Evolutionary humanism: a secular religion for zero growth?

“…naturalistic evolution has clear consequences that Charles Darwin understood perfectly.” In particular: “No gods worth having exist; no life after death exists; no ultimate foundation for ethics exists; no ultimate meaning in life exists.” These conclusions, “are so obvious to modern naturalistic evolutionists” that they require little defense. 

William Provine

1 History

An essay entitled the New Divinity by Julian Huxley was published in Essays of a Humanist (Chatto & Windus, 1964).  It is a statement of Huxley’s idea for a new secular religion he called evolutionary humanism. He saw this as an inevitable outcome of a new vision of the world and humankind’s place and role in that world. His message is the destiny of humankind is to apply knowledge about evolution, which scientific knowledge has revealed, to maintain its progress. 

This new vision is both comprehensive and unitary. It integrates the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework, the pattern of an all-embracing evolutionary process. In this unitary vision, all kinds of splits and dualisms are healed. There is no separate supernatural realm: all phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution. There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both organs of evolving humanity”.

We are products of nearly three billion years of evolution through which the evolutionary process has at last become conscious of itself and its possibilities. The fulfillment of evolutionary humanism is for Homo sapiens to take on responsibility for the whole further evolution of life on Earth.

This blog is a transcription and update of Huxley’s essay. 

2 Human social evolution

Homo sapiens emerged as Earth’s dominant species about a million years ago, but has only been a psychosocial organism for under ten thousand years. In that mere second of cosmic time, Homo sapiens has produced astonishing achievements.   During human history, there has been a succession of dominant systems of thought and belief, each accompanying a new organisation of social, political and economic activities. Such was agriculture with its rituals of seasonality and annual rebirth as against hunting with its magic to guarantee success. Then came early civilization with cities and sacred kings, its written records and its priesthoods guarding universal and monotheistic religion.  Later came the scientific industrial age and the technological revolutions with their corresponding patterns of thought. Now we have the beginnings of a humanist revolution, whose ideological and social implications have still to be thought out. However, it is clear that humanism, being about being human, has to integrate the fantastic diversity of the world into a single framework encompassing the pattern of an all-embracing evolutionary process.  This process works on an entire cosmos made out of one and the same world-stuff, operated by the same energy as we ourselves. “Mind” and “matter” appear as two aspects of our unitary mind-bodies. There is no separate supernatural realm. All phenomena are part of one natural process of evolution which has taken place on planet Earth as a rare spot in the cosmos where mind has flowered through the evolution of Homo sapiens as a product of nearly three billion years of evolution.  

3  Religion

Religion, with or without a god, is a universal function of people in society.  It is the organisation made by humans for dealing with the problems of the destiny of individual men and women.  Its fulfillment is the task of societies and nations and of the human species as a whole. If the evolution of its ideological pattern does not keep pace with the growth of knowledge, with social change and the march of events, a religion will increasingly cease to satisfy the multitude seeking assurance about their destiny.  It will become progressively less effective as a social organisation. Eventually the old ideas will no longer serve and the old ideological framework can no longer be tinkered with to bear the weight of the facts. A radical reconstruction becomes necessary, leading eventually to the emergence of a quite new organisation of thought and belief.

There is no basic cleavage between science and religion; they are both features  of evolving humanity. Major organizations of thought and belief may be necessary in science as much as in religion. The classical example, of reorganisation of science was the re-patterning of cosmological thought which demoted the earth from its central position in the universe and led to the replacement of a geocentric pattern of thought by a Sun-centred one. A stepwise reorganization of western religious thought seems to have proceeded as follows. 

In its early, paleolithic stage religion was magic-centred, based on the ideas of supernatural forces inherent in nature, in personages such as “medicine men” and shamans, and in human incarnations, spells and other magic practices, including witchcraft. This type of belief developed gradually into animism and so to many beliefs in many divinities, supernatural beings and gods.  With the coming of agriculture a new pattern was imposed, centering on the ideas of fertility and rebirth, and leading to the rise of priest-kings and eventually divinized monarchs. The next major revolution of religious thought came in the first millennium B.C with the independent rise of the monotheist and/or universalist religions, culminating in Christianity, which later branched off into Islam. The last two thousand years have seen the development of elaborate monotheistic theologies; but in the process their single God has broken into many, or at least has assumed a number of distinct and indeed sometimes actively hostile forms; and their nominal universalism has degenerated into competition for the possession of absolute truth. 

