Posts Tagged ‘Samuel Wilberforce’

Scientists Demand Outlawing Teaching of Creationism in Wales

September 6, 2019

Here’s a different issue to Brexit and the Tories, but one which, I think, also raises profound questions and dangers. According to today’s I for 6th September 2019, David Attenborough has joined a number of other scientists backing a campaign to ban the teaching of Creationism as science in Welsh schools. The campaign was started by Humanists UK. The article, titled ‘Attenborough calls for creationism teaching ban’, by Will Hazell, on page 22, runs

Sir David Attenborough is backing a campaign urging the Welsh Government to outlaw the teaching of creationism as science from its new curriculum.

The broadcaster is one of dozens of leading scientists to sign a letter calling for evolution to be taught at primary level as well as an explicit ban on teaching creationism as science.

Humanists UK, which organised the letter, claims the draft national curriculum does not teach evolution until ages 14 to 15.

The letter reads: “Pupils should be introduced to [evolution] early – certainly at primary level – as it underpins so much else.

“Without an explicit ban on teaching creationism and other pseudoscientific theories as evidence-based, such teaching may begin to creep into the school curriculum.”

In 2015, the Scottish Government made clear that creationism should not be taught in state schools, while in England, state schools – including primaries – have to teach evolution as a “comprehensive, coherent and extensively evidence-based theory”.

The new Welsh curriculum, due to be rolled out in 2022, set out six “areas of learning and experience”, including science and technology.

A spokeswoman for Wales Humanists said it “could allow schools much more flexibility over what they teach”. “This is very worrying, as it could make it much easier for a school to openly teach creationism as science,” she added.

But a spokesman for the Welsh Government denied the claims, saying: “It is wholly incorrect to claim that evolution will only be introduced at 14 to 16.

“We believe that providing children with an understanding of evolution at an early age will help lay foundations for a better understanding of wider scientific concepts later on.”

Both Mike and I went to an Anglican comprehensive school, which certainly did teach evolution before 14 or 15 years of age. In the first year I can remember learning about the geological history of the Earth and the formation of the continents. We were also taught evolution, as illustrated by the development of the modern horse from ancestral species such as Eohippus.

Theories of Evolution before Darwin

I am also very much aware that the history of religious attitudes towards evolution is much more complex than the accepted view that Christians and other people of faith are uniformly opposed to it. One of the first books promoting the evolution of organisms from simpler ancestral forms was written by Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin’s grandfather. Erasmus Darwin was part of the late 18th century scientific group, the Lunar Society, who were the subject of book, The Lunar Men, published a few years ago by the British writer and academic, Jenny Uglow. I think Erasmus was a Quaker, rather than a member of a more mainstream Christian denomination, but he was a religious believer. In his book he argued that the evolution of different organisms made the existence of a Creator ‘mathematically certain’. Erasmus Darwin was followed in turn by the great French scientist, Lamarck, who published his own theory of evolution. This was highly influential, and when Darwin was a student in Scotland, one of the lecturers used to take him and the other students to a beach to show them the shells and other fossils showing the evolution of life. And one of the reasons why Darwin himself put off publishing his magnum opus, The Origin of Species for so long was because of the reception of another, preceding book on evolution, Joseph Chambers’ Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation. Chambers’ book had caused a sensation, but its arguments had been attacked and refuted on scientific grounds. Darwin was afraid this would happen to his own work unless he made the argument as secure as possible with supporting facts. And he himself admitted when it finally was published that even then, the evidence for it was insufficient.

The Other Reasons for Darwin’s Loss of Faith

Darwin certainly lost his faith and it’s a complete myth that he recanted on his deathbed. But I think the reasons for his loss of faith were far more complex than that they were undermined by his own theory, although that may very well have also played a part. Rather, he was disturbed by the suffering in nature. How could a good God allow animals to become sick, prey on each other, and die? I might also be wrong here, but I think one of his daughters died, and that also contributed to his growing atheism. As you can understand.

