- Hardcover: 563 pages
- Publisher: William B Eerdmans Publishing Co; 1st edition edition (1 Jan. 2011)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0802848389
- ISBN-13: 978-0802848383
- Product Dimensions: 16.1 x 4.2 x 23.4 cm
- Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
- Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 120,184 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
Darwin's Pious Idea (Interventions) Hardcover – 1 Jan 2011
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[This book] is nothing short of magnificent. Every now and then Providence sends a book to save the day. Darwin's Pious Idea may be one of those books. - Andrew Davison, The Church Times Despite its length, Darwin's Pious Idea is a very readable book, engaging and often acerbically witty. It has some serious and original things to say about what always threatens to turn into a sterile debate between rather fictionalized and trivialized versions of science and religion. . . . The sheer exuberance of the presentation is a delight. . . . Certainly the most interesting and invigorating book on the science-religion frontier that I have encountered. - Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, Times Literary Supplement 'Even those sympathetic to the recent wave of evolutionary attacks on religion cannot help feeling that something is missing there: Dawkins and company lack a minimum of understanding of what religion is about, of how it works. Cunningham's book is thus obligatory reading for all interested in this topic: while fully endorsing the scientific validity of Darwinism, it clearly brings to light its limitations in understanding not only religion but also our human predicament. A book like Cunningham's is needed like simple bread in our confused times.' --Slavoj Zizek 'Cunningham is not shy about pulling the ontological pants of materialism down to its ankles. He supplies an unremitting attack on the scientific and philosophical views of Dawkins and his ilk in the course of his first four chapters. The level of scientific sophistication on display is remarkable for a theologian; his reading and his ruminations have been extensive, more than sufficient to provide a devastating critique of the narrative stories and metaphors of Dawkins not just with respect to religion, but also with respect to evolutionary biology itself.' --Michael Rose, The Quarterly Review of Biology 'Conor Cunningham's book is a vigorously written and a marvelously engaging work. It is highly informed and hugely informative with regard to both scientific theory and theological reflection. It is constantly judicious in the manner it lifts current debate to a genuine level of seriousness, beyond the sometimes thoughtless, even shrill rhetoric associated with recent debates on God and evolution. Conor Cunningham engages those with whom he disagrees with properly respectful consideration, not lacking in frequent touches of deft humor. It is a most welcome contribution to these current controversies. First rate and very highly recommended.' --William Desmond, Professor of Philosophy, University of Leuven, and University of Villanova
Cunningham is not shy about pulling the ontological pants of materialism down to its ankles. He supplies an unremitting attack on the scientific and philosophical views of Dawkins and his ilk in the course of his first four chapters. The level of scientific sophistication on display is remarkable for a theologian; his reading and his ruminations have been extensive, more than sufficient to provide a devastating critique of the narrative stories and metaphors of Dawkins not just with respect to religion, but also with respect to evolutionary biology itself. --Michael Rose, The Quarterly Review of Biology
Conor Cunningham's book is a vigorously written and a marvelously engaging work. It is highly informed and hugely informative with regard to both scientific theory and theological reflection. It is constantly judicious in the manner it lifts current debate to a genuine level of seriousness, beyond the sometimes thoughtless, even shrill rhetoric associated with recent debates on God and evolution. Conor Cunningham engages those with whom he disagrees with properly respectful consideration, not lacking in frequent touches of deft humor. It is a most welcome contribution to these current controversies. First rate and very highly recommended. --William Desmond, Professor of Philosophy, University of Leuven, and University of Villanova
About the Author
Conor Cunningham is the assistant director of the Centre of Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham.
