Atheism Before Darwin

Question from Amanda:
Where did atheists believe humans came from before Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution existed?

Answer by SmartLX:
There’s some information on this here. There were theories of what would come to be called evolution long before Darwin, though none that fit the evidence nearly so well. Among some biologists there were inklings of the basic concept of common descent, for instance the idea that humans and apes were related, but without the strength of Darwinian theory this opinion was highly controversial and one risked one’s reputation by airing it.

So for the lay atheist minority worldwide, our best answer to your question was that they just didn’t know. Since they didn’t think a god existed, let alone created humanity, they reasoned that there must have been a natural mechanism to allow modern life forms to develop some time after the birth of the planet. With what they knew then, they were unable to take it any further.

This basically meant that evolution in that period was in the same position abiogenesis (the initial emergence of simple life from non-life) is in now. No mechanism was clear despite various conjectures, but if a god didn’t seem likely to you then this inspired confidence that a mechanism existed and might eventually be found. Darwin came through for his field, but we’re still waiting for “the Darwin of abiogenesis”. While we wait (and while some of us work at it), we have to content ourselves with not knowing, because to demand an answer when information is lacking is to open ourselves to a wrong answer.

7 thoughts on “Atheism Before Darwin”

  1. I can imagine an argument between a medieval theist and an atheist …

    Theist : Then how do you account for man, for the variety of animals, for the miracles of nature.
    Atheist: Nothing to account for … it is but in the nature of things to be that way. The four elements mix in different proportions to give different things.
    Theist: But then who made this “nature of things” the way it is. Who made the four elements? Who gave the four elements their nature? Surely there has to be a creator who made it and decided the proportions.
    Atheist: But then who made that creator? And the creator’s creator? Ad-infinitum.
    Theist: No one. The creator has always been. He always was, and always will be. He is self created.
    Atheist: And I can say the same of nature … why go one step beyond a tangible existent and manifest nature to an intangible, non-existent and non-manifest creator? A seed swept by the wind can chance to fall on barren ground or fertile ground. And accordingly one gets nothing or a healthy sapling – driven by what seems to us to be pure chance but what might actually be natural law we do not fully understand yet. So too with the world and the universe.
    Theist: You are a blasphemer to believe that chance led to the universe.
    Atheist: You are a fool to fashion a god in your image, give him the powers that you do not have but wish you had and then make him your master.

    (And they part ways 🙂 )

    Short answer … atheistic schools probably believed that it was in the nature of things to be that way and were keen to find natural explanations, driven by the “science” of their times.
    For a particular school of atheistic thought at-least, I know this holds (the Indian school of atheistic philosophy called “carvaka”) … though they were not really driven to find any answers.
    Greek materialistic schools tend to do better I think – but I haven’t researched them.

    Its not necessary that an atheistic school of thought to supplant god belief with explanations solely from natural physical science. One can easily supplant it with explanations from a mixture of natural and social science.

  2. Although there are those who have always doubted God, the majority have always believed in God. Even if they found it hard to accept Him as Lord. God has always been a given. And for anyone to suggest otherwise were thought to be unstable. And today the two views have been reversed. But the majority still believe that we were supernaturally placed here upon this earth by an divine intelligence.

  3. The majority have always believed in a god you mean. There are billions on Earth right now, this very moment, that do not believe in the Abrahamic deity.

    Regardless of who believes what, your appeal to majorities is irrational. Just because a majority of people believe something doesn’t make it more likely to be true or accurate. It takes facts and data to support a claim, not 51% of the population. A majority of people (almost 2 in 3) believe advanced civilizations like Atlantis existed. There’s no rule that says the majority of the population can’t be fools…

  4. Please notice I did not mention which god. I simply left the door open for any god that anyone had in mind. It is a know fact that all superstition is built upon some amount of truth. And the reason many believe in a god, is because God has always been, but the knowledge of the true God has been lost to the way people have always lost their way. And so when the parents don’t pass down who the real God is, the children know even less about Him and so on and so on. Until most everyone started to worship that which was not God. Which is why God had the Bible made. To reveal to us Himself again. Which is why God sent Jesus to reveal Himself to us.
    I don’t understand how you can go running way with your eyes closed and your hands covering your ears trying to keep from learning the truth Tim. Your weak arguments that you so irrationally try to use to shore up your faith in evolution and your no God concept, are batted down to easily, when it confronts truth. So why not accept the fact that you are wrong and accept God.

    1. Gerald writes: [Please notice I did not mention which god.]

      Sure you did Preacher. How many gods are referred to as “Lord”? But for the sake of argument, let’s assume you didn’t mean the Abrahamic deity. Then you go on anyway to write that all god beliefs are really just lost beliefs of the supposed true god (the Abrahamic one). So you go ahead and contradict yourself in the end and admit that you are talking about the Abrahamic deity after all. Which is exactly what I said you were doing. Thanks for proving my point.

      [And the reason many believe in a god, is because God has always been]

      Prove that a god has always been. You’ve made a claim without empirical data or evidence supporting it. Let’s see your proof that some god has always been.

      [Which is why God had the Bible made.]

      Prove that a god had the Bible made. You’ve made a claim without empirical data or evidence supporting it. Let’s see your proof that some god had the Bible made.

      [I don’t understand how you can go running way with your eyes closed and your hands covering your ears trying to keep from learning the truth Tim. Your weak arguments that you so irrationally try to use to shore up your faith in evolution and your no God concept, are batted down to easily, when it confronts truth.]

      We weren’t talking about evolution, Preacher. We were talking about how a lot of people believing something doesn’t mean it is true. But since you bring up evolution, please select one of these “weak” arguments for the scientific theory of evolution from the PBS website, and explain to us why the conclusion that evolution is real is wrong, and give us a better explanation that fully explains the facts used to support the theory of evolution:

      http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/evolution/library/04/index.html

  5. I forgot to address this little nugget of bull from Gerald: [It is a know fact that all superstition is built upon some amount of truth.]

    Great. Prove that 4 leaf clovers bring luck. How about cats kill sleeping babies? Prove that one. Let’s see the partial truth that built those superstitions. How about chocolate causes acne? Eating carrots improves your vision? Being cold and wet improves your chances of catching a cold? Masturbation causes blindness? You get warts from toads?

    C’mon Preacher, let’s see the “some amount of truth” that supports these debunked superstitions…

    Here’s a scientific study that dispelled the superstition of water dowsing (sometimes called water witching), which refutes your claim that all superstition is built on some amount of truth: https://www.csicop.org/si/show/testing_dowsing_the_failure_of_the_munich_experiments

  6. Atheists after Darwin makes sense. I have a blog and I wanted to write about “atheists before Darwin”. Thanks to google I found this place. Lots of good information here. I’m going to advertise it.

    By the way my blog is “Darwin killed God”

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