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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21). rn VOLUME XVII. Later National Literature, Part II.

XVII. Later Philosophy

§ 6. Its Influence on American Theology

To understand the profound revolution in religious and philosophic thought caused by the advent of the hypothesis of organic evolution, we must remember that natural history was, after Paley, an integral part of American theology. The current religious philosophy rested very largely on what were then called the evidences of design in the organic world; and the theory of natural selection rendered all these arguments futile. The mass of geologic and biologic evidence marshalled with such skill and transparent honesty by Darwin proved an overwhelming blow against those who accepted the biblical account of the creation of man and of animals as literal history. Modern physical science had dispossessed theology from its proud position as the authoritative source of truth on astronomic questions. If, then, the biblical account of creation and its specific declaration, “According to their kind created He them,” were to be disregarded, could Protestant Christianity, relying on the authority of the Bible, survive? These fears for the safety of religion proved groundless, but there is no doubt that the evolutionary movement profoundly shook the position of theology and theologians. Not only was the intellectual eminence of our theologians seriously damaged in the eyes of the community as a result of the controversy, but theology was profoundly altered by the evolutionary philosophy. As a religious doctrine the latter was in effect a revival of an older deism, according to which the world was the manifestation of an immanent Power expressing itself in general laws revealed by natural reason and experience, instead of being specially created and governed by divine interventions or occasional miracles revealed to us by supernatural authority.

In the realm of pure philosophy Spencer and his disciple Fiske brought no new ideas of any importance. Their doctrine of the relativity of human knowledge was a common possession of both English and Scottish writers, and their agnosticism, based on our supposed inability to know the infinite, had been common coin since the days of Kant. But the idea of universal evolution or development, though as old as Greek philosophy and fully exploited in all departments of human though by Hegel, received a most impressive popular impetus from the work of Darwin and Spencer, and stirred the popular imagination as few intellectual achievements had done since the rise of the Copernican astronomy. Just as the displacement of man’s abode as the centre of the universe led by way of compensation to a modern idealism which said “The whole cosmos is in our mind,” so the discovery of man’s essential kinship with brute creation led to the renewal of an idealistic philosophy which made human development and perfection the end of the cosmic process travailing through the æons. Thus, instead of doing away with all teleology, the evolutionary philosophy itself became a teleology, replacing bleak Calvinism with the warm, rosy outlook of a perpetual and universal upward progress.