Sunday, 18 January 2009

View From the Pulpit - Chrisitian Minister & Science Professor

From the Times;
Darwinian thinking clarifies and deepens religious faith

This year will bring an avalanche of books, lectures, television programmes and articles on Charles Darwin. It is 200 years since he was born and 150 years since he was pushed to publish his On the Origin of Species earlier than he intended by the arrival of a letter from Alfred Russel Wallace, the naturalist who, independently, had the same theory of natural selection that Darwin had supposed all his own.

Since Darwin wasn't alone in thinking up the theory of natural selection or in assembling evidence in support of evolution, are we right to make such a song and dance of his anniversary?

The short answer is "yes". On the Origin of Species is the most important biology book yet written and Darwin has done as much as anyone, including Copernicus, Newton, Marx and Freud, to change how we see ourselves.

So why do I, with a fairly conventional Christian faith, albeit someone with an academic background in evolutionary biology, believe that a Darwinian worldview matters more than ever?

This decentring does not, of course, mean that we matter any the less. Rather, it helps us to appreciate that we do not sit in a distinct category from the rest of creation. As a shorthand, other sentient creatures can be considered rather as young children in terms of their capacity to think, to feel and to experience pain and pleasure. The great apes that are heading towards extinction in the wild and are still used in some countries for medical research really are our relatives.

Darwin was more than a little apprehensive about how his work would be received, realising that it would be controversial. In the event, the reception was generally positive. Even the Church of England accepted its message partly, perhaps, because it had little wish to box itself into a corner as the Roman Catholic Church had over Galileo two centuries earlier.

However, there are many who find a Darwinian view of life incompatible with their understanding of God's action in the world. Creationists prefer a literal reading of the early chapters of the Bible or the Koran. In my opinion the Darwinian worldview is not just compatible with religious faith but deepens it and makes aspects of it more intelligible.

Consider the old but vital question as to why God allows suffering. A way of answering seems clearer if one sees God as giving creation the ability to evolve itself, including the capacity to feel pain and pleasure. Perhaps natural selection, as Richard Dawkins has argued, is inevitably written into the fabric of the world. Perhaps, too, those with a Christian faith do well to remember that the Word of God is a person more than parts of a book.

- Michael Reiss is Professor of Science Education and Assistant Director at the Institute of Education, University of London, and a priest in the Church of England

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