Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nick Spencer's Darwin and God

Darwin and God
Nick Spencer
Reviewed by Ben Picozzi

Darwin and God is Nick Spencer’s attempt at explaining Darwin’s religious beliefs – a subject which is all the more relevant given the current revival of creationism in the ongoing debate between science and religion. Spencer portrays Darwin as a man of his times, who followed the existing religious orthodoxy to its logical conclusion and lost his faith as a result.

Spencer’s account seems superficially simplistic. After all, as Spencer reminds us, the established view of Darwin’s journey from Christianity through theism and deism and to agnosticism is largely accurate. Spencer does not seek to overturn this view. Instead, what he offers is a more nuanced picture. Darwin was a Christian but, Spencer reminds us, he was a ‘particular sort of Christian’ determined by his particular historical-cultural location. Similarly, the doubts which led him to theism and deism and finally agnosticism were informed by that particular location. If Spencer can be said to offer anything approaching a thesis, then it is his claim that Darwin’s Christianity based on observable evidence rather than personal experience predisposed him to doubt given what Spencer sees as the tenuous nature of this foundation. While Spencer’s explanation of the immediate causes of Darwin’s rejection, the problems of suffering and non-salvation of nonbelievers, is uncomplicated, he adds complexity by relating these immediate causes to Darwin’s Christianity. Darwin was deeply concerned with the possibility of theodicy, but these concerns with evidentiary justification were only possible because of the emphasis placed on such justification in the first place. Ironically, it was the Paleyian attempt to rationalize faith in terms of naturalistic argument, so inspiring to the youthful Darwin, which was the mediate cause of Darwin’s rejection of Christianity. This leads Spencer to his more contemporary discussion of science and religion. Floating in the background is the possibility that there are other justifications for religious belief, which do not rely on or compete with scientific standards of evaluation. Spencer is quick to note that Darwin was quick to dismiss personal experience as sufficient grounds for belief, however the modern reader does not need to make such a dismissal. However, Spencer does not devote many pages to this discussion.

Throughout the book, Spencer is careful not to rock the boat on either side. Debates between science and religion are often contentious. Spencer, the research director at a think-tank dedicated to public theology, clearly has a professional and presumably personal stake in the debate. However, he is careful to maintain a neutral – ie. secular – perspective throughout the text. He does, in a few places, perhaps assume unfairly that the reader has prior knowledge of Christian beliefs, however, given his audience, such assumptions may be reasonable. While such a neutral perspective may not make for the most interesting read, it certainly adds to the credibility of Spencer’s account. From a historical standpoint, there are some claims which Spencer leaves undersubstantiated. Spencer often reads connections between Darwin’s scientific beliefs and his personal beliefs. For example, he draws a parallel between his scientific theories of suffering and his personal experiences of suffering; yet, he provides no textual evidence supporting the interaction between these beliefs. However, in general, Spencer’s citations are remarkably thorough. Throughout the text, he draws on a wealth of primary source materials maintained online at the Darwin Project, ranging from Darwin’s scientific publications to his personal correspondences. The insights into Darwin’s life contained within these materials alone justify reading Spencer’s book.

Regardless of which side of the scientific or religious debate you happen to fall, Spencer's account is worth reading. It provides another lens for examining the life of one of the most influential figures in modern history and, perhaps more importantly, a lens which can be turned toward the present to examine our contemporary situation.

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