Epicurus confesses that his goal is to get rid of the gods. He also wants to eliminate the idea of immortal souls and to “remove the longing for immortality.” Lucretius too writes of the heavy yoke of religion, imposing on man such burdens as duty and responsibility. The problem with gods, Epicurus says, is that they seek to enforce their rules and thereby create “anxiety” in human beings. They threaten to punish us for our misdeeds, both in this life and in the next. The problem with immortality, according to Epicurus, is that there may be suffering in the afterlife. By positing a purely material reality, he hopes to free man fromsuch worries and allow him to focus on the pleasures of this life.

Not that Epicurus was a hedonist in our modern sense. He counseled that people control their sexual impulses and subsist on barley cakes and water. He was less concerned with wild pleasure than with minimizing suffering, what he termed “freedom from disturbance:’ Even death, he said, is a kind of relief, because our atoms dissipate and there is no soul to experience the lack of life or to endure the consequences of a life to come. In sum, Epicurus advocated a philosophy and a cosmology that was purely naturalistic in order to liberate man from the tyranny of the gods. And so did Lucretius, who sought through his philosophy to “unloose the soul from the tight knot of religion.” For these men, their physics was the ground of their ethics. As Wiker puts it, “a materialist cosmos must necessarily yield a materialistic morality.”

Here is a clue to the moral attractiveness of Darwinism. Darwin himself wrote that “he who understands baboon would do more towards metaphysics than Locke.” He was implying that a better understanding of our animal nature might radically change the way we view morality. So the appeal of Darwinism for many is that it eliminates the concept of a “higher” human nature and places man on a continuum with the animals. The distinctive feature of animals, of course, is that they have no developed sense of morality. A gorilla cannot be expected to distinguish between what is and what ought to be. Consequently Darwinism becomes a way to break free of the confines of traditional morality. We can set aside the old restraints and simply act in the way that comes naturally.

From Darwin’s own day, many people were drawn to his ideas not merely because they were well supported but also because they could be interpreted to undermine the traditional understanding of God. As biologist Julian Huxley, the grandson of Darwin’s friend and ally Thomas Henry Huxley, put it, “The sense of spiritual relief which comes from rejecting the idea of God as a supernatural being is enormous.” And from Julian’s brother Aldous Huxley, also a noted atheist, we have this revealing admission: “I had motives for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently I assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption…. For myself, as no doubt for most of my contemporaries, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation. The liberation we desired was … liberation from a certain system of morality. We objected to the morality because it interfered with our sexual freedom.”