A hard-hitting new television documentary by a University of Nottingham academic is set to explode the myths created by extremists on both sides of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution.
Did Darwin Kill God? written and presented by Dr Conor Cunningham, is due to be broadcast on BBC 2 (Tuesday 31 March 2009) as part of the celebrations of 200 years of Darwin.
Based on his teaching and research, the programme sees Dr Cunningham travel from the Middle East to the United States, exploring the fallout created by Ultra Darwinists and Creationists alike. The documentary argues that it is not only entirely possible to be a Christian and accept evolution, it is right.
As far as Dr Cunningham — a philosopher and theologian — is concerned extremists have hijacked the debate between religion and evolution. This influence has created the populist notion that Darwin’s theory cancels out the possibility of God. On the other side of this pitched battle, fundamentalist Creationists reject evolution, blaming it for causing a perceived moral decline. It was the former view expressed by a friend in Dublin that inspired Dr Cunningham to delve deeper.
This view made him see just how prevalent and damaging (to both sides of the argument) these ‘urban myths’ are and how they are strangling a perfectly good debate.
Dr Cunningham said he was taken aback that his friend thought the debate was settled: “I’d never heard that at Cambridge, but then you come out of the ivory towers and you realise the cultural impact the popular writing of people like Richard Dawkins, for example, is having on people. They’re buying into what is complete urban myth.
“It’s not that evolution and religion were separate from the beginning, rather that they were divorced in the Twentieth Century.”
On the Creationist side, he argues that it was only recently that people began to ‘fetish-ise’ the bible. Only as recently as the Twentieth Century have people begun to narrowly interpret and apply the bible; Genesis specifically.
Dr Cunningham points out that this hasn’t always been the case: “In fact, throughout the 2,000 years of Christian tradition those who did take it literally were referred to as ill-educated and ignorant.”
“They all thought they could just open the Bible and understand it immediately. That’s an aberration, an anomaly of 2,000 years. It should never have happened because you have cults then, you have false prophets, you have pastors setting up their own churches and dominating their congregations.”
Dr Cunningham also points out that, ironically, it was eugenics — the social application of Ultra-Darwinism and which included forced sterilisations— that reinforced the position of the Creationists, giving them a sense of moral superiority.
Dr Cunningham interviewed experts on both sides in an effort to help debunk these myths, which include the notion that, before Columbus, people believed the world was flat.
“It’s just not true,” he says. “That was an urban myth invented in the Twentieth Century by an American author, but we all swallowed it. People didn’t really believe the Earth was flat. The Greeks didn’t and the Christians certainly didn’t because they based their cosmology on Aristotle, who certainly didn’t.
“It was not a catastrophe for the Christian tradition at all. In fact, Galileo was hated not for his model of astronomy, but because he was a bit of a nightmare. He was politically naïve, he was stubborn, hubristic, massively ambitious and massively political. That’s where the controversy came from; it wasn’t that he supported Copernicus.
“So these urban myths have gone in and you and I have been brought up since our mother’s lap that evolution opposes religion, but this is just nonsense.”
The documentary is based on five years of Dr Cunningham’s teaching at the University and the book based on his research. “It’s not about trying to prove the existence of God, or anything like that. If you think of Shakespeare it’s a plague on both their houses. It shows the Creationists and the Ultra Darwinists not only mirror each other, but deserve each other. Both their ideologies were based on fiction in many registers — scientifically, historically, philosophically and theologically.
“So in a way the documentary is a big effort of deflation, showing that they didn’t know what they were talking about and both were being so wilful and obstinate in their interpretation of the evidence, the implications of what they decided to extrapolate from it and the deep lack of responsibility when they communicated it to the public, especially post 9/11. The irresponsibility is just frightening.”
Dr Cunningham hopes his work and the documentary will help wrestle the debate back.
The one-hour documentary is due to be broadcast on Tuesday 31 March 2009 on BBC 2 at 19:00. A podcast interview with Dr Cunningham is now available for free download from The University of Nottingham Podcast – http://communications.nottingham.ac.uk/podcasts.html You can also subscribe for free to the podcast via rss feed and get all the latest episodes delivered to you – http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/podcasts/rss.xml
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