In This Issue...
* It's 'Bout Time: Pope Admits Darwin Was Right
* Our Take: The Vatican Can Afford To "Accept" Science
PAPAL STATEMENT SUPPORTS EVOLUTION
But JP-2's Declaration May Bolster Church's Status As "Moral Authority"
Tell us something we don't already know.
On Wednesday, Pope John Paul II declared that "fresh knowledge leads to recognition of the theory of evolution as more than just a hypothesis" in a formal statement sent to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. The Vatican announcement generated headlines in the international media, and guarded disapproval from Protestant fundamentalist sects and representatives of the "creationist" movement who insist that literal accounts of the origin of life and the universe as stated in Genesis are true, rather than evolutionary scenarios espoused by Charles Darwin and successive generations of scientists. News groups on the internet were buzzing, and there continue to be lively exchanges of opinion on just what this latest papal declaration means.
John Paul's statement, made public on Thursday, underscored an ambivalent position which the church has taken on the controversial subject of evolution since the 1950's when Pope Pius XII issued his encyclical, "Humani Generis." Pius maintained the Roman Catholic tradition of not condemning evolutionary doctrines, or seriously questioning the growing body of physical evidence which had, even then, accumulated and supported some form of evolutiony mechanism at work. He did, however, warn that at the time it should not be accepted as "certain doctrine," and he cautioned that "while evolution as such might not be objectionable, it played into the hands of materialists and atheists, who sought to remove the hand of God from the act of creation" (New York Times). Indeed, the more conservative Catholic papers -- specifically the daily Il Messaggero in Rome, ran headlines stating "The Pope Rehabilitates Darwin", while Il Giornale greeted this past week's announcement claiming "The Pope Says We May Descend From Monkeys." (sic). Both quoted the statement by Pope Pius XII that evolution was "gladly made use of by the proponents of communism to make of themselves defenders and propagandists of dialectical materialism and to take from minds every mention of God."
Evolution has long been taught in the Catholic school system, and it does not generate the heated emotions that other issues such as abortion and celibacy do within church circles. The New York Times noted that teaching evolution "is already a standard part of the curriculum" in parochial schools and Catholic universities. Even People for the American Way was gushing at the papal declaration: a spokesperson insisted that John Paul statement "reaffirms the message that devout religious belief and the teaching of evolution are not incompatible."
The biggest impact from the Pope's declaration may be felt in two diverse social-political groups -- the ecumenical movement, and the religious right. Despite reactionary and medievalist teachings on abortion, celibacy, "sin" and other issues, John Paul's message on evolution improves the image of the Vatican in the eyes of "progressive" religious groups which are objects of Rome's ecumenical ambitions. Anti-evolutionists, though, were displeased with Thursday's announcement; a representative of the Institute for Creation Research, a leading creationist group in California, told the news media that "I expect that it's the kind of thing people will pont to as evidence that evolution is more than a theory, that even the pope is saying it's so thoroughly validated that it's not something people should have a skeptical attitude toward."
So far, there has been no reaction from the major American religious right groups such as the Christian Coalition, or its "subsidiary" organization, the Catholic Alliance. Thursday's revelations, though, may strain relation between conservative Catholic groups and their fundamentalist-evangelical comrades who have united around a common nexus of issues, including abortion, pornography, assisted suicide, gay rights, vouchers for private religious schools, and tax-breaks for large families.
The Vatican statement did manage to discuss evolution without once mentioning Charles Darwin, who proposed his popular evoltuionary theories in two works, On The Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection (London, 1859) and The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (London, 1871). Nor did the papal letter explicitly make the statement that human beings evolved from other species, including an order of apes. John Paul's letter is also being viewed as an attempt to "rehabilitate" the image of the Church; in 1992 he made a similar statement to the Pontifical Academy, annoucing that the Church had acted improperly in its condemnation in 1633 of Gaileo who declared that the sun, not the earth, was the center of the solar system.
There is evidence that the release of the papal statement was carefully timed; indeed, the pope had wanted to deliver it in the form of an address but was unable to do so since he was still recovering from abdominal surgery.
The statement was released in time for the plenary session of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, an organization of prominent scientists (not all of whom happen to be Catholic), which seems to be playing an increasingly important role in the Vatican's image building, PR campaign. John Paul's statement also touched on millennialist and eschatological themes when he noted the Pontifical Academy's "reflection on science at the dawn of the third millennium in the domain of inanimate and animate nature, the evolution of science and its applications (which) make new questions arise." He called for attention "to the need for a correct interpretation of the inspired word, of a rigorous hermeneutics. It is fitting to set forth well the limits of the meaning proper to Scripture, rejecting undue interpretations which make it say what it does not have the intention of saying..."
The day before releasing his evolution statment to the Pontifical Academy, Vatican Information Service began its drumroll on behalf of the group's meeting by releasing a list of new "ordinary" members of the organization; it included scientists from Germany, Great Britain, Russia, the United States and France. Not surprisingly, the topic for this annual meeting of the Academy was the origin of life and evolution.
