This is How Big a Deal it is that Pope Francis Says Evolution and the Big Bang are Real

This is How Big a Deal it is that Pope Francis Says Evolution and the Big Bang are Real

Pope Francis
Pope Francis has declared that evolution and the Big Bang are facts, no longer to be debated, saying of evolution:

When we read about Creation in Genesis, we run the risk of imagining God was a magician, with a magic wand able to do everything. But that is not so.

He created human beings and let them develop according to the internal laws that he gave to each one so they would reach their fulfilment.

And of the Big Bang:

(Continued Below)

The Big Bang, which today we hold to be the origin of the world, does not contradict the intervention of the divine creator but, rather, requires it.

Evolution in nature is not inconsistent with the notion of creation, because evolution requires the creation of beings that evolve.

Well…take that Religious Right. You won’t see that gang turning the other cheek, however.

This is a Big Deal. Not only is it a huge step forward for the Roman Catholic Church, it is a gigantic departure from the views of Francis’ predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, wrote in his book Truth and Tolerance, that capital-T truth – that is, Roman Catholic belief – trumps tolerance.

Not that Francis is going to advertise this. Unveiling a bust in the Vatican Gardens, Francis said,

No one could ever say of him that study and science made him and his love for God and his neighbour wither.

On the contrary, knowledge, wisdom and prayer enlarged his heart and his spirit. Let us thank God for the gift that he gave the church and the world with the existence and the pontificate of Pope Benedict.

Right. Makes you wonder if Francis read Benedict at all. Writing as a cardinal, Ratzinger came across as a true son of the Inquisition. And if the truth matters – and I think we all agree that it does – then we ought at least to be honest about Pope Benedict’s (at best) medieval views.

Benedict’s primary purpose in writing Truth and Tolerance seems to have been as an attempt to rationalize the past and ongoing eradication of ethnic religion by Christianity in general and by the Roman Catholic Church in particular, though he did not actually admit to this eradication, merely observing obliquely that religion has a violent history, and even then it’s not Christianity’s fault but that of relativism by way of a “loss of balance.”[1]

Right. The Devil made you do it. This was nothing new of course. We still see liberals blamed by conservatives for their own sins.

This relativism, the bogeyman of modern-day Christianity, Evangelical or Catholic, he found to be the fruit of cultural diversity, and he was determined that it is “the most profound difficulty of our age.”[2] It is perhaps not surprising that cultural diversity’s last true heyday was under the auspices of the Pagan Roman Empire. The Romans, by the way, has dark-skinned emperors with far less fuss than Republicans have shown over ours. This connection to the past was clear to Benedict as well: “Contemporary relativism is merely a return to the theory of religion of late antiquity.”[3]

As though that’s an bad thing.

He complained that Christian universalism, which is the antidote to relativism, is seen as a “presumptuous attitude…that tramples upon a whole multitude of religious cultures in the most shameful fashion…depriving those peoples of what is best: their own heritage. Thence comes the imperative: Give us back our religions.” He asked if this view was appropriate and argued that “in the face of such demands, we ought to look carefully at each religion to see whether its restoration would really be desirable.”

Because he had the right to judge other religions, given the history of his own.

Christianity is a rather biased judge when it comes to the efficacy of alternatives to itself, being that it spent the better part of two millennia eradicating each and every one of them, including those in question. As an example, he uses Aztec religion with its focus on human sacrifice. Apparently the thousands killed in these rituals have more meaning than the millions killed by Christianity.

Benedict cited W. Krickeberg as putting human sacrifice down to a “fanatical belief in the duty of men to provide in this fashion for the continuation of the world,” without explaining Christianity’s need to kill the millions it has killed. If this is a determinant, then it is very clear that Christianity itself should be done away with.

Benedict scores no points with this argument. Yet he summed up his argument by maintaining, judgmentally, that this example of the Aztecs “shows that one cannot simply see in any and every religion the way for God to come to man and man to God.”[4]

He attempted to demonstrate the inferiority of ethnic religion by way of a rather curious claim, that it cannot accommodate technology, that it was a mistake to spread technology without also bringing religious enlightenment (Christianity, of course).

Not only is this claim ostentatiously false (Mark Twain, writing in 1901 castigated Christian missionaries for spreading Western civilization – not just their religion)[5] and one Christian missionary, writing in the 1950s, argued that since the Western spiritual conception of the land has disappeared, even the missionary’s approach is technological, not spiritual,[6] but this is an absurd claim to be making in light of Christianity’s opposition to scientific progress over the past 1700 years.

