The bicentenary of the birth of Charles Darwin, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, will be unmissable in 2009. Indeed, the celebrations have started already, what with Richard Dawkins' TV series 'The Genius of Charles Darwin' and the Natural History Museum's 'Darwin – Big Idea, Big Exhibition'.
The Church of England has also anticipated the anniversaries. In a new section of its website, it analyses Darwin's faith and relationship to Christianity. Moreover, in an article entitled "Good religion needs good science" the church's director of mission and public affairs, Malcolm Brown, suggests that the church "owes you [Darwin] an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still."
It is a striking musing, given that Darwin is buried in Westminster Abbey and had a state funeral. It suggests a certain anxiety amongst believers about the anniversary.
And they have grounds for concern. At times, Richard Dawkins' TV series seemed to be driven more by a desire to sink red teeth and claws into religion than to commemorate the great man. Alternatively, many will write about Darwin as if natural selection had long ago done away with God – as Robin McKie did in the Guardian newspaper when reviewing the Natural History Museum exhibition:
Thus we are taken on a journey that follows the intellectual route of one of our greatest thinkers as he worked on his theory of natural selection which would, in the end, depose God as creator of man and reclassify humans as mere members of the animal kingdom.
That there is more to be said than that will not matter to those who view Darwin's year as one in which to score cultural points rather than purely to celebrate science.
However, for those who want to take the opportunity to get to grips with what Darwin really means for religious belief – for it surely means much – there will be plenty of other material to digest.
Some is explicitly targeted at the Christian community, with the aim of showing believers that they have nothing to fear from evolution. An example is the book by Cambridge biochemist Denis Alexander, Creation or Evolution: Do We Have to Choose?
The "we" here are his fellow evangelical Christians, and Alexander makes the case that creationism and intelligent design are simply misplaced. His argument can be summed up in Augustine's comment: "Nature is what God does." In terms of the politics of Darwin's year, efforts like this are surely to be welcomed; they might do something to diffuse an often unnecessary antagonism.
Non-believers will be suspicious of Alexander's charm offensive. But the argument is supported by disinterested parties. In his Philosophy in the Modern World, the agnostic philosopher Anthony Kenny expresses the point in a slightly different way: the belief of Christians that they are the children of God has never been seen as incompatible with belief that they are also the children of natural parents. So why not of apes too?
But what, atheistic Darwinists might reply, of the apparent purposeless of the natural world, the way that adaptation by natural selection excludes the possibility of input from any external, benevolent designer? Kenny responds to that too. The theist can reply that what Darwin's theory shows is that any particular adaptation is devoid of intelligence. The ultimate reason that adaptation occurs at all, though, can still – if someone so wills – be put down to a divine intelligence.
One must point out that this is not the same as intelligent design. In fact, ID does exactly the opposite and argues that particular adaptations show signs of a maker's hand. In other words, it makes the elementary mistake of conflating scientific explanations with theological ones.
That they are not the same can be seen in the reflections of another Cambridge don who will be contributing to the debate in 2009, distinguished theologian Sarah Coakley. She will be speaking as part of the university's anniversary festival.
Her recent work is on the issue of evolution and altruism, one of the current hot topics. For one thing, she wants to tease out the different ways in which evolutionists use the word "altruism", for it varies wildly.
She suspects that often the meaning of the word is deliberately blurred so that more can be claimed than the science warrants – be it an atheist claiming a wholly naturalistic explanation of moral behaviour; or a believer claiming that evolution has somehow proven the power of divine love. It would be truer to conclude that evolution itself leaves open the question of what you make of the moral significance of co-operation.
One further point: Coakley also argues that the relationship between science and religion can be one of mutual inspiration and mutual chastening: both can learn from each other as to their limits and strengths. Some of the noisiest voices that will be heard in Darwin's year would sneer loudly at that. However, listen more carefully, and 2009 could be a year in which you catch the subtleties of that dialogue.
(c) Mark Vernon. The author is a writer and commentator. His latest books are 42: Deep Thought on Life, the Universe, and Everything (Oneworld, 2008) and Teach Yourself Humanism (Hodder Education, 2008). See also: www.markvernon.com
This article is adapted, with grateful acknowledgement, from one that appeared on Guardian Comment-is-Free.