‘Did Darwin Kill God?’ BBC TV Programme

 On 31 March, I gave one of the keynote addresses at the annual meeting of the British Sociological Association’s Religion Study Group in Durham. This meant that I could not watch the first airing of ‘Did Darwin Kill God?’ on BBC2.  I recommend that you watch this show over the next couple of days, while it’s still available on-line at the BBC website. It may be the most sophisticated treatment of this general topic on television, though as you’ll see from my comments below I found it profoundly unsatisfying. The person who scripted and presents the programme is Conor Cunningham, an academic theologian, about whom more below. Even those who disagree with his take on things – as I do – should welcome what he has done here. The challenge is to do better.

 

First the really bad news about this programme: ID itself is mentioned only once and then it’s identified with creationism. As for Creationism, it is represented by the Scopes Trial, the 1961 book by Henry Morris, The Genesis Flood, and the Young Earth Creationist museum outside Cincinnati. No living ID person is interviewed or discussed. The only historical precedent given for this entire train of thought is William Paley, who is in turn portrayed as a product of the idiosyncratic English environment of the Industrial Revolution, having been preceded by Bishop Usher’s literal-minded calculation of the timing of Creation, based on the ages of the biblical patriarchs.

 

Cunningham is associated with the ‘Radical Orthodoxy’ in Anglican theology, which is headquartered at his home university, Nottingham, where the movement’s mastermind John Milbank, the author of the very interesting Theology and Social Theory (1990) is professor. This movement basically mounts a historical pincer attack against Protestant fundamentalism and Modernist scientism, which are seen as largely two sides of the same coin. It’s as if the four centuries separating Martin Luther and the First World War had been one long big mistake in the history of Christianity, from which we are now emerging as postmodern theology reconnects with its pre-modern roots. This is not as strange as it first sounds. In fact, it’s really quite profound. One thing that the pre-moderns and post-moderns don’t like is the idea that divine truth is something to which people can have direct access through either reading the Bible or doing science — or even some combination of the two, as one often finds in contemporary forms of creationism and even ID.

 

This point is made early in the film when Cunningham discusses Philo of Alexandria, a 1st century BC Jewish Platonist who influenced much early Biblical interpretation. Philo drew attention to the distinction between ‘allegorical’ and ‘literal’ reading of the Bible. Cunningham appeals to this distinction to argue that the Bible should not be read as a scientific text – but as what exactly instead, we are never told. In fact, Philo’s distinction in types of readings has been normally used to argue that Biblical interpretation should be left to approved (‘orthodox’) theological experts who know what to treat as allegorical and as literal, since the Bible itself does not make this distinction – yet the distinction needs to be made carefully so that literal readings (especially of morality) are enforced for purposes of social control, while more allegorical readings (say, of nature) are allowed for purposes of scholarly exploration. (A similar issue arises 1000 years later in Islam.) Soon afterward Cunningham introduces St Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis, which is also spun to conclude that Genesis should not to be read literally. (My own view is that Augustine is simply saying that a literal reading is not as easy or straightforward as it may first seem.)

 

At this point, it might be worth recalling what was so empowering – both theologically and scientifically – about the Protestant Reformation. It took seriously that the Bible is the clearest sign that humans have been created in the image and likeness of God because it shows that the deity’s chosen medium is one through which only humans can communicate. Even when we seek knowledge of nature, we credit our understanding only when it can be expressed in language, and increasingly – as with modern genetics – as a language. In contrast, and notwithstanding his pluralistic rhetoric, Cunningham is not really prepared to let people make sense of the Bible for themselves by allowing God to speak to them directly. Cunningham’s attitude mirrors the Church’s attitude towards Galileo, who treated Nature itself as a holy Book that he could take into his hands and understand with his own reason and observation, even if the results contradicted authorised readings of the Bible or, for that matter, Aristotle. (Cunningham has a revealing podcast interview, where he casts the Galileo episode as an unfortunate case of a patient and indulgent Catholic Church repeatedly confronted by a hotheaded know-it-all.)

 

If no other theological message comes across in the film, it is that the Bible is not a privileged route to Christian understanding. In fact, there seems to be no privileged route to such an understanding. The viewer is left to trust Cunningham at his word when he says that he is some sort of Christian. The evidence in the film is stronger that he is a Darwinist, which of course he claims is compatible with being a Christian – though one might want to know why he is that too. (There was a missed opportunity to show the connection between Philo’s version of the ‘double truth’ doctrine and Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA approach to science-religion issues. But maybe that opportunity was wilfully missed.) 

