While leaders of the Church of England once quickly denounced Charles Darwin’s work, some leaders now want the church to issue an apology to Darwin.
As preparations are being made to celebrate in 2009 the 150th anniversary of the publication of The Origin of Species and the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, some Church of England leaders appear to be moderating the denomination’s historic opposition to Darwin and his ideas.
Dr. Malcolm Brown, director of mission and public affairs for the Church of England, recently argued that the Church of England should apologize for its initial reaction to Darwin, who was a nominal Anglican and doubted God’s existence. Other Christian leaders, however, have criticized Brown’s call and reiterated their opposition to evolution.
“The trouble with homo sapiens is that we’re only human,” wrote Brown. “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.”
Brown compared initial clergy reactions to Darwin to those who condemned Galileo’s work on astronomy. He argued that the bicentenary of Darwin’s birth provides “a good time” to “think again about Darwin’s impact on religious thinking.” Addressing Darwin, Brown wrote that “the Church of England owes you an apology for misunderstanding you and, by getting our first reaction wrong, encouraging others to misunderstand you still.”
Many Anglican leaders originally condemned Darwin’s conception of evolution, although some proponents of higher criticism praised his work. Samuel Wilberforce, the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, supposedly mocked scientist Thomas Huxley during an 1860 debate by asking if “it was through his grandfather or his grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey.”
In the United States, Christians also criticized Darwin’s ideas. The most publicized incident ”the so-called “Scopes Monkey Trial” ”actually occurred more than 40 years after Darwin’s death. Opponents of teaching evolution in school won the case against high school teacher John Scopes, although his conviction was overturned on a technicality. However, the critics of evolution lost the public relations conflict, particularly with their portrayal in the play and film Inherit the Wind.
In his recent essay, Brown contended that Anglican leaders who attacked Darwin were trying to protect their “worldly power.” He added that Christians today face similar threats but must learn to discern “where the surrounding culture is really a threat and where it is compatible with our understanding of God.” Brown concluded that Christians must learn to reconcile Darwin’s ideas with their Christian beliefs.
“For the sake of human integrity ”and thus for the sake of good Christian living ”some rapprochement between Darwin and Christian faith is essential,” wrote Brown. “Good religion needs to work constructively with good science ”and I dare to suggest that the opposite may be true as well.”
Despite Brown’s hope, Christians have continually struggled to “work constructively” with Darwin’s work. In the eight decades since the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” numerous clashes have erupted over the teaching of evolution or creationism in classrooms. Recent conflicts have included a back-and-forth struggle in the Kansas State Board of Education and the Dover, Penn., trial over the teaching of “intelligent design.” A study earlier this year indicated that evolution was being taught less in public schools across the nation.
A Southern Baptist leader quickly attacked Brown for suggesting that the Church of England should apologize to Darwin. Dr. R. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, reiterated evangelical opposition to Darwin’s ideas and declared evolution to be incompatible with the Bible.
“[Brown’s] kind of facile thinking is all too evident in today’s doctrinally disarmed church,” wrote Mohler. “Here a senior cleric attempts to do public relations by offering a posthumous apology to Charles Darwin, while dismissing any theological concern about his theory and instead insisting that nothing in Darwinism contradicts Christian teaching.”
Mohler instead argued that “the church needs to apologize for its rightful embarrassment in considering an apology to Darwin.” Mohler also suggested that Brown’s apology demonstrated why the Church of England had declined in membership.
In contrast, Brown called Darwin’s work “a model of good scientific method” and asserted that there is “nothing” in the scientific model “that contradicts Christian teaching.”
“Christian theologians throughout the centuries have sought knowledge of the world and knowledge of God,” added Brown. “There is no reason to doubt that Christ still draws people towards truth through the work of scientists as well as others, and many scientists are motivated in their work by a perception of the deep beauty of the created world.”
Brown added, however, that “it is not difficult to see why evolutionary thinking was offensive at the time” since “it challenged the view that God had created human beings as an entirely different kind of creation to the rest of the animal world.”
In recent years, some churches in America ”including Baptist ones ”have reached similar conclusions as Brown by celebrating “Evolution Sunday” to mark Darwin’s birth and reflect on his work. With the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth next year, such a day will likely only bring more division between Christians who mark Darwin’s birth and those who condemn his work.
Brian Kaylor is a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.
Brian Kaylor is editor and president of Word&Way, associate director of Churchnet, and a contributing editor for EthicsDaily.com.