Contrary to common misconception, Darwin’s theory of evolution was not initially perceived as a threat to religion and had minor influence on the growth of atheism in the nineteenth century. Many Christians were able to come to some accommodation with his theory, considering it compatible with their belief in God, insofar as the process of natural selection was not to be applied to humans (Wolffe, 2013, p. 17). Prominent atheists at this time were not relying on the theory of evolution to challenge religious dogmas. For instance, Charles Bradlaugh (1833-1891), head of the National Secular Society, pointed out in his speeches the very fact of the existence of evil, stating that ‘either God wanted to prevent such evil and couldn’t, or else He deliberately planned it’, which was contradicting the idea of an omnipotent benevolent God (Davies, 1969, p. 126). His objections were on the ethical level, with no reference to Darwin’s theories.
The situation significantly changed in the course of time with the emergence of a ‘new atheis...
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...ects. On the other hand, evolution theory also served to explain the emergence of the religious phenomenon and its diffusion: natural selection might have favoured it as an adaptive trait, giving a survival advantage to the group by promoting cooperation, but religion can also be considered as a kind of parasite, detrimental to humankind but able to replicate down the generations. Moreover, cognitive approaches have led to various hypotheses to explain the origins of religion: a parasitic consequence of over-detection by modules of the mind (Boyer), universal features of human memory (Whitehouse) or rather a development system in relation with its environment (Ingold). By offering keys to understand the constitution of social systems, evolution theory is a strong framework to approach the religious phenomenon, even if its complexity will continue to stir controversy.
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