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.