Christian Acceptance and Formulation of Theories of Evolution

At the same time, although Darwin’s theory did cause shock and outrage, some Christians were prepared to accept it. Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, when he debated T.H. Huxley on Darwin’s theory, opened the debate by stating that no matter how uncomfortable it was, Christians should nevertheless accept the theory if it were true. And after about two decades, the majority of Christians in Britain had largely accepted it. One of the reasons they did so was theological. Some of the other theories of evolution proposed at the same time suggested that evolution was driven by vital, supernatural energies without the direction of a creator. The mechanistic nature of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection rebutted the existence of these non-materialistic forces, so that Christians could still believe that God was in charge of the overall process.

In the 1840s in Britain, Samuel Baden-Powell, a professor of Mathematics at Oxford, proposed a view of evolution that attempted to prove that it was driven by the Almighty, by comparing it to the manufacturing process in factories. In 1844 the Polish writer, Juliusz Towianski, published his Genezis z ducha – ‘Creation through the Spirit), an explicitly religious theory of evolution. He believed that God had created the world at the request of disembodied spirits. However, these were given imperfect forms, and since that time have been striving to ascend the evolutionary ladder back to God through a process of transformation and catastrophe. By the 1900s in many Christians eye evolution had become an accepted theory which posed no obstacle to religious faith. The term ‘fundamentalism’ is derived from a series of tracts, Fundamentals of Christianity, published in America in the early 20th century. This was published as a response to the growth in religious scepticism. However, it fully accepts evolution.

Scientists Against Evolution

The Intelligent Design crowd have also pointed out that rather than being the sole province of churchmen and people of faith, many of Darwin’s critics were scientists, like Mivart. They objected to his theory purely on scientific grounds.

Creationism, Christianity and Islam

If the history of the reaction to Darwin’s theory is rather different than the simplistic view that it was all just ignorant religious people versus rational scientists, I also believe the situation today is also much more complex. A decade ago, around 2009 when Britain celebrate the 150th anniversary of the publication of the Origin of the Species, there was a determined attack on Creationism, particularly by the militant New Atheists. Some of this was driven by anxiety over the growth of Creationism and the spread of Intelligent Design. This was framed very much as combating it within Christianity. The problem with that is that I understand that most Creationists in Britain are Muslims, rather than Christians. There was an incident reported in the press in which one Oxford biologist was astonished when a group of Muslims walked out of his lecture. This was Steve Jones, who presented the excellent Beeb science series about genetics and heredity, In the Blood back in the 1990s. One male student told him frankly that this conflicted with their religion, and walked out of the lecture hall, leaving Jones nonplussed. The far right Christian Libertarian, Theodore Beale, alias Vox Day, who really has some vile views about race and gender, caustically remarked on his blog that this showed the powerlessness of the scientific establishment to opposition from Islam. They were so used to Christians giving into them, that they didn’t know what to do when Muslims refused to cave. That said, I would not like to say that all Muslims were Creationists by any means. Akhtar, who led the demonstrations against the Satanic Verses in Bradford in the late ’80s and early ’90s, angrily declared in one of his books that Salafism – Islamic fundamentalism – did not mean rejecting evolution, and he could point to Muslims who believed in it.

Scepticism Towards Evolution Not Confined to the Religious

Another problem with the assumption that Creationism is leading to increasing scepticism towards evolution is that the statistics seem to show the opposite. Back around 2009 there was a report claiming that 7 out of 10 Brits didn’t believe in evolution. One evolutionary biologist was quoted as saying that this was due to the marginalisation of the teaching of evolution in British schools, and demanded that there should be more of it. Now it might be right that people don’t believe in evolution because of its teaching or lack therefore in British education. But this was the same time that the New Atheism was on the march, led by Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. This was supported by statistics showing that Christianity and church attendance was well in decline in this country. According to the stats, although many people identified as Christians and about 70 per cent at the time declared they believed in God, the actual number who go to church is far smaller. Only a few years ago further polls revealed that for the first, atheists were in the majority in this country. The growth of disbelief in evolution can’t simply be explained as the product of Creationism, whether Christian, Muslim or whatever.

