Monday, May 12, 2008

Sunday Book Review: Monkey Trials & Gorilla Sermons by Peter Bowler (Harvard Press, 2007)

In Monkey Trials & Gorilla Sermons, Peter Bowler offers a comprehensive history of the debate between evolution and religion. Breaking from the growing, aggressively anti-religious, sentiment of other recent treatments of the clash between science and religion (e.g., Dawkins, Dennett, Hitchens, Harris), Bowler strikes an intentionally conciliatory tone. Indeed, he begins by noting that the purpose of his book is to show that “”a rigidly polarized model of this relationship [between science and religion] benefits only those who want us to believe that no compromise is possible.” (p. 3). His effort to be objective has led to a balanced, insightful treatment that identifies subtleties in both sides of the debate.

He devotes considerable attention to diversity of Christian perspective, and its historical evolution; why do some Christians accept evolution without a fuss while other consider it a literal battle for their souls that cannot be lost? Bowler follows Ruse in dichotomizing Christians into pre- and postmellenialist factions, and suggesting that this philosophical distinction is tied to ones willingness to accept of something other than a literal interpretation of Genesis. To the premillienalists, a group that includes most modern evangelicals in the United States, accepting evolution not only rejects their belief in a literal interpretation of the bible, but also defies their core conviction that humanity is fundamentally sinful and incapable improving our situation on earth. An interesting point, and one that seems theologically important. I’m not sure I’m ready to grant this depth of understanding to most practicing evangelicals, but there must be something beyond textual misinterpretation inspiring their ignorance.

A minor gripe; there are some cases that suggest a comparative perspective has not been fully considered. On page 22, for example, it is suggested that “...Christianity is unique among religions in seeing suffering as an integral part of the relationship between the human and the divine.” What about Buddhism, whose four noble truths begin with “life means suffering”?

In addition to critical analysis of religion’s perspective, Bowler also provides insight into the perspective of the ‘Darwinians’. In his final Chapter (“Modern Debates”), for example, he considers the basis for Dawkins and Dennett’s rejection of religions as memes whose conflict will inevitably be harmful to society.

I’m sure everyone on both sides will find something to complain about here, but hopefully they won’t let this stop them from reading this contribution.

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