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Can a Darwinian be a Christian ?

Michael Ruse

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To purchase Can a Darwinian be a Christian ?

Title: Can a Darwinian be a Christian ?
Author: Michael Ruse
Genre: Science
Written: 2001
Length: 219 pages
Availability: Can a Darwinian be a Christian ? - US
Can a Darwinian be a Christian ? - UK
Can a Darwinian be a Christian ? - Canada
  • The Relationship between Science and Religion

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Our Assessment:

B : broad, interesting examination of whether Darwinism and Christianity clash

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
America . 9/12/2000 David S. Toolan
London Rev. of Books . 23/5/2002 Jerry Coyne
The NY Rev. of Books . 18/10/2001 Frederick C. Crews
TLS A 13/4/2001 John Habgood

  From the Reviews:
  • "Contrasts there are, but the alleged contradictions, Ruse argues, are misconceptions. Natural selection and divine providence are not to be opposed; they are explanations that take place at different conceptual levels (.....) The virtue of Ruse's book is that, one by one, he takes up all the serious questions that Darwinism can pose to the Christian worldview and systematically answers them." - David S. Toolan, America

  • "Michael Ruse's book is an astonishing contribution to this literature. It astonishes because of the bravado of its thesis. Instead of espousing Gould's tame view that religion and science are distinct but complementary, Ruse, a philosopher and historian of science, maintains that at least one form of science (Darwinism) and one form of religion (Christianity) are mutually reinforcing." - Jerry Coyne, London Review of Books

  • "(W)hat gets compromised when Ruse attempts to build this conciliatory case is his own fidelity to the essential features of Darwinism." - Frederick C. Crews, The New York Review of Books

  • "By concentrated argument around a number of themes -- the origin of life, the soul, design, miracles, pain, ethics, social Darwinism etc -- he manages to throw real light on the complexity of the issues, while suggesting how different standpoints might be re- conciled. Ruse's grasp of the subject, clarity of exposition, fair-mindedness and light touch make it a thoroughly stimulating exercise." - John Habgood, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Michael Ruse does not begin his book from neutral ground. The first sentences are:

Let me be open. I think that evolution is a fact and that Darwinism rules triumphant.
       Given the question that the book's title poses -- Can a Darwinian be a Christian ? -- it is a reasonable starting point. It is a somewhat odd question to be concerned about, but there is a value to posing it. Particularly in the United States there is a huge divide between Darwinists and Creationists, with the implicit (and occasionally explicit) claim that any good Christian can only believe in Creationism (and, conversely, the claim by some scientists that a belief in Darwinism precludes acceptance of the tenets of Christianity). Ruse usefully suggests that a Christian belief is not irreconcilable with a belief in natural selection and Darwinism (though it is, of course, irreconcilable with most Creationist claims).
       Ruse is both a scientist and a philosopher, and well-versed in theology. He was one of the expert witnesses at the 1981 Arkansas trial which struck down a law that had sought to impose the teaching of "creation science" alongside evolution. He has considered these issues long and hard, as becomes clear in his far-reaching analysis.
       Ruse begins with chapters defining Darwinism and Christianity, before exploring the ways in which these are thought to clash, the ways in which they do clash, and how they can reconciled. Though the subtitle suggests the book addresses "the relationship between science and religion", the focus is decidedly on Darwinism and on Christianity -- both Catholicism and the many strains of Protestantism. There is an historical overview of both Darwinism and Christianity, and what they have become in our age. From there Ruse moves on to address the issues that seem to make a belief in Darwinism and a belief in Christianity irreconcilable.
       First and foremost is the problem of the account of the beginnings of the world in Genesis. Taken literally this Bible-story clearly does not square with Darwinism. Ruse suggests that strictly literal interpretation of the Bible is, in fact, uncalled for -- one of the essential points to his approach. He suggests that during the course of history science has been often been accepted despite trumping a literal reading of the Bible, because even the Church recognized that the science was incontrovertible.
       Ruse sees (and calls for) flexibility in interpretation in addressing many of the troublesome questions seeming to separate a belief in Darwinism and a belief in Christianity. He cites many instances over the ages, and shows that both Catholics and Protestants have been willing to stretch their constructions of the Bible and other religious sources to also allow much of science to find room there.
       Some scientists also insist that a belief in Darwinism is irreconcilable with a belief in Christianity, and Ruse approaches the questions from their point of view as well, showing that the clear divide that these scientists see is, in fact, not very clear at all.
       Among the specific issues Ruse addresses are: "Humans", "Naturalism", "Pain", "Extraterrestials", "Christian Ethics", and "Freedom and Determinism". Some are more easily and convincingly reconciled than others; certainly, however, Ruse does a very good job of raising and discussing the many controversial points.
       Can a Darwinian be a Christian ? neatly presents and discusses the issues, in a straightforward and evenhanded manner. The main difficulty with the text is the difficulty with all theological debate: isn't it all about how many angels can fit on the tip of needle ? (i.e. isn't it all basically sophistry ?)
       The question whether a Darwinian can be a Christian depends primarily on one's definition of what being a Christian means (assuming that the definition of a Darwinian is fairly well established). It seems a very flexible term (despite Ruse's best efforts to define it for his purposes in this book), and it seems likely that those who have the greatest trouble accepting that a Christian could be a Darwinian (mainly members of American Protestant sects) will disagree with Ruse not so much on his science but on his theology. Ruse specifically addresses questions raised by some of the "leading" spokespeople for creation science theories, such as Philip Johnson and Alvin Plantinga, but it seems unlikely they would be convinced by how he frames the arguments.
       Non-Christians may wonder what all the fuss is about -- after all, those considering themselves Christians have often embraced ideas and undertaken actions that seem far-removed from the tenets of their religion (or seem a peculiar twisting of those tenets), from the Crusades to the Inquisition to countless other examples. Darwinism seems no different, though Christianity is, of course, a complex beast with many variations, not all of which are equally receptive to it. Certain interpretations of Darwinism (or the consequences of a belief in Darwinism) are difficult to reconcile with certain Christian ideas and ideals (and this is, indeed, Ruse's main focus), but Ruse's basic conclusion -- that a Darwinian can be a Christian -- does not seem a particularly stunning one.
       It is an interesting discussion of the issues, but many of them are decidedly odd issues, from transubstantiation to the nature of the soul. Surprisingly, these seem to be of concern to many people. Will this book convince those Christians who hesitate from embracing Darwinism because they believe it is irreconcilable with their faith ? Possibly, but one suspects that anyone whose thinking is so tied to their faith that they have not previously accepted Darwinism will not be won over by these arguments. Perhaps there are those that will be reassured by Ruse's explanation that one does not have to see the differences between Christianity and Darwinism as making them mutually exclusive, but likely such readers will not have worried too much about the issue, firm in both their religious faith and their belief in science.

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Can a Darwinian be a Christian ?: Reviews: Michael Ruse: Other books by Michael Ruse under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Michael Ruse was Professor of Philosophy and Zoology at the University of Guelph (Ontario) and currently teaches at Florida State University.

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