Theos Think Tank: Rescuing Darwin – God and evolution in Britain today

The Theos think tank’s report Rescuing Darwin – God and evolution in Britain today is the first of a series of components of a body of work conducted by Theos, presumably prompted by the Darwin 200 anniversaries. The second component is “an independent qualitative research project conducted by ESRO (see footnote), an independent qualitative research consultancy which aims to bring academic thought and rigour into the world of applied research”.  (I’d be offended if I thought these guys reckoned that applied research lacks rigour!)   A third component is the public survey commissioned by Theos and conducted by ComRes, which I’ve already blogged about – the press releases have generated some column inches, but the data won’t be available until March.  These are rounded off by a couple of events – one is a public discussion meeting, the other being the publication of Neil Spencer’s book Darwin and God on February 12th.  There is also an interview with Mary Midgley, though it’s not clear to me where that fits into the scheme. When reading the Rescuing Darwin report, one needs to keep in mind what Theos seem to be all about.  It was founded in 2006 with support from the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor.  The project itself has received funding from the Templeton Foundation.  The Rescuing Darwin report was written by Neil Spencer (of Theos) and Denis Alexander (of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion). That being said, it’s perhaps no surprise that the view of Britain that seems to emerge from this report doesn’t really correspond with my view.  The report’s view is of a Britain of one god, the Christian God, and all religious references seem to be framed in the context of the major Christian churches.  I don’t see mention of the god as believed in by Jews or Muslims, nor of the pantheons of gods that form the basis of many other religions to be found in Britain today.  Further indication of how this think tank’s work is framed is that the broadsheet reports of the survey are all written by religious affairs consultants. Having said that, I must say I’m looking forward to seeing the complete dataset.  In this report, the authors present some of the findings from the survey – at times this is something of a teaser, and nor are they necessarily clear.  For example in the introduction 37% […] believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “beyond reasonable doubt”.  On the face of it, a reasonable enough statement.  But what constitutes beyond reasonable doubt in the mind of the average member of the public?  And is that member of the public going to be sufficiently scientifically literate to be able to make an informed response?  In the face of an almost continuous barrage of media statements that make claims of ill-defined or nebulous merit that there are problems with evolutionary theory, perhaps most of the public will have doubts.  One prime example is the recent New Scientist cover that stated boldly that “Darwin was wrong”, and which has been taken up internationally, by journalists with inadequate understanding, and by bloggers and lobbyists with strong creationist agendas. There’s a strong focus in this report on Darwin’s religious beliefs (and those of his family, supporters and opponents).  While this is generally interesting (and may reflect the content of Spencer’s forthcoming book), I’m not wholly convinced that a detailed historical treatment of the religion-evolution tension is entirely appropriate to a survey investigating the present day UK public’s perception of evolutionary theory and religion.  In particular within in an increasingly diverse society  populated not just by believers in the three great monotheistic religions, but also those who believe a wide variety of other religions, and of course a spectrum of those with no real religious belief.  Nor are there any novel insights or reinterpretations of events such as the Oxford meeting of 1860, much of which has been discussed in popular science articles and books.  Throughout this report, one gets the sense that the authors are seeking to rationalise a “truce” of sorts between the believers in the Christian god and those with a  more rationalist belief in evolution. The religious tendencies of the authors are also revealed in the way that everything hinges on Darwin’s beliefs, that Darwin needs to be rescued, using “Darwin” to mean “evolution by natural selection”.  In short, the implication is that Darwin is a kind of figurehead, almost a religious prophet! Yes, there will be tensions between religious teachings and scientific explanations for the world’s existence.  In a world where all the evidence points to an organic origin to the diverse life around us (and I have yet to be presented with a single convincing piece of evidence for the existence of any of the many gods worshipped around the world), where there is no need for a “supreme being” to oversee the world, this is inevitable.  Equally, there are many people to come to a personal theological arrangement where they can square religious belief with not only science but the scientific process. The report does have its virtues – the description of “young earth creationism” as a relatively modern belief is good, though perhaps too much of a distinction between this and “Intelligent Design” is made. The report’s critique of Intelligent Design is well written, clearly explaining why it is not a valid scientific endeavour.  In fact both YEC and ID require a supernatural entity (which one?) and are really cut from the same cloth.  In many ways, the strongly atheist statements made by prominent evolutionary biologists are a reaction to a continuous assault, particularly in the USA from YEC believers, the “Creation Science” proponents, and now the equally deceitful ID enthusiasts, all of whom seek to inculcate religious beliefs through the inappropriate medium of science classes.  And this in a nation with a constitutional separation of church and state. The authors characterises one atheist position as stating that Genesis is a failed scientific explanation for our origins, and is rightly quite critical of that view (after all, an ancient “just-so story” cannot represent a scientific explanation).  Unfortunately, the Genesis origins are regarded as a literal explanation, by many, in particular the YEC advocates. In the final chapter, we see a detailed examination of how the Genesis origins have been read, and how many early theologians were reluctant to read into it a literal description how how the earth came into being.  The problem here is that through history, there have been those who do take Genesis literally.  The authors see “science” as telling a story, but only one of a number of equally valid “stories”.  I personally don’t take the view that science is a story.  We then move into a more conventional sort of discussion:

[…] our lives are multi-dimensional, and that we need many different types of explanation to make sense of the world. The scientific approach is important but questions of purpose, meaning, ethics, beauty, history, literature and love are equally, arguably more important and, crucially, beyond science’s capacity to answer.

