Rescue Darwin rows from extremes, says theology think tank

04 February 2009

by Pat Ashworth

Quest: portrait of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

Quest: portrait of Charles Darwin by Julia Margaret Cameron

ONLY 37 per cent of people in the UK believe that Darwin’s theory of evolution is “beyond reasonable doubt”, research by Theos, a public- theology think tank, suggests.

Of those questioned, 32 per cent think that Young Earth Creationism (YEC — “the belief that God created the world some time in the past 10,000 years”) is either “definitely or probably true”, and 51 per cent say the same of Intelligent Design (which Theos defines as “The idea that evo­lution alone is not enough to explain the complex structures of some living things, so the intervention of a designer is needed at key stages”). The report describes the term Intelligent Design (ID) as “slippery”.

The fact that these figures do not add up shows how confused and often contradictory the popu­lation is in its opinions, say the authors of the report Rescuing Dar­win, Nick Spencer, director of studies at Theos, and Denis Alexander, dir­ector of the Faraday Institute for Science and Religion. They describe it as “a sorry state of affairs”, in an age when the theory is now incontestable in scientific circles and when ad­vances in genetics have strengthened it.

The authors say that the reasons for this are complex, but seem to rest on the misconception that science and religion are somehow rival de­scriptions of the way the world works, or competing explanations for the mystery of life. They call atten­tion to Darwin’s self-proclaimed agnosti­cism, explicit rejection of the idea that evolution necessitated atheism, and respectful engagement with everyone in the debate — a spirit they describe as “sorely mis­sing” in current dis­cussions.

“Darwin’s position and his spirit of engagement need to be rescued from the crossfire of the battle between the militant godly and the militant god­less, who, though poles apart on so many issues, seem to agree that evo­lution threatens belief in God.”


The poll, which was conducted by ComRes in October and November, and questioned 2060 demograph­ically representative adults, was designed not to force respondents into pre-existing categories. Answers to a range of questions suggest that about one in ten are convinced YECs; about one in seven hold to some form of ID; and one in four are “con­fident evolu­tionists”. The remaining half favour evolution over other theories, but are “insufficiently con­fident of its merits”.

The results, the authors say, show that as many as one in three respond­ents are sufficiently uncertain about Darwinian evolution to cite some form of designer intervention as a way of “joining the dots”. About two-thirds of the sample could be described as “believing in evolution”. Thirty-seven per cent agree that “humans evolved by a process of evolution which removes any need for God”, and 28 per cent that “humans evolved by a process of evolution which can be seen as part of God’s plan.”

Creationism is largely a 20th-century phenomenon, the report says. It suggests that, just as earlier gen­era­tions often encountered evolu­tion not as science but as social the-ory, so today they meet it as phil­­­o­sophy, something “somehow able to solve the mystery of our existence”.

The authors conclude: “Recent decades have seen Darwinian evolu­tion dressed in a new outfit: a reduc­tionist policy that reduces morality to self-interest, agency to an illusion, hope to a fantasy, and humans to an irrelevance. . .

“The dubious philosophies that drive ID and YEC in turn provoke modern Darwinians to insist all the more loudly on evolution’s truth and its allegedly manifest implications for human nature, morality, religion, etc. And this, in turn, further alienates those who might otherwise be able to accept evolution.”

See features: The window that Darwin opened

See features: The window that Darwin opened

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