Monday, 15 September 2008

Church of England apologises to Charles Darwin

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I know it's their holy day and everything, but did the Church of England really have choose a Sunday to announce that they're issuing a posthumous apology for misunderstanding Charles Darwin? It means I get to the story late, and aren't they supposed to be resting anyway?

To mark next year's bi-centenary, the Church has launched a new website celebrating the life of Darwin, and in the process has pointed out that "an opportunity arises to look back on the relationship between Darwin, his supporters and the Christian Church." An essay, "Good religion needs good science", by Rev Dr Malcom Brown, the Church's Director of Mission and Public Affairs, goes on to concede that many were wrong in their reaction to Darwin's theory:
"People, and institutions, make mistakes and Christian people and churches are no exception. When a big new idea emerges which changes the way people look at the world, it’s easy to feel that every old idea, every certainty, is under attack and then to do battle against the new insights. The church made that mistake with Galileo’s astronomy, and has since realised its error. Some church people did it again in the 1860s with Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection. So it is important to think again about Darwin’s impact on religious thinking, then and now – and the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth in 1809 is a good time to do so."
However, Brown could not resist taking a dig at some modern scholars of Darwin (those who Steve Fuller might label "Neo-Darwinists"):
"But if Darwin’s ideas once needed rescuing from religious defensiveness, they may also now need rescuing from some of the enthusiasts for his ideas. A scientist has a duty to the truth: he or she is called to be fearless in discovering the way the world works. But how a scientific theory is used, and the ways in which ideas can be deployed politically or ideologically, are the responsibility of a less easily defined constituency. 'Darwinism' has become something bigger than Darwin’s own theories, and raises many moral questions."
Much of the essay focuses on the idea that Darwin's theory does not fatally undermine religious belief, criticising both the atheists who suggest it does, and the creationists who refuse to acknowledge evolution full stop. Then in the end we're on to the real apology, which Brown addresses straight to Darwin himself:
"Charles Darwin: 200 years from your birth, the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still. We try to practice the old virtues of 'faith seeking understanding' and hope that makes some amends. But the struggle for your reputation is not over yet, and the problem is not just your religious opponents but those who falsely claim you in support of their own interests. Good religion needs to work constructively with good science – and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well."
Hmm - not quite the apology secularists might have hoped for. And Darwin's family aren't particularly impressed either. Speaking to the Telegraph, his great-great-grandson Andrew Darwin said: "Why bother? When an apology is made after 200 years, it's not so much to right a wrong, but to make the person or organisation making the apology feel better."


AT said...

You're a little harsh on the church of England. What was the apology secularists were hoping for? 'We're sorry, God is dead, rave at Westminster Cathedral tonight BYOB'?

Caspar said...

That would be funny- the Church of England advertise a rave at a Catholic cathedral

AT said...

Good point. Though it would increase my quality of life if inter-denominational dialogue became reduced to large-scale pranks.