God is a hypothesis constructed by humankind to help understand what existence is all about. The god hypothesis asserts the existence of some sort of supernatural personal or superpersonal being, exerting some kind of purposeful power over the universe and its destiny.  

A drastic reorganization of our pattern of religious thought is now becoming necessary, from a theocratic god-centered to a secular evolutionary-centered pattern.Today the god hypothesis has ceased to be scientifically tenable, has lost its explanatory value and is becoming an intellectual and moral burden on our thought. It no longer convinces or comforts, and its abandonment often brings a deep sense of relief. Many people assert that this abandonment of the god hypothesis means the abandonment of all religion and all moral sanctions. This is simply not true. Some events and some phenomena of outer nature transcend ordinary explanation and ordinary experience. They inspire awe and seem mysterious, explicable only in terms of something beyond or above ordinary nature.  But once we have jettisoned an outdated piece of ideological theocratic furniture that is no longer fit for purpose, we must construct a secular ‘something’ to take its place.

4 The role of divinity

Magical, mysterious, awe-inspiring, divinity-suggesting facts have included wholly physical phenomena like volcanic eruptions, thunder, and hurricanes; biological phenomena such as sex and birth, disease and death; and also inner, psychological phenomena such as intoxication, possession, speaking in tounges, inspiration, insanity, and mystic vision.

With the growth of knowledge most of these have ceased to be mysterious so far as rational or scientific explicability is concerned, though there remains the fundamental mystery of existence, notably the existence of mind. However, it is a fact that many phenomena are charged with some sort of magical hangover or compulsive power, and do introduce us to a realm beyond our ordinary experience. Such events and such experience merit a special designation. Huxley uses the term divine, though he says this quality of divinity is not truly supernatural but transnatural.  It grows out of ordinary nature, but transcends it. 

The divine is what a person or group finds worthy of adoration, that which compels awe.

Much of every religion is aimed at the discovery and safe-guarding of divinity in this sense, and seeks contact and communication with what is regarded as divine. A humanist secular, evolution-centered religion too needs divinity, but divinity without God. It must strip the divine of the theistic qualities which we have anthropomorphically projected into it, search for its habitations in every aspect of existence, elicit it, and establish fruitful contact with its physical manifestations. Divinity is the chief raw material out of which gods have been fashioned. Today we must melt down the gods and refashion the material into new and effective organs of religion, enabling us to exist freely and fully on the spiritual level as well as on the material, where land and landscape verge on the divine or sacred.

Though gods and God in any meaningful sense seem destined to disappear, the stuff of divinity out of which they have grown and developed remains. This religious raw material consists of those aspects of nature and those experiences which are usually described as divine. The term divine did not originally imply the existence of gods: on the contrary, gods were constructed to interpret man’s experiences of this quality.

Religions always have some intellectual or ideological framework.  This can be a myth or theological doctrine; some morality or code of behaviour, whether barbaric or ethically rationalized.  Religions have some mode of ritualized or symbolic expression, in the form of ceremonial or celebration, collective devotion or thanksgiving, or religious art. The codified morality and the ritualized expression of a religion, and indeed in the long run its social and personal efficacy, derives from its “theological” framework.  The framework is a practical aspect similar to an idiom that makes possible the description of realities, the formulation of beliefs, and the experiencing of inner attitudes, feelings, and sentiments. It belongs to George Lindbecks`cultural-linguistic’ category of religions. He sees religions as resembling languages and their correlative forms of life, or culture.  They have idioms for dealing with whatever is most important, and whose doctrines are, in analogy with the grammar of a language, the communally authoritative rules of discourse, attitude, and action. Taking up this theme, Lindberg says that religions and doctrine can be looked at as neither truth claims or so many expressions of subjective experience, but as rules for how to speak and act in a religious community.   

Religions are  “comprehensive interpretive schemes, usually embodied in myths or narratives and heavily ritualized, which structure human experience and understanding of self and world”. Becoming religious is like learning a language. Linbeck suggests that  when one acquires a culture or language they interiorize “outlooks that others have created” and they master “skills that others have honed.” Religious groups speak and live a “narrative” over time, that is to say, a religion is true to the extent that its community lives out what they claim to be ultimate and real. 

