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Darwin and God

Nick Spencer
SPCK, 124pp, 9780281060825

Darwin and GodDarwin's bicentenary seems rather timely, and not just in the sense that it comes exactly 200 years after his birth. It also comes at a time when he has become a banner in the religious conflict of the age. He is the prophet of the new atheists, an icon of reason, science and fact against the forces of credulity, superstition and myth. Meanwhile, for the religious right his science seems to be, along with homosexuality,"'one of the two great evils to be rooted out of modern life - natural selection and unnatural passions.

Neither side will get much ammunition from Nick Spencer's book. For those who want to use Darwin as a bludgeon on God, he himself (Darwin) emerges from this spiritual biography as a man of far more humble, uncertain, moderate and fluctuating religious opinions than them. 'My theology is a simple muddle', he says, repeatedly. 'The more I think the more bewildered I become.' 'I am forced to leave the problem insoluble.' He started out as a Christian and died an agnostic, but insisted he had never for a moment been an atheist. Much of his life he believed -"'uncertainly -"'in God, including the period when he developed the theory of evolution, and insisted to the end that there was no contradiction at all between theism and evolution. 'Why should you be so aggressive?' he asked one particularly outspoken atheist evolutionist.

Spencer shows how for much of his life Darwin wavered between a rational conclusion that the existence of God is a thesis that cannot be proven, and an intuitive sense that there must be more to the universe than 'blind, brute force'.

Spencer also makes much of how inadequate the version of Christianity was that Darwin started out with -"'a sincere but rather optimistic and lukewarm intellectual assent to the idea that the natural order is proof of the existence of God, and that moderate Anglicanism pretty much follows. There are faiths that withstand and sustain people through experience of the brutality of life, but this was not one.

As for the religious reactionaries, Spencer offers no help to those trying to shut him out as an enemy of faith. He shows how Darwinism was embraced by believers who saw it as 'Christian faith evolving' towards greater truth, and how the disputes it provoked were between the old clerical scientific establishment and the new professional scientists not between faith and science. He also shows that it was not evolution that undermined Darwin's faith, but seeing in his travels aboriginal cultures that did not share it, doubts about the Bible, the theoretical problem of suffering and the far from theoretical problem of the death of his best-loved daughter.

Neither does Spencer try to make Darwin a more-or-less Christian. Darwin does not have to be One Of Us for Christians to accept, value and celebrate his achievement, or for us to want to get to know him better - and the book is an invaluable introduction to the great man.

The Darwin who emerges from this story is in some ways a sad figure -"'his absorption into scientific ways of mind not only made faith harder for him but destroyed all enjoyment of poetry, music and art. 'My mind seems to have become a kind of machine…' But he is also a figure that our age needs, a figurehead for those of us who believe that science and religion -"'and belief and unbelief -"'can coexist without launching crusades against each other. Perhaps in that sense Darwin is One Of Us after all.

Steve Tomkins