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Top Customer Reviews
The book does not give quick and easy answers but this is not, I think, a fault of the author. Cunningham has gone to extraordinary lengths to survey the best of recent thinking in biology, philosophy and theology. You might not agree with the conclusions he eventually reaches (though I think he is definitely pointing in the right direction), but it is plain wrong to claim (as Mr Ussery does above) that Cunningham `[does] not grasp the basics of science' and probably `believes in magic crystals'. On the contrary, Cunningham arguably understands `science' as a real human practice better than most scientists (who are prone to wearing their ignorance of philosophy as a badge of honour, and can be heard declaiming like opinionated sixth-formers - I'm looking at you Steve Jones -that all philosophy is pointless and vacuous). But more than this, in the first part of the book Cunningham looks in great detail at what contemporary evolutionary science is saying, and, as far as I am concerned (and in the opinion of many leading scientists who have reviewed the book), he understands evolutionary theory very well. Cunningham does not give quick and easy answers because the issues are not the kind that lend themselves to quick and easy thinking...Read more ›
However, universally accessible or not it is still a fascinating and entertaining read.
Cunningham takes his abstract philosophically deep arguments and applies everyday analogies in order to make such baffling concepts understandable.
I am not going to claim that Conor Cunningham is a leading biologist, however he has clearly done some deep research into his field and comes out with some pearls of wisdom and intriguing research in the Biology field because of this.
Conor Cunningham's fields are Theology and Philosophy. And it is when he uses these ideas that this book comes into it's own and can make the reader a lot wiser from it.
In a field where a lot has been said over the last couple of decades Cunningham has here provided a definitive and necessary read to anyone who wants to understand this field better. I defy any Dawkins-esque atheist not to have the very integrity of their views challenged by this compelling book.
More than worth the time, dedication and concentration that this book demands.
But the pain is well worth it.
Cunningham takes both ultra-Darwinists and creationists to the cleaners and watches their arguments dissolve like dirt in the washing powder.
I have read masses of books on creation and evolution issues and this is by far the most philosophically sophisticated.
If you are prepared to work hard this book is well worth the read.
I'd strongly recommend any book by Alister McGrath instead. Am reading Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things right now - it is wonderful! Such a breath of fresh air in contrast to Cunningham's book. (And it's a lot less expensive - all in all a much better bargain!).
Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
The term "ultra darwinist" is not created by the author, as he points out when he introduces the term. Atheists and ultra-darwinists themselves use the term, which is common, and describes those who believe evolution can explain every aspect of reality. If evolution isn't merely an (important) aspect of reality to you, but a metaphysical worldview then you are an ultra-darwinist.
At any rate, the book is a heavy read. This is no simple introduction to the subject, but it is a valuable resource if you want to understand the relationship between science and christianity.
Still, we should be thankful that they did enter the debate, because amidst their rebuttals they provided us with two excellent works. In response to the sophistry and revisionist history contained in the works of the Four Horsemen (as Dawkins has called them), the erudite David Bentley Hart entered the discussion in 2009 with Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies. In the work, he echoed Nietzsche in showing how Christian metaphysics underpin some of our most cherished Western ideals, historically were the source of them and how we reject them to the detriment to our society. Institutions as diverse as the university, the hospital and even science, were motivated and supported by theological assumptions. Western values such as "personal dignity," and "human rights" are likewise grounded in the Christian metaphysic. Hart made the point that these ideals cannot be sustained when their undergirding assumptions are pulled out from underneath. They cannot float in midair without some grounding in reality.
In response to the book, believing and unbelieving intellectuals alike said that Hart had "demolished" many of the New Atheist claims. Unfortunately, the book was inaccessible to many readers requiring a level of understanding well above the level of most involved in the debate. His argument cannot be summed up in a blog post or argued in comments at a website, and therefore the masses were largely unaware of it.
Cunningham has provided an equally erudite and demolishing critique of Dawkins and the other "fashionable enemies" of Christianity. He takes a different tactic than Hart, arguing from the atheists' most prized institution (science) that the worldview of Dawkins and co. is inherently dualistic, antievolutionary and even anti-reason. Cunningham's book is incredibly researched, often containing some two or three hundred endnotes per chapter. Cunningham ably jumps from science to history to philosophy to theology with a broad knowledge in each field. I kept flipping from the content of the book to the endnotes and back. It may have been more effective to use footnotes versus endnotes, but this criticism should not dissuade any readers.