Atheists and the Problem of Persuading Creationists to Accept Evolution

There’s also the problem here in that, however, well meant Humanists UK’s campaign may actually be, at one level they and Richard Attenborough are the last people, who should be leading it. They’re atheists. A few years ago Attenborough was the subject of an interview in the Radio Times, in which he photographed chatting with Dawkins. He was also quoted as saying that he had stopped believing in God when he was child, and at school he used to wonder during services how anybody could believe in such rubbish. He’s not the first or last schoolkid to have felt that. But it does mean that he has a very weak personal position when dealing with Creationists. Many Creationists object to the teaching of evolution because not just because they think it’s unscientific, but because they also believe that its a vehicle for a vehemently hostile, anti-Christian or simply irreligious and atheist political and intellectual establishment to foist their views on everyone else. A campaign insisting on the teaching of evolution by an atheist organisation like Humanists UK will only confirm this in their eyes.

Anti-Creationist Campaigns also Attacking Reasoned Critique of Materialist Views of Evolution

Another problem with the campaign against Creationism is that is leading scientists to attack any critique of the contemporary neo-Darwinian theory or materialist views of evolutionary. Gordon Rattray Taylor, a former Chief Science Advisor to the Beeb and editor of the Horizon science series, himself published a detailed critique of conventional evolutionary theory, The Great Evolution Mystery, shortly before his death in 1981. He states in it that he doesn’t want to denigrate Darwin, but he concludes that it is not so much a theory, as a subset of greater theory that has yet to be formulated. He also quotes another evolutionary biologist, von Bertalanffy, who said

‘I think the fact that a theory so vague, so insufficiently verifiable … has become a dogma can only be explained on sociological grounds’.

Rattray Taylor himself concludes

Actually, the origin of the phyla is not be any means the weakest point in the Darwinian position. Many facts remain inexplicable, as we have seen. Modern biology is challenged by ‘a whole group of problems’ as Riedl remarks. Now, however, the attempt to present Darwinism as an established dogma, immune from criticism, is disintegrating. At last the intellectual log-jam is breaking up. So we may be on the verge of major advances. The years ahead could be exciting. Many of these advances, I confidently predict, will be concerned with form.

It is unfortunate that the Creationists are exploiting this new atmosphere by pressing their position; this naturally drives the biologists into defensive attitudes and discourages them from making any admissions.

Evolutionists have been blinkered by a too narrowly materialist and reductionist approach to their problems. But the trend of the times is away from Victorian certainties and Edwardian rigidities. In the world as a whole, there is growing recognition that life is more complex, even more mysterious, than we supposed. The probability that some things will never be understood no longer seems so frightening as it did. The probability that there are forces at work in the universes of which we have scarcely yet an inkling is not too bizarre to entertain. This is a step towards the freeing of the human mind which is pregnant with promise.


This is an effective rebuttal to the charge that challenges to materialist conceptions of evolution are a science-stopper, or that they will close minds. Rattray Taylor’s book was published in 1983, 36 years ago. I have no doubt that it’s dated, and that scientific advances have explained some of the mysteries he describes in the book. But I believe he still has a point. And I am afraid that however genuinely Humanists UK, Attenborough and the scientists, who put their name to the letter, are about making sure Welsh schoolchildren are scientifically literate, that their efforts are also part of a wider campaign to make sure materialist views of evolution are not challenged elsewhere in society and academia.


Radio 4 Series Challenging Stereotype that Religion and Science Are at War

June 12, 2019

According to next week’s Radio Times there’s a new, three-part series beginning on Radio 4 next Friday, 21st June, at 11.00 am, Science and Religion about the relationship between the two disciplines. From the pieces about in the magazine, it attacks the idea that science and religion are at war. The blurb for the programme’s first part, ‘The Nature of the Beast’, on page 131, says

Nick Spencer examines the history of science and religion and the extent to which they have been in conflict with each other. Drawing on the expertise of various academics, he begins by exploring what the relationship says about what it means to be human.

The paragraph about the programme on the preceding page, 130, by Sue Robinson, runs

Are science and religion at war? In the first in a three-part series, Nick Spencer (of Goldsmith’s, London, and Christian think-tank Theos) takes a look back wt what he terms the “simplistic warfare narrative” of these supposedly feuding disciplines. From the libraries of the Islamic world to the work of 13th-century bishop Robert Grosseteste in maths and natural sciences, Spencer draws on the expertise of a variety of academics to argue that there has long been an interdependence between the two. I felt one or two moments of consternation (“there are probably more flat-earthers [believing the earth to be flat] around today than there were back then…”) and with so many characters in the unfolding 1,000-year narrative, some may wish for a biographical dictionary at their elbow… I certainly did. Yet somehow Spencer produces an interesting and informative treatise from all the detail. 

