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Loving Darwin and Divinity

By Douglas Todd, Vancouver Sun, Feb 11, 2009

Vancouver, Canada -- Charles Darwin is widely praised by atheists for the way his theory of evolution denies the existence of God. For the same reason he's vilified by conservative religious people.

There is just one problem with the opinions of these opposing camps: They're not exactly based on what Darwin said. The pioneering 19th-century biologist actually confessed that evolution placed him in a "hopeless muddle" about the concept of God.

Church-going Darwin did, indeed, end up rejecting traditional 19th-century views of an Almighty Christian God. He could not accept that an all-powerful Being would willingly cause, as he said, a cat to cruelly play with a mouse.

Instead, the evidence suggests Darwin was an agnostic, or a wavering deist. A deist is a person who believes some sort of supreme being or mind created the universe and its laws, then let the natural world proceed largely on its own, without divine intervention.

Dozens of new books are coming out about how Darwin's theological struggles and how his theory of evolution has forced many to rethink their concepts of God.

One book of essays, titled Back to Darwin: A Richer Account of Evolution, starts out by making clear that contemporary atheists who absolutely oppose melding evolution and spirit should not be called "Darwinians," but "neo-Darwinians."

Neo-Darwinians are atheists, whereas Darwin was not. Neo-Darwinians also tend to believe plants and creatures came into existence only through pure chance; via random mutation, natural selection and the drive to survive. Neo-Darwinists say there is no purpose, or purposes, in the universe.

Neo-Darwinians also philosophically believe in a "materialistic" or "mechanistic" view of the world, which says reality is basically a complex machine made up of hard bits of matter that sometimes, by fluke, fall into order. On the other hand, the opponents of neo-Darwinism come in many spiritual shapes.

Conservative branches of Christianity, Mormonism and Islam reject both atheism and Darwin's entire theory of evolution. But another broad group of spiritual people don't oppose the theory of evolution. They just believe evolution allows room for elements of cosmic purpose.

A revealing poll released this month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life asked members of many U.S. faiths whether they "agreed that evolution is the best explanation for the origin of human life on earth."

The strongest opponents of evolution were Jehovah's Witnesses, Mormons and evangelical Christians (76 per cent of whom opposed evolutionary theory.) U.S. Muslims were almost evenly divided on the question.

However, the majority of U.S. Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Catholics, Orthodox Christians and mainline Protestants joined the religiously "unaffiliated" in generally agreeing with evolution. In other words, these religiously inclined people don't see a contradiction between evolution and believing life is sacred.

Since religious views about evolution are all over the map, opposition to neo-Darwinism comes from different philosophical camps.

The most notorious opponents of evolution are Creationists. They read the Bible as literal scientific fact, rather than spiritual wisdom. They believe the God of the Bible supernaturally created the world in six days about 6,000 years ago.

Another anti-neo-Darwinian camp is called Intelligent Design. Its believers played a major role in the fiery 2008 documentary, Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. They lobby for Intelligent Design to be taught in public school science classes. Associated with the Discovery Institute in Seattle, Intelligent Design proponents generally believe a Supreme Being "designed" the world so that humans would emerge through evolution. Without saying it publicly, many believe Jesus Christ was inherent in God's original "design."

What about the broad group of Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, liberal Christians and others, however, who accept the theory of evolution, but think atheist scientists are remiss in thinking evolution takes place in an ultimately purposeless universe?

Such people believe atheistic neo-Darwinism not only leads to a dangerous nihilism -- the conclusion life is meaningless -- but that it's also philosophically incorrect.

Such opponents of neo-Darwinism think some sort of cosmic intelligence has a continuing hand in the evolutionary process. Such spiritual people also tend to believe their religious beliefs can be enhanced by learning from other traditions, including science.

Ancient Buddhist texts, for instance, don't have much to say about the origins of the world. But most westernized Buddhists accept evolution, in part because they think it dovetails with the belief that life is not a machine, but is impermanent and always changing.

The Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader, says in The Universe in a Single Atom that atheist scientists make a mistake when they argue life is purely random.

The Dalai Lama also says neo-Darwinists, who tend to believe in "the survival of the fittest," have trouble explaining the origins of altruism.

Even though Buddhists do not technically believe in a Creator God, they do join many Hindus, Jews and progressive Christians and Muslims in thinking that a kind of "Cosmic Mind" exists, providing the possibility of order in an otherwise chaotic universe.

From where else, such spiritual people ask, would come such marvellous things as human consciousness, as well as beauty, goodness and love?

The most interesting criticisms of neo-Darwin atheism come from hundreds of spiritually inclined philosophers and theologians who are also scientists, or at least well-versed in hard evolutionary theory.

Some of the big names in this field have been 20th-century process thinkers such as paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, mathematician Alfred North Whitehead and philosopher Charles Hartshorne, followed by Lynn Margulis, David Ray Griffin and Ken Wilber.

They've been joined in recent years by Vancouver United Church Rev. Bruce Sanguin, author of Darwin, Divinity and the Dance of the Cosmos, who develops a Christian mysticism and eco-praxis based on evolutionary theory. Sanguin is among many spiritual thinkers now highlighting the relatively unknown co-founder of evolution, Alfred Russel Wallace.

Wallace was one of the first to believe that it is not a contradiction to believe in divine intelligence as well as that the universe came into existence billion of years ago, with humans evolving from less complex creatures.

Evolutionary theists are not materialists, since (like Buddhists) they believe reality is ever-changing and includes "mind" as well as matter.

They accept that the universe contains chance. But they add that the universe also includes direction, offered in subtle and non-coercive ways. Otherwise all would be chaos.

Without purpose, Australian microbiologist Charles Birch argues in Back to Darwin, humans would simply be mindless zombies.

How, Birch asks, could the marvels of human consciousness have come into existence if our minds are just pre-programmed like computers? There must be something in the universe, Birch said, that lures creatures and humans to explore novelty and make free "choices."

One of the more compelling thinkers about spirituality and evolution is Roman Catholic John Haught of Georgetown University, author of God and The New Atheism: A Critical Response to Dawkins, Harris and Hitchens.

Drawing on Whitehead, Haught eloquently writes in Back to Darwin that life is an evolutionary "narrative," combining chaos and purpose -- whose ultimate aim is to increase complexity and diversity.

In other words, Haught says God is the persuasive force in the cosmos that through evolution draws everything toward more intense beauty.

I suspect if he were living today, Charles Darwin may have been drawn to such ideas.

* For more of my thoughts on Charles Darwin and spirituality, try this earlier piece.

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