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Can a Darwinian be a Christian?

by Michael Ruse
242 pages,
ISBN: 0521631440


Post Your Opinion
A Match Not Made in Heaven
by Richard B. Davis

Can a Darwinian be a Christian? "Absolutely," says Michael Ruse. Ruse is perhaps best known for his participation in the infamous Arkansas "Scopes II" trial in 1981, where he provided expert testimony on behalf of the ACLU in their attempt to strike down a law requiring balanced treatment of creation and evolution in public schools. (The ACLU won their case.) For many years professor of philosophy at Guelph University, Ruse now holds the Lucyle T. Werkmeist chair in philosophy at Florida State University. In this brisk and exciting book, he makes a valiant effort to create some conceptual elbow room in the respective contents of Darwinism and Christianity, in order to show that Christians and Darwinians have nothing to fear from each other.

The form of Christianity with which Ruse claims to be operating is fairly traditional. God is not only the creator of the heavens and the earth, but he also fashioned (in his own image) an original human pair¨Adam and Eve¨who were tempted and fall into sin, thereby bringing ruinous calamity (in the form of original sin) upon the rest of us. Through the sacrificial death of Jesus, however, there is the possibility of salvation. Pretty standard stuff. What is it to be a Darwinian? "At the most basic level obviously, one is going to accept evolution as fact" (p28). Ruse is well-known, however, for once having declared that "evolution is fact, FACT, FACT!" So I suspect that he really has something much stronger in mind here. This is borne out in the epilogue to the book, where in answer to the question, "Is the Christian obligated to be a Darwinian?" Ruse answers: "No, but ask yourself seriously (if you reject all forms of evolutionism) whether you are using your God-given talents in the full" (p217). The sly suggestion here is that if you are a nonbeliever in evolution, you might well be violating your epistemic duties, perhaps even displaying what Carnegie-Mellon professor Herbert Simon calls "bounded rationality."

The bulk of the book is taken up discussing the various points at which Darwinism and Christianity might be thought to conflict. For the most part, the discussion proceeds by way of Ruse's offering Darwinian explanations of the central tenets of Christian belief. Thus, for example, he offers his reader naturalistic explanations for the existence of the soul, miracles, irreducible complexity in nature, objective morality, and freedom of the will. I am sorry to report that I found most of these explanations singularly unconvincing. Let me give a few examples:

According to Ruse, Darwinian evolutionary theory is committed to the regularity of scientific laws, but the Christian story is chock full of miracles. Following the eighteenth century Scottish philosopher, David Hume, Ruse takes a miracle to be a violation of natural law. But now the question arises: how can the Christian believe, on the one hand, that miracles have occurred and yet, on the other, that the laws of nature cannot be broken? Well, for one thing, says Ruse, most of the gospel miracles weren't miracles at all: the "miracle" at Cana, the feeding of the five thousand, and the raising of Lazarus "can be explained as the enthusiasm of the moment" (p96). The miracle of the loaves and fish being multiplied, for instance, consists in the fact that the people who heard Jesus were so overwhelmed by his teaching and personal presence that "they shared their food" (p96). That's all there is to it. And what of the preeminent miracle of the Christian faith: God's raising Jesus from the dead? How is that to be explained? Easily enough, says Ruse. For "one can think Jesus in a trance, or more likely that he really was physically dead but that on and from the third day a group of people, hitherto downcast, were filled with great joy and hope" (p96). In other words, Christianity's miracles are compatible with Darwinian belief, since they never happened in the first place! Furthermore, if one digs in her heels, steadfastly insisting on the reality of law-breaking miracles, there still shouldn't be any insuperable obstacle to belief in Darwinian science. For conservative Christians routinely believe in the face of difficulties; after all, Ruse remarks, they believe in the miracle reports in the gospels, and those texts are "dubious as a matter of pure reason" (p97). The upshot is that a Darwinian can believe in Christian miracles provided that they are evacuated of all supernatural content or she chooses to violate one or more of her intellectual duties.

Here is another example: On all accounts, Christianity is committed to the existence of objective, absolute moral values. As Ruse rightly notes, "For the Christian moralist, relativism is anathema" (p204). Thus, the recent terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York were deeply morally wrong. But the wrongness of these acts did not consist in the fact that they failed to confer reproductive advantage on individual members of the species homo sapiens. According to Ruse, however, the Darwinian naturalist believes that our aversion to the attacks must be explained as the product of socio-biological evolution. Indeed, in his book The Darwinian Paradigm, he describes human morality as a biological adaptation, a mere aid to survival and reproduction. Considered as a set of objectively true claims, we are told, ethics is illusory. The best Ruse can do to show that a Christian could embrace this account of morality is to say that since morality is biologically based, it will be constant and unvarying within a given species. But of course this doesn't give us anything like an absolute standard for morality. For as Ruse himself admits, "we do now seem to be faced with an intergalactic relativism" (p204). He tries to defuse this relativistic bomb by saying that intelligent extraterrestrials would probably have evolved in much the same way that we ourselves have, so that their morality would likely coincide with our own. But this is by no means certain. To see this, all one has to do is imagine a race of intelligent, disembodied beings¨say, the members of the "Q Continuum" on Star Trek: The Next Generation. Why think that their moral code would approximate our own? In cases such as these, the morality inculcating properties of biological evolution seem completely irrelevant.

This raises the interesting question of how Darwinism proposes to account for Christian belief in immaterial substances such as God, angels, or the human soul. Ruse doesn't have a Darwinian story to tell about the evolution of God or angelic beings, but he does have something to say about human souls. Consciousness, he thinks, is real though probably inexplicable in Darwinian terms. Like many naturalists, he is unwilling to attribute this phenomena to a separate mental substance (e.g., a soul), but neither is he willing to reduce it to a state of the human brain. Yet, he maintains, the soul "has to be or needs to be 'embodied' in some way" (p81). This suggests that Ruse is thinking of the mind as some sort of mental by-product dependent on certain events in the human brain. But such a view of mind and body creates all sorts of problems for the traditional Christian. For it implies that at biological death, all of one's mental properties cease to exist, making conscious life after death¨an essential element of Christian belief¨impossible. Here I suppose the Darwinian Christian could reply by saying that, after death, God might choose to recreate one's brain (and perhaps body too), as in the Christian concept of resurrection. However, without a separate, immaterial soul to bridge the gap between death and the afterlife, it is by no means clear that this reassembled brain would produce conscious states which, taken together, would still count as the same me.

Obviously, there is much in Ruse's book with which I disagree. In the end, what he ends up proving is only that a Darwinian can be a Christian if she doesn't mind the inconsistencies. I very much doubt, therefore, that his book will persuade those in either camp. Still, the book is wonderfully written and, at times, hard to put down. It is a provocative and indispensable read for both Darwinists and Christians. ˛

Richard B. Davis teaches at Glendon College.

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