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article imageOp-Ed: Conor Cunningham's Has Darwin Killed God?

By Bart B. Van Bockstaele     Jan 26, 2010 in Science
Conor Cunningham, philosopher and Christian apologist, talks about Darwinism in his documentary "Did Darwin Kill God?". Few religionists dare to tackle the subject, and I gave the documentary a thorough viewing.
Conor Cunningham, philosopher and Christian apologist, talks about Darwinism in his documentary "Did Darwin Kill God?". My first impressions were on the whole quite positive, and I wanted to paraphrase John Maddox, the recently deceased editor of Nature, to describe this documentary by saying that it is not as unintelligent as the title suggests. However, with time, boredom, irritation and outrage mounted and I feel now that I have to say that this documentary is not only as unintelligent as the title suggests, but downright stupid and pathetic. I don't really know why this surprised me. Maybe it is because I am so terribly disappointed in this documentary as a result of the high hopes I had when I started watching it.
I have a very good friend who has over the years repeatedly implored me to find scientists who believe in god, preferably the Judeo-Christian flavoured one. Such scientists are rumoured to exist, and while they are a tiny minority, I have always thought that they should not be hard to find, as long as one doesn't inquire too deeply. However, until now, my search has been a deeply unsatisfactory one. In three years of searching, I have found only one single scientist who claims to believe in a god, the Christian one, and who has not turned out to be an untrustworthy fraud. His name is George Coyne.
To discover him was refreshing for me, because it is far from a secret that my experiences with Jesuits had been very negative and that I had learned to look at them with the suspicion and disdain profoundly dishonest people deserve. Father George Coyne taught me that honest people can be found even among Jesuits. And yet, I was not completely satisfied by finding him, for two reasons: I wanted to find more than one genuinely religious and honest scientist, and I wanted her/him to present an honest and credible case for her/his religion. While I am convinced that Father Coyne satisfies the first criterion, he doesn't satisfy the second one.
When Richard Dawkins interviewed him, he flatly refused to make a case for his beliefs. While that was disappointing for me, I do sincerely admire Father Coyne for this. He preferred to remain mute, instead of telling nice stories or flat out lying. Because of this, the man will always have a warm place in my memories. Not only is Father Coyne honest, he is also brave and he stands up for what he knows to be true, regardless of the consequences.
There is considerable controversy over his stepping down as a director of the Vatican Observatory, a post he held for 28 years. It is hard not to at least speculate over the plausibility of the idea that he allowed pope Benedict XVI to sack him, because of his very public refusal to align himself with the creationist fantasies of the pope and Cardinal Schönborn, the man who became infamous after he ridiculed himself and his religion in a New York Times Op-Ed. Although I will probably never meet him or even talk to him, George Coyne is a fine scientist, and a man I deeply respect and admire.
Needless to say, I am in trouble. I promised my friend that I would find her some religious scientists, and so far, I have failed. Utterly.
So, I was really happy when I learned about Conor Cunningham's documentary. After reading the note by the executive producer, Jean-Claude Bragard, I was eager to watch it:
This programme, part of the BBC’s Darwin Season, came from the realisation that it would touch on issues raised by Richard Dawkins in his book 'The God Delusion'. The publishing phenomenon has fuelled a widespread perception that the theory of evolution makes belief in God redundant, even perhaps perverse. But how compelling was that argument?
Why did this excite me? Because it shows that Bragard understands and knows what Richard Dawkins stands for. His description is relevant and correct. This is the rest of Bragards note:
It was clear that many Christians have easily been able to reconcile their belief in God with the theory of evolution. How was this possible? This was the question we wanted to explore and so we invited Dr Conor Cunningham, a Christian but also an eminent philosopher and theologian from the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham, to show how it was possible to believe in Darwin and God. Cunningham has just completed a book 'Evolution: Darwin's Pious Idea' to be published in the autumn, so he was ideally placed to explore this question. His argument is that we have been witnessing an unnecessary cultural war between religion and evolution that is damaging to both religion and science. Cunningham reveals that since the early days, mainstream Christianity’s view of God and Creation has not been literal. The idea of reading the Book of Genesis literally is essentially a 20th century American phenomenon that had very little to do with science and religion and a great deal to do with the morality and politics of the time.
