Charles Darwin — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:26 pm on 19th March 2009.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bath and Wells The Bishop of Bath and Wells Bishop 2:26 pm, 19th March 2009

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on introducing this debate. There is a story that a group of scientists decided that there was no longer any need for God and picked one of their number to go and tell him so. The appointed scientist walked up to God and said, "We have decided that we no longer need you. We have reached a point where we can clone people and do many miraculous things, so why don't you just shuffle off quietly?". God, being a reasonable sort and used to rejection, responded, "Well, before I go, can we have one more human building contest?" The scientist replied, "OK. Great". But God added, "We will do it like in the old days with Adam and Eve". The scientist replied, "Sure, no problem", and bent down to pick up a handful of earth. As he did so, God tapped him on the shoulder and said, "No, no, no. Find your own earth".

The debate over Darwin's Origin of Species and the creation accounts in Genesis, I dare to suggest, is one based on all sides on false premises. It is obvious that the accounts of creation in the beginning of the Bible were not written from the outlook of modern science. These accounts, or stories, do not tell us about the starting point of human evolution, neither are they essays in biology or any other natural science. They do not explain the formation of the stars; neither do they explain the elements of earth, fire and water. They form a poem not a treatise.

Several of these stories of creation, along with the stories of Genesis such as the murder by Cain of Abel, the building of the tower of Babel, the flood and Noah's ark, speak about something universal that is true of humanity at all kinds of different times. Adam and Eve represent humanity; Cain represents all murderers; boats represent places of salvation from the chaos of life; and the tower of Babel exposes the vanity of human beings and the confusion of language. But at the centre of this raft of stories lie two things. First, that in the beginning there was nothing and, in Hebrew thought, what gives way to nothingness to become something is word—"and God said". Secondly, in Hebrew thought, the meaning of life is that everything comes from God and goes back to God, but is sustained by the relationship with God.

Darwin's Origin of Species—a scientific thesis about which it is easy, like in most things, to produce soundbites that do not tell the whole story—was a significant contribution within its time. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, has pointed out the limits of the research available to him for understanding how life developed and was formed. Like the physicists and evolutionary biologists of today, he was primarily interested in understanding the mechanisms by which the world and life came about and how they continue to function.

When I was a schoolteacher, rather more years ago now than I care to remember, my good atheist biologist colleague and I would have considerable fun joining in debate with our respective classes on God versus Darwin. Surprisingly, we agreed on a number of things: first, that there was no inherent contradiction in faith in God and the evolutionary development of the cosmos; secondly, that scientific study, as well as faith in God, leads to a sense of mystery, mystery in turn leads to inquiry, and inquiry to wonder; and, thirdly, we agreed that mystery and wonder lead appropriately to humility, and to respect for the intricacy, complexity and detail of that which is being created. Finally, we agreed that it led us to questioning that went beyond the "when" and the "how" to the "why", particularly with regard to humanity's role in the order of things either to exploit, control and destroy or to seek equality, refrain from oppression and to ensure justice and peace in society.

I am something of an amateur astronomer. Even the most casual watcher of the stars is quickly transported into wonder. Watch the stars with the naked eye, and you can see about 4,500. If you have an ordinary pair of binoculars you will see about 45,000. If you have a small telescope, however, as I have, some 70 sextillion—that is, 70 thousand million million million—become available to you. The Crab nebula in the galaxy of Capricorn first exploded its light to be seen on the earth in 1054. Although less bright today, that same nebula continues to expand at an astonishing rate of 7 million miles per day.

The universe is both old and new. It is not something simply past; it is something that is in being—in creation. Such statistics reveal us as a little lost planet revolving around one star among billions in a constantly expanding universe, making any belief that we have any significance in the scheme of things apparently absurd and pretentious. However, as we have heard several times today, Darwin's research into the development of species did not lead him to belief or disbelief in God. It led him to wonder, and so it should lead us. The noble Lord, Lord Livsey, talked about the "Beagle" experiment and the link with NASA, which I visited recently. What an enormous adventure lies before us in the exploration of an expanding universe, out of time and in time.

If we attempt to see the biblical accounts of creation as alternatives to scientific theories, we condemn ourselves to disappointment. The authors of Genesis concerned themselves with the linking of a people's history and its God to humanity and the universe as a whole. They wished to confess their faith that God was truly universal, deeply involved in the existence and fate of everything. They sought a blueprint for right living. They set out to lead a life of harmony with reality.

The perilous state of our planet, and the risk of significant depletion of humanity due to the impact of global warming on sea levels and deserts, requires a resetting of the moral compass towards the mystery of creation, coupling it with wonder, respect and a wisdom that addresses the role of human beings as presented in the Bible, to use their gifts of intelligence and creativity to make the universe a place fit for all human, animal, bird and plant life to live in. As my noble friend the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Ripon and Leeds has remarked, it is regrettable, to say the least, that in both religion and science the potential for good can so easily be turned to destructiveness and manipulation. I am sorry, I have lost my place. I was on cracking form until then.

The celebration of Darwin's bicentenary would be deeply enriched by a common commitment to cosmic peace. For those of us who believe that in the end everything both comes from and goes back to God, that can be our contribution; for those whose integrity does not let them make that step, then our common journey must be one of wonder, respect for mystery and a commitment to the welfare of the planet and its future. If that were to happen, this celebration would be truly valuable for the future of humanity.