What’s the use of apologising to Darwin?
The Church of England has just issued an apology to Charles Darwin for opposing his theory of evolution when The Origin of Species first came out 150 years ago. The Roman Catholic Church says it sees no need to say “sorry” for its initial hostility to the same theory. But both are now reconciled to evolution as solid science and are getting active in presenting their view that it is not incompatible with Christian faith. Is one approach better than the other to get this message across?
Next year’s double anniversary — the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species — is one reason to speak up about evolution. Another is the fact that evolution has become an increasingly controversial public issue, especially in the United States, and the debate is dominated by mostly conservative Protestant creationists and “intelligent design” supporters on one side and agnostic/atheistic scientists on the other.
That debate is so entangled in U.S. politics — the latest chapter being the questions about Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s views on teaching creationism in schools — that a less polarised view has a hard time getting heard. Trying to walk a middle path can be a tricky business, too, as Rev Michael Reiss in Britain has learned. A biologist and Anglican priest, he has just had to resign as the Royal Society‘s director of education after causing an uproar among scientists by saying creationism could be discussed as a “world view” in science class. He wasn’t advocating it, but thought that simply telling students with creationist views that they were wrong would turn them off science completely.
So what’s the best way for anyone who wants to get a word in edgewise? Apologies to a man long dead? Arguments that may not be heard? Something else?
One reason for the different approaches may be that the churches are responding to different poles of this debate. The Church of England seems more concerned about arguments from the “new atheists” such as Oxford University’s Richard Dawkins. The Vatican seems to be thinking more about creationists and “intelligent design” supporters.
On a new website the Church of England has devoted to Darwin, Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, its director of mission and public affairs, declared that “good religion needs good science”. The CoE opposed evolution back then, he said, but it was, after all, “not such an earth-shattering idea”. He continued:
Darwin’s immense achievement was to develop a big theory which went a long way to explaining aspects of the world around us. But to treat it as an all-embracing theory of everything is to travesty Darwin’s work. The difficulty is that his theory of natural selection has been so effective within the scientific community, and so easily understood in outline by everybody, that it has been inflated into a general theory of everything – which is not only erroneous but dangerous.”
After explaining the current Anglican view, Brown added: “Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of ‘faith seeking understanding’ and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.”
The Vatican started off with theology on Tuesday as it announced a conference next March on evolution with scientists, theologians and philosophers. “I would like to repeat from the outset … that there is no incompatibility between the theory of evolution and the message of the Bible and with theology,” Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, the Vatican’s culture minister, told journalists in Rome.
Asked about the Anglican apology, he said: “Maybe we should abandon the idea of issuing apologies as if history was a court eternally in session … Darwin was never condemned by the Catholic Church nor was his book ever banned … The attitude of the Anglican Church is curious and significant, the style belongs to a mentality a bit different from ours.”
Professor Phillip Sloan of Notre Dame University, which will co-host the conference with the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, put the issue in wider context. “In the United States, and now elsewhere, we have an on-going public debate over evolution that has social, political and religious dimensions. Most of this debate has been taking place without a strong Catholic theological presence, and the discussion has suffered accordingly.”
Rev Marc Leclerc, a Jesuit philosophy professor at the Gregorian, said Darwin’s work was more often discussed ideologically than scientifically, which has led to a stand-off between what he called evolutionism and creationism. The “intelligent design” argument had added to the confusion by saying only divine planning could explain evolution, he said. That amounted to confusing divine purpose and a mechanism, “whereas these are obviously two distinct planes”.