Doctrines are rules about communal religious life, but they are ultimately sourced in texts like the Bible or in the case of evolutionary humanism, Darwin’s Origin of Species and The Voyage of the Beagle.  What is the relationship between doctrine and text then? Does the religious text absorb the world or is the text absorbed by the world? Lindbeck wants the former to occur. We understand what the Bible, or Koran, “means” by adjusting that meaning to beliefs in the modern day world (i.e. the world absorbs the text). Creation science does this by absorbing Genesis.  Genesis must mean what we understand modern science to be telling us about the origins of biodiversity.. 

Doctrinal meaning has to radically change as the world changes or inner experience changes. Mark Mann writes “Primacy is given to the scriptural “narrative”: the Bible is unified by a complex but coherent narrative which centers on the personal agent Jesus, the Bible should not be read by attempting to impose a foreign or independent interpretive framework upon it.

Three main categories of functions religions can serve, as presented and defined by Gordon Lynch are: 

(i) a social function: religion provides people with an experience of community and binds people into a social order of shared beliefs and values that provide structure for their everyday lives;

(ii) an existential/hermeneutical function: religion provides people with a set of resources (e.g., myths, rituals, symbols, beliefs, values, narratives) that may help them to live with a sense of identity, meaning and purpose

(iii) a transcendent function: religion provides a medium through which people are able to experience ‘god’, the numinous or the transcendent.

 Lynch introduces these categories as potential ways to study the religious functions of popular culture, noting that a particular cultural phenomenon does not necessarily have to demonstrate all three categories of function to be considered “religious”.

This definition relies on people coming together to form a social order derived from shared beliefs and values to fulfill the classic function of religion, as characterized by Peter L. Berger as “constructing a common world within which all of social life receives ultimate meaning binding on everybody”.

The transcendent function of consumerism might well be the most important of the three approaches introduced in this article for the study of consumerism as an implicit religion in secular settings. As has been shown above, consumerism in the cultural context of the West seems to have little to do with objects of consumption per se and more to do with the symbolic value that they possess. For example, Joerg Rieger observes that the “desire promoted by advertising is not the simple desire for the product; it is for something more transcendent to which the product points, like the hope for happiness and a better life”. That is to say, the underlying meaning of the consumption of consumer goods as a method of participating in the kind of symbolic communication that is outlined above goes beyond the physical world of things and material objects. This transcendent function can be imagined as representing the ultimate promises or hopes that drive people to articulate the meaning of life in a “system of shared understandings that keep us working, consuming, and investing in the economy, maintaining it so that it maintains us”

The above line of argument was created by  Mikko Kurenlahti and Arto O. Salonen in their article ‘Rethinking Consumerism from the Perspective of Religion’.  One of their main goals is to problematize the standard egocentric interpretation of consumerism as being about the promotion of the individual against the collective. Instead, they argue that consumerism effectively binds the individual to the existential process of shared meaning-making in inescapable ways, and thus connects people together to form ever-expanding consumer societies prone to support the ideals of consumer culture. They also argue strongly against claims that consumerist lifestyles are inherently hollow, worthless, and purposeless. Instead, the perspective of religion reveals a most definite quest for the meaning of life and the construction of individual value.  Both these claims are directed outwards into the community, in order to be validated externally, define consumerism as a religion.

5 A secular religion embracing evolution

When scientists  talk about a scientific “fact” or a scientific “theory.” they denote a hypothesis, a tentative explanation that has never failed to be confirmed by empirical testing and observation, not a mere opinion. Rather than seeing the theory of evolution as a threat to religious belief, Huxley says that a theology that embraces evolution can deepen and broaden a faith seeking understanding.  Thus the central long-term concern of a secular religion must be to promote further evolutionary improvement and to realise new possibilities; and this means greater fulfilment by more human individuals and fuller achievement by more human societies

Human potentialities under humanism constitute the world’s greatest resource for human betterment, but at the moment, only a tiny fraction of them is being realized.   Homo sapiens has also been guilty of unprecedented horrors and follies. Looked at in the long perspective of evolution we are singularly imperfect, still incapable of carrying out our  planetary responsibilities in a satisfactory manner The possibility of tapping and directing these vast resources of human possibility provides a secular religion of the future with a powerful long-term motive. An equally powerful short-term motive is to ensure the fullest possible development and flowering of individual personalities. In developing a full, deep and rich personality the individual ceases to be a mere cog or cipher, and creates and disseminates their own particular body of knowledge about what it means to be human and thereby contributing to evolutionary fulfilment.

