mechanism of natural selection. Next is the theory and practice of dialectical materialism as conceived by Karl Marx. Fourth we examine the ideas of the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud. The final two “great ideas” are grounded in physics and the scientific method: relativism and positivism.
With this article we begin a new series in Vision, in which we examine some of the background and impact of these ideas and their proponents. We will also search out a biblical perspective on them.
A Theory of Everything
Published in 1859 in The Origin of Species, Darwin’s theory soon became accepted as the only valid way to explain all life on earth. He said that higher forms continually develop out of lower forms as a kind of natural and automatic process.
Darwin’s theory soon became accepted as the only valid way to explain all life on earth.
According to Schumacher writing in 1973, “the last hundred years or so have seen the systematic application of this idea to all aspects of reality without exception. . . . Evolution takes everything into its stride, not only material phenomena from nebulae to homo sapiens but also all mental phenomena, such as religion or language.”
In the evolutionary way of thinking, even religion is seen as subject to evolutionary development, progressing ever upward. We are to understand that our forefathers had a primitive worldview and that we are gradually growing beyond their need for religion and the father figure of God. Eventually we are to realize that religion and the concept of a supernatural being are signs of immaturity and emotional weakness, and are unnecessary.
Another important aspect of the theory is that life is an accident. Evolution, we are told, got its start in a random, purposeless universe. This meant that for Darwin, God was no longer necessary to explain the origin of life.
Accepting Darwin’s ideas, British atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell said in his book Religion and Science that humanity is “a curious accident in a backwater” (of the universe).
Notice again that it was Darwin’s account of the origin of life that destroyed Glynn’s belief in God. Speaking of the pervasive nature of the theory, one modern-day critic has said: “The idea has come to touch every aspect of modern thought; and no other theory in recent times has done more to mould the way we view ourselves and our relationship to the world around us. The acceptance of the idea one hundred years ago initiated an intellectual revolution more significant and far reaching than even the Copernican and Newtonian revolutions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries” (Michael Denton, Evolution: A Theory in Crisis, 1985).
Conflict and Discontent
A little family background will help us begin to put Darwin’s thinking into context. On the paternal side, both his grandfather and his father were well-known medical doctors. His maternal grandfather was Josiah Wedgwood of pottery and china fame. Darwin did not want for material resources throughout life.
He began his adult studies as a medical student in Edinburgh but gave up after two years. Leaving medicine behind, he went to divinity school at Cambridge. The ministry, he thought, might provide him with a sufficiently undemanding job for part of the week so that he could spend the rest of his time on his real interests: geology, zoology and collecting specimens of insects.
Darwin therefore prepared for the role of curate in the Anglican church, completing his bachelor’s degree in divinity a few months before he went on the famous sea voyage aboard the survey ship HMS Beagle. He was between university and a seemingly inevitable job in the Church of England when his mentor, Cambridge professor and minister John Stevens Henslow, proposed him for the position of unpaid naturalist on what became a five-year research tour. The work involved surveying the coast of South America and nearby Pacific islands. In the Galapagos Islands, 600 miles off the west coast of South America, Darwin began to question his belief in the biblical account of creation.
Perhaps one of his problems was that he did not really believe in the first place, although biographies seem to indicate that his religious beliefs were initially conventional. Interestingly though, Darwin admitted to a significant change in his life some time after his beliefs came into conflict with the biblical account.
“Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it,” he wrote in his autobiography, “poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare. . . . I have also said that formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried lately to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music. . . .
“My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive. . . . The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
Further we learn that there may have been physical as well as mental and emotional impacts. Throughout the writing, publishing and discussion of his controversial theory, Darwin suffered serious gastrointestinal distress and insomnia. When toward the end of his life he reengaged in purely botanical research and escaped the battles over evolution, he was well—as well as he had been since his student days at Cambridge.
Some have suggested that his bouts of illness were psychogenic, resulting from the inner conflict his ideas produced. Perhaps his wife’s fervent belief in God, and that of his friend Professor Henslow, whom he did not wish to displease, contributed to his unease.
It was some considerable time before Darwin could bring himself to publish his work on evolution. Even then he was forced into print by the threat of the release of another researcher’s similar conclusions.
Nonetheless Charles Darwin has probably affected more people’s confidence in the Bible’s account of human origins than any other single person.
Man Eats Man
The second dominant idea in the Western world is an outgrowth of Darwin’s first. It is the idea of competition, of natural selection—the survival of the fittest. This was Darwin’s explanation of the process of evolution and was to be understood as a universal law.
But when this idea is applied to everyday life, let’s say in business, all kinds of wrong behavior toward our fellow human beings becomes justified.
Influenced, no doubt, by prevailing philosophical views of competition, the father of much modern economic theory, John Maynard Keynes, wrote in 1930 in an essay titled “Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren”: “For at least another hundred years we must pretend to ourselves and to every one that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not. Avarice and usury and precaution must be our gods for a little longer still.”
