Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Darwin's Vicar

As we enter the Easter season, we should notice the continuing debate over the relationship between Darwinian science and Biblical religion. For example, last November, Time magazine published a debate between Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins, with Dawkins claiming that Darwinism refutes religious belief and Collins claiming that Darwinism and religion are compatible.

The fundamental difficulty manifest in this debate is one that I have taken up in my books and this blog. It's the problem of ultimate explanation. In the search for ultimate causes, we must appeal to some final ground of explanation that cannot itself be explained. Either we look to Nature as the final ground. Or we look to God as the supernatural ground of Nature. I cannot see any way around this problem, which shows the limits of human reason.

As I have argued on this blog, Darwin himself saw no necessary conflict between evolutionary science and Biblical religion. He appealed to the traditional conception of "two books": God speaks both through the Book of Nature as studied by human reason and the Book of Scripture as revealed to the faithful.

In his personal religious views, Darwin moved from being an orthodox Christian in the earlier parts of his life to being a skeptic or agnostic at the end of his life. Unlike Dawkins, Darwin never attacked religion or denied that there were fundamental mysteries that left an opening for religious belief.

Darwin's stance on the relationship between science and religion is illustrated in his personal life by his friendship with the Reverend J. Brodie Innes. When Darwin moved to the village of Downe in 1842, Innes was curate of the adjoining parish of Farnborough, and Innes became the vicar of Downe in 1846. Innes moved to Scotland in 1862. For over 30 years, they were close friends.

The correspondence between Darwin and Innes was published in the Annals of Science (December, 1961), as edited by Robert Stecher. This correspondence shows a remarkable friendship between two men who respected one another despite their disagreeing about almost everything. Innes was a Tory. Darwin was a Whig who supported the Liberal Party. Innes was a devout theologian of the Church of England. Darwin was not a church-goer, although he supported the Church in its parish activities. Innes read Darwin's books with great interest, and he shared Darwin's interest in natural history, but Innes was never persuaded by Darwin's evolutionary theory.

When religious leaders attacked Darwin, Innes defended him by saying, "I never saw a word of his writings which was an attack on religion. He followed his own course as a naturalist, and he leaves Moses to take care of himself." Like Darwin, Innes used the "two books" idea to separate the Book of Revelation from the Book of Nature, so that nature could be studied scientifically without necessarily denying the claims of revelation.

One particularly interesting disagreement between them was on slavery. After Innes had read the Descent of Man, he wrote to Darwin: "I have today finished reading your charming book, . . . full of the most interesting facts of natural history. I am not a convert to the theory you found on them. I hold to the old belief that a man was made a man though developed into niggers who must be made to work and better men able to make them, if those radicals did not interfere with the salutary chastisement needful, neglecting the lesson taught by the black ants slaves to the white." Darwin wrote back: "my views do not lead me to such conclusions about negroes & slavery as yours do; I consider myself a good way ahead of you, as far as this goes."

This exchange shows that Innes recognized that attacking slavery and refuting racist science was one of the main purposes of Darwin's writing in the Descent. It also shows the possible conflict between Biblical morality and Darwin's natural moral sense. As I have indicated in some of my posts, the Bible seems to endorse slavery, and that's why many of the proslavery thinkers could defend slavery as biblically grounded. But Darwin regarded slavery as contrary to natural moral principles of justice as reciprocity (see my chapter on slavery in Darwinian Natural Right).

While some Biblical believers claim that morality without Biblcial religion is impossible, this dispute over slavery shows that sometimes we must appeal to our natural moral sense to correct the teachings of the Bible.


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Dear Dr. Arnhart,

I've read a few of your posts here, but not your books yet, but I am seeking to understand your view better. I'm growing more and more curious, and wonder if you would indulge a question or two until I can get to your writings in more detail: To what degree does your theory of morality rely on supernatural guidance of the evolutionary process? Would you say that divine superintending is necessary to your view being workable? Or would you argue that atheists/naturalists can also adopt your suggestions without anything lost in the process?

Thanks very much,