It turns out that Conor is not a scientist at all. He is a theologian and a philosopher and while science can be said to some degree to have sprung from philosophy, theologians have never been more than the spin doctors of religion. A priori, this makes him suspect, but everyone deserves an honest chance to make her/his case. This is about science after all, and if scientists do not keep an open mind, nobody else will. So, while I was more cautious now, I was still eager to listen to Cunningham. But, as I wrote previously, the documentary came as a cold shower. Cunningham turned out to be not nearly as cunning as his name suggest. A few highlights:
"I'm a huge admirer of Charles Darwin. His theory of evolution was one of the greatest contributions to science." are the opening words of Conor Cunningham.
"And I believe that religious alternatives such as creationism and intelligent design are nonsense." He goes on to say that this does not make him an atheist, that he is a Christian and that he believes in god.
It already goes horribly wrong in the introduction. "I believe that Christ is god incarnate, and that he was resurrected from the dead, but I also believe creationists are wrong to read Genesis literally." While he does go on to explain why he thinks that Genesis should be taken allegorically, hence avoiding the contradictions between page 1 and page 2 of Genesis, he conveniently ignores the internal contradictions of page 1 and keeps quiet about the fact that his legerdemain creates far bigger contradictions than it solves.
If Genesis is not literally true, there was no talking snake, no eating from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Yet, Christ was supposedly tortured and murdered to atone for exactly this very sin. With his interpretation, Conor suggests that Christ, god incarnate, was tortured and murdered for a sin that was never committed so that he could then go on and forgive himself for this uncommitted sin. While this may well be a fine example of theological spin, it is intellectually dishonest and thoroughly unsatisfactory.
Cunningham, as most all religious apologists, misses the point completely just after his introduction to the documentary when he says about Darwin: "Science was about to launch its most deadly weapon in its war against religion". That is wrong. Science is not and has never been at war with religion. It has simply ignored religion, as Laplace is reputed to have said to Napoleon when asked about god: "I had no need for this hypothesis". If anything, it is Cunningham's religion that is at war with science, not the other way around.
So, almost by definition, the answer to the question in the title of the documentary is "no". Darwin did not kill god. He merely made it superfluous.
I see a more fundamental phenomenon at work here: theologians are spin doctors. They are not about truth, but merely about the superficial appearance of truth. Cunningham has decided that the Biblical god exists, and he (re-)interprets the contents of the holy texts to make them fit that premise, a profoundly dishonest and unscientific procedure.
Cunningham is mildly entertaining in that he shows that all Christians are alike in some ways. When we strip away their specific theological conflicts, most Christian sects make exactly the same claim:
I am a True Christian, I am going to Heaven. You are a False Christian, You are going to Hell.
Cunningham interviews Pietro Corsi who studies the History of Science at the University of Oxford:
By the time of Darwin's Origin of Species, only a minority of Anglican ministers really believed that the earth was exactly as the Bible described it. Those who kept being interested in geology accepted geology as a science and they were not really worried about the question how old was the earth. They simply accepted that it must have been pretty old. So, people who believed that the Bible had a precise description of the earth by that time belong almost to the lunatic fringe.
I think that no scientist has a conflict with this, except in the United States, where this lunatic fringe consists of close to half the population, i.e. about 150 million people, hardly a fringe.Contrary to my expectations, based on the straw men he had put out so far, Cunningham shows a few less commonly talked-about points. He claims for example that the main prosecutor in the Scopes trial (the famous "monkey" trial), William Jennings Bryan, was at heart a socialist who was opposed to social Darwinism (a disgusting policy Darwin himself opposed), as advocated by right wing (Christian) politicians.
Cunningham fails to provide evidence, however, and he strangely fails to mention that Bryan was shown at the trial to be essentially ignorant about the contents of the Bible, which is sadly the case for most Christians since they usually limit themselves to reading the cherries picked by their religious leaders, if they even go that far.