What precise form these new agencies of religious thought will take in the religion of the future it is impossible to say in this period of violent transition driven by global warning. But one can make some general prophecies. The central religious hypothesis will certainly be evolution, which by now has been checked against objective fact and has become firmly established as a principle of human existence. Evolution is a process, of which we are products, and in which we are active agents. There is no finality about the process, and no automatic or unified progress; but much improvement has occurred in the past, and there could be much further improvement in the future, though there is also the possibility of future failure and regression.  Most important of all, an evolution-centered religion of the future can no longer be divided off from secular affairs in a separate supernatural compartment, but will interlock with them at every point. The only distinction is that it is concerned with less immediate, less superficial, and therefore more enduring and deeper aspects of existence.

Meanwhile, religious rituals and moral codes will have to be readapted or remodelled through the transfiguration of thought, a new religious terminology and a reformulation of religious ideas and concepts in a new idiom. A humanist religion will have to work out its own rituals and its own basic symbolism.

Christianity is a universalist and monotheist religion of salvation. Its long consolidation and explosive spread, achieved through a long period of discussion and zealous ferment, released vast human forces which have largely shaped the western world as we know it. An evolutionary and humanist religion of fulfilment could be more truly universal and could release even greater human forces, which could in large measure shape the development of the entire world. But it’s consolidation and spread will need a period of discussion and ferment, though with modern communications this is likely to be much shorter than for Christianity.

The evolutionary vision of our place and role in the universe, which science and scholarship have given us, could be the revelation of the new dispensation. What we now need is a multitude of participants to take part in the great discussion and to join in the search for the larger truth and the more fruitful patterns of belief that we can confidently believe is waiting to be elicited.

In place of eternity we shall have to think in terms of enduring process.  In place of salvation we have to think in terms of attaining the satisfying states of inner being which combine energy and peace. There will be no room for petitionary prayer, but much value in meditation involving aspiration and self-exploration. A religion of fulfilment must provide bustling secular humankind with connections to all that is permanent and enduring, with the deeper and higher aspects of existence.  Every possible opportunity of transcending the limitations of day-by-day existence have to be explored. This applies to the equivalents of shared worship, the secular self in acts of meditation and self-examination and in retreats from the secular world of affairs. It will of course continue to celebrate the outstanding events of personal and national existence. Already there are humanist wedding and funeral ceremonies. Furthermore, it will enlist the aid of psychologists and psychiatrists in helping men and women to explore the depths and heights of their own inner selves instead of restlessly pursuing external novelty.  Here the aim is to realize more of their mental and spiritual possibilities, to utilize even their repressed and guilty urges, and to transcend the limitations and the internal conflicts of the unregenerate self. There has to be a constructive wholeness and a sense of achieving contact or union with a fuller reality.  

Exploring the ethical and philosophical significance of the theory of evolution by tracing the history of ideas that led up to and beyond Darwin’s great discovery leads to such questions as, “Does modern evolutionary theory adequately explain the origins of consciousness?” “Is it possible for conscious beings to evolve from completely lifeless and mindless matter?” “Does the recognition of humanity’s shared evolutionary heritage undermine our human-centered worldview, or require that we change, particularly with respect to how we treat nonhuman life?”   

6  Human uniqueness

There is a strong tendency in Western thought to place humans at the top of a hierarchy of being.  Modern evolutionary theory fundamentally challenges the assumption that humans are utterly unique. Rather than being at the pinnacle of creation, distinct from all other life-forms, the theory of evolution places humans on a continuum of being, a continuum that challenges the idea that those things that make us who we are, such as culture, language, reason, and so on, are unique to us. The theory of evolution opens the door to the idea that those beings from whom we developed and those that are genetically close to us today may hold these same characteristics, though perhaps to different degrees. Rather than being a singular exception to the forces that shaped the natural world, human beings are a great exemplification of such forces. In recognizing this, evolutionary biology in turn must abandon the notion that physical reality is best understood as a valueless machine, deterministically playing out its programming. If, as evolutionary science teaches, humans evolved from simpler organisms, and if human beings are subjects who are free, conscious, and capable of self-reflection, then this sense of freedom and subjectivity also must be found in humanity’s evolutionary ancestors. 

