14 February 2006

Darwin and the Bishops

The following is the text of the 'First Person' column I wrote for the Leicester Mercury last Saturday, the response by the Bishop of Leicester on Tuesday, and the response by Ibrahim Mogra on Thursday. Apparently there is more to follow this weekend. The texts have been copied from the Leicester Mercury site:


See under News/First Person. It is possible to add comments there if you wish.


10:30 - 11 February 2006 As scientists celebrate Darwin Day tomorrow, George Jelliss wonders where the Church of England stands

Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809. His birth is increasingly celebrated by biologists and many others influenced by his ideas, through holding lectures and festivals on and around Darwin Day. These will lead up to his 200th anniversary in 2009, which will also mark 150 years since the publication of Origin of Species.

When Darwin died in 1882, the country thought so highly of him that he was buried in Westminster Abbey, alongside other great creative thinkers. The Church of England at that time, after 20 years of controversy, had accepted the undoubted importance of his ideas.

All these years on, the essential correctness of Darwin has been ever more thoroughly established by evidence from all manner of sciences.
The millions of years needed for evolution have been confirmed by the work of geologists and astronomers on the great age of the Earth and the even greater age of the universe.
The detailed operations of heredity have been shown by the science of molecular genetics, developed since the discovery of the double helix structure of DNA.

So why are Church of England bishops so reluctant to state their acceptance of evolution?
The Archbishop of Canterbury, in a lecture at Christ Church, Cambridge, where Darwin studied, praised him for his dogged pursuit of truth, yet did not, in direct words, endorse the truth Darwin found.
No Church of England websites seem to carry a full-hearted endorsement of evolution.

In contrast, many other Christian churches and their websites are outspoken, even hysterical, in their advocation of Young-Earth Creationism, which denies the truth of Darwin's findings, and says, against all scientific knowledge, that the Earth, and indeed the whole Universe, was created only a few thousand years ago.

Did you know that the UK and Europe head-quarters of the US-based Answers in Genesis organisation is in Leicester?
Nearby, in Rugby, is the headquarters of the Biblical Creation Society. Both groups backed big conferences in Leicester in 2002 and 2005, organised by evangelical churches.

So it is especially important in Leicester, with its two universities dedicated to science, that the established Church speak out loud and clear.
Are Bishops afraid to upset many of their members who are still stuck in pre-Darwinian ignorance? Surely they should have the intellectual courage to show their followers how their religious beliefs can be reconciled with scientific truth. This is especially important if they continue to wish to support, and indeed to control, a large part of child education in this country.



10:30 - 14 February 2006 The Bishop of Leicester responds to the challenge issued here on Saturday by George Jelliss

George Jelliss issued a challenge in this column on Saturday ("Bishops should speak up about Darwin's truth") which I am delighted to take up. Darwin opened our eyes to the fact that the natural world is in constant change and development. Because of him, we no longer see the world as one in which species are stable, immune from change or created ready-made. And this, I believe, is entirely compatible with the Bible, which describes in the Book of Genesis a process of creation which is gradual and developmental, proceeding by a sequence of events. We seriously misunderstand this book if we believe that it is meant to be a literal scientific account of how the world was made.

It is true that some Christians (as George Jelliss points out) appear to find Darwin's theory of evolution as contradicting scripture, as if the theory of evolution undermines the idea that human beings are made in the image of God.
This saddens me. Charles Darwin's theories do not imply that humans are simply a sophisticated version of an ape. Homo sapiens came about as a result of a dramatic leap in the evolutionary process producing beings of immensely greater intelligence and self-consciousness than our evolutionary ancestors. But that does not imply a break in the evolutionary process.
The wonder of it for me is that it has precisely come about by means of God's creativity through evolution.

George Jelliss seems to imply that science and faith are in opposition. The scientific method develops by producing explanations of the physical world based on the best available evidence to date.
Scientists offer us maps which have always been open to revision when the territory is later surveyed more closely than before. In that sense, scientific "facts" are always provisional. That is not so different from a faith perspective of the world.

The University of Leicester's genetics department is headed by someone who is a member of our Cathedral congregation.
There are countless examples of leading scientific thinkers whose faith has been deepened and enriched by their scientific understanding.

Christians believe our faith is not just a matter of private opinion, but a public truth. It offers an account of the most important realities in our lives - the realities of truth, beauty and goodness.
We believe we can explore these things best by entering a relationship with God (who for Christians is revealed in the life and death of Jesus Christ). Yet this public truth does not contradict what the scientists tell us about the nature of the universe.
For Christians, the more we understand and penetrate the mysteries of the created world, the more we see evidence of the hand of a creator God. That is why we should celebrate Darwin's life and all the Origin of the Species has taught us.

On Thursday: An imam responds to Mr Jelliss



10:30 - 16 February 2006 Ibrahim Mogra responds to the views on Creationism expressed in this column by secularist George Jelliss

My faith in Islam is continually strengthened by every scientific discovery. This might come as a surprise to many, but the association between the Koran - revealed almost 1,400 years ago - and science is one of harmony and not of conflict. The concepts and ideas put forward by the Koran in relation to the universe, when no scientific equipment was available, is truly amazing.

