on May 25, 2012
I purchased this book upon finally accepting evolution as the best explanation for how we came to be. I'm a bit of a latecomer but I wondered if Darwin's discoveries left any room for God. This work proposes an approach to tackling this question with evolution specifically in mind.
This work doesn't tell you what to think but equips you to move forward on your own intellectual journey.
Ultimately, though, McGrath argues that natural theology cannot and should not be used to prove the existence of God from nature, but instead acts as a set of "spectacles" which gives meaning to scientific facts - specifically Darwin's theory of evolution through natural selection. A Christian framework for understanding evolution is proposed as an alternative to the metaphysical inflation of Darwinian science that has resulted in the New Atheism movement, heralded by Daniel Dennet and Richard Dawkins.
The work can be divided into three main inquiries:
1. An examination of the specifically English tradition of natural theology beginning in the Augustan age (1690-1740) and culminating in William Paley's "Natural Theology" (1802) and the analogy of the pocketwatch. McGrath argues that this vision of the relationship between science and nature was criticized from within the church well before Charles Darwin published his Origin of Species in 1859.
2. An exploration of how theologians contemporary to Darwin responded to the publication of the Origin of Species (including those who denied its veracity). Did this new information threaten Christianity or clarify its role as a transformational rather than explanatory enterprise?
3. An original argument for a new approach to understanding the relationship between science and religion that synthesizes historical approaches to natural theology and new scientific data. What is the role of the church in this conversation?
McGrath delves deeply into these issues and more. This is a very complex work intended for a scholarly audience, but I found it to be clear, accessible, and transparently researched. Each chapter contains hundreds of cited sources. This is a great place to begin an exploration of the contemporary debate on the relevance of religion.
I'll leave you with a quote from the book which I think sums up McGrath's thesis nicely.
"Natural theology, however it is defined, has to do with borderlands - the threshold of Christian belief and experience of the natural world...The Christian vision of reality is such that it has the capacity to engage, interlock, and enfold - and hence explain - the complexities of the human experience of the natural world."
on July 14, 2015
Is the post Darwinian world devoid of purpose and transcendence with all things explained by "standard scientific epistemology and metaphysics" as militant atheist Daniel Dennett insists, or is the natural world a sign, promise or symbol of another domain or realm, despite the suffering, pain and contradiction that Hume and others point to. Alistair McGrath enters this frequently contentious debate that so colors so much of current American politics and culture with impressive credentials, including three doctorates from the University of Oxford, in molecular biophysics, theology and intellectual history. His thoroughly researched and well elucidated work offers fresh insights that all with an interest in the effect of Darwinian thought upon both classical and Christian thought will find of interest.
McGrath begins with a fresh clarity of the difference between the world view of Darwinisn, as an inflationary metaphysic adopted by new atheists, and modern evolutionary biology, inspired by Darwin but now quite far apart from his original thought as current ideas including autopiesis, self organization, epigenetics and symbiosis are decidedly non Darwinian making even the term neo-Darwinism obsolete. He suggests that the terms "modern synthesis" or even simply "the synthesis" are more appropriate for current evolutionary ideas, even as there are many calls for wholesale revision of current theory among scientists in the field. Yet the term Darwinism persists primarily as a world view in which metaphysical presuppositions have been smuggled in and portrayed as if they were scientific facts.
McGrath observes that Darwin spoke into a uniquely English Protestant world in which miracles in Christianity were felt to have ceased and which encouraged the belief that there were no mysterious incalculable forces within the natural world causing an immense shrinkage in the scope of the sacred in reality. The natural theology expoused by this Protestantism found its zenith in William Paley's "Natural Theology" in 1804 in which Paley insisted the complexity of the natural order "proved" the existence of a creator of a universe in a special creation 6000 years ago. Also, Darwin spoke into an English world in which evolutionary ideas were already discussed and debated, but Darwin's work better explained the the fossil evidence, adaptions of living things to their environment and the role of chance in nature, as well as evidence known even then from geology suggesting an ancient age of the earth. Paley insisted that design could be deduced from complexity but his views were not consistent with changing English atttudes about the nature and interpretation of evidence. That is, facts must be have order and connection to be interpreted, to establish a theoretical sting on which the facts must be interpreted, to disclose a meaningful pattern that transcends the contribution of any individual pearl. Also had Darwin's contemporaries had greater familiarity with older Christian writers such as Aquinas, who saw the role of secondary causes and chance not excluded by divine providence as well as Augustine whose idea of "rationes seminale" or seminal reasons, similar to seeds unfolding gradually, Darwin's effect on the church would have been greatly diminished.
