As well as being the 400th anniversary of Galileo’s glimpse of Jupiter’s moons, 2009 is the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth -- and the 150th anniversary of his epoch-changing work, On the Origin of the Species.
Should it occur to anyone (Dawkins, put down that finch!) to dress the nineteeth-century English naturalist in the mantle of atheism, the Church of England has prepared a section on its website showing that the relationship between the naturalist and his faith is a little more complicated than some might prefer it to be. Darwin, it points out, "was surrounded by the influence of the Church his entire life", from baptism to burial in Westminster Abbey via studies for the priesthood.
But his loss of faith was real: as a trainee clergyman at Cambridge he believed in "the strict and literal truth of every word of the Bible". In the 1830s "disbelief crept over me at a very slow rate, but was at last complete". What separated these two phases of his life was the death of a beloved daughter and the need for "evidence which would suffice to convince me". In later life he described himself as a theist or an agnostic.
The truth of Christianity Victorian England depended very heavily on the truth of the Bible, which is why Darwin’s discovery that Genesis was not a true description of how species developed had an earth-shattering effect. But as The Tablet this week points out, because Catholicism did not treat Scripture as the sole basis of religious belief it was relatively untouched by the Darwin controversy. The Pontifical Council for the Social Sciences will later this year hold a conference to mark Darwin’s achievement.
For it is a specious idea - one that Darwin did not share -- that the scientific method and faith are in contradiction. Testing, probing, experimenting, and adapting in the light of new knowledge -- this is the very stuff of the pilgrim’s journey in the Spirit, exemplified in the method, made famous by the Jesuits, of "discerning the spirits" before making a choice. Saints restlessly quest. The "scientific method" is the product of medieval monasteries: knowledge of the world and knowledge of God are the same thing; learning more of the world is to learn more of God, for He created it. Thomas Aquinas would have laughed at the idea of an opposition between science and religion; both, surely, give glory to God?
So how is it that Origin of the Species is seen as a tipping point in the relations between science and religion? Why the conflict?
A BBC four-part series on the great naturalist is a good place to start -- especially the third program, which deals with the famous Oxford debate of 1860. In the largely mythical retelling of it years later in October 1898 issue of MacMillan’s Magazine, Bishop "Soapy Sam" Wilberforce of Oxford was put down in his own diocese by Darwin’s bulldog, T.E. Huxley, :
"There were so many of us that were eager to hear that we had to adjourn to the great library of the Museum. I can still hear the American accents of Dr Draper’s opening address, when he asked `Are we a fortuitous concourse of atoms?’ and his discourse I seem to remember somewhat dry. Then the Bishop rose, and in a light scoffing tone, florid and he assured us there was nothing in the idea of evolution; rock-pigeons were what rock-pigeons had always been. Then, turning to his antagonist with a smiling insolence, he begged to know, was it through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed his descent from a monkey? On this Mr Huxley slowly and deliberately arose. A slight tall figure stern and pale, very quiet and very grave, he stood before us, and spoke those tremendous words - words which no one seems sure of now, nor I think, could remember just after they were spoken, for their meaning took away our breath, though it left us in no doubt as to what it was. He was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor; but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. No one doubted his meaning and the effect was tremendous. One lady fainted and had to carried out: I, for one, jumped out of my seat; and when in the evening we met at Dr Daubeney’s, every one was eager to congratulate the hero of the day."
The bishop -- who had reviewed Origin in a high-handed, condescending way two weeks earlier -- was put in his place by rising young men of science demanding respect.
But the Darwinians have used this contretemps of the whole discussion of evolution, and that’s a big mistake. The Oxford debate is not typical of disputes in this period. There weren’t two camps. Origin of the Species addressed a debate in natural theology about whether God works through miracles or laws of nature. Darwin’s work was concerned was extending the rule of God’s law. Religious people did not see themselves as attacked by this new science.
That doesn’t mean that Origin was liked by Anglicans. The book scandalized because his theory of natural selection unseated the proposition that God had created human beings as a different kind of creation to that of the rest of the world. (There is a parallel here with Galileo, whose telescope found the earth revolving round the sun, not the other way round. Galileo and Darwin both knocked human beings off their pedestal. But faith adjusted.)
The Huxley-Wilberforce debate was not a clash between religion and scinece. Bishop ’Soapy Sam’ Wilberforce’s main objection to Darwin was, in fact, a scientific one: that he had not recorded in his geological record any case of one species developing into another. Darwin did not disagree, blaming the lack of a proper geological record. Subsequent discoveries would vindicate Darwin, and would fill in some of the gaps that showed that different species had evolved from common ancestors; but in 1860 it was not only fair but proper science to point out the gaps in the evidence, and to argue that Darwin had put forward only a conjectural hypothesis.
As the Church of England’s Director of Mission, Malcolm Brown, points out, there is nothing per se incompatible between evolutionary thinking and belief in God.
"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?"
He answers that question with a suggestion that there was a ’yuk’ factor involved -- a lineage from apes to humans appeared to downgrade the dignity of humanity, which says much about the cultural values of the age, but not much about either faith or science.
So there’s no problem with Darwinism?
Not quite. "Wilberforce and others", says Dr Brown, "glimpsed a murky image of how Darwin’s theories might be misappropriated and the harm they could do". Social Darwinism, the idea that the strong flourish and the weak go to the wall, led to the gulags and gas chambers of the twentieth century.
The same "evolutionist" mentality also lies behind the current financial and economic crisis, says the Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna, Christoph Schönborn:
"The question of evolutionism and the economic crisis are very closely linked. What we can call the ideological Darwinist concept that the stronger survives has led to the economic situation we’re in today."
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it well in Creation and Fall:
"We in now way wish to deny humankind’s connection with the animal world. On the contrary. Our concern, our whole concern, is that we not lose sight of the peculiar relation between humankind and God above this."
Or as Rowan Williams once wrote:
"Genesis may not tell us how the world began in the way a modern cosmoologist would. But it tells us what God wants us to know -- that we are made by his love and freedom alone."