We’ve waited a long time for a series like this. I set up this blog partly to argue against the claim made by extremely intolerant atheists like Richard Dawkins that science and religion are and always have been at war. In fact no serious historian of science believes this. It’s a stereotype that comes from three 19th century writers, one of whom was reacting against the religious ethos of Harvard at the time. And some of the incidents that have been used to argue that science was suppressed by the religious authorities were simply invented. Like the story that Christopher Columbus was threatened by the Inquisition for believing that the world war round. Er no, he wasn’t. That was all made up by 19th century author Washington Irvine. European Christians had known and accepted that the world was round by the 9th century. It’s what the orb represents in the Crown Jewels. The story that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce, in his debate on evolution with Charles Darwin, asked the great biologist whether he was descended from an ape on his mother’s or father’s side of the family is also an invention. It was written years after the debate by Darwin’s Bulldog, T.H. Huxley. A few years ago historians looked at the accounts of the debate written at the time by the students and other men of science who were there. They don’t mention any such incident. What they do mention is Wilberforce opening the debate by saying that such questions like evolution needed to be carefully examined, and that if they are true, they have to be accepted, no matter how objectionable they may be. Wilberforce himself was an extremely proficient amateur scientist himself as well as a member of the clergy. Yes, there was opposition from many Christians to Darwin’s idea, but after about 20 years or so most of the mainstream denominations fully accepted evolution. The term ‘fundamentalism’ comes from a book defending and promoting Christianity published as The Fundamentals of Christianity published in the first years of the 20th century. The book includes evolution, which it accepts.

Back to the Middle Ages, the idea that this was a period when the church suppressed scientific investigation, which only revived with the Humanists of the Renaissance, has now been utterly discredited. Instead it was a period of invention and scientific discovery. Robert Grosseteste, the 13th century bishop of Lincoln, wrote papers arguing that the Moon was responsible for the tides and that the rainbow was produced through light from the sun being split into various colours by water droplets in the atmosphere. He also wrote an account of the six days of creation, the Hexaemeron, which in many ways anticipates the ‘Big Bang’ theory. He believed that the universe was created with a burst of light, which in turn created ‘extension’ – the dimensions of the cosmos, length, width and breadth, and that this light was then formed into the material and immaterial universe. Medieval theologians were also often highly critical of stories of demons and ghosts. The 12th century French bishop, William of Auxerre, believed that nightmares were caused, not by demons, but by indigestion. If you had too big a meal before falling asleep, the weight of the food in the stomach pressed down on the nerves, preventing the proper flow of vital fluids.

The Christian scholars of this period drew extensively on the writings of Muslim philosophers, scientists and mathematicians, who had inherited more of the intellectual legacy of ancient Greece and Rome, along with that of the other civilisations they had conquered, like Persia and India. Scholars like al-Haytham explored optics while the Bani Musa brothers created fascinating machines. And Omar Khayyam, the Sufi mystic and author of the Rubaiyyat, one of the classics of world literature, was himself a brilliant mathematician. Indeed, many scientific and mathematical terms are taken from Arabic. Like alcohol, and algorithm, which comes from the Muslim scholar al-Khwarismi, as well as algebra.

There have been periods of tension between religion and particular scientific doctrines, like the adoption of the Copernican system and Darwin’s theory of evolution by Natural Selection, but the relationship between science and religion is rich, complex and has never been as simple as all out war. This should be a fascinating series and is a very necessary corrective to the simplistic stereotype we’ve all grown up with.

The Descent of Man and the Ascent of Faith: Darwinism as Aid to 19th century Apologetics

May 28, 2013

One of the great myths of the history of science is that Darwin’s theory of Evolution by Natural Selection was strongly opposed by the Christian church. There was indeed much opposition, but what is often neglected is that much of this was on scientific, rather than theological grounds. There were also a number of theologians who positively welcomed Darwinian evolution as an aid to faith.

