Darwin's Pious Idea
I have recently finished reading Conor Cunningham's book Darwin's Pious Idea: Why the Ultra-Darwinists and Creationists Both Get It Wrong (Eerdmans, 2010).
It is very long (564 pages) and very good.
The book displays a deeply impressive breadth and depth of knowledge in the fields of biology, philosophy (both ancient and modern, continental and analytic), and theology. The result is a critique of Dawkins and Dennett et al. like few (any?) others available.
Ultra-Darwinism (the view that makes Darwinism into a theory of everything) is hauled across the coals for being intellectually vacuous and as self-defeating. It is, argues Cunningham, out of touch with the latest work in biology and is philosophically crazy! If per impossible it is true then we can wave goodbye to religion (which is the basic goal of ultra-Darwinism) but also to persons (that's right, "you" do not exist), ethics, art, reason, and science itself (including Darwinism). So ultra-Darwinism is either false (in which case it is irrational to believe it) or, if it is true, irrational to believe (because if it is true we cannot trust our reason to give us true beliefs). Either way it is irrational to believe. (You'll have to read the book to see the argumentation behind this bold claim.)
And, of course, if (impossibly) this view is correct and there are no persons and no right and wrong (which Cunningham argues that this view entails) then if people come to believe it and to live consistently in the light of the belief then that is very bad news indeed.
But Cunningham is no anti-evolutionist. On the contrary, his constant complaint against Dawkins et al. is that they do not take evolution seriously enough. Cunningham thinks that evolutionism is a problem (he has no time for "selfish genes", "memes", or for the attempt to make science into first philosophy) but he is convinced that human beings are evolved creatures.
Creationists get less attention but are taken to task for verging on heresy and atheism (!!!) — a modern aberration on the landscape of Christianity. Cunningham's own theology of creation seeks to root itself in the patristic interpretation of Genesis (a radical christo-centric reading). The urge to interpret Genesis 1–3 as literal history is both silly, out of synch with the tradition (he claims), and theologically misleading.
What we are offered is a Radical Orthodox perspective on an issue of current debate that is perhaps the most intellectually rigorous engagement with the New Atheists that I have yet encountered. All the more interesting for its sympathy with Christian Platonism and Thomas Aquinas.
I was not persuaded by everything but this book just sizzles with stimulating material. You cannot read it and ignore it. Not least because Cunningham's writing style is polemical and funny — he is a master of put-downs — but also because he has a very strong case against philosophical materialism and ultra-Darwinism.
I recently read an ignorant editorial in a British newspaper that made the comment that what Bishops in the Church of England have failed to realize is that all the intellectual arguments are with the atheists. This book absolutely blows that claim out of the water. The ball is now very much in the New Atheists' camp. Until they have some good answers to these penetrating criticisms (most of which I have not even mentioned in this brief comment) then they cannot claim to represent the voice of reason or of science. And I must confess that I find it very hard to imagine that they can defuse the intellectual hand grenade that Cunningham has lobbed into their trench.
In brief: a demanding read but well worth the effort.