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intelligent-designFor centuries in English-speaking countries, mainstream history and science textbooks have taken it for granted that the Catholic Church was one of greatest single forces that kept the “Dark Ages” dark, by suppressing free inquiry, persecuting innovators, and keeping books out of the hands of ordinary people. As Baylor sociologist Rodney Stark (among others) has shown, there is precious little truth in those stereotypes, which were mostly warmed-over lies left lying around from the “Enlightenment”—a complex movement whose loudest and most successful self-publicists (such Voltaire and Diderot) were radically anti-Christian.

But most of these self-proclaimed “philosophes” (e.g., wise guys) knew they couldn’t admit what they really thought about Christianity in general, so they focused on speaking ill of the Catholic Church in particular, counting on hard feelings left over from the Reformation to convince Protestant readers that their beef wasn’t with Jesus or the Bible—just with the papacy. Alas, many Protestants fell for that tactic, and uncritically accepted frankly false notions of history—not realizing that the pig they’d bought in a poke would lead them snuffling straight to secularism.

Let’s examine the assertion that Christian faith is incompatible with science. Leaving aside the vague impressions that linger in your mind from old, biased history books and Monty Python sketches, what would faith possibly have to fear from science?

Please note that I am using here the contemporary definition of “science,” which covers only fields where hypotheses can be tested by empirical experiment, such as chemistry, or theoretical proofs, such as physics. That leaves out the shaky “social sciences,” which almost never prove anything and rest on ideological assumptions, and the so-called human sciences such as history—which are really liberal arts dressed up in white lab coats.

On the face of it, the Christian faith doesn’t even overlap with science, so there cannot be a conflict. None of the articles of faith that a Christian must accept can be tested by empirical experiment or theoretical proof. Short of a time machine that could take you back to Jesus’s tomb on Easter morning, science just shoots off from faith in a diagonal direction. Christianity rests on a series of historical events, for which there’s compelling evidence, and principally on the event of the Resurrection, for which there were eleven seemingly sane eyewitnesses who were willing to die rather than deny it. We have much less proof of which Roman senators murdered Julius Caesar. Indeed, historians routinely build elaborate theories based on single fragments of parchment, or gossipy, tendentious memoirs.

But what about evolution? someone will jump in and demand. The answer is simply, “What about it?” For centuries, science was unable to offer any insight at all about how the earth was populated by millions of different species, so even brilliant scientists such as Newton, Kepler, and yes, Galileo, leaned on the Book of Genesis for answers. As mostly Christian scientists, unhindered by any Church prohibitions on asking such questions, came up with natural explanations for things like fossils, some scientists then stepped back and acted shocked—as if the Church had ever sold the Bible as a geology or biology textbook. Of course, it hadn’t. Nevertheless, many believers found Charles Darwin’s insights into the development of species unsettling. They’d been using the magnificent design apparent in creation as proof of a Creator, and naturalistic explanations such as Darwin’s seemed to knock out one leg of their apologetics. Some Protestants had been resting on biblical literalism, which Darwin seemed to deflate.

They really needn’t have worried. As far back as St. Augustine, Christians had known that the Book of Genesis was not an attempt at a literal, scientific recounting of the means by which God made the world. Augustine himself had noted that the “days” mentioned in Genesis were probably not twenty-four-hour periods, but might have been lengthy eons. The Catholic Church did indeed speak up and reject some of the many fanciful, false, even toxic speculations that ambitious thinkers quickly spun out from Darwin’s theory of natural selection. Several popes insisted that no, you cannot use Darwin to justify atheism, nihilism, pantheism, or the “eugenic” sterilization of people who fail IQ tests (Darwin’s nephew, Francis Galton, used his family connections to promote the last one). You can’t agree with the Nazis that blacks and whites, Jews and “Aryans,” are unrelated species that evolved separately as natural enemies. We don’t need papal authority to see all that, but simple logic: none of those conclusions even follow from their premises.

There is only a short list of things relevant to evolutionary debates that the Catholic Church takes from Genesis as essential to faith, which Pius XII helpfully listed in the lucid encyclical Humani Generis (1950). Most Christians would agree with each of them, affirming that we must believe that:

  1. “Souls are immediately created by God” (36);
  2. All human beings are members of a single family, from a single set of human parents intentionally created by God (37);
  3. Original sin refers to “a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own” (37).