Says Cunningham: "William Jennings Bryan was a left-wing politician with right-wing religious views"
Later on he says:
"It is my contention that Darwin's theory of evolution did not challenge God in the nineteenth century nor did it challenge God in the twentieth century despite claims made by Creationism. The only reason that people thought it did was because of the noise, furore and cacophony caused by creationists. But I don't think that creationism is a true heir to the tradition of Christianism. Rather, they are a modern anomaly, an aberration, a product of 20th century anxiety."
While this may seem like the cheap attempt to defend his version of Christianity that it is, it has at least the merit of being compatible with much of what more mainstream Christian sects promote. But then, Cunningham stumbles again by attacking what he calls a new form of fundamentalism: Ultra or Universal Darwinism.
He talks to Daniel Dennett, one of the most important philosophers of our time, and pauses to tell the viewer that:
"Unlike Charles Darwin, Ultra Darwinists like Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins claim that evolution means there cannot be a god."
This is the classical straw man, but it is particularly painful that Cunningham utters this nonsense right during his interview with Daniel Dennett, who said nothing of the sort, and even more painful since not even the executive producer of this documentary made this claim.
Cunningham then visits Francis Collins and uses him as a hook to ramble about how genes are "no longer" what we once thought and that therefore, Dawkins' selfish gene theory is no longer really useful. All this shows is that Cunningham has no understanding of modern science. A gene is a conceptual thing, an abstraction that makes it easier for humans to reason and talk about genetics.
What makes this misunderstanding even more sad is that Collins, who should know better, plays right into his hand. This is a very painful few minutes to watch and listen to for anyone who knows where biology stands. They have clearly read Richard Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene" by its title alone. Intellectually, and scientifically, this part of the documentary is a disgrace.
Collins claims, as most Christians, that atheism is the statement that there is no God. The strange thing is that atheists -of which I am one- do not claim such a thing at all. We simply live our lives as though there is no god, because the universe as we know it behaves exactly as we would expect if there was no God. God is not needed. God is irrelevant. That does not, repeat, not, exclude the possibility of the existence of god or gods, and claiming otherwise is an expression of ignorance, or of malice. I prefer to think that it is ignorance that drives them, but I may be wrong.
To make this situation more painful, Cunningham interviews Michael Ruse who makes the same claim about Dennett and Dawkins. Michael Ruse is just a philosopher with little or no scientific expertise and he should therefore not be taken too seriously, but he is influential and that makes him a power to reckon with where the dissemination of falsehoods to the less educated is concerned.
Cunningham then tumbles further down the ladder of despair to attack what he calls "the theory of memes". Memes were dreamed up by Richard Dawkins for his book "The Selfish Gene" as a somewhat tongue-in-cheek example of a non-gene that could be selected by Darwinian selection. Cunningham bravely paddles further down the river of wrongful convictions by claiming that:
The theory of memes attempts to explain all human activity in evolutionary terms, including culture, religion and morality. It goes much further than saying there is no god, it concludes that there is no you or me.He then interviews Susan Blackmore about memes and quote-mines her to confirm his claims.
I would like to continue to call Cunningham a mere ignoramus, but I have trouble believing it. There are such important blatant and demonstrable falsehoods in this documentary, that I am starting to think that I was wrong about him. I think that Cunningham is merely a mediocre spin doctor who is trying to peddle his version of his religion, nothing more. He has lost all the respect that I was prepared to have for him.
While this documentary has been mildly entertaining and had some nice points, I think that it merely shows once again, that religionists who are not ready to accept reality are more and more forced to the rely on the promotion of obvious falsehoods in order to shoehorn their god or gods into reality as we know it.
My conclusion is that this is a documentary not worth wasting one's precious time on and to my friend I can only say this: I am still looking for a genuine scientist who is both religious and honest. They seem to be a very rare species indeed.
This opinion article was written by an independent writer. The opinions and views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily intended to reflect those of DigitalJournal.com
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