There is a fundamental intellectual inadequacy of not only atheistic evolutionary materialism and simplistic biblical creationism but also more sophisticated contemporary approaches, such as scientific creationism and intelligent design theory. Rather than seeing the theory of evolution as a threat to religious belief, a theology that embraces evolution can deepen and broaden a faith seeking understanding. This counters the impulse to save religion by retreating into “separatism”; a view that science and religion are nonoverlapping domains of inquiry.. 

From the perspective of biblical creation stories, one can come to understand how these stories answer important transcendental questions, while realizing that one cannot expect them to address the questions posed by modern science. Today, one can build upon biblical creation accounts and, with the help of theology, address evolutionary theory, not as some construct that lies outside the theological sphere, but rather as a theory to be theologically engaged. 

The conclusion is that one must respect the autonomy and veracity of evolutionary biology, recognize the reality and ubiquity of suffering in the world, and begin to move toward an evolutionary theology that recognizes the richness that evolutionary theory can bring to one’s understanding of the transcendent’s relationship to creation. One of the great lessons theology can glean from a study of evolution is that all of reality is in the process of becoming. In this light, evolution is constantly offering us a world in transformation.

In the end, we need not choose between religion or science, faith or reason, Genesis or evolution.  Evolution is not a threat to faith, but rather an enrichment of faith. A thorough faith seeking understanding brings together Genesis and evolution.  This was the view of Catholic priest and renowned geologist and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) who wrote many works arguing that his own faith makes more sense after Darwin than it did before. Now evolutionary humanists see that the open universe has been created through natural processes rather than magic. The fact that this process involves struggling, chance, failure, and loss, along with grandeur and beauty,is completely consistent with the fact that the Universe remains unfinished. They interpret the whole of cosmic history as the path leading to our each contributing to the work of fulfilling the ongoing creation of a sustainable global ecosystem, opening the process of evolution to an ever-widening range of new possibilities as it moves toward a fresh zero growth economic future.

7  Evolution and conservation management

Hendry and a number of coauthors convincingly make the case that evolutionary biology is a necessary component for conservation. Evolution offers four key insights that should inform conservation and policy decisions.

First, they point out that evolutionary biologists are in the business of discovering and documenting biodiversity. They are the primary drivers behind long-term, sustained biological collections, because they need to know what exists in order to better understand the evolutionary history. With millions of species awaiting scientific discovery, their efforts are critical to measuring biodiversity. But not only are they discovering new species and enumerating them, they are uncovering their evolutionary relationships, which gives conservationists better information about which species to prioritize and the rationale for managing them.. Because of what Vane-Wright famously called ‘the agony of choice’, with limited resources, we need to prioritize some species over others, and their evolutionary uniqueness ought to be a factor. More than this, evolutionary biologists have developed pragmatic tools for inventorying and sharing data on biodiversity at all levels, from genes to species, which is available for prioritization.

The second key insight is that by understanding the causes of diversification, we can better understand and predict diversity responses to environmental and climatic change. By understanding how key functional traits evolve, we can develop predictions about which species or groups of species can tolerate certain perturbations. Further, research into how and why certain evolutionary groups faced extinction can help us respond to the current extinction crisis. For example, the evolutionary correspondence between coevolved mutualists, such as plants and pollinators, can be used to assess the potential for cascading extinctions. These types of analyses can help identify those groups of related species, or those possessing some trait, which make species more susceptible to extinction.

Third, evolution allows for an understanding of the potential responses to human disturbance. Evolutionary change is a critical part of ecological dynamics, and as environment change can result in reduced fitness, smaller population sizes and extinction, evolution offers an adaptive response to these negative impacts. Knowing when and how populations can evolve is crucial. Evolutionary change is a product of genetic variation, immigration, population size and stochasticity, and if the ability to evolve to environmental change is key for persistence, then these evolutionary processes are also key.

