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Review: God and Evolution: A Reader

Reports of the National Center for Science Education
Volume: 
27
Year: 
2007
Issue: 
5–6
Date: 
September–December
Page(s): 
53–54
Reviewer: 
James F McGrath
This version might differ slightly from the print publication.
Work under Review
Title: 
God and Evolution: A Reader
Author(s): 
Mary Kathleen Cunningham
New York: Routledge, 2007. 385 pages.
Mary Kathleen Cunningham's reader God and Evolution provides an up-to-date collection of key excerpts from the most important representatives of various positions and viewpoints on this subject. Each section begins with an introduction that helps guide the reader to important similarities and differences between the selections, filling in useful background knowledge that makes the readings themselves more accessible.

The first part, on methodology, is focused primarily on method in theology, with a consideration of how language and method in theology relate to language and method in science. This section would have benefited from the inclusion of a discussion of what science is, and how it works, written by a philosopher of science or a biologist who was not specifically concerned to make a comparison with religion. Nevertheless, what is included is extremely helpful. The excerpt from the nineteenth-century Protestant theologian Charles Hodge illustrates that, when Christian fundamentalism first developed, it did not regard a young earth as one of the fundamentals that gave the movement its name. The other excerpts in this section are by Sallie McFague, Mary Midgley, and Ian Barbour, and reflect a more mainstream approach to religious language and theology.

Part two presents evolutionary theory, with excerpts from Darwin's Origin of Species as well as works by Francisco Ayala and Michael Ruse. The latter are appropriate choices, since these individuals illustrate that a Christian can be a prominent evolutionary biologist, and that an atheist philosopher of science can see no inherent incompatibility of evolution and Christianity. Both Ayala and Ruse distinguish between the fact of evolution, the path of evolutionary development down the ages, and the mechanisms that drive evolution. The distinctions are important ones that are often overlooked when people discuss evolution in theological contexts.

The third part, entitled simply "Creationism", is rather more problematic. It consists of only two readings. The first is simply the first two chapters of Genesis. It was a good choice to use the New Revised Standard Version translation, which neither presupposes that the creation described was a creation out of nothing (the Hebrew in Genesis 1:1 is ambiguous on this point), nor tries to cover up elements of a pre-scientific worldview such as the dome of the sky. Yet it would have been appropriate to provide an example of scholarly treatment of these chapters, showing that the order of the days has more to do with parallelism than chronology, that there in fact seem to be two creation stories in these chapters, and so on. Without such analysis of the Bible itself, it is that much harder to get young-earth creationists over the hurdles that keep them from accepting evolution. It might also have been useful to include here something written by a young-earth creationist author. Nothing is more effective in persuading students of the bankruptcy of the young-earth creationist approach than allowing them to read what they themselves have to say, coupled with insightful scientific and theological analysis of their arguments by people like Kenneth R Miller. Nevertheless, the second reading in this section, a historical overview of young-earth creationism by Ronald Numbers, is very helpful.

Part four deals with "intelligent design", beginning with William Paley's famous argument. The chapter by Michael Behe makes the case for "intelligent design" as well as it possibly can be made, with the result that Miller's response in the chapter that follows becomes all the more effective, showing how much of the evidence Behe says would disprove his claims actually exists.

Part five presents proponents and critics of forms of metaphysical naturalism based on evolution. The excerpts from Richard Dawkins and Daniel C Dennett are excellent examples of their views and of their delightful writing style. Mary Midgley's short piece points out that Darwin himself denied that natural selection is an all-encompassing explanation in biological change over time, much less in economics and other areas. Another (very short) excerpt from Ruse rounds off this section.

Part six is entitled "Evolutionary Theism" and presents a diverse group of theologians united in their acceptance of evolution and their openness to incorporating the relevant scientific data into their theological reflections. Howard Van Till points out a number of ironies that typify both extremes in many discussions of this subject. Arthur Peacocke's piece nicely complicates the oversimplified view that many have of the relationship between Darwin's theory and faith, pointing out that initially there were many in the religious community who embraced evolution, just as many in the scientific community were exceedingly skeptical. Jürgen Moltmann's contribution is an example of the wonderfully creative and exciting theological thinking that he has offered on the subject of creation. The section's final piece by Elizabeth Johnson complements the others, discussing concepts such as that of the soul and incorporating a number of important quotations by a variety of theologians and scientists.

I am puzzled by the editor's decision to place an excerpt by John Haught in the seventh part, "Reformulations of Tradition". Haught represents a Roman Catholic theological outlook very much in line with those offered in part six — indeed, Haught draws heavily on Moltmann's ideas in places, and is, like Peacocke, a panentheist. The other pieces in this section — by Sallie McFague, Ruth Page, and Gordon Kaufman — sit more comfortably under the rubric of "revisionists". McFague explores the idea of the universe as God's body, combining a number of already-existing models in innovative and creative ways. Page suggests that it is more appropriate to speak of God being with everything than in everything in what may perhaps be the least helpful excerpt in the collection, since Page seems to conflate the idea of everything existing in God (panentheism) with the idea that God is in everything. Finally, Kaufman suggests that it is more appropriate to think of God as creativity rather than creator in the context of our current state of scientific knowledge.

On the whole, God and Evolution is a useful reader, although some examples of non-Western perspectives might have made the diversity of the book richer still. Quibbles about what was and was not included aside, for most American readers with some background in or contact with conservative Christianity of an anti-evolutionary sort, this book will provide helpful information that will enable readers to understand what is at stake and navigate the current debates over God and evolution in a more well-informed manner.

About the Author(s): 
James F McGrath
Department of Philosophy and Religion
Butler University
4600 Sunset Avenue
Indianapolis IN 46208

[For a longer version of this review, visit http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/2007/11/review-of-god-and-evolution.html.]


James F McGrath is Assistant Professor of Religion at Butler University. He blogs at http://exploringourmatrix.blogspot.com/.