John Paul also spoke of "diverse orders of knowledge (which) allow(s) for the concordance of two points of view which seem irreconcilable (science and religious doctrine)".
And the pope's statement coincides with the release of yet another article supporting evolution which was published yesterday in the journal Science.
A team of researchers from the State University of New York led by Dr. Gregory A. Wray has uncovered further evidence that the first simple forms of life may have appeared on the earth over a billion years ago -- nearly twice as early as was once theorized. The team researched divergence rates of different genes in order to establish genetic variation as a kind of "molecular clock." Based on these new, detailed findings, the team says their study will "cast doubt on the prevailing notion" that life form groups "diverged explosively during the Cambrian or late Vendian, and instead suggest that there was an extended period of divergence," up to a billion years ago.
Our View On The Pope's Statement...
"MUCH ADO ABOUT (LITERALLY) NOTHING"
No sooner had word of Pope John Paul II's letter to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences attempting to reconcile scientific findings about evolution and religious faith been made public than aanews began to receive calls, e-mails and faxes. "Isn't this great?," gushed one reader. "The Pope has finally admitted that they (the church) were wrong all along!" Said another, "this is the end of the Catholic Church -- in affirming evolution, they're essentially uncutting the reason for their whole existence. If evolution is true, then how can they talk about Adam, Eve, original sin and redemption?"
As Atheists, we disagree with most of what the Vatican and other religious groups have to say about the nature of science, reason, belief, and faith-based creeds. But we do recognize that as an institution, religion in one form or another has endured for centuries, and so has the Roman Catholic Church. Despite obvious errors such as the condemnation of Galileo, its rationales for social imperialism, and its insidious fostering of the "slave mentality" within indigenous oppressed groups, "Mother Church" remains a vital and thriving institution, and one wielding considerable economic, social and cultural power.
The papal statement accepting evolution is anything but an admission that religious doctrine is erroneous; indeed, Atheists and secularists should avoid the trap of false optimism, believing that "religion has taken a step backwards," and that religious faith is somehow crumbling before some inexorable juggernaut of scientific enlightenment.
If anything, John Paul has adroitly turned a potential disadvantage and embarrassment into a remarkable success. He has avoided the pitfalls made by biblical literalist and creationist-fundamentalists who increasingly find themselves at odds with scientific finding and the secular world. The Catholic Church (and many other religious groups) know that they have little to gain by conducting a rear-guard action against scientific inquiry; what CAN be salvaged, though, is religion's role as a "moral authority" and arbiter of human conduct, and dispenser of "spirituality" which still remains a powerful craving in human society.
Even today, thanks to the growing body of scientific knowledge about the universe, Atheists can enjoy an occasional joust with fundamentalists who adhere to the most sclerotic religious ideologies, especially some form of biblical literalism. Books and pamphlets about biblical errancy are still hot sellers; and what Atheist or other non-believer hasn't secretly enjoyed the pleasures of pointing out the numerous contradictions in biblical text, or the absuridy of believing that Noah's Ark could possibly hold all two of every animal, plus food and other supplies, for weeks on end while the earth was deluged? If all that religious ideology was ultimately based on was a series of empirically falsifiable statement about discreet events in the natural world, Atheism would long ago have been the dominant intellectual trend in our culture.
But increasingly, the world's religions -- especially those of a Christian flavor -- are retreating from the implausible artifacts of biblical literalism to a revised position which emphasizes a vague but pervasive "spirituality," all the while affirming the role of religious belief as the unquestioned arbiter of how human beings should behave and organize themselves. Unable to survive the incursions of scientific method, religion -- especially the Roman Catholic Church -- ends up affirming the findings of science (in this case, that evolutionary forces drive the developments of life forms), all the while providing the equivalent of a theological "golden parachute." If the Genesis accounts of creation, Adam and Eve, a Hebrew-speaking serpent and other vestiges of biblical folklore do not make literal sense, religionists can still speak of a "soul" which is is implanted by an invisible deity and animates the human consciousness.
Unlike other segments of Christianity, Catholicism has created for itself a streamlined image of being an open-minded, inquisitive and even cosmopolitan institution concerning the findings of science, all the while still promulgating a medieivalist social agenda. Most church officials and followers sees no conflict here. The Vatican can fund observatories for astronomical research, or establish its own Academy of Sciences with a who's-who roster of nobel prize laureates, or admit that Mr. Darwin was correct (albeit without mention of the famous naturalist's name), and still play the role of ontological-theological "spin doctor" by insisting that "this is all further proof of god's creation." In some respects, this intellectual evasion becomes more difficult to combat than cruder fundamentalist claims about the world.
Indeed, press accounts suggest that many Catholics feel the way one 75-year old follower did, when, reacting to the pope's statement on evolution, she declared "It's very encouraging for me to see the church coming into the 20th century instead of backing into the 19." Another, a 25-year old man, told the New York Times that "I'm with John Paul on it...whatever he says goes, but I still believe God is the be-all and end-all. He created my soul no matter where it comes from."
