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The Catholic Two-front War: Against Scientism and Scriptural Literalism

Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish. Pope St. John Paul II,”Letter to Rev. George Coyne, S.J., Director of the Vatican Observatory.”

Introduction

Originally this post was to be about a three-year old article on Smithsonian.com,”The Pope [Pope Francis] would like you to believe in evolution and the Big Bang.”   This article was the taking-off point for a Stations of the Cross podcast by Fr. Shannon Collins, who adheres to a strictly literal interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2, against evolution and cosmology (the Big Bang).  Before arguing against Fr. Collins, I want to point out that the Smithsonian article itself had several errors of commission and omission:

  1. It conflated evolution–the common descent of living things–with the neo-Darwinian model for evolution; there are eminent scientists and philosophers, atheists or agnostics, who accept evolution but reject the neo-Darwinian model for how it works, so accepting or rejecting Darwin is not to be correlated with religious belief;
  2. The article ignored Pope St. John Paul II’s incisive statement on evolution “My predecessor, Pius XII, has already affirmed in his Encyclical, “Humani Generis” (1950) that there is not opposition between evolution and the doctrine of the fall of man and his vocation provided that certain fixed points are kept in mind.”  Pope St. John Paul II, Message to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, Oct. 1996 (my translation from the French).
  3. The distinction between evolution of a physical body and the implantation of an immortal soul done only by God, was ignored;  this distinction was pointed out by Pope St. John Paul II and is discussed in one of my posts,
    Did Neanderthals have a soul?

Now the title above speaks of a two front war–one front against scientism, those who propose science or “naturalism” as an explanation of everything and as a basis for atheism; the other against Catholics who say that Genesis 1 is the literally true in all details, six days of creation, Eve from Adam’s rib, etc. Since I’ve written many posts against scientism (see here, here, here, here, and here), I’ll not repeat those arguments.

What I will attempt below is to refute  what Fr. Collins had to say about cosmology and evolution.   Why do I believe this refutation is important?  As a recent article in Our Sunday Visitor pointed out, one of the main reasons young Catholics are leaving the Church is that they believe that science contradicts Catholic teaching.  This belief is not true, and those who propose a literal interpretation of Scripture do not gain reverts or converts to the Church,  but only strengthen this false proposition of naturalistic atheism, that you can’t believe what science has to say about the world and be a believing Catholic.

Against a Literal Interpretation of Genesis 1 and 2

If we believe that Genesis 1 is literally true in everything it says, then we must believe that the universe, despite cosmological and geological evidence to the contrary, was created in six days; we must also believe that Adam was created literally from dust, that the first woman, Eve, was created from his rib, and that the order of creation of animals was given as in Genesis 1 and 2, even though these two accounts are contradictory.

We must also, if we believe Genesis 1 to be literally true and go to the original Hebrew, believe that the Catholic doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo contradicts Scripture.  One translation of Genesis 1 gives “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters’.”   The term “formless void” in Hebrew is “Tohu Bohu” or “Tohu va-Bohu”, which a Hebrew scholar (a scholar in Hebrew–this guy was a retired Irish-American physician) has said is better translated as “topsy-turvy” or “chaos.”   And the translation mentions “waters,” which is not “nothing.”   Actually the “chaos” or “formless void” description is in better accord with the materialist proposal for pre-Big Bang:  a sea of virtual quantum fluctuations.

Moreover, the notion of Creatio ex Nihilo is first given in the Old Testament in 2 Maccabees 7:28 and in the New Testament in Hebrews 11:3.   The first Christian writer to promote the doctrine of Creatio ex Nihilo was Theophilus of Antioch in the late 2nd Century.  It was St. Augustine who developed arguments about time and Creatio ex Nihilo, that time could have begun with creation, which is a view remarkably in accord with much of modern cosmology.

“…no time passed before the world, because no creature was made by whose course it might pass.“–St. Augustine, “City of God,” book 11, ch.4.

For a more detailed account of the history of the doctrine Creatio ex Nihilo and the translation of Genesis 1,  see here and here.   My general point is that the sense of the original Hebrew in Genesis has been altered and modified in various translations to fit with that doctrine Creatio ex Nihilo; and I must emphasize that I truly believe this doctrine.  I also should emphasize that I interpret Genesis to say that God created the universe and man, and found this creation “good” (“tov”).

Fr. Collins’ case against evolution and cosmology

I don’t believe that Fr. Collins made a good case against evolution and the Big Bang in his podcast.  Let me again make the distinction between evolution, common descent from one species, and the Darwinian model for evolution.  The same distinction was made by  Pope St. John Paul II in his address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences:

“And to tell the truth, rather than speaking about the theory of evolution, it is more accurate to speak of the theories of evolution. The use of the plural is required here—in part because of the diversity of explanations regarding the mechanism of evolution…” 

First, Fr. Collins argued that evolution was inconsistent with philosophical principles set forth by Aristotle and Aquinas.   Of course not all that Aristotle proposed was valid–his theories of gravity and kinetics have been superseded by physics going back to Galileo.    Moreover, the Dominican scholars, Fr. Nicanor Austriaco, OP; Fr. George Brent, OP; Br. Thomas Davenport, OP; and Fr. James Ku, OP, have given a convincing account of the Thomistic support for evolution.