To this the alternative economist Schumacher wrote, “Ideas are the most powerful things on earth, and it is hardly an exaggeration to say that by now the gods [Keynes] recommended have been enthroned” (Small Is Beautiful).
So how has this survival-of-the-fittest notion affected us in general? The imperialism of the 19th and early-20th centuries found ample justification in the notion of survival through plundering the resources and manpower of lesser powers. Great powers disadvantaged many in what became known as the developing world. Where colonialism became exploitative, it fostered dog-eat-dog attitudes. In too many instances decolonization became neocolonialism as the retreating great power gave way to new masters and/or fresh ideas for economic dominance.
Ruthless competition has become accepted behavior in many walks of life. The world of professional sport reflects the worst of the survival-of-the-fittest mentality. In business it translates into “get them before they get you.” It’s only “natural” to aggressively go after your competitors’ clients. And the end justifies the means. We see selfishness reflected everywhere. We cover it up under the guise of personal freedom, realizing or achieving our potential, even at the expense of others.
A popular expression of the impact of the survival-of-the-fittest notion comes in the movie Wall Street, in which Michael Douglas plays the part of a corrupt stockbroker. His speech at a company annual general meeting puts the ubiquitous philosophy very well. “The point,” he says, “is that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed in all of its forms—greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge—has marked the upward surge of mankind.”
What Darwin Gave Up
What is the biblical perspective on these Darwinian notions—ideas that are the foundation of the agnostic and atheistic positions?
The Bible teaches that God exists and that He is reliable. At one point in Jesus’ ministry, He prayed that the disciples would be specially favored by access to the truth of God. He said: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth” (John 17:17).
The word that Charles Darwin had read as a divinity student was and is the truth on many matters. When it came to essential truth about human life, Darwin gave up on the following profound expression of origins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (John 1:1–3).
On the basis of his own limited observations, Darwin arrived at the point where he could deny any need for God.
On the basis of his own limited observations, Darwin arrived at the point where he could deny any need for God in his scheme.
With respect to the creation, we can know from the Bible that the earth is older than six millennia. There are those in the creationist fold who wrongly insist that Genesis supports only a 6,000-year-old creation . Yet it is possible to establish from the Bible that there was a previous era in earth’s history when humanity did not exist.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was [marginal note: “Or possibly became”] formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters” (Genesis 1:1–2, New International Version). If the earth became formless and empty, then something happened to cause that condition. And there must be a time interval between “In the beginning God created . . .” and the actions of God to renew the earth after the chaotic condition was brought about.
The suggestion that the earth became formless and empty is taught with some certainty in other versions of the Bible and some commentaries. For example, the Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Bible commentary says that the word for was “is, in some twenty places in this chapter, used as equivalent to ‘became’. . . .” It adds, “That the earth was not originally desolate seems also to be implied in Isa. 45:18—‘He created not the earth in vain’—Hebrew, ‘a desolation.’” The Companion Bible and the Scofield Reference Bible provide further support to these understandings.
Does the biblical account provide any clues to the cause of the desolation? Yes. Jesus said that He saw Satan (Hebrew, “adversary”) fall from heaven (Luke 10:18). Satan was not always the adversary of God, but God cast him out of His government, His realm and presence. We also read that the angels who fell with Satan “did not keep within their original authority, but abandoned their proper sphere” (Jude 6, Jewish New Testament).
The Chronological Bible notes, “Many scholars believe that Satan was cast out of heaven causing a perfect earth to become void and chaotic and thus causing havoc on some kind of pre-Adamic creation, with God then renovating the earth and preparing it for man as we know him some 6,000 years ago.”
In the book of Job is a warning to those who presume to know what God did at Creation. It is a warning against pride and arrogance: “Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind, and said: . . . ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth? Tell Me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? To what were its foundations fastened? Or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy?’” (Job 38:1, 4–7).
There was a time when God created; the angels witnessed it, but there was no human around. It’s no surprise that humanity cannot know by experience exactly what God did.
Does the Bible teach us anything about the way of competition, natural selection or the survival of the fittest as the process of upward development?
One of God’s basic characteristics is love for others, outgoing concern. In regard to creation, He required that our first parents show concern. Adam was put into a garden and given specific responsibilities: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to tend and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). That’s to say, to serve and to take care of nature. This is not the work of exploitation. It is giving, not taking. Yet the way of taking and competing with others to exploit and eliminate them is the destructive way of the world. This is not God’s nature.
He says of His future world: “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9). God’s way, the way of give, will replace competition.
The dominant ideas of the modern world continue to have an impact well beyond the imagination of their originators. Ideas have power, for good and for evil.
In the next issue of Vision we’ll look at the impact and influence of Karl Marx.