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by David Taylor (NW region conferences)
from Signs of the Times, No. 35 - Oct 2009
The day was conducted by Dr Stephen Lewis, of the Department of Biology, University of Chester, whose aim was not to build up our faith in the world that Darwin had revealed to us, but rather to estimate to what extent a religious faith could survive and flourish in the changed world that he had bequeathed to us. There were five sessions, each initiated with a talk followed by discussion:
We were reminded that in the two centuries since his birth, and one and half since publication of The Origin of the Species, Darwin had changed our view not just of biology but of the whole nature of the planet and of the reality in which we find ourselves, including that of the Bible and religion. In the modern world most scientists professing religious faith are either physicists or astronomers, but what they write tends to be disappointing, concentrating on the unanswerable question whether God exists. Another disappointing feature is that the scientific world generally assumes that fundamentalism is the real Christianity, because it is the only voice they ever hear.
We heard that Darwin had changed, along with everything else, our view of the Bible, for instance on the 'divine command' to Israel to exterminate its predecessors in the land of Canaan. Morally the idea is repugnant (and ought to be), but genetically it makes sense; but it is because it is morally repugnant that the Bible does - or should - serve as a 'Word of Warning' just as much as the 'Word of God'.
Evolution was not a new idea, but the method of it - natural selection - was (and Darwin avoided discussing human evolution). We have not always been human, and there is continuity between animal and human behaviour. The question of progress is unresolved. What qualities make us human? Biology can't tell us. Is it a matter of developing intellect or technology; and is there a point to which we are heading?
Does the incisiveness of science damage the softness of religion? Could there have been a different development in which they would not have been in conflict? Science is value free, religion inherently ethical. Science honours achievement but does not accept authority, whereas authority is crucial to most religions. Science is built on observation, so that all knowledge is provisional - a challenge to those religious people who ignore observation, and demand certainty.
We are the only animals aware of our finite existence, an awareness that grows gradually. There is still no evidence of other beings like us anywhere else in the universe, though we have only been asking the question (and making the search) for a comparatively few decades. Our knowledge of ourselves, unlike our knowledge of the world, is not provisional. Prayer is perhaps a means of assuring us we are not alone in an empty universe.
David Taylor worked in publishing and is now retired and living in North Wales.