It is hard to see how biologists or geologists could prove, disprove, or even test any of these assertions, so from the viewpoint of faith, we’re good. You would think that if all science advocates wanted was the freedom to pursue their research unhindered by clerical meddling, then such a statement would have satisfied them.

But for far too many moderns, science has become a new religion all its own whose authority bubbles up and overflows the narrow channels of disciplined experiment and responsible speculation. As we know from reading his journals and other works published after his death, Charles Darwin was so troubled by the problem of evil that he wanted to disprove God’s existence. It was essential to him, for personal and not scientific reasons, that natural selection rule out entirely the possibility that some divine Design lay behind the process, or that man’s sudden eruption was part of God’s creative plan.

In other words, natural selection must connect every dot and leave no room at all for any divine Purpose behind the processes of biology. Of course, as many critics of Darwinism and proponents of “intelligent design” like to point out, there are, by necessity, gaping holes in every version of materialistic Darwinism. The events we are trying to reconstruct took place long before any man ever walked the earth, and we cannot experimentally try to replicate them—taking millions of years to sit back and see if intelligent life randomly pops up somewhere else. Even then, how could we “prove” the absence of divine design? Why do so many who claim that they are merely defending “science” from “dogmatic” creationism insist that school textbooks (including kindergarten texts) explicitly assert what science cannot possibly know one way or the other: That evolution is a purely material process that happened randomly, with no guiding purpose or design? In other words, that we must choose between atheist materialism or a Christian version of The Flintstones?

Now it would be one thing if scientists wished to make sure that we didn’t lazily stop doing research into the origins of life—by sitting back and saying “God did it. Stop funding science.” But no one (outside, perhaps, the Islamic world) is advocating that. The ideologues who lean on evolutionary theory aren’t worried that Catholics and Baptists want to shutter M.I.T. Instead, they are committed to teaching another religion, materialism, and fighting to stomp out “heresy.” For proof, don’t read some lazy atheist blogger, but Dr. Richard Lewontin, Alexander Agassiz Professor of Zoology and Professor of Biology at Harvard University, the author of The Genetic Basis of Evolutionary Change and Biology as Ideology. Lewontin confessed his faith back in 1997 this way:

We take the side of science in spite of the patent absurdity of some of its constructs, in spite of its failure to fulfill many of its extravagant promises of health and life, in spite of the tolerance of the scientific community for unsubstantiated just-so stories, because we have a prior commitment, a commitment to materialism. It is not that the methods and institutions of science somehow compel us to accept a material explanation of the phenomenal world, but, on the contrary, that we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counter-intuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door.

We Christians really do reject such blinkered Harvard dogmatism.

This is an excerpt from The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism. Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (September 2016). 

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11 replies to this post
  1. In order to disprove the notion that Catholicism is somehow hostile to science, it is enough to list all of the Catholic priests who were also the fathers of modern science. Modern genetics, to take just one branch, was the brainchild of a Catholic priest. There is no need for any elaborate arguments, just a list of great Catholic scientists throughout the ages.

    As for evolution; the Catholic Church accepts that it is the best scientific explanation for development of life in the universe, and indeed the development of the universe itself. “Intelligent Design” is not science, and it is likewise poor religion. Catholics ought not allow themselves to be misled by it.

    Americans need go no further in their quest for understanding these issues than our very own Detroit, Michigan born Jesuit Brother Dr. Guy Consolmagno – the current director of the Vatican Observatory.

    One good quote from an interview with him on intelligent design (from Celestial Navigation):

    “This is a marvelous example of a beautiful idea that has been captured by people who have twisted its meaning. I believe in God and see God’s presence in the beautiful logic of the universe, so I could use the word “designer” in that sense, and that is the traditional sense. But people who think they can use science to prove the existence of God make science more powerful than God. So in the end the god they’re trying to prove is no longer the real God. People who say “I don’t understand how this occurs in nature, therefore that must be where God exists,” have reduced God from the supernatural God that is the foundation of everything, into a nature-god that throws lightning bolts. And God is reduced to a pagan nature god. That’s the danger. Science is a way of stumbling towards a truth that we will never completely capture. And science is a very, very shaky ground on which to build your religion because the science of the year 2200 will look very different from the science of 2013.”

    Father George Coyne – also a Jesuit, and the head of the Vatican Observatory under Pope Benedict XVI – is another fine example of Catholic thought on science and religion. Both men are PhDs in their respective fields of the natural sciences, and are published and accomplished scientists.