Second, Fr. Collins says that evolution is not supported by paleontology–there are no fossil records of transitional forms.  This is not true.  While there are gaps in the fossil record for such transitional forms, there are some found–see here, for examples.   Moreover, the  existence of early forms without later in dated fossil records is in itself evidence for the development of species: that in rocks dated a billion or more years ago there was evidence of bacterial forms, but no higher species, that in eras when reptiles and dinosaurs were the dominant species, there was no fossil record of developed mammals, etc.  (By the way, Fr. Collins made a serious error by saying that cave drawings of early man showed dinosaurs–they did not, the drawings were of mammoths).  Finally, Fr. Collins did not address one of the most important pieces of evidence for common descent, evolution:  the phylogenetic tree  that show sequence of genetic similarities and differences correlating with species evolution.

At the end of his talk, Fr. Collins evaded a question that asked his opinion about cosmological evidence for a universe some 14 billion years old.   His response that a universe had to be that old to allow for evolution and since evolution was not true, this age for the universe was not so did not say why the physical evidence was incorrect.

Final Thoughts

I have written in other posts about this: “Can a faithful Catholic believe in science?” and “God’s Periodic Table and Evolution.” In those articles and this one I argue, along with Pope St. John Paul II, that man is carried to truth on the two wings of faith and reason.   I cannot undertake that cognitive dissonance in which I believe that science tells us the truth about the world on Mondays through Saturdays and Scripture an entirely different story on Sundays;  to put it more succintly in the word of Pope St. John Paul II: “Truth cannot contradict Truth”.    God is not a prankster who plants evidence that would mislead us from a story of Creation given in Genesis that has to be taken as literally true.   The two stories from science and Revelation are the same: “The heavens declare the Glory of God” (Psalm 19A).

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Bob Kurland, Ph.D.

Retired, cranky, old physicist. Convert to Catholicism in 1995. Trying to show that there is no contradiction between what science tells us about the world and our Catholic faith. Intermittent blogs and adult education classes to achieve this end (see http://rationalcatholic.blogspot.com/ and http://home.ptd.net/~rkurland). Extraordinary Minister of Communion, volunteer to federal prison and hospital; lector, EOMC. Sometime player of bass clarinet, alto clarinet, clarinet, bass, tenor bowed psaltery for parish instrumental group and local folk group.

10 Comments

  1. Biblical literalism was often conflated with the Argument from Design, or the evidence of prospective contrivance or the adaptation of means to ends in nature, proposed by Archdeacon William Paley at the end of the 18th century, based on the adaptation of animals to their environment.

    As Mgr Ronald Knox noted, “The argument was a dangerous one, so stated. It took no account of the animal species which have in fact become extinct; it presupposed, also, the fixity of animal types. God’s mercy, doubtless, is over all his works, but we are in no position to apply teleological criticism to its exercise, and to decide on what principle the wart-hog has survived while the dodo has become extinct.”

    Of course, the “Argument from Design,” is quite different from the much more philosophically respectable A nrgument from Order that goes back at least to St Athanasius in the 4th century – As Bl John Henry Newman puts it, “the fact that things happen uniformly according to certain circumstances, and not without them and at random: that is, that they happen in an order; and, as all things in the universe are unit and individual, order implies a certain repetition, whether of things or like things, or of their affections and relations. Thus we have experience, for instance, of the regularity of our physical functions, such as the beating of the pulse and the heaving of the breath; of the recurring sensations of hunger and thirst; of the alternation of waking and sleeping, and the succession of youth and age. In like manner we have experience of the great recurring phenomena of the heavens and earth, of day and night, summer and winter. Also, we have experience of a like uniform succession in the instance of fire burning, water choking, stones falling down and not up, iron moving towards a magnet, friction followed by sparks and crackling, an oar looking bent in the stream, and compressed steam bursting its vessel.”

  2. bob-You at the vanguard for telling folks that science is NOT the be all and end all of knowledge. Thank you. Most folks don’t pay attention to your use of “scientism” and think that any discussion like yours is an attack on the so-called “objective truth” of science as compared to the unprovable tenets of many religions. It is good that you begin with stating what you mean by scientism. One logically unrelated argument for me against not only scientism, but also those who would rule based on their compassionate recognition of the world-ending effects of this or that crisis, is that so many of these who previously sought truth wherever they might find it have devolved into tools of those seeking power, seekers of truth who years ago morphed into mere servants of power, but have now turned to the dark and have become soldiers of power, whether their “science” is proven or not.

    thank you again for speaking truth to power.

    guy McClung, Texas

  3. the materialist proposal for pre-Big Bang

    Ironic that materialists would push a Big Bang theory of any kind when it was originally mocked as religious for being too close to “Let there be light.”