Relevant to the Vatican statement on evolution is a story coming out of Oxford, England which originally appeared in The Financial Times. Titled "Atheist Scientists Challenged," it noted that "For several years, scientific atheists have argued aggressively that religion in any form is incompatible with modern physics and biology." That is supposedly changing. Keith Ward, a theologian and Professor of Divinity at Oxford University, has prepared a "point by point refutation of scientific atheism," one which suggests that "God is the best explanation for life, the universe and everything" ("God, Science and Necessity"). Dr. Ward's salvo is in response to claims by two of Great Britain's most vocal atheists, biologist Richard Dawkins and chemist Peter Atkins, who have declared that belief in the supernatural is at odds with the method and finding of science.
We have little doubt that Drs. Dawkins and Atkins are quite capable of marshalling considerable support for their claim. But what is remarkable about Keith Ward -- and what rests implicitly in the latest statement of Pope John Paul concerning evolution -- is that both end up essentially trying to coopt scientific evidence by insisting that it is "not incompatable" with other artifacts of religious belief.
Ward even goes a step further. Financial Times reports: "Ironically, Ward says, modern fundamentalist Christianity -- taking the Bible as literal truth -- 'could not exist without science.' Some fundamentalist are obsessed with applying science to the Bible, trying even to calculate the speed with which Jesus ascended into Heaven." Remarkably, Ward states that "fundamentalism is capitulating to the materialist world view."
That statements seems to mirror the view of certain postmodernist critics, who resent attempts by scientists to, say, monitor the brain states of ecstatic religious visionaries, as a crude form of "materialist reductionism." But whereas the postmodernist insists that a spiritual hallucination is just "another version of reality," (and one not necessarily inferior to the scientific method in terms of revealing "truth") Ward, the pope and a growing legion of more sophisticated religionists acknowledge the findings of science -- even when they disprove earlier theological tenets. "Science and faith are not incompatable," becomes the new religious mantra.
Unfortunately, some Atheists accept the notion that religious belief and institutions are inevitably characterized by threadbare doctrines which never change. Religious belief, though, is remarkable elastic, maleable and resilient; when necessary, religious institutions can adopt contemporary trappings. Like pseudoscience and any form of mystical thinking, it can be molded and recycled to accomodate the exigencies of the moment, all the while preserving a set of core beliefs. Mormon officials, for instance, were granted a convenient "revelation" and altered church doctrine to accomodate the demands of statehood for Utah. Other religions have engaged in a somewhat reluctant process of "updating" their theology as conditions warrant. Many Protestant sects have engaged in a trendy "re-writing" of liturgy and biblical texts to conveniently excise potentially embarrassing passages which might have "racist" or "sexist" overtones.
Of course not all religious groups are so adept at morphing into more socially hip and acceptable versions of their past. Much of religion still involves an atavistic "revolt against modernity," a search for doctrines and values which, to enlightened people (and even at times their contemporary religionists) , seem totally out of place and inappropriate. The Taliban enforces a dranconian brand of militant Islam which offends even the authoritarian mullahs in Tehran. Christian Reconstructionists advocate a cranky Calvinism which mandates the death penalty (by stoning) aganst "transgressors," ranging from murderers and rapists to heretics and disobedient children. Christian fundamentalist continue to espouse "creationism" as an "alternative" to evolution, despite a continual accumulation of scientific evidence to the contrary. That view is shared by a shockingly high percentage of Americans, who also manifest a disturbing illiteracy concerning science and technology.
To varying degress, the offerings in the religious marketplace seems to be between and among various brands of mystical doctrine authoritarian social and theopolitical schemes, and calls upon the primacy of faith.
Religion long ago lost any battle to have its mystical credo verified in the findings of science; Pope John Paul can afford to maintain that "there is no conflict between science and religion," because religion no longer even bothers to aggressively regulate the direction and progress of the scientific enterprise on the scale it once attempted to do. For the Roman Catholic Church and most other western religious groups, evolution is just the final lesson which began long ago with the confrontation over Galileo. Rather than combat science, many religious institutions -- including the Vatican -- seek to co-opt it, and use its findings to demonstrate the alleged "mysteries of creation."
Capitalizing on its new-found "peace" with the scientific enterprise, we expect that the Vatican will amplify its demands that religion must therefore be the dominant force in non-scientific affairs -- in shaping our standards of morality, social organization, civic virtue and political institutions. By publicly recanting on the church's obstruction of knowledge over the centuries -- indeed, by even embracing a selective interpretation of scientific knowledge, all the while maintaining the "religious option" that evolution is only a "partial explanation" of "deeper mysteries" involving god and the soul -- John Paul has managed, once again, to preserve the irrationalist core of religious ideology thanks, in part to skillfull use of the trappings and rhetorical baubles of modernity.
Atheists and secularists should not be fooled into believing that religious ideology will "wither away" by a magical process of scientific enlightenment. If anything, we now face the task of defending the scientific enterprise not against those who attack it, but by those
would co-opt it.