I don't think anyone would want to say that the present pope, Benedict XVI, has the charisma of his predecessor, John-Paul II. Or the avuncular warmth of John XXIII -- or the deep-seated understanding of that prelate about how his institution was in need of reform. But, we are often assured, one place where Benedict does make up is as a theologian. When it comes to understanding and developing what it all means intellectually, he is the very best.
Why then does he have such a blind eye or tin ear -- you choose your metaphor -- when it comes to modern science? Over Easter, in the most important sermon of them all, he stressed that whatever humans may be, we are not random. We are as we are by design.
"If man were merely a random product of evolution in some place on the margins of the universe, then his life would make no sense or might even be a chance of nature. But no, reason is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason."
Now let me try to be understanding here. I realize where the Pope is coming from. As a Christian, humans cannot be just a chance occurrence. Perhaps we could have blue skin and twelve fingers. Possibly we might be hermaphrodites. But we had to exist and we had to have thinking and moral capacities. We had to have brains big enough to do this. The late Stephen Jay Gould had to be wrong in some important way when (in his book Wonderful Life) he said:
"Since dinosaurs were not moving toward markedly larger brains, and since such a prospect may lie outside the capabilities of reptilian design, we must assume that consciousness would not have evolved on our planet if a cosmic catastrophe had not claimed the dinosaurs as victims. In an entirely literal sense, we owe our existence, as large and reasoning mammals, to our lucky stars."
Gould was not saying that human evolution was uncaused or random in that sense. But he was saying that there is no design. Human evolution had no more forethought than, say, the pattern that a pile of sand makes when emptied from a bucket. And while Gould was a bit of a maverick in some ways, there is no modern evolutionary biologist who would disagree with him on this. Evolution depends on mutations that simply don't have direction. Charles Darwin was absolutely adamant about this. When his good friend, the Harvard botanist Asa Gray, tried to put divine direction into the changes, Darwin simply told him that he wasn't doing science any more.
And that is absolutely the position today. To put direction into evolution is to be a supporter of the non-scientific theory of Intelligent Design. I should add incidentally that this does seem to be the position of Benedict's friend Cardinal Schönborn of Vienna, who a year or two back in an op-ed piece in the New York Times came right out and endorsed Intelligent Design.
The point I am making is that, as things stand at the moment, there is a flat-out contradiction between the claims of modern biological science and the theology of the Roman Catholic Church. And the fact is that the Pope, for all of his vaulted theological expertise, is either ignoring this fact or is glossing over it, probably because he has made the decision that, when push comes to shove, theology trumps science. Schönborn was not out in left field on this matter. Indeed, he is tipped to be the favorite for the next pope and so he was hardly saying and writing things that would put him out of the running.
Note what I am saying and what I am not saying. I am saying that "as things stand at the moment" there is a clash and that the Pope is not helping. I am not saying that the clash could not be resolved. Although as it happens -- and I have said this on many occasions -- I don't think the clash can be resolved by trying to get more out of science. Richard Dawkins (following Darwin) seems to think that humans are more than chance because evolution works through "arms races" -- the prey gets faster and so the predator gets faster -- and that ultimately this will produce human-type brains. Simon Conway Morris thinks that there exist always niches waiting to be occupied, one of these niches is for humans, and so at some point it was bound to be filled. Even Gould thought that complexity increases and so at some point, if not here on earth then somewhere in the universe, humans would appear.
I am not convinced that any of these work. I am convinced that none of these give you an iron-clad guarantee that they must work, which is what the Pope needs. For instance, having big brains requires lots of protein and if that isn't around then your arms races might take you in another direction. Even if niches do exist, I am not convinced that they must be occupied. If that comet had not hit earth, we might still be at the level of dumb dinos. And complexity happens but does it always make sense? A tangled ball of string is more complex than one that is neatly bound, but it is hardly on the route to intelligence.
My own thinking is that if you are going to get anywhere then you need to work on the theology. I have suggested that, since we have appeared, we could appear. Hence, God (being outside time and space) could simply go on creating universes until humans did appear. A bit of a waste admittedly but we have that already in our universe.
As the parent of this idea, I am expectedly rather fond of it. But I am not promoting it now because it is right, but simply to say that some solution needs to be found. At least, some solution needs to be found by Christians. Otherwise, the New Atheists are right, and science and religion cannot be reconciled. Hence, you must take your choice, and since science is right the appropriate conclusion follows at once.
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