Creationists and evolutionists both see Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution as the linchpin of all attempts to prove or disprove the existence of God. Darwin’s Pious Idea by Conor Cunningham turns this debate on its head. The subtitle says it all: “Why the ultra-Darwinists and creationists both get it wrong.”
Activist atheists and fundamentalist believers vehemently try to persuade others to adopt their way of thinking. Cunningham argues that both are wasting their time.
Darwin’s theory of evolution, he writes, “is frequently construed, by both its supporters and its opponents, as an attack on the idea of God and an attempted exposé of the frivolity of the piety of religious believers. On this account, both atheists and religious people alike tend to sing from the same hymn sheet: Darwinian evolution threatens to annihilate religion at its very root.”
Cunningham’s thesis is that the notion that “evolution threatens to annihilate religion at its very root” is a mistaken one, which means that both atheistic supporters and religious opponents of evolution are wrong. The question is not either the Darwinian model of evolution is true and therefore God does not exist or Darwinian evolution is false and therefore God does exist. The Darwinian model of evolution appears to be scientifically supportable, and God exists.
The Catholic Church, through at least three of its recent Popes (Pius XII, John Paul II and Benedict XVI), has already stated this numerous times. The classical Darwinian model of evolution, as described by Darwin himself in his writings, does not say anything contrary to religious faith, nor does the Church adhere to a literalist interpretation of the biblical creation stories.
What Cunningham calls “ultra-Darwinism,” promoted by atheist polemicists like Richard Dawkins, is hostile to religion because it states categorically that God cannot possibly exist. Cunningham convincingly argues that ultra-Darwinism is also hostile to science because it is, at its core, unscientific: It attempts to say much more than Darwin ever intended and much more than its scientific validity allows.
Perhaps Cunningham’s most intriguing and provocative argument, though, is that fundamentalist creationism itself is not authentically Christian. It is “a lapse into intellectual barbarism, a complete desertion of the Christian tradition.” Cunningham is not a Catholic, so his view of the Christian tradition may differ slightly from Catholic teaching; but on the subject of evolution and creationism, he appears to be sound.
In the early chapters of the book, Cunningham provides a helpful summary of what Darwin actually posited, how his theory has been distorted over the years, and how the debate within the Darwinian camp has developed (“evolved,” if you will) into what Cunningham refers to as “denominations” of Darwinism. Later chapters explore psychological and social phenomena related to Darwinism (including eugenics) and explode the myth of “science versus religion.”
Despite the author’s frequent lapses into inscrutable phrases, which he often fails to translate into everyday English (“individualist ontology,” “nominalist epistemology” and “essentialist assumptions of classical and neoclassical biology”), the book is readable, enlightening and seasoned with humor.
Register correspondent Clare Walker writes from Westmont, Illinois.
DARWIN’S PIOUS IDEA
Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong
By Conor Cunningham
580 pages, $35
To order: eerdmans.com