His analysis of the antievolutionary perspective of the ultra-Darwinists alone would be worth the value of the book, yet he goes further to show the anti-scientific nature of evolutionary psychology, the incoherence and self-contradictory views of those who maintain materialism, or even worse the vague and mysterious "naturalism" (which has as many definitions as it has defenders). Finally, he brings it all together in showing how a robust Christian theology of the person (as well as a theology of matter) combined with the Christian promotion of reason best comports with our experienced reality.
Unfortunately, as with Hart's book, few will read this one. It is inaccessible to the masses due to its high level of academic discourse. Many of the discussions require an awareness of current discussions in biology, philosophy and theology. He assumes the readers know of Fodor, de Lubac, Lacan, Conway Morris and others. Thus, the shallow discussions and rhetoric found in blog comments and forums, where the bulk of this debate takes place, will continue (probably even in published forms such as Dawkins books), with the proponents of such views totally unaware that their positions can no longer be held with any semblance of dignity.
Of course, these individuals do not care about dignity. In fact, their worldview can hardly account for it. Thus, the rhetoric will continue making Cunningham's play on Marx ring true, "Nihilism is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of the soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people." The reductionist perspective will continue in the name of "progress" and "science," despite its anti-progress and anti-scientific nature. Against this reductionistic nihilism, the church must proclaim all the more defiantly the words of Jesus "I have come that they may have life, and have it abundantly" (John 10:10).
Contemporary theology has many “afters” for which it must account: theology “after Auschwitz,” or “after Wittgenstein,” or “after the Death-of-God.” Yet none of these “Afters” ever are so unhappy as that theology which must speak of “God after Darwin,” (to steal John Haught’s recent book title). Despite the very widespread and public antagonism between evolution and Christianity, “In these pages,” writes Conor Cunningham, “we present Darwin’s theory in such a way that—far from opposing religion generally and Christianity specifically—it is of great service to Christian religion” (xvi). To misappropriate another book title (this one from Wentzel van Huyssteen), Cunningham is insistent there is a much better story to be told of Christianity and evolutionary theory, one where they are in a “Duet,” rather than a “Duel.” Evolution does not disenchant the world, but can show its intrinsic meaning: This is Darwin’s pious idea. And Cunningham tells the tale with clarity and a sense of humor, showing himself to be a master of interdisciplinary sources unequalled by any similar offering currently available. On the back cover amongst the encomium of blurbs, the atheist philosopher Slavoj Zizek stands out by noting Cunningham’s work is like “simple bread in our confused times.” As Cunningham attributes the genesis of what came to be his recent opus magnum to a friendly debate over a few frosty mugs of Guinness, perhaps the book could equally be said to invite conversation like a fine brew.
And such an inviting and expansive palette wets the appetite. The general flavor of the social imagination at large still tastes of the blood drawn from fisticuffs between what appear to be two well-defined sets of pugilists: Creationists in one corner, naturalist-materialist Evolutionists in the other. As much as it may pain the preacher who wishes to proclaim Christ from the pulpit, we all must admit the gospel is now often rent and burdened by this alien divide. Christ is a stumbling block, but for all the wrong reasons. Darwin is thus the enemy of faith; and faith, as seen by the academies, is the enemy of scientific progress. So goes the common story. What we need is a change of residence from these now comfortable suburbs where our thought has settled. Thus a major portion of Cunningham’s overall project is meticulous scientific, historical, and philosophical deconstruction of the playing field covertly shared by both sides (indeed, the subtitle to his book is Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get it Wrong). With devastating precision, Cunningham uses what can be described as a “re-narration,” of Darwinism through the lens of orthodox Trinitarian theology and recent cutting edge advances in scientific theory (reminiscent, actually, of the method recently utilized by Alister McGrath in The Open Secret and A Fine-Tuned Universe) often liberating evolution from critic and defender alike.
