Reports of the National Center for Science Education

Review: Living With Darwin

Living With Darwin: Evolution, Design, and the Future of Faith
Philip Kitcher
New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. 186 pages
Reviewed by
Arthur McCalla
Creationists take every opportunity to remind audiences that the founders of modern science were devout, Bible-believing Christians. This historical truth is the starting point of a new book aimed at a general readership by the distinguished philosopher of science, Philip Kitcher, on the historical entanglement of science and religious doctrine in relation to Darwinism. Kitcher argues that creationism and "intelligent design" are better understood as dead sciences rather than as pseudosciences. Creationist views, broadly speaking, did play a role in the history of geology and the life sciences but they are no longer part of science. Kitcher devotes a chapter to showing, in accessible language, when and why each of the three major anti-Darwinian positions successively became a dead science: "Genesis creationism", or opposition to the idea of an ancient earth in the name of a literal reading of the biblical creation narrative, around 1830; "novelty creationism", which defended the special creation of species against the evolutionary idea that all living things that have ever existed on our planet belong to a single tree of life, around 1870; and "anti-selectionism", or opposition to natural selection as the principal agent of evolution, around 1930. Genesis creationism, novelty creationism, and anti-selectionism have all been revived in our day by those who oppose Darwinian evolution on religious grounds. Kitcher demonstrates that as science these attempts to resurrect the dead have failed.

Much of the material in these chapters will be familiar to readers of Kitcher's earlier writings on creationism and "intelligent design" (including 1984 and 2001). What is new is a conviction that we must take seriously the religious concerns of those for whom the possibility of such a resurrection offers hope and comfort. The bridge to this new conviction is Kitcher's discussion of the slipperiness of present-day "intelligent design" (ID) advocates who publicly present their position as a religiously neutral commitment to anti-selectionism while signaling to conservative believers that it opens the door to biblical creationism. While Kitcher is as firm as ever in denouncing ID as scientifically bankrupt, he is sympathetic to those scientifically unsophisticated Christians who respond positively to it in the hope that it will protect their cherished values. Whereas Kitcher formerly thought that Darwinism was not a threat to religion, he now recognizes that for very many religious people accepting Darwinism means abandoning their hope for eternal life with a loving God - or, in the biblical phrase that provides the title for his final chapter, trading their birthright for a mess of pottage.

The waste, suffering, and inefficiencies inherent in the Darwinian account of life really do contradict providentialist religion's faith in a benign supernatural Creator. Kitcher, however, rejects a "science versus religion" model in favor of an "Enlightenment case against supernaturalism". In so redrawing the battle lines, he widens science to include all intellectual disciplines that derive from Enlightenment empiricism and rationalism while narrowing religion to its supernaturalist forms. He then briefly discusses selected strands of the Enlightenment case against supernaturalism. Biblical criticism has shown that Scriptural accounts of creation are neither true historical accounts nor originate in extra-human revelation (Friedman 1997); the sociology of religion demonstrates that religion owes its survival not to being true but to serving important social functions (Stark 1997); philosophical and psychological analyses of religious experience identify the motivations and dispositions that induce people to interpret their experiences in religious terms (Proudfoot 1985; Beit-Hallahmi and Argyle 1997); and ethical reflection reveals the dangers of belief without evidence (Kitcher 2004).

Since providentialist religion depends on supernaturalism, the Enlightenment case against it is devastating. And yet, Kitcher denies on two counts that its inevitable terminus is atheism. First, while science is committed to empirical methods, we cannot assert dogmatically that the universe contains nothing beyond what is currently known scientifically. Second, Kitcher holds out the possibility of what he calls "spiritual religion", or religions "that do not require the literal truth of any doctrines about supernatural beings" (p 133). While acknowledging that spiritual religion will be attacked from opposite directions by supernaturalists and secularists (as indeed liberal versions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam have been), Kitcher, while remaining himself a secularist, draws on the work of John Dewey (1934) and Elaine Pagels (2003) to assert the possibility of non-supernaturalist religions that would provide their followers with the same emotional benefits as supernaturalist ones do for theirs. Kitcher here aligns himself with an insight shared by modern critical approaches to the study of religion: there is indeed a reality behind the various religions that explains their ubiquity and persistence, but that reality is not the transcendent entity that devotees believe it to be. Emile Durkheim identified this reality as society, Freud as repressed psychical drives, and Kitcher identifies it as emotional comfort in an uncaring universe and, too often, society.

Kitcher's spiritual religion is strongly reminiscent of Auguste Comte's Religion of Humanity. Comte (1798–1857), the founder of Positivism, thought that any society depends for its survival on a consensus about its objects of belief, devotion, and value. Historically, religion provided that consensus but science has rendered religion obsolete as an explanation of the universe and human life. The result is a social crisis whose resolution will require a functional equivalent of religion; that is, some ideological system that will heal the rupture between our cognitive and our emotional life. Comte's Religion of Humanity was to fulfill this function by attaching our emotions to the true source of morality: the "Great Being" that is Humanity itself (Preus 1987). Like Comte, Kitcher argues that religion is both socially necessary and in its traditional forms intellectually obsolete. Will Kitcher's spiritual religion enjoy greater success than Comte's Religion of Humanity? Readers may have their doubts, but the similarity between their analyses paradoxically illuminates the ways that American religious and social history have diverged from those of Western Europe since the early nineteenth century. As Kitcher's final paragraphs discuss, the peculiarly American phenomenon of anti-evolutionism draws on both an intellectual problem of ignorance of the Enlightenment case against supernaturalism (derived from a unique confluence of populism and biblicism [Noll 2002]) on the part of large numbers of Americans and a social problem of civic anomie and lack of the sort of social security provisions taken for granted by citizens of other affluent countries.

In suggesting that only cooperation among secular (education, social reform) and religious (spiritual religion) forces can terminate the cycle of controversy over Darwinism, this thought-provoking and highly recommended book directs our attention to an often-neglected aspect of the controversy - the spiritual and religious cost of "living with Darwin".

This version might differ slightly from the print publication.