 

To be sure, Cunningham’s rhetoric frequently reveals a fondness for traditional church authority – and he certainly sees it as a mark in Darwin’s favour that High Church Anglicans warmed to his theory of evolution. In this context, Cunningham’s interview with Michael Ruse was telling, as Ruse suggested that Christians should have no trouble with Darwin because Christians held their beliefs on other grounds. One would have liked to know which ‘other grounds’ would fit comfortably in Cunningham’s narrative, since Ruse’s own is likely to be along the liberal atheist line: ‘Well, people are entitled to hold whatever beliefs give meaning to their lives as long as they don’t hurt others in the process or contravene generally agreed empirical facts too egregiously’. Is that Christianity’s best defence in the face of Darwin?

 

Perhaps the two most interesting interviews, which occur in the last quarter of the film, are with two scientist-Christians, Francis Collins and Simon Conway Morris. They are introduced to contradict the uses of Darwin made by the ‘New Atheists’, as represented by Richard Dawkins, who makes only a brief appearance in the film and not in his own words. The interviews are interesting not for their contradiction of New Atheist views – that’s like shooting at low-flying ducks. Rather, they should make the viewer wonder exactly how Collins and Morris square their scientific and religious views. Collins is presented as saying that natural selection operates at many more levels than simply the gene, thereby undermining Dawkins’ reductionist ‘selfish gene’ theory. OK, so what follows? That the mystery of life is ultimately unfathomable? That would certainly provide a convenient jumping off point from science to religion, if one wants to uphold a strong distinction between the two. However, I doubt it would be much use to science. Here some clarity would have been welcomed. As for Morris, he is presented as noting that evolution is not as purposeless as many of Darwin’s detractors and defenders have maintained. OK, so what follows? That science may help to resolve theological disagreements, as we make sense of evolution’s underlying direction? Again silence. Of course, scientific creationism and especially ID have addressed these matters, which Cunningham just leaves hanging in the film.

 

Of course, in sixty minutes on prime time television, one can only do so much, and Cunningham provided a lot of food for thought. However, he seemed to address what he perceived as excesses on the pro-Darwin side much more directly than those on the anti-Darwin side. And in the end, Cunningham pulled his own theological punches. Given that he spends so much face time decrying how his faith has been hijacked by both Biblical fundamentalists and Darwinian fundamentalists, it would have been nice to know exactly what it is that he believes and how that belief is maintained.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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13 Responses to ‘Did Darwin Kill God?’ BBC TV Programme

  1. Well, a certain type of self-absorption doesn’t want to believe natural revelation and doesn’t want to believe the special revelation, either. Gnosticism is the oldest heresy because men love to believe they have esoteric wisdom and love to seem different and more profound than other men.

    This vanity creates reactionary resistance. Whatever it is, I’m against it, no matter who began it or commenced it, because my resistance shows that I have my mind set on higher things (please don’t look into this astonishingly high-browed mind of mine when I’m in the checkout line at the supermarket, or, for that matter, checking out the undergraduates).

    But the problem with the noble force of pure resistance seen in all forms of Gnosticism is that it cannot come into existence. As a force of resistance to the limitations of all existent things, it remains—nothing.

    So for example we now know that life is based on a language. It’s easy for those of us who are not quite so addicted to our own transcendent genius to connect the dots between this language and the logos. We find, remarkably, that all of this has already been explained in advance, long before the contretemps that is Modernism and the premature claim that God is dead.

    But the reactionary resisters cannot connect the dots because they are…well, reactionary. Their esoterism specifically prevents them from acknowledging that which is obvious. They would rather cling to the myth of Darwin, which has no power to explain the emerging language of life, than ever admit that it is possible to read the special revelation and actually obtain wisdom about being.

    That’s how they remain the very special people that they are!

  2. 2

    I watched the programme a few days ago. It was a typical BBC production, in that those claiming anything other than Darwinian evolution as the mechanism for life were portrayed as Bible-bashing, anti-science crazies. I was amazed that the creation museum scientist was actually given air time, but Cunningham simply allowed him to speak without engaging in dialogue or addressing his points. He then suggested that YECs somehow elevate science above God, which seems like a strange conclusion, especially from a Darwinist.

    To use Philo and Augustine as some sort of proof that Christianity is compatible with Darwinism was more than a little dishonest. And his dismissal of ID as discredited nonsense was proof he simply didn’t want to investigate alternatives.

    Finally, I had a look on an atheist blog to get their take on the programme and a very good point was made. Darwinists believe humanity is the result of chance mutations, and life could have gone in a multitude of other directions. So does Prof. Cunningham believe God was sitting hoping that humanity would come along at some point? Or did He have a guiding hand, and how exactly was that expressed? Would a guiding hand be in the form of ID?

