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Monday, July 13, 2009

John Brooke Responds to Daniel Dennett

Last week, we posted (via Jerry Coyne) Daniel Dennett's report on a session about evolution and religion at the Darwin Festival at Cambridge University. (Dennett thought the session was "wonderfully awful.") Philip Clayton and Wentzel van Huyssteen, who participated in the session, then responded.
Now, John Brooke, a historian of science at the University of Oxford, has weighed in. Here's what he had to say:

Having had the privilege of speaking alongside Dan Dennett in one of the plenary sessions at the Cambridge Darwin Festival, it may be helpful if I comment on his negative reaction to the theology focus session at which Wentzel van Huyssteen was one of the speakers. It is clear that Dennett shares the view of Richard Dawkins and others that theology has nothing whatsoever to contribute to serious intellectual discourse. He prefaced his remarks at the theology session by saying that he had attended it because he and Richard are often accused of not taking theology seriously enough and he was willing to listen. Two issues appeared to confirm his antipathetic predisposition: the apparent bending of theology to scientific results coupled with an inability of theology to give anything back; and, secondly, the references to a kenotic understanding of God's relationship to the world, the word "kenotic" apparently being new to him. He evidently latched onto it as a symbol of theology's suicide—an emptying of meaning.
I had the opportunity to press him a little on what, if anything, he believed theology could or should contribute to the discussion of science and its cultural implications. He appeared to agree with me that one could not reasonably expect a contribution that would be constitutive of the cognitive content of science. (I should add that as a historian I am well aware that such a constitutive role was played by theology in the past and I made that point in the discussion associated with the plenary session. A striking example would be the contribution of a radical Unitarian theology in the shape of Joseph Priestley to the very foundations of neuroscience as a discipline).
From what Dan said to me informally, I inferred that if theology was to command his respect it would have to be able to offer a clarification of terms used in serious philosophical discourse. This was of course the response of a philosopher! He did not give an example because our conversation was interrupted by the need to address our audience. But it has occurred to me that in a week when the word "creationism" was frequently used as a term of abuse, theology does have a responsibility to distinguish clearly between the many different meanings of "creation." Minimally there must be the distinction between creation understood as a series of separate acts in the independent production of distinct species (the view that Darwin so ably and, in my view, so persuasively contested) and creation in the more profound sense of the dependence of all that is (including evolutionary processes) on a transcendent power. There would, of course, be much more to be said, in the light of existentialist theologies in which creation means the creation of an authentic attitude in the believer toward a world described by science. But this is not the place to elaborate on the multiple meanings of the term.