Nonetheless, the relation of theology and science is fundamentally a theological question—that is, the question of the relation of God to the world, and world to God—however much it might also be historical, sociological, scientific, and philosophical in turn, and Cunningham’s roots as a theologian do not fail him as he tackles this issue in numerous sections, including a lengthy final chapter. Some evangelicals may worry that Cunningham will travel the route(s) taken by other notable voices in the theology and science debate—such as Philip Clayton, John Polkinghorn, Sally McFague, and Arthur Peacock—and elaborate a fundamentally panentheistic (or even Process) conception of God and world, which supposedly accommodates the modern scientific and philosophical picture of dynamically inter-related systems. Yet this is not the case. Refreshing, given its general absence from books of this genre, is Cunningham’s insistence that only the Trinitarian God will do.
Expanding on theological conclusions he drew previously in his enormously complex book The Genealogy of Nihilism, with several of his contemporaries like Lewis Ayres and David Bentley Hart, Cunningham enacts a retrieval (not merely a repetition) of an orthodox Trinitarian theology, arguing that the views of those like Augustine, Gregory of Nyssa, and Thomas Aquinas have remarkable abilities to find resonance with modern theory. Yet in hearing this, those expecting Cunningham to be on board with the Intelligent Design movement will be sorely disappointed. In fact Cunningham argues that ID theorists, Creationists, and ultra-Darwinists have the same (distorted) picture of God: “the I-D (Intelligent Design) camp echoes the approach of the ultra-Darwinists. They think religious notions of deity should be [empirically] demonstrable, at least to some degree” (276); or “Both ultra-Darwinians and creationists believe that any existent deity is a designer ‘God,’ the only difference being that the former think it does not exist . . .By contrast orthodox Christianity has for over two millennia believed in a Creator God, who is anything but a designer [so conceived].” (151). Though comments like this will no doubt agitate, Cunningham’s historical and theological knowledge is vast and demands to be taken seriously: “a proper understanding of creation does not suffer any anxiety about a physical origin of the universe, just as it does not worry about common ancestry…For example [for] Aquinas…creation was a metaphysical relation, not a relation articulated by physics” (286).
Which is not to say Cunningham adopts Stephen Gould’s (or on the theological side, Karl Barth’s) view that science and religion have nothing to say to one another, quite the opposite. Rather in the vein of T.F. Torrance and Wolfhart Pannenberg (and more recently McGrath, and going further back we might say also Aquinas and Augustine) Cunningham argues that the different sciences all analyze different levels of a stratified reality; through the use of such ideas as “emergent properties” the different sciences, and ultimately theology, offer different levels of explanation, and theology is at the pinnacle of this hierarchy. Whereas the sciences are often guilty of what Cunningham entitles the “supernaturalistic fallacy” (e.g. 236) which is “a pathological desire to reduce or to deflate,” via the absolutizing of reductive explanations (i.e. the reduction of the person to organs, organs to cells, cells to chemicals, etc. . .), a theological framework of humankind’s ecstatic ascent toward God’s call (while yet remaining eminently natural) preserves the sanctity and inter-relation of all levels. The problem is not in methodological reductionism per se, rather the problem is that reductionism for many does not just remain heuristically useful, but becomes in those like Dawkins ontologically true: we “are” not: “it is not from dust we came and or to dust we shall return, for this wholly anti-evolutionary gnosticism sees only dust.” (237). But dust has no ethic, no aesthetics, no drama. Biology does not study life merely the “Esperanto of the molecule.” I am not myself, merely chemicals moving about (what Cunningham, taking a jab at Richard Dawkins, calls “selfish carbon.” (245)) Only belief in the Triune Creator, and in the incarnate Christ who recapitulates all things and brings them up into Himself (Eph. 1:10), can truly “save the appearance” of new levels of phenomena like personhood.
