I’m a little late getting to this but I still feel it’s worth talking about. On Sunday 14th September, Reverend Dr Malcolm Brown made headlines with his essay “Good religion needs good science“. In the essay, Rev Dr Brown discusses how science is not necessarily incompatible with Christianity, warns of the dangers of social darwinism and makes an apology to Charles Darwin on behalf of the Anglican church, that is, the Church of England. I confess that what interests me more than the essay or apology itself is the reaction to it.
The Daily Mail leaps on this story with a response from a great-great grandson of Darwin, Andrew Darwin, who admits to being bemused by the apology and seeing it as kind of pointless, and a quote from a former Conservative Minister, Anne Widdecombe, which I will return to later. The Telegraph provides the full quote from Andrew Darwin. An article from The Guardian notes that this apology comes from the church’s head of public affairs and a spokesperson from the Church of England confirms that this does not constitute an official apology from the church. It places Rev Dr Brown’s article among a series of articles which the Anglican church is running in the approach to the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth next year.
While some have mocked the way that Brown has addressed the apology to Darwin personally, I do feel that seeing the Church of England make an effort to engage with the theory of evolution is a positive thing. Although some may see the Anglican church as somewhat irrelevant to modern living and ineffectual (see comedian Eddie Izzard’s take on what would have happened if the Church of England had run the Spanish Inquisition), it is still an institution with a lot of power and influence and, back in the day, the main opponent of Darwin’s theory. By recognizing the achievements of Darwin and embracing science as a tool for learning about the world, the Anglican church is disassociating itself from Creationism and the knee-jerk opposition to science shown by fundamentalists. In this way, it is fine to take one’s morals from the teachings of the Bible, and it is fine to take one’s understanding of the physical world from experimentation, observation and the ongoing testing of hypotheses.
At this point, I would like to return to one particular reaction mentioned above. If I may quote from former Conservative Minister Anne Widdecombe:
‘It’s absolutely ludicrous. Why don’t we have the Italians apologising for Pontius Pilate? We’ve already apologised for slavery and for the Crusades. When is it all going to stop? It’s insane and makes the Church of England look ridiculous.’
I can understand how she might feel that an apology to Darwin is ridiculous and pointless, after all, the theory of evolution is still holding firm today and it hasn’t really damaged Darwin’s reputation that much looking back from this point in history, but comparing this to apologising for the Crusades and slavery? Viewed from today’s perspective, the Crusades resemble little more than a landgrab coupled with war on a people because of their differing beliefs. As for slavery, I think forcefully taking people from their land, treating them as property and subjecting them to innumerable cruelties is a little bit more serious than bruised academic pride. Honestly told, I imagine an apology is quite inadequate in these cases.
Personally, I am all in favour of institutions recognising the wrongs committed in their name and making some contribution to the efforts to right those wrongs, and I believe that the Anglican church’s attempt to discuss and understand the theory of evolution and Darwin’s work are entirely appropriate and to be encouraged.