Don't wimp out of odd marriage

Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?
April 12, 2002

Can a Darwinan also be a Christian? Michael Ruse, a philosopher and prolific writer on Darwinism, concludes "absolutely", although he acknowledges that it is not always easy. He declares himself to be a committed Darwinian, a naturalist (believing in the unbroken rule of laws of nature) and a reductionist, and says that sociobiology is the best thing to have happened to the social sciences in the past century. Those who disagree are said to be wimps and to speak from ignorance. Not a promising basis, you might think, from which to argue his case.

But Ruse does not defend the reasonableness of Darwinism or Christianity. He treats a core of each as given. He argues that, given the acceptance of Darwinism, there are no overwhelming difficulties in also subscribing to a non-literalist variety of Christianity. His book, refreshingly constructive in spirit, is aimed at non-specialists and is addressed primarily to those who are drawn to both positions.

Nevertheless, "whose Darwinism?" and "whose Christianity?" are key questions, especially since each viewpoint carries varied philosophical or theological interpretations. Creationists aside, Darwinians have dominated recent discussions of the subject. But even here, views differ. Materialistically minded atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, interpret Darwinian naturalism as flatly inconsistent with Christian metaphysics and are hostile to attempts to reach amicable accommodations. But Stephen Jay Gould sees science and religion as "non-overlapping magisteria" (domains of teaching authority) that, as they are about different things, should not come into conflict - his Noma thesis.

Ruse rejects Dawkins's oppositional stance, while also implicitly rejecting Gould's more congenial Noma thesis. Since the claims of Darwinism and Christianity sometimes seem to conflict, Noma cannot be laid down magisterially at the outset of the inquiry without begging questions. Ruse argues that many of the tensions can be dispelled, that many of the difficulties Christian belief faces have nothing to do with Darwinism specifically, and that Darwinian science is not intrinsically atheistical. More positively, he argues that the resources of Darwinian scholarship, philosophy and theology can be mined to suggest that there are points of congruence, so that those who are drawn to both positions can see them as "meshing".

He begins with a historical sketch of the central scientific claims of Darwinism, emphasising the point that most of the notorious in-house differences of opinion between Darwinians about technical matters are relatively minor when compared with the amount on which they agree.

The following chapter does a similar job on Christianity. He draws attention to the principal divisions brought about by the Reformation, while stressing what continues to be shared, and sketches some of the Christian responses to the Enlightenment. The task is to mark out the Christianity of the book's subject - "traditional" Christianity (Roman Catholicism and "mainstream" Protestantism) - and to indicate the richness of its theological resources.

Ruse outlines the theological case for interpreting the Bible metaphorically and allegorically when literal readings conflict with well-attested science. Thus Galileo's development of Augustine's thought is now Catholic orthodoxy. Mainstream Protestantism has been similarly flexible, and most Christian thinkers agree that the Genesis story of creation is no bar to accepting the central claims of Darwinism (though not all, as the row about creationism in Britain's schools attests). Ruse also argues that progress towards development of naturalistic accounts of the origin of life itself should not pose problems for Christians.

The key source of resistance to this reconciling spirit is US biblical literalism and the anti-Darwinism it has spawned. Though an opponent of "creation science", Ruse does not attack it in detail here and dismisses this fundamentalist response as a largely idiosyncratic departure from "traditional" Christianity.

However, the Galilean strategy does not carry us very far and does not deliver the mutually supporting points of congruence that Ruse seeks. The underlying issue is how far a vision of a divine creation can be squared with a naturalistic vision of a universe governed by scientific law. Since Ruse is an uncompromising naturalist, he commends theological positions that see God acting through scientific law "at a distance", at the moment of creative design. Similarly, he suggests, although Darwinians have to be methodological naturalists, their science does not require them to be metaphysical naturalists as well. It is on this basis that he seeks points of congruence.

For example, Ruse commends a theological interpretation of miracles, not as breaches of laws of nature, but as events that have special Christian meanings. He also argues that the biological progressionist version of Darwinism is congruent with the Christian view of humanity as the culmination of God's plan for life on earth (mischievously suggesting that Dawkins's theory of evolutionary arms races might be drawn on in support). Similarly, if Christian Darwinists accept that God chose to pursue His plans in the biological world through natural selection, they must acknowledge that natural pain is a cost of biological design.

Ruse also argues that sociobiological theories of the origins of morality accord with Christian ethics. They explain how "selfish" genes can give rise to contractual moralities of reciprocation and to altruism while suggesting a sociobiological basis for interpreting the idea of original sin.

He defends other points of congruence - for instance, in connection with freedom and determinism. But he is least plausible in his attempt to reconcile his naturalism with Christian views of human beings. Most Christians are probably substance dualists in the Platonic-Augustinian tradition, believing that souls are metaphysically distinct from bodies. Although Ruse says that Darwinians can be dualists, the attached philosophical penalties are such that most Darwinian naturalists reject dualism. He suggests that a neo-Aristotelian concept of the soul as form, or ordered matter, might be more congenial to the Christian Darwinist. But if so, in what sense can souls be immortal, short of positing a resurrection world in which they are re-formed? If it is posited, can it be part of the natural order? And why should the re-embodied souls that inhabit it be thought of as resurrected rather than as facsimile copies?

In aiming to make his book reader-friendly and accessible to non-specialists, Ruse writes in a non-technical and racy style that some may find irritating. Some matters - for instance, the complex issue of reductionism in Darwinism - are dealt with too sketchily to be clear or convincing. Nevertheless, while not pretending that this is the last word on the subject, and bearing in mind Ruse's aim, I found his case surprisingly persuasive. Many Christians will welcome this work of reconciliation from the Darwinian side, although they will perhaps suspect that even methodological naturalism demands too much of them. Others will hope that it will contribute to the diminution of anti-Darwinian sentiment, especially in America. Atheists will, of course, remain atheists.

Grenville Wall was formerly principal lecturer in philosophy, Middlesex University.

Can a Darwinian Be a Christian?

Author - Michael Ruse
ISBN - 0 521 63144 0
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £16.95
Pages - 242

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