Here's what I wrote about Finding Darwin's God (Ken Miller) for a journal. I don't know if the footnotes will come through, but I'll try....
Kenneth R. Miller, Finding Darwin’s God: A Scientist’s Search for Common Ground between God and Evolution (New York: HarperCollins, 1999).
The first American Darwinian, Harvard botanist Asa Gray, was also an outspoken defender of the “compatibility”–that was the word he chose–of evolution and a very traditional type of Christian theism. Addressing the student body of the Yale Divinity School in 1880, he identified “the essential contents of that Christianity which is in my view as compatible with my evolutionary conceptions as with former scientific beliefs,” as being “briefly summed up” in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, classic statements of faith used as touchstones of Christian orthodoxy since the fourth century. When about forty-five years later in the mid-1920s, Princeton embryologist Edwin Grant Conklin, himself once a traditional Christian, lectured a Philadelphia audience on “The Religion of Science,” he identified the essential contents of his faith quite differently by denying a personal God, miracles, supernatural revelation, personal immortality, and the efficacy of prayer.
Since the early years of the twentieth century American scientists have followed Conklin more often than Gray when interpreting the religious significance of science, at least privately if not also when writing and speaking to popular audiences, the primary mode of discourse for conversations of this kind. Public statements are often much less contentious and far more nebulous, affirming either the broad congruence or (more commonly) the complete independence of two undefined entities called “science” and “religion.” Thus it is interesting in itself when an excellent scientist, a professor of biology at Brown University and coauthor of leading high school and college textbooks, writes a book for the general public which not only affirms vague “common ground between God and evolution,” (his subtitle) but goes on to argue specifically that “evolution is the key to understanding our relationship with God.” (291) This claim arises out of Miller’s analysis of a long-standing!
theological problem arising out of mechanistic science: if all events in the universe are determined by unbreakable laws, then how can God or human beings have genuine freedom to make genuine choices? Miller finds his answer in such places as the contingency of evolution and the randomness of quantum events, both of which point (in his opinion) to a God who gave the creation, including human beings, genuine autonomy and freedom. “A biologically static world,” he tells us, “would leave a Creator’s creatures with neither freedom nor the independence required to exercise that freedom. In biological terms, evolution is the only way a Creator could have made us the creatures we are–free beings in a world of authentic and meaningful moral and spiritual choices.” (291) Citing the final paragraph in the sixth edition of the Origin of Species, where Darwin refers to life “having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one,” Miller glibly concludes, “I b!
elieve in Darwin’s God.” (292)
Now Miller is a Roman Catholic, and Catholics have for many centuries emphasized the need for sinners to cooperate with God in order to obtain salvation; in other words, free persons can accept, resist, or reject God’s grace. In this sense I call this a Catholic book, but its appeal may be more catholic (in the sense of being universal), since most contemporary Protestants no longer think of God in quite the same way as Martin Luther or John Calvin, who understood divine sovereignty to extend even to choosing, before the foundation of the world, exactly who would be saved and who would be lost. Indeed, the “free will defense” is a popular answer to the problems that the existence of suffering poses for theism, and this has often been linked with belief in an evolving creation.
The significance of Miller’s book, then, arises less from what it says–which, though important and potentially helpful to many, is not as deep as some other books making similar claims–than from who is saying it, and to whom. When Miller tells his students (as he does) that he actually believes in the traditional Christian God himself, and that his belief is actually reinforced (rather than challenged) by evolution, he is (as he notes) defying their expectations for a biologist at a major research university. And those expectations reflect a highly polarized American conversation about evolution and religion, polarization that is only encouraged by the rhetoric of two genuinely opposing camps, about whom Miller writes four of his nine chapters. With each camp Miller associates a certain view of God. Varieties of antievolutionism fall under the heads, “God the charlatan,” a reference to the young-earth creationist view that God made the world with apparent age; “God the !
magician,” on Phillip Johnson’s implicit position that a “great designer” God made many types of animals by “magical” acts of special creation; and “God the mechanic,” against Michael Behe’s claim that the “irreducible complexity” of certain cells cannot be explained by natural selection alone, but had to be assembled directly by a divine mechanic. In these three chapters Miller deftly confronts claims about the inadequacy of Darwinian evolution as an explanation of life’s history, and for many readers of this newsletter this part of the book will get the heaviest use. But what he says in the chapter on “the Gods of disbelief” is no less important, for it provides a large part of the relevant context for understanding why antievolutionism remains so prevalent today. Breaking ranks with some of his professional colleagues, Miller shows how scientists and philosophers such as Douglas Futumya, Richard Dawkins, William Provine, Daniel Dennett, Edward Wilson, and Richard Lewo!
ntin have used evolution to promote an atheistic worldview, and he cal
arrogantly assumed that “religious belief is something that people grow out of as they become educated,” so that there is “a fabric of disbelief enclosing the academic establishment.” (184-5)
This in my view goes right to the heart of the matter. Ironically, Phillip Johnson would undoubtedly agree with Miller on this very point. Yet here we find a greater irony that also goes to the heart of the matter: This is a very good book, despite some historical errors and misconceptions that I lack space to enumerate, a book that I would really want to use with (say) an advanced biology class of high school juniors or seniors (assuming I taught such a class), for they would learn some things about the nature of scientific reasoning and its limits that cannot be taught effectively with traditional textbooks, and they might actually get the point that science is not done in a cultural vacuum and the really crucial point (which eludes several of the scientists named above) that highly competent scientists simply do not agree on how to interpret science metaphysically. Yet I would probably not be allowed to use it in a public school–at least not the final three chapters o!
n evolution and religion, arguably the best part of the book. I say “probably”, because although it might perhaps be permissible within current legal precedent to use all of this book in a public school, I doubt that most school districts would allow it, given typical policies toward such things as singing Christmas carols and reading religious texts.
The most fundamental problem is far more intractable and (in my view) far more serious. Suppose it were the case that public schools taught only creationism (assuming that were constitutional), or both creationism and evolution. In that case I have no doubt that there would be a great hue and cry in the academic establishment to let people take their own tax dollars somewhere else, where a different philosophy informed the education of their children, and I suspect that appropriate accommodations would be made. The fact that fundamentalist parents don’t have this option–mainly because since the late 1940s the Supreme Court has interpreted the “establishment” clause of the first amendment to require a “wall of separation” between church and state–is, in my view, a grave injustice. I realize there are many problems with this suggestion, and that good people reject it for good reasons. I still say it’s true: until we rethink our (mis)interpretation of the first amendment!
, until we recognize that secular education as widely practiced is not in fact neutral toward religion, then creationist families will have legitimate reasons to oppose the teaching of evolution, and books like Miller’s that deal constructively and effectively with interpretive issues that scientists themselves have raised will remain on a functional equivalent of the Index of Prohibited Books.
Received on Sun Feb 1 12:29:18 2004
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