As science advances, shrinking the domain of explanation previously provided by religion, the faithful frantically seek ways to show that religious dogma remains compatible with science. All too often this involves retrofitting: retinkering with or reconceiving of scripture in a way that comports what you must believe (if you accept science) with what you want to believe (your faith).
In January of this year the Pope established a “science and faith” foundation designed to wrest some kind of harmony out of these disparate magisteria. As The Catholic News Agency reported:
Pope Benedict XVI launched a new foundation at the Vatican aimed at building a “philosophical bridge” between science and theology.
“I don’t think most people necessarily see science and faith as being opposed but I do think there is confusion as to where to put faith and where to put science in their life,” said executive director Father Tomasz Trafny.
“So the question for us is how to offer a coherent vision of society, culture and the human being to people who would like to understand where to put these dimensions – the spiritual and religious and the scientific,” he told CNA on Jan. 19.
The Science and Faith Foundation will be headquartered at the Holy See under the leadership of Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, President of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
This foundation was mentioned in a meeting this week in Rimini, Italy, where two religious academics, Ian Tattersall of the American Museum of Natural History (a well known anthropologist who works on human evolution) and William E. Carroll, a theologian at Oxford, firmly proclaimed that science and faith are best friends forever.
Their reasons will be familiar to readers. As CNA reported yesterday, Tattersall and Carroll called for a productive dialogue between science and faith. They also engaged in a bit of theology:
“A proper understanding of creation, especially an understanding set forth by a thinker such as Thomas Aquinas, helps us to see that there is no conflict between evolutionary biology or any of the natural sciences and a fundamental understanding that all that ‘is’, is caused by God,” Professor William E. Carroll of Oxford University’s theology faculty told CNA Aug. 22.
“Evolutionary biology is that area of science which helps us to understand better the origin and development of human beings, but whatever those arguments are in evolutionary biology they, in principle, do not conflict with the fundamental understanding that all that ‘is’ is created by God,” Carroll said.
. . . “God causes the world to be the kind of world which it is and the natural sciences help to disclose what kind of a world we have,” Carroll explained.
. . . “One of the great insights of the Pope, which he continually emphasizes, is an enlargement of reason, a recognition that rationality is not limited to what the natural sciences do but that there’s a larger sense of rationality that includes both philosophy and theology,” Carroll said.
Who is to blame for the Big Rift between science and religion? One guess:
[Carroll] suggested that the recent debate has occasionally become confused by the interventions of high-profile scientists like Richard Dawkins or Lawrence Krauss.
Both, he claimed, “are really ignorant of philosophy and theology, and so they make all sorts of goofy philosophical and theological claims.”
Sorry, but the debate has been “confused” ever since science began showing that the claims of religion, including Catholicism, are not credible. And that debate has been lively since 1896, when Andrew Dickson White, co-founder of Cornell University, published his two volume anti-accommodationist opus History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. It continued, of course, with the writings of atheists like Bertrand Russell, H. L. Mencken, and Carl Sagan. (If you want to see how stridently anti-religious the Old Atheism could be, read Bertrand Russell’s “An outline of intellectual rubbish.“)
The key to Carroll’s weaselly accommodationism lies in two phrases: “a proper understanding of creation” and “whatever those arguments are in evolutionary biology they, in principle, do not conflict with the fundamental understanding that all that ‘is’ is created by God” (my emphases).
“Proper understanding,” when spoken by a theologian, always means “my understanding,” that is, the speaker’s own interpretation of scripture. And that translates further to this: “I am the authority on which parts of the Bible were meant literally, and which metaphorically.” The fact is that Carroll’s understanding of the Bible and of God is no better than anyone else’s. Yes, we know that science has rendered huge swaths of religion—nearly all of it, in fact—unbelievable. But the faithful still want to hold onto some science-defying religious truths, like the reality of Adam and Eve, the existence of a soul and Original Sin, the virgin birth of Jesus, and Jesus’s resurrection. Does Carroll accept, then, the reality of Adam and Eve as the progenitors of humanity, a doctrine officially affirmed by the church in Humani Generis (article 37)? That, of course, is absolutely contradicted by recent findings in population genetics showing that modern humans could never have had a population smaller than about 1200.
And no conflicts “in principle”? All that means is that with the proper tweaking of theology, reading bits of it (without justification) as metaphor, we can comport some bits of the Bible with scripture. The problem is that many Americans (about 40%), a sizable fraction of Christians and Jews in other lands, and nearly all Muslims don’t accept that principle, and see the Genesis story or some kind of instantaneous creation as literally true. So Carroll is simply telling Catholics how to read the Bible. And, as usual Aquinas is dragged out as The Great Metaphorizer, ignoring the many other Catholic theologians (including the Pope himself) who see parts of the Bible as absolutely incompatible with science.