The author agrees with Huxley, the great defender of Darwinisn in the 19th century, that Darwinism (as scientific belief not a metaphysic) is neither atheistic nor theistic. He also agrees with Huxley that science at its best and most authentic, has no creed or ideology. In fact, Huxley states that science commits suicide when it adopts a creed: a statement those on all sides of this debate should heed. Our day sees false dichotomies: creation and evolution, chance and design, natural processes or divine intervention and "cranes or sky-hooks") : these choices are repeatedly endlessly in current debates on this subject with loss of clarity, insight and understanding.
The section on wider telelogy points to to evidence of design seen in the properties of individual elements, properties that cannot be visualized by viewing the elements themselves, such as water made from elements whose properties themselves could not predict the formation of H20 which is necessary for life. Many other constants set early in the universe have values necessary for the formation of life, such as cosmic antigravity set at a small value and the strong nuclear force which if different by a small amount would make atomic binding impossible. As the cosmologist Fred Hoyle observed, " A common sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a superintellect has monkeyed with physics, as well as chemistry and biology, and there are no blind forces worth talking about in nature"; and Hoyle was no theist. Many other such factors have been cited by other scientists. Such is a more secure foundation for a "wider teleology."
Yet although complexity can be observed, design cannot. Design may be inferred, yet nature is not observed to be designed. As Cardinal John Newman observed in 1870, " I believe in design because I believe in God; not in God because I see design." Thus nature regardless of its complexity ( and current understanding of DNA and cellular biology is extraordinarily complex) does not constitute a "proof" of God's existence. Rather, the vision of nature made possible by the Christian faith offers satisfactory intellectual resonance with what is actually observed. The effectiveness of an electric torch is not judged by looking at the bulb but by seeing what is illuminated more clearly. To state differently, the hypothesis that God designed the universe possesses an explanatory power superior to its atheistic alternatives.
The author gives a devastating critique of the God-meme proposed by Dawkins as part of universal Darwinism to explain the origins of belief in deity among humans. Dawkins' memes is shown to rest on an insecure foundation, largely rejected by all except new atheists, and in an event could certainly be used to explain atheism as well as belief in God.
This book is incredibly well researched and contains a myriad of quotes from a wide range of thinkers from the last 400 years on this important subject (e.g. Charles Kingsley 1872 : " We knew God was so wise that he could make all things; but God is so wise that He can make all things make themselves)." Each offers a different nuance and insight to stimulate thought, reflection and discussion. It is not too much to say that this text should be read and studied at every college and university in the USA; at minimum anyone seeking to teach the Christian faith should be familiar with its contents. Certainly the new atheists on the one hand and the intelligent design/new creationists on the other will object to many ideas presented here, although each group could gain new insights. For the rest of us, who vacillate between variable degrees of faith and doubt, this remarkable work will clarify a serious debate that has deep implications for western thought and culture for generations.
on April 17, 2013
Alister McGrath's "Darwinism and the Divine" does a great job a defining where Natural Theology developed in each of it's stages. The first stage being in the Augustan Age when it was first brought up by William Paley. The next by the response brought on by Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" and it's effect on people's thinking in relation to Christianity. And finally by where it is now and Science and Religion's relationship with each other.
In the first few chapters of the book, McGrath does a great job at describing how Natural Theology came about with William Paley's "Natural Theology"(1802) and how it started to shake things up in the Christian church far before Charles Darwin's "Origin of Species" (1859). These works helped to show the English people at the time the relation between God and nature in the world. How there is an "apparent design" with the way the world is working. These works started to catch the eye of many people, including Issac Newton who also showed how when one thing happened in physics, it would always happen this way every time due to the way the world and universe was designed. These thoughts really show how this whole movement really started and it's roots in Science and is a great groundwork to look back on to where we've gotten today.
Next we have the response to Darwin's work, and the thinking it caused on Christianity. Many found it to be a great explanation for what was happening in the world, and people started to renounce their Christian faith to go with a more evolutionist approach. Of course, some of the scholars found it to be a more clarifying piece for the Christian church by it showing how a "Grand designer" has made it possible for the world to adapt to it's surroundings as it sees fit.
And finally we have where Natural Theology is today. Most of it has come from the works of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennet with their "New Atheism" movement. But along with all of their Scientific data, how should the Church study it? Should they also be working with many scientific fields and trying to see if there truly is a "designer"?
This work helps provide clarity to those who are wanting to know more about where the theory of evolution started and how it progressed for either their spiritual or scholarly reasons.