Darwin’s Theory Not Proven Scientifically at Time of Proposal; Support of Theory by Some Clergy

At the time Darwin’s theory was still highly speculative, a fact that Darwin himself acknowledged. He was confident, however, that further facts and fossil evidence would be found to support his theory. Alister McGrath, the theologian and microbiologist, notes in his book, The Twilight of Atheism, that Bishop Samuel Wilberforce opened his legendary debate with Huxley with the statement that if Darwin’s theory of evolution were true, Christians would have to accept it, no matter how uncomfortable they found it. Furthermmore, while Huxley 31 years later remembered the debate as a great triumph, others were certainly not so sure. Sir Joseph Hooker believed that Huxley had turned the tables on the Bishop. He had failed, however, to deal with the weak points in Wilberforce’s arguments and had not convinced the rest of the people there. Indeed, Wilberforce actually convinced some of the scientists that evolution was actually wrong. One of these was Henry Baker Tristram, who was an early convert to Darwin’s theory. He had applied Darwin’s theory to the development of larks and chats in the Sahara desert. Witnessing the debate, he came to reject the theory. In 1867 the Guardian newspaper attacked the view, first proposed by F.W. Farrar, that the clergy as a whole were enemies of science. Its review of Darwin’s Descent of Man was critical. The reviewer nevertheless stated that viewed man as part of the evolutionary process, and considered that evolution would soon be as uncritically accepted as gravity. It stated that there was no ‘reason why a man may not be an evolutionist and yet a Christian. That is all that we desire to establish’. It then went on to state that ‘Evolution is not yet proved, and never may be. But … there is no occasion for being frightened out of our wits for fear it should be.’In 1874 T.G. Bonney’s book, A Manual of Geology, which argued for the vast age of the Earth, was published by the religious publishing house, the S.P.C.K. ON Darwin’s death in 1882, Huxley considered requesting that he be buried in Westminster Abbey. To his surprise, not only was his request not refused, but Canon F.W. Farrar declared to him that ‘we clergy are not all as bigoted as you suppose’ and asked him to make a formal application. Despite some opposition, Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey with full Christian rites. The following Sunday he was the subject of an appreciative sermon by Harvey Goodwin, the bishop of Carlisle. A memorial fund was set up for him that included not only the scientists Galton, Hooker, Romanes, Tyndall ahnd Herbert Spencer, but also the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and the Bishop of London. Near the end of the century Asa Grey told the Bishop of Rochester that looking back on the controversy, ‘he could not say that there had been any undue or improper delay on the part of the Christian mind and conscience in accepting, in such sense as he deemed they ought to be accepted, Mr. Darwin’s doctrine’s’. This contrasts strongly with the attitude of some Anglican clergy a few years ago, who issued an apology for the Anglican Church’s ‘misunderstanding’ of Darwin’s theory. Clearly, many of those at the time did not believe it had been misunderstood, or that the opposition had been excessive.

Use of Darwin in Christian Apologetics: Drummond

Some churchmen even viewed Darwin’s theory as an aid to Christian evangelism and apologetics. One of these was Henry Drummond, a minister of the Free Church of Scotland and professor of Natural Science at the Church’s College in Glasgow. In 1871 he hailed Natural Selection as ‘a real and beautiful acquisition to natural theology’, and declared that the Origin of Species was ‘perhaps the most important contribution to the literature of apologetics’ to appear in the 19th century. Taking the laws of nature as his inspiration and model, in 1883 he published Natural Law in the Spiritual World. Drummond used examples from the natural world to illustrate the same processes that he believed were present in the world of the spirit. This confusion between natural and spiritual was condemned by his those readers with philosophical inclinations. Nevertheless, it was also highly successful. This success was partly due to the use of illustrations from Darwin and Spencer, and scientific terminology and concepts such as biogenesis. In the view of Drummond’s biographer, G.A. Smith, his readers were not so much concerned whether he made a convincing case, but simply by the fact that he expressed and reinforced their deep religious convictions using the then dominant intellectual methods.