With this theology in the background (though it develops as the book progresses) Cunningham sets out to analyze basic questions of Darwinism such as: what are the units of selection—selfish genes? Whole creatures? Whole groups? Is selfishness basic to evolution? Is every trait and characteristic the result of natural selection? Can selection account for novelty? Is evolution blind chance, or is it in some sense teleological and making progress? Has (and does) Christianity oppose science? Has it produced it? Whence metaphysics? What are other evolutionists aside from the ultra-Darwinists saying about this? What about the book of Genesis? And there are some fascinating conclusions along the way.
Along with recent efforts by Michael Rea and J.P. Moreland, Cunningham of course covers the standard—though complex—fair of distinguishing evolution as a scientific theory, from the materialism and naturalism it is often embedded in: “science must not abuse the very generosity of its own possibility by mistaking itself for ontology” (303). But more than this (and quite humorously), Cunningham analyzes the presentations of evolution by figureheads such as Daniel Dennett, Richard Dawkins, and others labeled “ultra-Darwinists” (a term not original to Cunningham), and comes to the conclusion that their representation of evolution is actually anti-evolutionary (I will not spoil the analysis here).
What this book affords us, through its generous tone and pristine scholarship, is a new cultural space for dialogue. Cunningham’s demonstration, if nothing else, pushes the fringes back to where they belong, allowing cooler heads and better research the room it needs to breathe. The ultra-Darwinists are not only smuggling in an unstable form of naturalism, but “Dennet and his ilk appear to completely ignore current science. They remain beholden to bygone days of old, perhaps to avoid the apparently philosophical and theological implications of current science” (329). And on the other side, Christian fundamentalism itself has yielded to obsolete forms of science, thinking that it is validated by them. Cunningham’s is a remarkably refreshing take on the whole issue. While not being deluded into thinking that Christianity can at any juncture be “proven,” Cunningham neither takes a fideist retreat into what Wolfhart Pannenberg once pejoratively called “the ghetto of redemptive history.” Cunningham’s remarkable project amounts to the claim that a well-elaborated orthodox account of Christian theology displays an explanatory resonance with much of the frontiers of current science. And in some instances theology even allows for a more robust, non-reductive narrative account of the phenomena under question. Indeed the astounding inter-disciplinary nature of Cunningham’s work itself suggests that the best avenue for future work is an expansive, generous taking-account of a colloquy of fields of expertise.
Yet, despite incalculable upside, the book is not without flaw. Those who claim allegiance to either Creationism or ID theory will no doubt balk at Cunningham’s lack of extended engagement with thinkers of the respective camps. Indeed even those with no such allegiances may find occasional discomfort at some of Cunningham’s theology, especially in the whirlwind that is the last chapter. Moreover, despite his overall clarity of style, there are lapses in perspicuity. At times I think Cunningham’s broadness of appeal may work against him: with chic dialogue and earthy, concrete examples it appears the book would do well as a companion guide to the mainstream, yet at other stretches there are immense surges of technicality. In other regards Cunningham’s vast knowledge of the relevant literature occasionally works against him when, in a few instances, the work feels more like series of strung together (albeit very germane) quotations, than the sound of Cunningham’s own voice. These shifts are sometimes so radical it makes one question the intended audience of the book. But these are small ripples in an otherwise vast, elegant stream. Unquestionably, Cunningham’s book is the necessary prolegomena for an evangel in our times. In a society that often lags in the morass of the science/faith divide, Cunningham exposes the great horizons behind what many mistook as hills and mountains blocking the sky. Like many works attempting a resolution by telling previously antagonistic parties they are both wrong, Cunningham’s book will undoubtedly be met with both skepticism and outrage. Yet his many arguments, rich and exhaustive research, often witty prose, and quite frankly, the sheer scope of the book itself, will intoxicate those who drink from it deeply, much like the ambrosia that inspired it.