    Intelligent Design is not science, and it is also bad religion. Anglo-American Christian thinkers (particularly protestants) are often stuck in a rut about this because their theology is fundamentally materialistic, thus when material science is incapable of discovering God (and it is), they panic and try to devise something which is neither science nor theology.

    Anglo-Americans need to appreciate the traditions of the Eastern Catholic Churches more and liberate themselves from the notion that ‘Catholicism” necessarily means only what is really Roman Catholicism or Latin Catholicism. The insights of the Eastern Catholic Church do much to cure Anglo-American Catholics of modes of thought deeply rooted in protestantism which have led to the strange debate between “science and religion” that predominates in the United States.

    • I have little problem with the *idea* of Intelligent Design, meaning an unseen force (meaning God) that has guided evolution from the start. In fact, it seems a lot more plausible to me than the notion that life somehow arose from dirt and mud, and then, all on its own, developed into the millions of different creatures we have today. Granted, it’s not science in the strict sense of the term, since it can’t be proven or disproven, but it seems a fair stand to take on philosophical grounds.

      • Plasability is often contrary to what is demonstraly true. As hard as it is to accept, all serious science to date demonstrates that evolution was random. The great difficulty is recognizing that just because evolution is random does not mean that the meaning of our human lives are random, or that the meaning of human history is random. This has partly to do with the fact that random evolution has led to beings who are not random in their thought – in other words, out of Chaos – Order, which is actually the poetic truth of the Genesis account in the Bible.

        I have argued the point in an essay here on TIC which I recommend, namely Quiet Desperation and the Continental Way.

        Intelligent Design, if we take it as a common sense concept -the idea that there is a Supreme Intelligence (God) who created the the Universe – is indeed harmless and true. Sadly, in the modern world, intelligent design often ventures to make scientific arguments for God – this is, to my mind, actually counter-productive to both science and theology.

        I am deeply saddened by the fact that many Christians who do not know that they do not know science venture to make absurd claims about science, while many people who accept the state of present scientific knowledge (as they should), but who have no understanding of religion in general or Christianity in particular, make absurd claims about religion.

        This is a peculiarly Western problem. In Eastern Europe, it is obvious to everyone except a tiny minority in love with all thing Western that physics, biology and chemistry are valid and that God exists and Christ is his Son – and there is absolutely no contradiction between the two, nor is there any need to debunk biology in order to worship Christ.

        • Here’s my problem. If Darwinism is true, then it means the Bible is false. Which means Christianity is also false, just another fairy tale. The Darwinists have cunningly succeeded in slipping this narrative into the public imagination, that science has trumped God, and that only fools or simpletons believe in the latter whereas smart people believe in the former.

  2. Excellent remarks. I believe reading the Scriptures the way they were intended–in the case of Genesis, as a creation myth which turned the babylonian myths on their head–would eliminate any supposed “conflict” with science, and allow us to examine ancient Jewish cosmology, numerology, and symbolism to more clearly observe the Hebrews’ nuanced, fantastical conception of the world, often bearing far more truth into man’s personhood than science is even intended to.

  3. The medieval Book of Nature, is the theological/philosophical foundation for western science.

    Francis Bacon believed it to be required reading for the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

  4. So, Darwin was so troubled by evil, possibly thinking that God was it’s source, he had to come up with a scientific mathod to disprove the existence of God. That information about Darwin is new to me. I have suspected that the manufactured friction between science and religion is bogus atheistic propaganda. A thorn Satan uses to stir the Pot of discord.

    I also did not know there was a “nervous ” tension within religion when science cannot prove the existence of God. Is proving the existence of God part of the scientific vocation? Philosophical/scientific arguments about God are entirely different than faith in God.

    That DNA is the key to the fact that information is needed for procreation to go forth leaves, in my mind, Darwin in the dust. But, he isn’t here to carry on the discussion!

    • Good points. I think a lot of religious people resent Darwinism not for its own sake, but because there’s a long history of scientists trying to use Darwinism as a weapon to attack and discredit religion.

  5. Note: when I say “Darwinism” above, I mean Darwinism as defined by Richard Dawkins et al., meaning an explanation for life that is purely materialist in nature. CS Lewis wrestled with this idea when he talked about the Naturalist vs the Supernaturalist, that one acknowledged only Nature, the other both Nature and God.

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