Custom Search

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Can the Catholic Church believe in God and Darwin?

I am shortly going to be writing several posts about the Catholic Church, Darwinism, and intelligent design.

But first, a note about the stories you may hear in the Catholic press: Caution is well advised.

Few Catholic reporters know much about the actual arguments and evidence in the intelligent design controversy. Most get stuck on fatuities like "There's no conflict between faith and science" and ambiguities like "The Catholic Church supports evolution." So they seldom have any idea what the critical issues really are.

Two of the most critical issues are, "What does it mean to believe in God" and "What does it mean to believe in the soul, as our immaterial and immortal nature?" Thus, you will hear truly staggering statements along the lines of "The Church can believe in God - and Darwin too!"

Anyone who says that - or anything like it - simply doesn't understand the issue, and you can safely forecast that anything else you hear from them will be a timewaster.

Can the Church believe in God and Darwin too?

Darwinism is an attempt to explain of how the human being, including the human mind (and religion, of course), can come into existence without any purpose at all, let alone input from God. That is the nub of Darwin's theory, a point that is emphasized repeatedly in the evolutionary biology literature.

Now, suppose the Church decides that Darwin and his modern day fans are right. Can Catholics go on believing in God? Yes, but what belief in God means becomes radically different in that case. As Logan Gage says, the explanation for religious beliefs is that

They must have had survival value at some point in the past; or, alternatively, ... religion does not have direct survival value but is a by-product of something else that does have survival value. (Note: - from a review of Intelligent Design: William A. Dembski & Michael Ruse in Dialogue, Journal of Lutheran Ethics, October 2008.)
So religion evolved either because it has survival value or because it is associated with other types of behaviour that have survival value. That is the explanation for it.

Of course, you may hear a pundit crow happily that "our wonderful God worked through evolution! He gave religion survival value! Thus we evolved to know that religion is true!"

Talk about missing the point ...

The Darwinian explanation does not explain religious belief, it explains it away . It removes any reason for supposing that the reason that we believe in God is that God actually exists and has revealed himself to us. From Gage again:

... once one learns that particular religious belief X came about because we used to run from lions on the savannah, X loses its justification. I did not come to believe X by any sort of rational or designed process; rather, I believe X because my evolutionary history gave me a tendency to believe X.
Darwin himself grasped this problem:

... the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man's mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would any one trust in the convictions of a monkey's mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?
Can you still believe in God or revelation? Yes, but your belief becomes the intellectual equivalent of smoking pot. You evolved in such a way that belief turns you on. That, in sum, is the reason for the strong appeal of Darwin's theory to atheists.

And what abut the immortal soul then?

The evidence for the Darwinian theory of the origin of the human mind or of religion is very poor, as Mario Beauregard and I noted in The Spiritual Brain. Nonetheless, some Christians in science would very much like the Church to embrace it. I don't think that likely because the Catholic Church is not well suited to the radical materialism that would result. Here, for example, is a must-read New York Times article spelling that out exactly:

That is the nub of the issue, according to Nancey Murphy, a philosopher at Fuller Theological Seminary who has written widely on science, religion and the soul. Challenges to the uniqueness of humanity in creation are just as alarming as the Copernican assertion that Earth is not the center of the universe, she writes in her book “Bodies and Souls or Spirited Bodies?” (Cambridge, 2006). Just as Copernicus knocked Earth off its celestial pedestal, she said, the new findings on cognition have displaced people from their “strategic location” in creation.

Another theologian who has written widely on the issue, John F. Haught of Georgetown University, said in an interview that “for many Americans the only way to preserve the discontinuity that’s implied in the notion of a soul, a distinct soul, is to deny evolution,” which he said was “unfortunate.”
The solution, in some folks' view, is to affirm "evolution" and deny the soul. Making clear to Catholics that there is no such thing as a soul could be bad PR, however. But there is another way: To define the soul in such a way that there is no reason to believe that it really exists. That is Ken Miller's strategy here:

For scientists who are people of faith, like Kenneth R. Miller, a biologist at Brown University, asking about the science of the soul is pointless, in a way, because it is not a subject science can address.

“Everything we know about the biological sciences says that life is a phenomenon of physics and chemistry, and therefore the notion of some sort of spirit to animate it and give the flesh a life really doesn’t fit with modern science,” said Dr. Miller, a Roman Catholic whose book, “Finding Darwin’s God” (Harper, 1999) explains his reconciliation of the theory of evolution with religious faith. “However, if you regard the soul as something else, as you might, say, the spiritual reflection of your individuality as a human being, then the theology of the soul it seems to me is on firm ground.”
That will go over better with Catholics who do not like to think much.

As a matter of fact, materialist Christians will need to fudge a lot over the next few years to make their case because the younger generation of John Paul II Catholics are not even modernists, let alone materialists. So don't be surprised if you seldom hear the conflict set out clearly in the Catholic media.

Labels: ,

Who links to me?