Methodists and other churches join celebrations of Charles Darwin

Methodists and other churches join celebrations of Charles Darwin

By staff writers
12 Feb 2009

The Methodist Church has welcomed a day of celebration dedicated to the achievements of scientist Charles Darwin during the year marking his 200th birthday and 150-year-old book on the theory of evolution.

Methodists today praised Darwin’s ground-breaking work on common descent and evolution by natural selection, On the Origin of Species, which sparked a revolution in the biological sciences that has continued to this day.

The Rev Dr Philip Luscombe, Principal of Wesley House, Cambridge, and President of the Cambridge Theological Federation, where he teaches Religion and Science alongside Systematic Theology explained why the churches should celebrate the great naturalist.

He said: “Christians believe that God created the world. Charles Darwin gave the first successful scientific account of one important part of God’s creation: how life developed from the simplest of forms into the extraordinary variety that we see around us. In doing so, Darwin ruled out some of the ways in which many had assumed that God worked - but not God as creator."

Luscombe continued: “An early Christian commentator on Darwin’s work wrote that, ‘Darwinism appeared, and, under the guise of a foe, did the work of a friend.’ Darwin cleared away many misconceptions and helped us towards a better understanding of the truth.”

“The human genome project is only the latest example of research which is ultimately inspired by Darwin,” he added. “All modern biological science relies on the foundation Darwin provided.”

“We join in celebrating the life and work of Darwin because he helped us all to see better the intricacy of God’s creation, and forced us to wrestle once more with the eternal problems of good and evil.”

The Rev Jenny Ellis, Spirituality and Discipleship Officer, said: “Darwin’s scientific theory of the mechanics of creation frees us to appreciate the ‘faith’ truth of the Biblical stories and the precious value and giftedness of God-inspired creation. The stories convey the sense of the wonder and goodness of creation; of the creative, divine Spirit who brings it into being and sustains it; of creation’s deep inter-connectedness, its rhythm and balance.”

Other major Christian denominations are also marking the Darwin anniversaries.

The Rev Dr Malcolm Brown, Director of Mission and Public Affairs for the Church of England says that "good religion needs good science", and vice versa.

In affirming evolutionary discoveries and regretting past mistaken resistance to them in the Church, Dr Brown adds in article on the c of E website: "There is no integrity to be found either in rejecting Darwin’s ideas wholesale or in elevating them into the kind of grand theory which reduces humanity to the sum of our evolutionary urges. For the sake of human integrity – and thus for the sake of good Christian living – some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential."

The Church of England has published a page of resources 'On the origin of Darwin': http://www.cofe.anglican.org/darwin/

Meanwhile, Catholic Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor has written in The Times newspaper "in praise of Darwin and the spirit of inquiry".

Science can be a friend rather than an enemy of faith, he argues. The theory of evolution explains how, but not why, we are here.

The Cardinal describes the theory of evolution as "one of the greatest discoveries of all time, [giving] us a way of understanding the connectedness of all life and the uniqueness of human life within it. Together with other branches of scientific exploration, evolution begins to unfold and illuminate the interplay of forces that make our universe such an extraordinary dynamic reality. In this sense, science is itself a journey of learning and exploration. This I find exciting and humbling."

He specifically renounces both creationism, which is based on a literalistic reading of Genesis and denies evolution, and 'intelligent design', which many theologian-scientists have described as "creationism in a lab coat."

Similarly, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams has called creationism 'a category mistake' for its misconstrual of a Christian understanding of creation that is congruent with science.

His predecessor Lord Carey, who is seen as strongly conservative theologically, has been even more emphatic: "Creationism is the fruit of a fundamentalist approach to scripture, ignoring scholarship and critical learning, and confusing different understandings of truth.... The argument for 'intelligent design' may have some appeal .. but is ultimately a negation of what science is about, which is to make a hypotheses from what is observable and then conduct experiments in a constant process of testing."

Writing on the evangelical Anglican 'Fulcrum' website, the Rev Michael Roberts, who is both a geologist and a priest, says: "To me, all science enhances my faith."

He adds: "I have a particular interest in Darwin, as I have researched his geology in depth. The more I study the man, the more I respect him, but I get irritated with either gross adulation or denigration of a great scientist. He was not a Christian, but was a very moral person. His science was brilliant in its day and laid the foundation for the future. I will enjoy celebrating Darwin’s bicentenary."

Meanwhile, Professor John Hedley Brooke, the president of the International Society for Science and Religion, who holds the Andreas Idreos Chair of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, has written an overview of Darwin and religion (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8619) to correct some of the less informed and ideological interpretations circulating in the light of the current anniversaries.

And Dr Denis Alexander, director the Faraday Institute at St Edmund's College in Cambridge, and former chair of the Molecular Immunology Programme and Head of the Laboratory of Lymphocyte Signalling and Development at the Babraham Institute, has written in Third Way magazine and for the religion and society thinktank Ekklesia on "why Christians should celebrate Darwin" (http://ekklesia.co.uk/node/8620)

From a different perspective, Andrew Copson, director of education for the British Humanist Association stressed that non-believers do not have a 'nihilistic' understanding of evolution, as some believers think.

He commented: "[M]any people today would subscribe to Darwin’s own view that a proper understanding of evolution contributes greatly to an enlargement of humane feeling. As Darwin said in The Descent of Man (1871): 'As man advances in civilisation, and small tribes are united into larger communities, the simplest reason would tell each individual that he ought to extend his social instincts and sympathies to all members of the same nation, though personally unknown to him. This point once reached, there is only an artificial barrier to prevent his sympathies extending to the men of all nations and races.'”

A recent survey by the Theos thinktank suggested that many members of the public do not accept evolution or are muddled by it. But the ComRes poll (http://tinyurl.com/b267oz) has been accused by some of framing its questions with religious and atheistic twists which are likely to have fed the confusion.

A new book, Darwin and God, by Nick Spencer, is being launched at Westminster Abbey, where Darwin is buried, today. There will also be a debate about evolution and religion at the Abbey, to be chaired by Edward Stourton, a presenter of BBC Radio 4's Today programme. The participants include Dr Alexander, Lord Robert Winston, Professor Steve Jones and Professor Nancy Rothwell.

Ekklesia co-director Simon Barrow commented: "After what seems too long a period of silence, it is encouraging to see senior church figures, theologians engaged with science, and scientists engaged with religion choosing to celebrate the landmark anniversaries of Charles Darwin's birth and publication of On the Origin of Species - together with those of other faith and of no religion at all.

"The central point of these celebrations is not to 'rescue Darwin' from either religion or atheism, but to improve understanding and reaffirm a common human commitment to use scientific discovery, including the extraordinary insights of genomics - which are rooted deep in evolutionary biology - to enhance human flourishing."

He added: "The pro- and anti-religion wars of Christendom are a distraction from this vital task, as is the bad theology and non-science of 'creationism'.

"The Christian concern should be to take responsibility for helping to advance scientific creativity, not to take credit or to take exception in ideological terms. Many people of other convictions are seeing things this way, too. Populist axe-grinding often has too little to do with truth," concluded Barrow.

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