  4. The Protestant Henry Morris Study Bible (a copy of which I have) is based entirely on a very literal interpretation of Genesis chapters 1 and 2:

    https://answersingenesis.org/store/product/henry-morris-study-bible-kjv/?sku=50-1-005

    It is quite massive and it makes for some interesting if skewed reading. Dr. Morris intends well, but scientist he is not. And he is decidedly anti-Catholic. He would never read either Pope Pius XII’s Humani Generis or Pope John Paul II’s Fides et Ratio. As closed minded as the worst of materialistic atheists.

    Fortunately, however, there are some very good Catholic and Protestant web sites with information available to debunk both atheistic materialist disinformation and scriptural literalist disinformation:

    Magis Center: Catholic Answers to Science, Faith and Reason
    https://www.magiscenter.com/

    Reasons to Believe
    https://www.reasons.org/

    There is even a Jewish one from Gerald Schroeder:
    http://geraldschroeder.com/wordpress/?page_id=211

    And I highly recommend Modern Physics and Ancient Faith by Dr. Stephen Barr (http://web.physics.udel.edu/about/directory/faculty/stephen-barr) at the University of Delaware:
    https://www.amazon.com/Modern-Physics-Ancient-Faith-Stephen/dp/0268021988

    As for the materialist atheist, I got nothing to say to them. The fact is that I have more in common with the scriptural literalists (as much as I disagree with their simplistic and ignorant understanding of Genesis 1 and 2) than I do with any of these left wing liberal progressive lunatics.

  5. Thanks all for your comments. LQC: I’m a Fellow of the Magis Academic Advisory Board, and have posted on the Faith and Reason site occasionally. Matt: actually the materialists are trying to dispose of the Big Bang explanation by cyclic universes (Roger Penrose), or multiverse theories. Guy: I agree that there’s a strong correlation between scientism and desire for a government that is paternalistic and controlling. Michael P-S: thanks for your comments, which, as usual, are incisive and informative.

  6. “…one of the main reasons young Catholics are leaving the Church is that they believe that science contradicts Catholic teaching….” I haven’t read the article, but am not surprised.

    Too many adult Catholics – including some who I would have expected to know better – have beliefs which are, as nearly as I can tell, nearly identical to America’s far-end Calvinist literalists. I’ll give the Catholic Calvinists credit for remembering that the Eucharist isn’t a “magic cookie,” and retaining a remarkable number of pre-Vatican II customs

    But if kids have adult Catholics like those in their lives, and went through what seems to be the extremely lightweight and marginal catechesis of their school years – – – I’d expect them to do what many of my generation did: chuck Christianity entirely and start looking for something that more obviously makes sense.

    I had the advantage of having sane, informed, and distinctly Christian Protestant parents, so I never dropped essential Christian beliefs. But I did start looking for something that made sense – which is why I’m now a Catholic.

    I’m disappointed, but not surprised, that so many adult Catholics take the ‘science disproves religion’ attitude. It’s endemic to America’s Protestant culture – which was the dominant belief here until recently. Still is, on paper, and that’s another topic.

    *Thank you* for pointing out that Catholics who take our faith seriously have been saying that learning about God’s creation doesn’t threaten God – and that, regarding evolution, that what we believe isn’t threatened by thinking that we’re created from the stuff of this world.

    Good grief, that’s in one of the Genesis accounts! Which, as you pointed out, don’t agree – from a rigidly literal viewpoint. I figure maybe God got confused about which story to use – – – or, much more likely (!!) some of us got confused about what’s written and who was writing it. As I keep saying, Americans didn’t write the Bible. More topics.

    I’ll get down from my soapbox now. Thanks for posting this. Maybe more folks will start thinking. One can hope.

  7. In Gen 1:28 it says:
    *
    And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”
    *
    It seems to me that to subdue the earth and have dominion over the animal kingdom would require humans to have knowledge about how the natural world functions. This looks like a clear mandate for doing scientific research.
    *
    In the second creation story God creates the animals and Adam names them in a cooperative activity, This looks like plain and simple taxonomy.

  8. cyclic universes (Roger Penrose), or multiverse theories.

    Both of which are simply forms of “kicking the can down the road.” What causes the cycles? What causes the other universes? The theories also rely upon a misunderstanding of the argument from contingency – very well explained by Dr. Feser. It is funny how scientists often scoff at philosophers for impinging into areas of science, but then seem bewildered at the thought of being mocked for impinging into areas of philosophy.

    (to be clear, I am not putting you into that category of scientist – simply making a general observation of others I have seen.)

  9. In fact, one of the more interesting scientific theories fro me from a layman’s view is string theory. If I understand correctly (in very basic terms) it is the idea that what we perceive as matter is at its most elemental level vibration (of what, I am not clear -energy? electro-magnetic force?). This seems to coincide with the argument from contingency in that God constantly maintains creation much like a singer or musician maintains a note. Stop playing/singing the note, creation disappears.

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