Here we have a problem.  I don’t see why any of these things are outside science’s capacity.  And in particular, many of these concepts are human constructs.  We generate our own purpose, either as individuals or as part of a bigger human construct such as a religious assmeblage.  We have our appreciation of beauty (and how different is that from any animal’s perception of beauty?).  You can frame many of these things that are claimed here to be beyond science’s capacity in an evolutionary context.  The report goes on:

A more useful way to picture the relationship between scientific and other forms of knowledge is to envisage the complex reality that we experience in our daily lives as being like a cube sliced into many layers. Each layer represents a different approach to understanding the world around us. The scientific level of understanding tells us how things work and where they come from; the moral and ethical level addresses what we ought to do in the world; the aesthetic level gives insight into our understanding and appreciation of beauty; the personal level addresses the ways in which we construct our biographies, and so forth. At the religious level the key questions are: Does life have any purpose in an ultimate sense? Does God exist?

I don’t actually think this is more useful.  For those of us from whom the last question there is pretty much answered by the observation that there is no evidence for a god (and I don’t mean a specific god here, as I think, the authors do), and that the simplest interpretation is therefore that there is not a god, religious interpretations are inappropriate.  For example, the “moral and ethical level” merely becomes the teaching of whatever religious construct a person believes in. For my part I come from a Western Christian background, and my moral and ethical values are clearly informed by that, but crucially do not depend on biblical teachings. The report goes on to question whether theism and evolution are (or can be) compatible.  The answer has to be yes, because so many people have found their religious beliefs can be consistent with a belief in evolution.  I would suggest that evolution by natural selection (in conjunction with other scientific endeavours) often does lead to a loss of belief in the the supernatural, but that it’s not inevitable – people are complex beings, and have abilities to reconcile apparently incompatible beliefs.  Chapter 5 concludes:

Evolution cannot, then, pronounce on the God question in the way that some of its more vocal proponents believe, but it can lay meaningful challenges at theism’s door. The most significant of these – that evolution is too wasteful, chancy or painful a process to be worthy of God – need to be taken seriously. Although such challenges tend not to be as momentous as some claim, they do provide opportunities for genuine reflection and debate. And that, if conducted in a spirit of respect and courtesy, benefits everyone.

Here I think the authors make the mistake of switching back from “science” to “evolution” – they are of course not the same thing, evolution being a subset of the bigger endeavour.  If we rewrite that opening sentence as “Science cannot, then, pronounce on the God question in the way that some of its more vocal proponents believe, but it can lay meaningful challenges at theism’s door”,  I think I must disagree.  To believe in something, I need to be presented with evidence.  Possibly not directly, but as a corpus of work that is collectively challenged and re-examined through time.  I see no such evidence for supernatural entities of any kind, and the most parsimonious conclusion for me is that there are no gods (if that’s what the authors mean by “the God question”).  I would agree that discussions such as these need be held in a spirit of respect and courtesy, though I suspect that’s never going to be the case. But does Darwin need rescuing?  I say not.  The evidence of and for evolution continues to mount.  An accommodation between religious belief and an understanding of the purely natural origin of the world and the life around us always going to be transient.  Religions are human constructs that over the millennia have sought to explain why we’re here, where we came from and to codify behavioural norms that enable us to live in regulated communities.  But the key here for me, in the absence of evidence for the supernatural (and I include deities), is that they are just that: constructs.  The big objections that atheism is essentially nihilistic, amoral, etc are just missing the point.  Atheists and humanists appreciate that we need a moral framework, and to suggest otherwise is incorrect.

One thought on “Theos Think Tank: Rescuing Darwin – God and evolution in Britain today

  1. “Darwin and one or two living men, who, a couple of centuries hence, will be remembered as Descartes is now, because they have produced great thoughts which will live and grow as long as mankind lasts.

    If the twenty-first century studies their history, it will find that the Christianity of the middle of the nineteenth century recognised them only as objects of vilification.

    It is for you and such as you, Christian young men, to say whether this shall be as true of the Christianity of the future as it is of that of the present. I appeal to you to say "No," in your own interest, and in that of the Christianity you profess”.

    Thomas Henry Huxley
    “On Using One’s Reason Rightly” – 1870

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