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By Richard Weikart

Epicurus'—and Darwin's—Dangerous Idea

How we became hedonists.

Why should it be controversial to claim that in the past couple of centuries materialism and other naturalistic philosophies—including naturalistic versions of Darwinism—have eroded Christian moral standards that dominated Western culture for centuries?  Is there not biblical sanction for the view that atheism and agnosticism—indeed any denial of God's participation in human affairs—leads to moral depravity?  Paul asserts in Romans 1 that those who reject the knowledge of God will become ensnared in "vile passions," and because of their "debased mind" will be "filled with all unrighteousness," including sexual perversion.  Wrong ideas about metaphysics do indeed have consequences for morality (see also Ps. 14:1).

Yes, but … when we compare the moral character of theists with materialists and agnostics, we face an obvious conundrum.  Many theists' behavior is deplorable, as atheists and agnostics regularly remind us, invoking the Crusades and Inquisition to dismiss Christianity.  Any churchgoer can add contemporary examples (not to mention the outcome of a little self-examination). On the other hand, some materialists seem exemplary in their conduct, at least in their treatment of other people.  So in what sense, then, do naturalistic philosophies undermine morality?

Many leading materialist thinkers in the past two centuries have acknowledged that their philosophy destroys the foundation for Christian ethics, and quite a few have forthrightly attacked Christian morality as outmoded.  The philosopher Daniel Dennett, for example, describes Darwinism as a universal acid, dissolving all our traditional concepts, such as religion and morality (but somehow Dennett's materialist metaphysics is impervious to the "universal" acid). E. O. Wilson, the founder of sociobiology, claims that morality and religion are entirely the product of material processes in the brain.  Therefore he dismisses any fixed ethical precepts, including Christian morality.

Dennett and Wilson are far from alone in using naturalistic, allegedly scientific, explanations to dismiss Christian morality. Since leading proponents of naturalistic Darwinian philosophy so brazenly admit the morally subversive character of their world view, often even reveling in it, isn't it sufficient simply to cite their own words against them?

Yes—and no, not if we hope to understand how their ideas gained credibility, and how deeply they have penetrated our culture. Hence the timeliness of Benjamin Wiker's provocative book, Moral Darwinism: How We Became Hedonists (InterVarsity Press). Wiker breaks new ground by exploring the historical connections between metaphysics—particularly materialism—and morality, raising questions of the utmost importance for historians, philosophers, and theologians, as well as social analysts.

Wiker unflinchingly diagnoses the moral malaise of the modern world, tracing its intellectual roots all the way from ancient Greece to modern America via the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution.  Specifically, he claims to expose the underlying intellectual currents undermining Christian morality in the past several centuries, leading to the moral landslide of the 20th century and producing the Sexual Revolution and mass abortion.

Moral Darwinism is a misleading title, since Wiker sees Darwinism not as the root cause but rather as the culmination of intellectual developments producing modern hedonism.  Darwinism does not even make its appearance (except briefly in the introduction) until the penultimate chapter.  The primary theme, then, is not Darwinism, but what Wiker calls Epicurean materialism.

Philosophers may not be satisfied by Wiker's use of the term materialism, since he includes in his definition far more than strict philosophical materialism, i.e., the view that nothing exists except matter and energy. He states that "Epicurean materialism allows the gods to exist, as long as they are unable to interfere in human affairs." Thus, Epicurean materialism includes pure materialism, but also encompasses positivism, deism, and some forms of pantheism.

Wiker opens the book with an illuminating discussion of Epicurus's philosophy in ancient Greece.  Epicurus constructed his philosophy to eliminate the widespread human fears of divine intervention and punishment in the afterlife, which, he believed, caused unnecessary disturbance in people's psyches.  Though he did not deny the existence of deities, he claimed that they did not interfere with human affairs in any way.  Without any influence from gods or an afterlife, morality could only have reference to this life.

Epicurus reduced morality to the pleasure-pain principle, which states that whatever maximizes pleasure and minimizes pain is morally good.  Epicurus and many of his ancient Greek followers emphasized moderation (bordering on asceticism) rather than indulgence, because they believed that the avoidance of pain was more important than the pursuit of pleasure.  Modern Epicureans would invert this formula, jettisoning asceticism in pursuit of carnal pleasure.

The triumph of Christianity in the late Roman and early medieval period effectively subdued Epicureanism until the Renaissance, when Greek philosophy and culture revived somewhat.  Especially influential in spreading Epicureanism among Renaissance humanists was the rediscovery of Lucretius's poem, De rerum Natura.

According to Wiker, Lucretius anticipated—indeed heavily influenced—a good deal of modern, secular thought, ranging from social contract ideas in political theory to scientific ideas, such as Darwinian natural selection.  Quoting extensively from Lucretius to prove his point, Wiker states, "Lucretius seems so modern because we are so Lucretian."  Indeed Wiker does effectively illustrate close parallels between Lucertius's Epicureanism and naturalistic philosophies (and science) in the modern period.

These parallels raise some important historical questions.  Did Epicureanism directly influence the rise of naturalistic philosophy in modern times, as Wiker forcefully contends?  If so, how and when?

Though he succeeds in showing that some Renaissance thinkers were sympathetic with the rediscovered Epicurean philosophy, Wiker's attempt to link Epicureanism with medieval nominalism, Protestantism, and the Scientific Revolution are problematic.

