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The Evolving God: Charles Darwin on the Naturalness of Religion

Biography / Memoir

By: J David Pleins(Author)

171 pages, no illustrations

Continuum Publishing Company

Paperback | Aug 2013 | #215199 | ISBN-13: 9781623562472
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £19.99 $26/€22 approx
Hardback | no dustjacket | Aug 2013 | #215200 | ISBN-13: 9781623566524
Availability: Usually dispatched within 5 days Details
NHBS Price: £64.99 $84/€71 approx

About this book

In focusing on the story of Darwin's religious doubts, scholars too often overlook Darwin's positive contribution to the study of religion.

J. David Pleins traces Darwin's journey in five steps. He begins with Darwin's global voyage, where his encounter with religious and cultural diversity transformed his understanding of religion. Surprisingly, Darwin wrestles with serious theological questions even as he uncovers the evolutionary layers of religion from savage roots. Next, we follow Darwin as his doubts about traditional biblical religion take root, affecting his career choice and marriage to Emma Wedgwood. Pleins then examines Darwin's secret notebooks as he searches for a materialist theory of religion. Again, other surprises loom as Darwin's reading of Comte's three stages of religion's development actually predate his reading of Malthus. Pleins explores how Darwin applied his discovery to the realm of ethics by formulating an evolutionary view of the "Golden Rule" in his Descent of Man. Finally, he considers Darwin's later reflections on the religion question, as he wrestled with whether his views led to atheism, agnosticism, or a new kind of theism.

The Evolving God concludes by looking at some of the current religious debates surrounding Darwin and suggests the need for a deeper appreciation for Darwin as a religious thinker. Though he grew skeptical of traditional Christian dogma, Darwin made key discoveries concerning the role and function of religion as a natural evolutionary phenomenon.

"This book is the most nuanced discussion of Darwin's religious views that I have seen. At a time when studies of Darwin's ideas and even devotion to Darwin are at a high point, this particular work calmly, methodically, insightfully and without polemic treats Darwin's religious sensibilities in such a way as to overcome countless biases and inaccuracies in many previous discussions. Its lucid style and readability make it an attractive book for both undergraduate and graduate students, but also for a very wide readership beyond the academy."
– John F. Haught, Senior Fellow, Science & Religion, Georgetown University, USA,

"In this masterful overview, the author helpfully shifts the discussion about Darwin and religion away from Darwin's 'loss of faith' to a more nuanced picture of Darwin as the theist/deist/agnostic who continued to engage with religion, indeed intellectually struggled over religion, until his dying day. The book subverts the polarised narratives of the 'new atheists' and provides instead a more relevant text for the contemporary interaction between science and religion."
– Denis Alexander, Emeritus Director, The Faraday Institute for Science and Religion, St. Edmunds College, University of Cambridge, UK,

"A thoughtful and comprehensive treatment of Charles Darwin's thinking about religion, brought vividly to life by a warm and genuine sympathy for the people and their ideas. It is a book to be read both by the expert and the general reader."
– Michael Ruse, Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor of Philosophy, Director of the Program in the History and Philosophy of Science, Florida State University, USA,

"J. David Pleins sets out to do one thing, and he does it very well. He presents, and discusses, Charles Darwin's thought about God and religion. This goes far further than addressing the chestnut whether, and at what stage, Darwin was a Christian believer, a more general theist, an agnostic, or an atheist, although that question is discussed carefully. Indeed, like the rest of the book, it is addressed with meticulous reference to primary texts: principally letters and notebooks, supplemented by accounts of conversations documented by others. [...] A sensible plea for contemporary debates to be as informed and thoughtful as Darwin's own. [...] Darwin has more to offer contemporary religious thought than even his magisterial work on physical evolution would suggest."
– The Revd Dr Andrew Davison, Tutor in Doctrine at Westcott House, Cambridge, UK., The Church Times

"Pleins (Santa Clara Univ.) provides a brief but thoroughly documented study of Darwin's lifelong engagement with religious belief. The title is somewhat misleading. This is not a book about an "evolving Cod" (a theological claim); instead, as the subtitle suggests, it is a study of Darwin's own developing insights into the evolution of human religion. As described by Pleins, Darwin developed a compelling case in The Descent of Man for the evolution of religion and morality, but struggled for the rest of his life with the possible consequences of that discovery: atheism, agnosticism, or a new kind of theism? In his conclusion, Pleins recommends the example of Darwin's critical reflection in contrast to "the fuming of the fundamentalists and the posturing of the New Atheists," and hopes that this approach can point the way to a deeper understanding of the relation between religion and science. Since the author's 11 3 pages of text are backed up with 34 pages of notes and an additional 1 3-page bibliography, this book provides not just a challenging argument, but also a wide range of references for anyone wishing to look further into the topic. Summing Up: Recommended. Upper-division undergraduates and above."
– C. D. Kay, Wofford College, Choice

"This is a marvelous book on Darwin and religion." – Keith Stewart Thomson, Oxford University, Reports of the National Center for Science Education

"Given the flurry of activity and publications in 2009 coinciding with the bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the sesquicentennial of the publication of the Origin of Species, it could be supposed that there would be little more to say about Darwin's contemporary significance. The book proves that supposition wrong. [ [...] ] Drawing primarily on Darwin's Descent of Man, this book argues, convincingly in my view, that more can be said about Darwin's search for explanation with respect to religious beliefs. [ [...] ] What is striking, however, about Pleins's account is the extent to which historical details are used to inform his position. This makes for a lively and readable account that will be attractive in a teaching context. [ [...] ] [T]his book needs to be read and widely appreciated in both scholarly and pedagogical contexts." – Horizons (Celia Deane-Drummond, University of Notre Dame)


Preface: Charles Darwin and the Evolution of Religion

1. Unsettling Encounters: First Steps Toward an Evolutionary View of Religion
2. A Painful Void: Darwin's Religious Doubts
3. Did Religion Evolve?: The Search for a Theory
4. The Golden Rule: An Evolutionary Vision of Religion and Morality
5. A Certain Sympathy: Darwin and the Creed of Science

Conclusion: Reflecting on Darwin Today

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J. David Pleins is Professor of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University, USA. He is the author of When the Great Abyss Opened: Classic and Contemporary Readings of Noah's Flood (2003), and served as an associate editor for Doubleday's The Anchor Bible Dictionary (1992).

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