For 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 trashing 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 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
- - “souls are immediately created by God” (36);
- - all human beings are members of a single family, from a single set of human parents intentionally created by God (37);
- - 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, 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 himself 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 great big 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 then 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 essay has been adapted from The Politically Incorrect Guide to Catholicism.