Divorced not separate - Darwin and God

13 Mar 2009 08:57:00.000

PA /09 

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.

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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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Notes to Editors: The University of Nottingham is ranked in the UK's Top 10 and the World's Top 100 universities by the Shanghai Jiao Tong (SJTU) and Times Higher (THE) World University Rankings.

More than 90 per cent of research at The University of Nottingham is of international quality, according to RAE 2008, with almost 60 per cent of all research defined as ‘world-leading’ or ‘internationally excellent’. Research Fortnight analysis of RAE 2008 ranks the University 7th in the UK by research power. In 27 subject areas, the University features in the UK Top Ten, with 14 of those in the Top Five.

The University provides innovative and top quality teaching, undertakes world-changing research, and attracts talented staff and students from 150 nations. Described by The Times as Britain's "only truly global university", it has invested continuously in award-winning campuses in the United Kingdom, China and Malaysia. Twice since 2003 its research and teaching academics have won Nobel Prizes. The University has won the Queen's Award for Enterprise in both 2006 (International Trade) and 2007 (Innovation — School of Pharmacy), and was named ‘Entrepreneurial University of the Year’ at the Times Higher Education Awards 2008.

Nottingham was designated as a Science City in 2005 in recognition of its rich scientific heritage, industrial base and role as a leading research centre. Nottingham has since embarked on a wide range of business, property, knowledge transfer and educational initiatives (www.science-city.co.uk) in order to build on its growing reputation as an international centre of scientific excellence. The University of Nottingham is a partner in Nottingham: the Science City.

Story credits

More information is available from Dr Conor Cunningham on +44 (0)115 846 7390; conor.cunningham@nottingham.ac.uk 
Andrew Burden

Andrew Burden - Digital Communications Manager

Email: andrew.burden@nottingham.ac.uk Phone: +44 (0)115 846 8313 Location: University Park

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Published Date
Monday 9th March 2009

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