Finally, evolutionary patterns and processes have important implications for ecosystem services and economic and human well-being. Both genetic and evolutionary diversity of plant communities has been shown to affect insect diversity, primary productivity and nutrient dynamics. Thus understanding how changes in diversity affect ecosystem processes should consider evolutionary processes. Further, exotic species are often cited as one of the major threats to biodiversity, and evolutionary change in exotics has been shown to increase exotic impacts on native species.

All together, these key reasons why evolution matters for conservation, mean that developing sound conservation management plans requires considering evolution patterns and processes. We can use evolution to our benefit only if we understand how evolution shapes current species dynamics. The challenge to evolutionary biologists is to present their understandings and conservation ideas to a broader audience and to engage policy makers so as to incorporate evolutionary views into existing biodiversity and conservation programmes –most notably into DIVERSITAS.

Just as ecological processes cannot be fully understood without appreciating species ancestry and ts dynamics, so must the development of extensive, expansive conservation strategies take evolution into account. Huxley’s idea of evolutionary humanism signals the beginning of a new era of a synthesis between ecology and evolution, to  produce a precise, viable global conservation strategy. In particular, conservation management should aim at conserving evolutionary processes that generate biodiversity. For want of a better definition, this is the practical application of the world-changing teachings of darwinwallaceism. The objective is to practice economics with a specific social goal of conservation, not year on year monetary growth, remaining true to the ultimate social goal of all human economics, making people happier.  As a religion, evolutionary humanism has to create idioms from darwinwallaceism to deal with whatever are the most important issues facing society, The doctrines are analogous to the grammar of a language. The communally authoritative rules of discourse and attitudes are to be expressed in conservation management systems to maintain progressive human evolution and its wider co-evolving biodiversity.


Human biological evolution

The modern synthesis of the theory of evolution by natural selection is the unifying conceptual framework that explains the origins of our species, Homo sapiens, and the millions of other life-forms on our planet.

We are primates members of the mammalian order Primates, which comprises two suborders: 

  • the prosimians (lemurs, lorises, and tarsiers) 
  • and the anthropoids (monkeys, apes, and humankind).

All primates are descended from tree-dwellers, exhibiting adaptations which allow for tree climbing that include: a rotating shoulder joint, separated big toes and thumb for grasping, and stereoscopic vision.  Other primate characteristics include: having one offspring per pregnancy, claws evolved into flattened nails; and larger brain/body ratio than other mammals, and tendency to hold the body upright. Evidence that we are descendants of these early primates was first provided by Charles Darwin in his Origin of Species, published in 1859.  

According to fossil records, primates originated in the Late Cretaceous (97.5 to 66.4 million years ago).  Primates, the ancestors of prosimians, first appear in the fossil record in the Eocene epoch around 55 million years ago; they were similar in form to lemurs.  Anthropoids ancestral to both Old World and New World monkeys appear in the fossil record in the Oligocene epoch around 35 million years ago. Apes are divided into two main groups of hominoids: lesser apes or hylobatids (gibbons and siamangs) and great apes (Pongo: orangutans, Gorilla: gorillas, Pan: chimpanzees, and Homo: humans).  

Hominids refers to the subfamily Hominidae within the superfamily Hominoidea.  Currently the superfamily Hominoidea includes the families Hominidae (great apes: orangutans, gorillas, chimps, humans) and Hylobatidae (gibbons and siamangs). Homininae is a subfamily of Hominidae that excludes orangutans. 

The term “hominin” refers to bipedal apes, which are all now extinct except for humans.  Examples of extinct bipedal human relatives are Australopithecus africanus, Homo habilis , and Homo erectus.  Few very early (prior to 4 million years ago) hominin fossils have been found so determining the lines of hominin descent is extremely difficult.  Within the last 20 years, three new genera of hominoids were discovered: Sahelanthropus tchadensis, Orrorin tugenensis, and Ardipithecus ramidus and kadabba, but at the moment their status in regards to human ancestry is somewhat uncertain  

Internet references

The new nature movement

The new divinity

Evolution ecology extinction

Evolution of aesthetic pleasure

Evolutionary biology and the meaning of life


Evolution and meaning


The biology of wonder

Radiation of hominids

Evolution of primates

Text absorbs word 


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