And was Aquinas really such a metaphorizer? Not nearly as much as most people think. While he’s famous for saying that scripture could be read metaphorically, he actually argued that scripture could be read both literally and metaphorically; in other words, he waffled. And if there was a conflict, scripture won. Here’s Aquinas’s discussion of Paradise from Question 102, Article 1, of Summa Theologica:
On the contrary, Augustine says (Gen. ad lit. viii, 1): “Three general opinions prevail about paradise. Some understand a place merely corporeal; others a place entirely spiritual; while others, whose opinion, I confess, hold that paradise was both corporeal and spiritual.”
I answer that, As Augustine says (De Civ. Dei xiii, 21): “Nothing prevents us from holding, within proper limits, a spiritual paradise; so long as we believe in the truth of the events narrated as having there occurred.” For whatever Scripture tells us about paradise is set down as matter of history; and wherever Scripture makes use of this method, we must hold to the historical truth of the narrative as a foundation of whatever spiritual explanation we may offer. And so paradise, as Isidore says (Etym. xiv, 3), “is a place situated in the east, its name being the Greek for garden.” It was fitting that it should be in the east; for it is to be believed that it was situated in the most excellent part of the earth. Now the east is the right hand on the heavens, as the Philosopher explains (De Coel. ii, 2); and the right hand is nobler than the left: hence it was fitting that God should place the earthly paradise in the east. [My bolding of the answer.]
So Aquinas was a waffler, at least on the question of Paradise, but seems to come down on its historicity. People like Carroll always ignore then when they tout Aquinas as the prescient, science-friendly theologian.
Aquinas’s overall views on things relevant to evolution seem to have been the following (see here and here; the quote below is from an ID proponent but gives the relevant references to Aquinas’s views):
Aquinas believed in a 6,000-year-old Earth. Far from believing in an old Earth, he was actually inclined to believe that the work of the “six days” in Genesis 1 was actually accomplished in an instant, and that plants and animals were simultaneously created by God at the very beginning of time. Aquinas also maintained that plants and animals were made by God, according to their kind (with the exception of those that were capable of arising by spontaneous generation). Additionally, Aquinas taught that the bodies of Adam and Eve must have been produced immediately by God, and by God alone. Finally, Aquinas held that Christians were bound to believe that Adam and Eve lived in a real Paradise, that Adam’s descendants, Seth, Enosh, Kenan, Mahalalel, Jared, Enoch, Methuselah, Lamech and Noah, were all real historical figures, and that Enoch was Adam’s great-great-great-great-grandson. For Aquinas, no Christian could deny that Lamech begat Noah, or that Elcana begat the prophet Samuel, without also denying Scripture.
So let us hear no more about Aquinas showing that there’s no conflict between the Bible and science, since the Bible could be read as metaphor. It seems to be Carroll, not Dawkins or Krauss, who displays his ignorance of theology—and he’s a theologian! Actually, I’m sure he knows about Aquinas’s views, but is merely dissembling to pretend that there’s no conflict between science and faith.
Let me add one more fact about Catholicism: the Church officially accepts the existence of demons that can possess people, as evidenced by many church statements and the existence of official church exorcists (there’s a Head Exorcist in the Vatican). Does Carroll want to claim that there’s no conflict between science and demons?
As for Tattersall, he trots out the same tired arguments for accommodationism:
“Science is a different way of knowing than spiritual faith, both answer to a need that humans have ‘to know,’ but they are answering different parts of the question,” added Tattersall.
In fact, Tattersall pointed out, “many scientists are believers, so there’s certainly no incompatibility in principle between the two.”
My response is two-fold, and not new, either.
1. Spiritual faith is a way of trying to know, but not of knowing itself, for, based on revelation and dogma, it cannot arrive at truths about anything. Spiritual faith has never answered any question with certainty—not even whether there is more than one god. It may give you personal “answers” that make you feel better, but those are merely self-help bromides, not universal truths. Unlike religion, science does more than pose questions: it answers them.
2. The assertion that some scientists believe in god is the cheapest and sleaziest way to comport science and faith. It says nothing about their different methodologies, their different philosophies, and the differences they arrive at when tackling questions about the universe. That is the fundamental incompatibility between science and faith. Saying that compatibility is proved by the fact that some scientists are believers is like saying that there’s compatibility between Catholicism and child rape because many Catholic priests are pedophiles. Such facts demonstrate not compatibility, but the widespread ability of humans to hold two conflicting views in their head at the same time. Newton, remember, believed in alchemy. Does that show a compatibility between alchemy and science?
When I read attempts of people like Tattersall and Carroll to revise theology so that it becomes science-friendly, I’m reminded of this statement by Carl Van Doren in his wonderful essay, “Why I am an unbeliever,” as strident as anything Dawkins ever wrote, but produced in 1926:
“With respect to the gods, revelation, and immortality, no man is enough more learned than his fellows to have the right to insist that they follow him into the regions about which all men are ignorant.”
There can be no productive dialogue between science and faith. The dialogue is actually a monologue: science tells faith that its tenets are wrong. That does nothing for science, and just forces the faithful into continual rationalizations and retrofitting of dogma. Whether that’s productive or not is up to the faithful.
h/t: Justin Vacula, Grania Spingies