Unfortunately, verses relating to scientific data are sometimes badly translated and interpreted, so that a scientist's criticisms seem justified when the Book does not actually deserve it at all. There are also erroneous commentaries that 100 years ago would not have raised an eyebrow, but would offend contemporary scientists. Modern interpretations must be rooted in the classical understandings of the various passages, but must also take into account new scientific discoveries and be critical of both. Along with thorough linguistic knowledge, a commentator must also be equipped with a highly diversified scientific knowledge.

Information about the Creation is scattered in the Koran and so there is no continuous narrative. The creation of the universe is frequently mentioned as having taken place in six "days". That is a very narrow interpretation of the Arabic words used in the creation verses. The Koran does not give a specific order of creation. When it mentions six "days", it does not mean 24-hour days, for this could only have happened after the creation of the sun and the orbiting of the earth. The word is to be understood as a "period", a "long length of time". Chapter 32, verses 4-5, says "... in a period of time whereof the measure is a thousand years of your reckoning". Chapter 70, verse 4, says "... in a period of time whereof the measure is 50,000 years". If scientific discoveries show that the universe is millions of years old, then Muslims should see that to be precisely what the Koran wants us to understand about the time factor in the Creation debate until something different is discovered.

Although I have said Muslims must embrace scientific findings, these findings will still be subject to scrutiny under the light of the teachings of the Koran. That is exactly why Darwin's theory of Evolution, suggesting the human being started as something very different, is not acceptable.

The Koran endorses that everything was created from water, and that the human being is created in the best form - from Adam - walking upright and conversing intelligently, always learning to utilise God's bounties to better their lives.

* Ibrahim Mogra is an associate imam in Leicester and is a member of the Muslim Council of Britain.

Saturday: God-fearing scientists and Creationism

A few comments on our Bishop's response to George.

We seriously misunderstand this book [Genesis] if we believe that it is meant to be a literal scientific account of how the world was made.

In that case, does it have any value different from any other fairy tale or creation myth? Isn't the main philosophical idea we have from it 'original sin'? Its other big idea - the day of rest for the worker - is a deeply humanistic one and not religious at all.

Charles Darwin's theories do not imply that humans are simply a sophisticated version of an ape.

Leave out 'simply' and I think many 'Darwinians' would agree that D's theories do imply just that (as well as much more of course).

The theory of evolution explicitly rules out dramatic leaps - as Dawkins has so eloquently pointed out, each of us alive has never had a single ancestor in a couple of billion years that failed to survive to reproduce, each individual ever so slightly different from its parents. Such is the wonder of life!

the more we understand and penetrate the mysteries of the created world, the more we see evidence of the hand of a creator God.

A bit trite to say that a 'created' world has a 'creator' surely.

Scientific theory (including evolutionary theory) arises out of observation of the things and behaviours of nature without reference to the supernatural. Were any supernatural phenomena to be found to be amenable to scientific study, this very fact would move them from that realm to the natural! Show me some consistent evidence for God - his weight, speed, density, behaviour - even his responsiveness to prayer - and I'll accept him as a phenomenon of nature! ;-)

In spite of all this, I guess out of all the Bishops on offer, we're better off with one holding the views expressed! Keep the conversation going!
My 'Darwin Day' article seems to have set off a chain reaction of responses!

The Bishop says that I "seem to imply that science and faith are in opposition". If one interprets 'faith' to mean belief in something for personal reasons, and 'science' to mean belief based on evidence, then the opposition is tautological.

What I said explicitly is that the religious leaders need to show their followers "how their religious beliefs can be reconciled with scientific truth".

I think it is possible to have a religion, or religions, that is not in opposition to scientific knowledge. It is where the religious leaders try to maintain old superstitions in the face of modern contrary evidence that they are sinning.

As C.P.Scott said, opinion is free but facts are sacred.
Surely by definition a religious belief is one that is based on faith eg for which there is no empirical evidence. Scientific knowledge on the other hand is exactly based on evidence and as such can be overturned should further evidence and experiments contradict it. Religion can be reinterpreted, twisted and reimagined to better reflect scientific reality but ultimately, it cannot be reconciled fully with science as it does not deal with facts only faith.
Good stuff George!

It is very telling how the religious feel compelled to reconcile science with their faith. It reveals a deep respect for the power of science that strikes doubt into the heart of their religious views. After all, if they were comfortable with faith-based beliefs they would surely be happy to leave it at that. The existance of theological pseudo-science arises from a deep unease within believers that their faith simply isn't well-founded.

You don't catch non-believers scrabbling about to find justification for their pre-conceived metaphysical views within the realm of empericism and reason. Rather, empericism and reason informs their metaphysical ideas.
I agree with rickyroma . How the Bishop can justify the idea of god through science is simply daft. The question was tried in court when Bradlaugh denied the existence of god and the judges were obliged to accept the idea that there is no evidence for god existing.
The bible might contain some nice poetry ,even after half a dozen translations, but to suggest that it contains anything that might be related to empirical truth is a total nonsense. The people who wrote it had only relatively shortly before invented writing so to suggest they had any real contact with god is ludicrous. Science has shown the world to be about four and a half billion years old through carbon dating of meteorites. The bible was written about two thousand years ago. Does the Bishop think god suddenly decided to create Adam after a few billion years during which time we developed the sort of atmosphere that could support life as we know it. He has to be pulling our legs. Look out Jasper Carrot the Bishop's after your job.

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