    Many questions, few answers other than ‘I’m right and you’re wrong if you don’t agree’.

  3. . It’s as if the four centuries separating Martin Luther and the First World War had been one long big mistake in the history of Christianity,

    So why is he still an Anglican?

  4. 4

    “it would have been nice to know exactly what it is that he believes and how that belief is maintained.”

    Don’t expect that from postmoderns Steve. The only way they can survive in intelligent debate is to never, ever defend a position of their own, but only attack others. Because of this, I don’t expect “postmodernism”, whatever it is, to last very long in intelligent circles. The only conceivable way they could do it is turn their philosophical anger, skepticism and rebellion towards new targets as the old ones disappear or present compelling defenses. As allanius points out though, it could always come back with a different name.

  5. Hi all,

    “As for Morris, he is presented as noting that evolution is not as purposeless as many of Darwin’s detractors and defenders have maintained. OK, so what follows?”

    Nothing follows, Steve. That is the exact thing. Nothing follows.

    The key point of “theistic evolution” is that nothing is ever supposed to actually follow from the evidence for the design of the universe and life forms.

    So it baptizes a world view in which nothing follows from design in the universe.

    So atheist religious worldviews rule – without any evaluation of the evidence. Traditional ones are informed how we can accommodate – irrespective of evidence for why we should even have to accommodate.

    And those who go along get better appointments than those who do not.

    I appreciate your point that the arguments of the militant atheists are like low-flying ducks (many are more like drowning rats in an overflowing storm sewer, in my view – but I digress).

    The main point – in my experience – is not the quality of the arguments but the way they insinuate themselves into education policy and law.

    Keep an eye on that. It’s the main point. Put another way: If materialist atheists can get people who won’t sign their creed dumped (and they have), it doesn’t matter whether their creed makes any sense.

    It could be a nursery rhyme. And everything would be just the same.

    That is the reason many of us think of most theistic evolutionists as “useful idiots” (Lenin’s term). They don’t understand that it isn’t a debate. It is a power grab.

  6. That is the reason many of us think of most theistic evolutionists as “useful idiots” (Lenin’s term). They don’t understand that it isn’t a debate. It is a power grab.

    Very true.

  7. Whoever has visited Oxford and Cambridge won’t be too surprise by the stance of theologians on Evolution. The Catholic and then the Anglican church have always had the monopoly and the control of knowledge. It’s a myth to say that the clergy over here was against Darwin and its ideeas (why would Darwin by buried in Westminster Abbey otherwise??) fitted pretty well with the Anglican’s established theology.
    Another thing: if you happen to go to Oxford, please visit the Blackwell library: you will see two pictures at the entrance. One old picture with scientists, librarians, and clergy people and one new, with librarian, scientists and at exactly the place of the clergy person, Dawkin.

  8. Speaking as a TE (though I more and more question if the term is accurate when applied to me), I’d like to say a few things.

    * A good portion of the TEs I’ve met have seemed vastly more interested in attacking YECs and ID proponents (even, perhaps especially, Michael Behe – despite Behe essentially being a TE himself in many ways) than atheists. I chalk this up to two things: One, a desire to be viewed as ‘mainstream’ and ‘pro-science’ to an exaggerated degree. Two, a tendency for some (not all) TEs to be politically rather liberal, and see ID as a hallmark of more conservative viewpoints – and thus, seeing an attack on ID as a proxy fight against said viewpoints. What I’m saying is that while there are more than a few TEs who aggressively oppose atheism and are not ‘useful idiots’, at this point I can’t really blame people for confusion or hostility towards them.

    * The TE label itself is confusing. Behe has strong doubts (and in my layman view, a good argument) about the capabilities of mutation, but he believes in common descent, evolution, an old earth, etc. Mike Gene, I think, doesn’t even really doubt mutation. There are others who are comparable, and yet they’d be considered ID proponents. As a result, I would argue that what makes someone a ‘TE’ in the sense being spoken here has far less to do with specific views about evolution and natural history and more about which arguments they see as valid, and which positions they see as intellectually acceptable to take. In other words, like much in this debate, the vocabulary gets tricky.

    * Eventually, and I believe quickly, the TE position itself is not going to be available for the reason many TEs take it. Witness Jerry Coyne’s attack on Ken Miller and others, despite Miller being (in my view) far more aggressive than either Coyne or Dawkins in attacking ID – because Miller & co. held that God acted in natural history, and speculated on ways said activity could have showed up. Thankfully, that prompted Miller to turn around and actually give what I thought was a strong response – but it signals what is to come. Useful idiots are only so useful.