Unlike other reviewers, I especially appreciated the "embedded quotation" style of the book, because it brings masses of technical information into the conversation in a naturally conversational and meaningful way. I learned a lot very quickly, about Darwin, Darwinism, and current views/trends/warfare in "evolution" science and as a critical subject to our world. Discovering the scientific appeal to "commonsense" that's actually happening in some high-powered circles of the scientific community and academia, was totally unexpected and refreshing.
Cunningham's often combative style, both engaging and enjoyable, did take some digesting; and by the penultimate chapter, on Naturalism, I was beginning to feel like I'd been in a bar fight. A less exhaustive treatment in earlier chapters, or a more inclusive overview earlier in the book, and additively throughout the work, would have been helpful in hanging in there through later rounds.
The closing chapter, in which the author enters the domain of his "orthodox" christian beliefs, though, was a massive disappointment. There was so little effort expended to correlate orthodox christian teaching with the insights and conclusions about evolution that were, for me, established throughout the rest of the book.
Many of the statements tendered in that final chapter, then, come across as just as unsubstantiated and wish-fulfilling a "Just So Story" as anything concocted by the Ultra-Darwinism, atheism, or fundamentalist Christianity that Cunningham takes so thoroughly, (and successfully, in my view) to task in the rest of the work.
Given the book's title, if the point was to demonstrate that there aren't and never truly were any genuine deal-breaker conflicts between genuinely orthodox Christianity, and the actual Theory of Evolution, (as opposed to popular misconceptions about it and "interested" scientific and religious misrepresentations of it,) a whole lot more of the compare/contrast strategy, with cited quotation, that is so effective in exposing the shallowness of the Ultra-Darwinist or "religious fundamentalist" understanding/propaganda, should have been brought to bear on that crucial task.
A reprise of the author's many striking and singular points about the documented historical stance of the Church and Church Fathers towards evolutionary ways of understanding before Darwin, and theories of evolution after Darwin, which are interspersed through earlier chapters, would have been very effective and helpful to a reader who wants to get a real handle on what's really real vis-a-vis evolution and orthodox Christianity.
To me, in order to do that effort justice, a second volume is demanded; not a rushed few pages that can easily read like some diatribe/manifesto/tract, and a very unfortunately "fundamentalist" one, at that.
Granted, it's not advertised as a work of Christian apologetics, but it is bound to function as such, just by the title alone, and by the inclusion of that closing chapter on Christian belief, whether the author owns that intention or not.
But, also definitely granted, given how dry the material could seem, "Darwin's Pious Idea" is often a lot of fun to read, and definitely useful and informative on the titled topic. Very worthwhile in most every way. Best to be read in small pieces, maybe? Hopefully, Cunningham will bring us that much-needed and necessary second volume eventually.
He interweaves his meticulous research into a cohesive narrative arguing that God and Darwin are not incompatible, effectively destroying the strict materialist view of the world espoused by Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Coyne.
After vacillating over whether to give the book four or five stars, I decided there was not enough of Dr. Cunningham in his own book. The brilliant analytical mind he displays in the "Why Study..." videos on You Tube got a little lost in the shuffle along with a wealth of information presented using direct quotes of his sources.
On the other hand, the reader can't help being impressed by the breadth of knowledge displayed by Dr. Cunningham's detailed analysis of Darwin's theory. There is a bit of a problem with what I call "drinking from the fire hose," where information comes so fast and furious it becomes a little difficult to process. It was difficult to read more than one chapter in a sitting.
The book also deserved a better job of editing, in my opinion. Sometimes paragraphs went on for two pages like one long, uninterrupted thought.
Overall, this book was very thought-provoking and well worth the time to read. I highly recommend Darwin's Pious Idea, especially for anyone who read Dawkins's book The God Delusion and had their faith shaken by the strict materialist/atheist's perspective of evolution.