Indeed, Wiker identifies the key turning point in the rise of naturalistic philosophy earlier than most intellectual historians.  He argues that "a complete moral revolution and the secularization of Western society followed directly upon the seventeenth century scientific revolution."  He blames Galileo, Newton, and Locke for smuggling Epicurean materialism into the Christian world.  They allegedly did this by promoting a world view that was essentially Epicurean, though retaining enough of a Christian gloss to deflect criticism.

Why is Wiker so critical of the Scientific Revolution?  First, he apparently holds Aristotle in high esteem and opposes the anti-Aristotelian thrust of the leading  figures in the Scientific Revolution.  Second, Galileo and other scientists erred, according to Wiker, by identifying nature with mathematics, which operates totally independently of divine intervention.  Thirdly, he blames Newton and others for allegedly integrating Epicurean materialism into their natural philosophy by accepting atomism and the universality of natural law.

Wiker admits that Newton continued to believe in divine intervention in nature, but he dismisses Newton's theism as inconsistent with his fundamentally Epicurean materialist view.  He states, "Furthermore, it was the (apparently) complete victory of Newtonian atomism that allowed—nay, demanded—that Epicureanism as an entire system, both theoretical and moral, be firmly planted in modern soil."  Wiker thereby challenges the dominant view among Christian (and many secular) scholars that stresses the Christian roots of the scientific revolution.

In order to make his argument work, Wiker consistently understates the supernaturalist elements in the world view of 17th-century thinkers, especially in his analysis of Bacon and Locke.  He calls both of these thinkers materialists, despite the fact that both consistently upheld the existence of God and his ability to intervene in nature and history.

In the case of Locke, Wiker tries to explain away his theism, claiming that Locke was Machiavellian, "presenting a materialist argument with a patronizing quasi-Christian veneer, thereby advancing the materialism under cover of Christianity."  Wiker later misrepresents the position Locke stakes out in The Reasonableness of Christianity by calling him a deist.  In reality, Locke's main point in that book was that Jesus's miracles prove his divinity.  Thus, whatever other criticisms one wants to raise against Locke, he certainly was not a materialist.

Since Wiker believes that Epicurean materialism was already firmly entrenched in European thought by the close of the 17th century, he ignores virtually all the intellectual developments in the 18th and 19th centuries before the advent of Darwinism.  This is a big mistake, because it skips over  the very period during which naturalistic philosophies supplanted supernaturalism among the intellectual elite in Europe.  It also does not allow Wiker to demonstrate his claim that Darwinism is simply the culmination of Epicurean materialism.

Darwinism brought Epicurean materialism to full fruition, according to Wiker, by reviving its moral vision, producing what he calls moral Darwinism.  So what is moral Darwinism?  Wiker presents two different answers and never really explains the relationship between the two.  First, he calls Darwin a "thorough relativist" and describes the evolutionary process as amoral.  As a consequence, he believes moral Darwinism opened the door to the Sexual Revolution and abortion.  Second, however, he argues that artificial selection of humans (eugenics) is a "necessary deduction" from Darwinism.  How can both of these be true?

In order to prove that Darwinism has had pernicious moral effects, Wiker examines in the final chapter the ideas of Ernst Haeckel, the leading German Darwinist, Margaret Sanger, a eugenics and birth control advocate, and Alfred Kinsey, the pioneer sexologist.  Most Christians will recoil in horror at Haeckel's support for infanticide, Sanger's promotion of compulsory sterilization, and especially Kinsey's shocking sexual immorality.  Wiker could have made his case even stronger if he had focused his attention on more important thinkers who directly relate their naturalistic world view to ethics, such as Sigmund Freud, Daniel Dennett, E. O. Wilson, or Peter Singer.

Moral Darwinism is a significantly flawed but thought-provoking book. Its greatest value may be to stimulate other scholars to take up and test and develop with greater rigor Wiker's arguments. And it reminds all of us that the roots of the most up-to-date Modern Thinkers are very ancient indeed.

Richard Weikart is professor of history at California State University, Stanislaus, and a regular contributor to Books & Culture.

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Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:

Weird Science? | A Darwinian debate continues. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Of Moths and Men Revisited | A Darwinian debate. (Nov. 4, 2002)
Angels in Heaven | A game that's more than a game. (Oct. 28, 2002)
Number One with a Bullet | America's foist family as a tool for evangelism. (Oct. 21, 2002)
Train Up a Child | Helping children to become intimately familiar with Scripture. (Oct. 14, 2002)
Acting Like Those 'Evangelicals' | Guilty as charged? (Sept. 30, 2002)
Ugly Evangelicals | Is this us? (Sept. 23, 2002)
Herbie Goes Bananas | The rise and fall and rise and fall and rise of the VW Beetle. (Sept. 16, 2002)
So Far, So Near | A graduate of Murree Christian School in Pakistan, the site of a deadly assault by Islamic terrorists in August, reflects on his growing-up years, on what has changed in the interim, and on the beleaguered Christian community in Pakistan (Sept. 9, 2002)
The New York Times Discovers Religion (Again) | Shouldn't the paper of record be able to move beyond Square One? (August 26, 2002)
After the Quake | Bedside reading for the anniversary of 9/11. (August 19, 2002)
How to Avoid the Coming Disaster | "Imitate Japan." "No, don't imitate Japan." Time out. (August 12, 2002)
"Mind Control" and the Christian Citizen | Historian Sean Wilentz's misguided attack on Justice Antonin Scalia. (August 5, 2002)
Speak What We Feel | Frederick Buechner's latest book is one of his best. (July 29, 2002)
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