    * One reason that I’ve been so drawn to ID despite TE leanings (aside from the fact that, in my view, there are already a number of TEs in the ID camp) is that what I view as the central argument against ID – that science cannot detect or rule out design in nature – is violated repeatedly by atheists, and had been for decades leading up to ID’s modern appearance. When Coyne or Stenger argues that science rules out God (though Coyne accepts a case can be made for a Deist God, which he’s too ignorant to realize eviscerates his position thoroughly), nary a peep comes from science defenders. When an ID proponent argues that science strongly indicates a designer being at work (even when qualified that the science can’t determine that said designer is God, etc), the science defenders rage that this is mixing philosophy/theology with science, that the proponent is being dishonest because they REALLY mean ‘God’, etc. This can’t, and won’t, last forever – and frankly, I think the arguments and rational considerations in favor of design outgun the strict materialist/no-design arguments at every turn.

    And there we go. Just wanted to throw in my TE observations.

  9. Appreciate your comments Steve. Interestingly, NT Wright and TF Torrance both have criticsed the dualism in modern science. Wright, in Surprised by Hope argues that this dualism is not in harmony with the resurrection, nor with the churches mission of redeeming creation. Torrance, as well as Pennenberg, assert that knowledge of God and creation should be unified, especially in light of the incarnation.

  10. “it would have been nice to know exactly what it is that he believes and how that belief is maintained.”

    Don’t expect that from postmoderns Steve. The only way they can survive in intelligent debate is to never, ever defend a position of their own, but only attack others. Because of this, I don’t expect “postmodernism”, whatever it is, to last very long in intelligent circles. The only conceivable way they could do it is turn their philosophical anger, skepticism and rebellion towards new targets as the old ones disappear or present compelling defenses. As allanius points out though, it could always come back with a different name.

    I read this comment with amusement. As an agnostic searching for answers, I’ve not seen a testable hypothesis for ID.

    I’m unsure if you are defending or attacking ID with your comment, but it sounds like a defense, but then anyone from outside ID would only think your talking about ID itself.

  11. Mr Fuller,
    I’m sad to say that the program cannot be viewed outside the UK!

    But it sounds from your description that the presentation of both Darwin and religion is intensely and parochially British. The presenter talks about Philo, but doesn’t interview any modern Jewish leader? The British Isles have been emptied of Sikhs? Has he ever eaten curry?
    I have visited London a few times. I have stood next to the pump whose handle was removed to stop the cholera epidemic – it is one of the great monuments in the world. UK is so multi-cultural, I am amazed the BBC would broadcast such a narrow perspective.

  12. “Soon afterward Cunningham introduces St Augustine’s exegesis of Genesis, which is also spun to conclude that Genesis should not to be read literally.”

    There is an ineresting web page that discusses the actual language of Genesis where they interpret it as God repairing the earth basically in six steps – where the time between those steps could be in the millions to billions of years. Here’s the link if anyone is interested. He explains it very clearly with a literal interpretation broken down: Below the link is some text from the page that explains part of it.

    http://reluctant-messenger.com.....ity006.htm

    How does the War of the Angels help solve the apparent paradox between an Earth that science claims is billions of years old while some theologians teach that Genesis records that God created the heavens and the Earth only 6,000 years ago? The war occurred in the realm of spirit but also had devastating consequences for the planet Earth.

    Genesis 1:1 In the beginning God created the heaven and the Earth. 2 And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. KJV

    The answer to this paradox is in how Gen. 1:2 is commonly translated from Hebrew to English. In the original Hebrew, the words are (transliterated into the English alphabet) erets hayah tohuw bohuw choshek paniym tehowm ruwach elohiym rachaph al paniym mayim. The meaning of the these words, as cross-referenced in the Hebrew/English Dictionary of Strong’s Concordance are:

    (erets – Earth ) (hayah – was, come to pass, became) (tohuw – formlessness, confusion, chaos) (bohuw – emptiness, void, waste) (choshek – darkness, obscurity ) (paniym – face, surface) (tehowm – primeval ocean, deep) (ruwach – wind, breath, mind, spirit ) (Elohiym – God) (rachaph – move, hover) (al – over) (paniym – face, surface) (mayim – waters, waterflood).

    The second Hebrew word in Genesis 1:2 is hayah, which should be translated as “came to pass,” or, for the most accurate word for word translation, “became.” If just a few words from the ancient Hebrew are translated more accurately into English, the translation that results provides a deeper understanding that solves the puzzle…..

  13. This is completely off topic. I read few articles relating to chirality on this website. I’ve looked into both sides of this issue.
    This article from NewScientist seems to have solved the mystery. Can anyone who is well informed in Chemistry help me out to see if this is true?
    http://www.newscientist.com/ar.....ehind.html

    Thanks.

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