Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong

March 24, 2011

Let me start by conceding the central, most controversial thesis argued in this book: that neo-creationism and ultra-Darwinism are opposing offshoots of the same modernist root. Both read the Bible literally and take nature itself to possess a crackable code. Neither wishes science and theology to exist in separate spheres. To be sure, William Dembski and Richard Dawkins, say, differ radically on what should happen once the two are brought together: one infers natural theology, the other atheistic naturalism. These are the terms on which the ongoing "Darwin wars" are fought.

My disagreement starts with the suggestion in the subtitle that "both get it wrong" and that the author's preferred stance - a quasi-mystical version of theistic evolution - makes for good science and good theology.

Conor Cunningham is a rising star in John Milbank's school of "neo-orthodox" Anglican theology at the University of Nottingham. Although fiercely academic in its own manner, the school is quite critical of the abstract and alienated accounts of God and nature found throughout modern academic writing. Instead they aspire to a natural piety in which we come to experience our human lives as a divine gift. Thus, in these pages one will find much praise for "common sense", "immanence" and especially the messiness of evolutionary history, which gives the lie to Dawkins' treatment of the gene as a kind of biological atom.

Indeed, if Cunningham did not regularly remind the reader that his take on God and nature is compatible with a close, albeit non-dogmatic, reading of Thomas Aquinas, it would be easy to confuse him with one of those benevolent pagans consigned by Dante to the outskirts of Hell.

None of this is to take away from Cunningham's achievement. The book sets a benchmark as a readable and critical account of the scientific, philosophical and theological issues involved in justifying the neo-orthodox rapprochement between science and religion in today's world. It consists of treating religion and science not as either conflicting or parallel universes, but as necessarily complementary ones - each giving meaning and providing insight to the other.

Cunningham eases his probative burden by interpreting both religion and science rather narrowly. The former is biblical, the latter Darwinian. Clearly each poses questions that the other is better placed to address. Left unspoken is the prospect of a tighter integration, which is precisely what the Darwin wars are about. In that context, the book would have made a more powerful intervention had it argued that natural theology was impossible in principle, rather than simply remarking on how Dembski or Dawkins deviate from this or that orthodoxy.

A much shorter book needs to be carved out of this that does not indulge the academic conceit of surveying and reconciling bodies of knowledge to reach what one already believes. It would start by asking what sort of science and theology is appropriate to the sort of being that we think we are, and then proceed to take seriously even alternatives that imply a revision of one or the other field.

It is by no means clear that the outcome of such an exercise would be as complacent about the state of both science and religion as Cunningham appears here.

Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong

By Conor Cunningham.

William B. Eerdmans Publishing.

563pp, £22.99.

ISBN 9780802848383.

Published 1 January 2011.

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