Darwin’s Theory and God’s Immanence in Creative Process

And Drummon was not the only clergyman who believed that Darwin actually aided faith. Some Christians, such as Charles Kingley, believed that the model of a mechanistic universe in which God only occasionally acted to introduce novelty served to separate the Almight from His creation. It stressed God’s transcendance at the expense of His immanence. For Kingsley and other like him, the doctrine of God’s Fatherhood and His Incarnation also meant that God was actively and creatively involved within His creation as well. In his contribution to the volume of theological essay, Lux Mundi, in 1881, the British theologian Aubrey Moore, used Darwin’s theory to attack the Deist notion of a God, who was not involved with His creation:

‘The one absolutely impossible conception of God, in the present day, is that which represents Him as an occasional visitor. Science has pushed the Deist’s God further and further away, and ata the moment when it seemed as if He would be thrust out altogether, Darwinism appeared, and, under the disguise of a foe, did the work of a friend.’
For Moore, there was a simple choice. Either God was present everywhere, or he was nowhere.

Carpenter: Theistic Evolution without Natural Selection

Some of the believers in theistic evolution held something very similar to modern Intelligent Design. Asa Grey himself suggested to Darwin that, as no-one knew the true source of variation, it was wise to believe that the Lord was involved. William Carpenter, a British physiologist, believed he had found proof of this view in his study of the marine shellfish Foraminifera. In his hypothetical family tree, Carpenter demonstrated how a simple spiral shell had become circular through a regular progression. This had occurred following a definite evolutionary course in which each stage was in preparation for the next. He also pointed to the fact that all the members of the series still existed to demonstrate that their evolution could not be explained by Natural Selection. If the various members of the Foraminifera family still existed, then clearly they could not have been produced through a struggle for fitness, as this would have resulted in at least some of the species becoming extinct.

Emergence of Man too Accidental for Random Chance
James McCosh, a professor at Princeton University, wrote extensively attempting to reconcile evolution with Christian belief. One of his arguments that evolution actually pointed to a belief in the Lord came from the evolution of humanity itself. If humanity’s evolution was entirely due to chance, then our existence was an even more remarkable accident than even the atheists believed. On the other hand, it could also show that all these evolutionary accidents through which humanity was formed were hardly accidental. Indeed, humanity had evolved through ‘adjustment upon adjustment of all the elements and the all the powers of nature towards the accomplishment of an evidently contemplated end.’

Wallace: Evolution Argues against Intelligent Life in the Universe

Alfred Russell Wallace was also deeply impressed with the apparently chance emergence of humanity. In his 1903 book, Man’s Place in the Universe, he used it to attack those physicists and scientists searching for earth-like planets on which intelligent life may have evolved. In a similar argument to Stephen Jay Gould’s on the uhniqueness of terrestrial evolutionary history, Wallace suggested that no matter how similar the environment on another planet may be to the Earth’s, it’s own evolutionary history would be very different. Minor differences in the evolutionary history of that planet’s creatures would mean that they would definitely not be like those on Earth, making intelligent life extremely unlikely.

C.S. Peirce: Evolution Proves Existence of Personal God

For the American philosopher of science, C.S. Peirce, the element of chance in natural selection also pointed to the involvement of a personal God. The manufacture of pre-determined features was a purely mechanical process, which excluded development or growth. If the universe was not the result of pre-determined sequence of events, but he creation of a living personality, then it should show spontaneity, diversification and the potential for growth.

Temple: Evolution Proves God the Only Lord

Frederick Temple also argued that Darwinian evolution also demonstrated the existence of a single, creator God. Temple believed that the doctrine of separate creation was vulnerable to HUme’s argument that the universe’s design showed that it could also have been created by a number of separate deities. If Darwinian evolution was interpreted as a single process in which potential was realised in higher organic forms, it pointed to a single Designer.

Thus not only was the reception of Darwin’s theory of evolution more balanced than simple outright opposition, the theory was also used by some clergy to argue for and strengthen their faith. In his book, Darwinism and the Divine, Alister McGrath demonstrates that, in contrast to the received view that Darwinism ended natural theology, such speculation continued after the theory’s adoption. The theological arguments had been changed under the theory’s impact, as Huxley himself recognised and argued, but nevertheless, they continued.