Herewith a peek at a forthcoming installment of "The Public Square" in First Things . Darwin’s Conservatives: The Misguided Quest is a vigorous polemic by John G. West of the Discovery Institute . Dr. West properly takes to task prominent conservatives such as George Will and Charles Krauthammer who, to all appearances, insouciantly ignore the serious arguments advanced by proponents of Intelligent Design and other critics of Darwinian ideology. There is considerable merit in West’s conclusion:
Conservatives who are discomfited by the continuing debate over Darwin’s theory need to understand that it is not about to go away. It is not going away because the accumulating discoveries of modern science undercut rather than confirm the claims of neo-Darwinism. It is not going away because Darwinism fundamentally challenges the traditional Western understanding of human nature and the universe. Finally, it is not going away because free men and women do not like to be told that there are some questions they are not allowed to ask, and there are some answers they are not allowed to question. The debate over Darwin is not a sideshow. It is central to arguments over moral relativism, personal responsibility, limited government, and scientific utopianism. If conservatives want to address root causes rather than just symptoms, they need to join the debate, not scorn it or ignore it.
However . . . I believe Dr. West goes too far when he insists that "mainstream Darwinists," or, for that matter, Darwin himself, have a monopoly on what today is meant by neo-Darwinism. West writes:
Other, more thoughtful, conservatives remain troubled by what they regard as the excesses of Darwinian ideologues, but they seem to think they can neutralize Darwinism by redefining it. For example, physicist Stephen Barr has argued in First Things that neo-Darwinism, properly understood, need not require a process that is “unguided” or “unplanned.” “The word ‘random’ as used in science does not mean uncaused, unplanned, or inexplicable; it means uncorrelated,” he insists. The problem is not that Barr is wrong about the appropriate meaning of “random,” but that mainstream Darwinists do not accept his point. As pointed out in the introduction, Darwinism from the start has been defined as an undirected process. That is its core, and that is why Darwin himself emphasized that “no shadow of reason can be assigned for the belief that variations . . . were intentionally and specially guided.” Barr may be correct that a more modest Darwinism that does not insist on evolution being undirected would be harmless, but the more salient point is that it would no longer be Darwinism. Conservatives cannot resolve the problems with Darwinian evolution merely by offering their own idiosyncratic definition of the term.
Stephen Barr’s understanding of neo-Darwinism is by no means "idiosyncratic." Among Christians who are superbly credentialed scientists and have written on these questions, see, for instance, Francis Collins’ The Language of God (reviewed in First Things in December 2006 and, yes, reviewed by Stephen Barr ). Among opponents of ideological Darwinism, it is commonly said that the three great intellectual and cultural heretics of modernity are Marx, Freud, and Darwin. The first two have fallen, and the third is teetering on the edge. This is a dramatic image but of limited usefulness. There is much that is untrue, and much that is morally odious, in the writings of Charles Darwin. But the goal is not to shatter the image of Darwin. The serious debate today is over the adequacy of the evolutionary theory that bears his name. Barr, Collins, and many other thinkers make the case that Christian faith is compatible with neo-Darwinian theory. It is possible that they are a minority among contemporary scientists who address these questions. But there is no reason, intellectually or strategically, to concede that another minority, that of stridently atheistic ideologues, defines what is "mainstream Darwinism." On the contrary, such a concession plays into the hands of those who would perpetuate what they have an interest in portraying as an inevitable war between science and religion.


Jason Byassee of the Christian Century wrote about six Protestant theologians who have in the last few years become Catholic . One of them, Bruce Marshall of Southern Methodist University and a former Lutheran, protests the suggestion that he had an idea of catholicity and then looked around for a church that most closely approximated that idea. He writes: "There have no doubt been converts who approached the matter in this way. But as for myself, I wasn’t drawn to the Catholic Church because I had a catholic vision; I had a catholic vision because I was drawn to the Catholic Church. A catholic vision of things is the work of the Catholic Church, built up and borne by it over time in aid of its own witness and self-understanding. This is a product of the Catholic Church ‘scrutinizing her own mystery,’ as Vatican II says in another connection. Such a vision depends upon the reality of the Catholic Church, without which it would not be attractive or credible." Rusty Reno of Creighton University, a former Anglican, says that the weighing of ecclesiastical options was irrelevant to his becoming Catholic. He writes "I didn’t so much choose to become Catholic as collapse into Catholicism out of a spiritual exhaustion that was as much a result of my own sinfulness and intellectualized perversity of heart as any defect or failure of the Episcopal Church. The sheer fact of the Catholic Church, its place as the prime substance of Christianity in the West, did not attract me. It was simply there, and it stopped me from falling into unbelief¯or worse, into a loveless simulacrum of belief that derives its life and energy from imagined roles of crusader-for-orthodoxy and defender-of-faith¯something my own acknowledged attraction to Newman’s polemical passages indicates was a real danger. I grant that one can theorize and theologize about the givenness of the Catholic Church and its role as source of Western Christianity (just as one can theologize about its betrayals of that role). But at least for me, the fact of the church worked upon me rather than any ideas or theories I might have had about ‘catholicity.’" (For a more complete statement of Reno’s decision to enter into full communion with the Catholic Church, see " Out of the Ruins. ") Both Marshall and Reno underscore that it is the very "thereness" of the Catholic Church that impresses itself upon the Christian mind and conscience. In discussing my own experience of being drawn into communion in my book Catholic Matters , I caution against the danger of devising an idea of what a truly catholic church would look like and then seeing which church most closely approximates the idea. Or, even worse, exploring whether the Catholic Church passes the test of one’s preferred theological construal of the Christian faith. As Bruce Marshall says, one isn’t drawn to the Catholic Church because one has a catholic vision; one has a catholic vision because one is drawn to the Catholic Church.

Articles by Richard John Neuhaus

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