In praise of Darwin

2009-02-20 00:00

All the arguments about religion being so bad for us (Christopher Hitchens’s book God Is Not Great is a bestseller) take no account of the fact that religion produces jolly good art and music. Actually, it produces a lot more, like missionary hospitals and the Gift of the Givers and Desmond Tutu.

Atheist Matthew Parris in a recent London Times column admits ruefully that life in his native Malawi would be catastrophic without the missionaries — who don’t frequent fancy hotels and drive large 4x4s like the international aid agencies’ staff but just get on with providing health, education and care.

But it is art and music that I am talking about, not charitable good works. A very civilised way to absorb religion culturally is to listen to Anglican choral evensong. Each Wednesday, BBC Radio 3 broadcasts evensong from some cathedral, abbey or school. You get to hear beautiful music, beautifully read Bible passages, brief prayers and no sermon! The point of the exercise is simply to glorify the creator with the best that human art can conceive. We can’t get Radio 3 direct in South Africa, but those of you with access to the Internet can hear it streamed for free a day or two later if you go on to the BBC website, search for choral evensong and follow the links.

Two weeks ago the service came from Truro Cathedral. The canticles were well known (Howell’s Collegium Regale), but it was the anthem that caught my attention. I had never heard of the composer, one Jonathan Dove, apparently a well-known composer of opera and choral music. Google says that he has even written a musical comedy produced at Glyndebourne about, of all things, an airport.

The anthem from Truro was called Seek Him that Maketh the Seven Stars. It was all about the wonder, the glory and the beauty of creation. Truro Cathedral chose that anthem to mark the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth on February 12, 1809.

Now there’s a thing. Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins would have you believe that all religious people hate Darwin. And, I suppose, some religious people do. But here was Truro Cathedral celebrating him and all the new understandings that Darwin and scientists who followed him have opened up for us. Thanks to Darwin and his successors, we know more of the marvels of the universe.

Cordwalles Preparatory School in Pietermaritzburg has opened its rebuilt pre-primary school. The new wing is called the David Rattray building. We were told at the opening ceremony that David was born under the wing of an aeroplane. His father had to land hastily as the birth was unexpectedly imminent. Thus David’s nickname was iBhanoyi, the Zulu name for an aeroplane. The new pre-primary building is in his memory. And to mark that memory they have erected a statue of a boy, arms outstretched, aeroplane-like, in delight as he plays in the water of the fountain. The statue is titled Bhanoyi. I find it an unexpectedly moving statue. It speaks to me of the sheer joy of being young, alive and part of creation.

Here’s the point. Both the atheist evolutionists and the fundamentalist creationists, as they grimly argue with each other, are in danger of missing out on that joy. Perhaps, as the Dawkins camp would have us believe, the world has no creator, but is just a combination of coincidence in a universe of infinite chances. It is nevertheless a wonderful thing. Or perhaps, as I believe, the long process of evolution to which Darwin first pointed us is just the way in which a creator enabled and allowed the elements of life — the genes, the cells, the protons and electrons — to forge a universe over unimaginable ages. That’s still a wonderful thing.

Neither scientists nor theologians have the last word yet on the mystery of the origin of life. But together we can wonder at life around us and sing of our enjoyment. We may disagree about how life came about, but together we can immerse ourselves with delight in creation. We can treasure every tiny detail and abandon ourselves to being carried along in the energy of an unfolding universe.

Coincidence or gift, either way the universe is for celebrating, as the boy in the statue reminds us.

So happy birthday, Mr Darwin, wherever you are. And thank you for opening our eyes.

• Ron Nicolson is a retired academic and an Anglican priest.

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