The Anglican Church has decided to apologize to Darwin for the rude manner in which their nineteenth century forebears responded to evolution. That’s decent of them, I suppose.
Spearheading the effort is Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs. In this article, entitled “Good Religion Needs Good Science,” he makes his case for the compatibility of evolution and Christianity.
Alas, it is a sadly typical, and poorly argued, representative of the genre. Here’s the opening:
The trouble with homo sapiens is that we’re only human. People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception. When a big new idea emerges which changes the way people look at the world, it’s easy to feel that every old idea, every certainty, is under attack and then to do battle against the new insights.
Hard to argue with that. Sometimes, however, big new ideas really do challenge, and refute, old verities. Moving on:
But if Darwin’s ideas once needed rescuing from religious defensiveness, they may also now need rescuing from some of the enthusiasts for his ideas. A scientist has a duty to the truth: he or she is called to be fearless in discovering the way the world works. But how a scientific theory is used, and the ways in which ideas can be deployed politically or ideologically, are the responsibility of a less easily defined constituency.
This is from the second paragraph. I expected Brown to go off on the “New Atheists” at this point. Actually his target, as revealed in the remainder of the essay, is just ye olde Social Darwinism, which has precisely zero followers outside the more deranged corners of the right-wing blogosphere. It’s a telling statement. The second paragraph of an essay devoted to an apology to Darwin puts a thumb in the eye of the scientific community, lambasting them for an ideology that hasn’t been defended by anyone of importance for decades.
Now let’s move on to the guts of the matter:
As a result, our understanding of the world is expanded, but the scientific process continues. In science, hypotheses are meant to be constantly tested. Subsequent generations have built on Darwin’s work but have not significantly undermined his fundamental theory of natural selection. There is nothing here that contradicts Christian teaching. Jesus himself invited people to observe the world around them and to reason from what they saw to an understanding of the nature of God (Matthew 6: 25-33). Christian theologians throughout the centuries have sought knowledge of the world and knowledge of God. For Thomas Aquinas there was no such thing as science versus religion; both existed in the same sphere and to the same end, the glory of God. Whilst Christians believe that the Bible contains all that we need to know to be saved from our sins, they do not claim that it is a compendium of all knowledge. Jesus himself warned his disciples that there was more that he could say to them and that the Spirit of truth would lead them into truth (John 16: 12-13).
Lot’s of odd things there. I have no doubt that Thomas Aquinas saw no conflict between science and religion. In his time science was in so rudimentary a state that it had not yet had a chance to challenge any fundamental religious teaching. As soon as science got around to challenging church dogma, the relationship between science and religion grew distinctly chilly.
Brown sees no conflict between scientific methodology and Christian teaching. As far as I know, neither does anyone else. The conflict is between specific findings of science and specific teachings of Christianity. The church has always been happy to have people conduct whatever experiments amused them and then report back that the church had it right all along. Their bailiwick in those days was natural theology, that is, the investigation of nature for the purposes of glorifying God, as opposed to science as we understand the term today.
Nor has anyone claimed that the Bible is a compendium of all knowledge (though I’ve heard some fundamentalist preachers claim that the Bible contains all the knowledge a sensible person should care about). But many have claimed the Bible is inerrant on any topic it addresses, and that claim looks dubious indeed in the light of modern science. In particular, the first eleven chapters of Genesis must be discarded almost in their entirety if modern science is to be accepted. Jettison those chapters and the Bible’s foundational teachings go with them. Suddenly all the references to these chapters in the New Testament must be reinterpreted as well. Brown plainly wants us to accept the verses he cites as being normative for Christians. But he gives us no insight into which verses are the ones central to our spiritual health, and which must be discarded for their conflict with science.
Darwin’s meticulous application of the principles of evidence-based research was not the problem. His theory caused offence because it challenged the view that God had created human beings as an entirely different kind of creation to the rest of the animal world.
But whilst it is not difficult to see why evolutionary thinking was offensive at the time, on reflection it is not such an earth-shattering idea. Yes, Christians believe that God became incarnate as a human being in the person of Jesus and thereby demonstrated God’s especial love for humanity. But how can that special relationship be undermined just because we develop a different understanding of the processes by which humanity came to be? It is hard to avoid the thought that the reaction against Darwin was largely based on what we would now call the ‘yuk factor’ (an emotional not an intellectual response) when he proposed a lineage from apes to humans.
Christianity and evolution are easily reconciled if you insist on addressing straw men. The issue, you see, is not simply that evolution has shed light on the processes by which humanity came to be. It is that those processes, to put it gently, do not seem like the sort of thing an all-powerful, all-loving God would set in motion. How does Brown propose we view four billion years of savagery, suffering, death and extinction? Is this really the way a morally respectable God does His creating?
And then there is the issue of contingency. Evolution shows not merely that we share a previously unsuspected kinship with other animals, but also that there was no guarantee that anything like human beings would ever arrive on the scene. Did I say no guarantee? I mean it is exceedingly unlikely that anything like human beings would evolve a second time. If this is accepted then I fail to see how humanity can be viewed as in any way the point of creation. It would seem this argument can only be avoided by accepting some various dubious claims about the pervasiveness of evolutionary convergences, as offered by folks like Ken Miller and Simon Conway Morris.
Science can undermine the Christian’s faith in the sepcial relationship between God and man by bringing to light facts that make such a relationship seem highly unlikely. And science, in fact, has done precisely that.
Near the end we reach this:
At a university in Kansas, I asked a biology professor how he coped with teaching Darwin’s theories to students whose churches insisted that evolution was heresy and whose schools taught creationism. “No problem,” he replied, “the kids know that if they want a good job they need a degree, and if they want a degree they have to work with evolution theory. Creationism is for church, as far as they’re concerned. Here, they’re Darwinists.” Perhaps he was over-cynical. But he was also pointing to young lives which could not be lived with integrity — the very opposite of how Christians are called to live. There is no integrity to be found either in rejecting Darwin’s ideas wholesale or in elevating them into the kind of grand theory which reduces humanity to the sum of our evolutionary urges. For the sake of human integrity — and thus for the sake of good Christian living — some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential.
No, it is not essential. The cause of human integrity is not furthered in the slightest by Christianity. Nor is there integrity in trying desperately to preserve outdated ways of thinking in the face of scientific advances that show them to be entirely without merit.
Brown refers to his sort of thinking as “Good religion.” It is good in the following sense: the world would be a better place if fundamentalist and evangelical Christianity disappeared off the face of the Earth and were replaced with Brown’s way of thinking.
But in another sense it is not good religion. Brown has not squarely faced the problems evolution poses for Christianity. He does not even seem to recognize them. The fundamentalists do recognize the problem, and they have made their choice as to which side they are on. He is free, of course, to believe whatever he wants. I object, however, to the suggestion that somehow he is doing it right, and those Christians less sanguine about reconciling Christianity and evolution are doing it wrong. Picking and choosing the parts of Christianity you like while ignoring the parts that conflict with science is not an act of integirty. It is an act of intellectual desperation.