After all, Benedict’s own Church said it was heresy for Galileo to say the Earth revolved around the sun. Not too long ago it would have been heretical to say of gays, as Francis has, “Who am I to judge?” or, to say as Francis has done now, that evolution and the Big Bang are real.

Yet Benedict claimed that spreading technology without Christianity’s benefits is to expect the natives to live in “a kind of nature reserve.” The trouble was, whatever Ratzinger may think (and he is dead wrong) the people spreading Western technology were, as Twain correctly pointed out, missionaries.

This was true not only in China (Twain, addressing the missionaries, said of the Chinese, “leave them alone, they are plenty good enough just as they are”) but of the American West (culminating in President Grant’s catastrophic “Quaker Policy”). Was Ratzinger truly that unaware of the historical record, or did he simply choose to ignore it because the truth did not fit into the pretty little box of doctrine that defined the world for him?

Pope Benedict claimed the ethnic religion could not accommodate technology. What did Christianity do with technology? The Pope may now wish to lay claim to it since the Church has laid claim to everything else it eventually found useful (or impossible to eradicate), but the plain truth is that technology was developed not because of but in spite of the Church and its teachings. The facts are that the Church has historically opposed science and technology (at best its attitude can be called ambivalent).

Everyone today can buy a Bible if they wish, and read it. They can arrive at their own conclusions. It was not always so. When Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press and began to print the Bible, the Church was in violent opposition, fearing that if any Tom, Dick or Harry could read and interpret scripture, the priests would lose control. And they did.

The Church opposed the idea of the atom, a small particle now proven to exist. Needless to say it was ethnic religionists, Indians and Greek Pagans, who first hypothesized the existence of the atom. Likewise, many modern technological advances are opposed by the Church, such as embryonic stem cell research and human cloning,[7] contraception,[8] and, until now, the scientific explanation for both the Earth’s and human origins.

As James J.W. Baker has so eloquently put it, “Whenever the Roman Catholic Church has passed judgment upon scientific matters, it has almost invariably managed to be wrong.”[9]

This brought Benedict to a rather more startling claim, which is that Christianity “which carries within itself the great heritage of the religions and which opens up this heritage to the logos, to true reason, could offer a new basis to them at the deepest level and could at the same time make possible a real synthesis of technological rationality and religion.”[10]

Again, and keeping in mind what we have said above, it is difficult to see how this could be so. Certainly, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson failed to see any connection between rationality and religion, as defined by Christianity. Jefferson stated in a letter that, “I have recently been examining all the known superstitions of the world, and do not find in our particular superstition [Christianity] one redeeming feature. They are all alike, founded upon fables and mythologies”[11] while Thomas Paine stated in his The Age of Reason,

As to the Christian system of faith, it appears to me as a species of Atheism — a sort of religious denial of God. It professes to believe in a man rather than in God. It is a compound made up Chiefly of Manism with but little Deism, and is as near Atheism as twilight is to darkness. It introduces between man and his Maker an opaque body, which it calls a Redeemer, as the moon introduces her opaque self between the earth and the sun, and it produces by this means a religious, or an irreligious eclipse of light. It has put the whole orbit of reason into shade.[12]

Since Benedict spent so much time touting the Truth, perhaps he should have faced up to it: Merely laying claim to Greek philosophy does not bestow the benefits of Reason on the thief, and claiming that the earth is the center of the universe while killing those who suggested otherwise is not likely to fill one with confidence that Christianity is headed in the right direction with this one.

It might be protested that eventually, the Catholic Church admitted its mistake about the heliocentric universe (itself the view of Copernicus and Kepler), – but not until 1922[13] – and apologized for what it did to Galileo – but not until seventy more years had passed[14] but significantly, did not pardon Galileo even posthumously, and as late as 1969 a Catholic priest in Pennsylvania was reprimanded for being “too lenient in his interpretation of Galileo.”[15]

Such backwards thinking is still the hallmark of Fundamentalist Christians, Catholic and Protestant alike. Claims that the Grand Canyon, in the face of all scientific evidence to the contrary, is the work of God and the Great Flood, show that in Christian minds at least the sun continues to revolve around the earth. Of course, facts as inconvenient as this hardly merit a mention. In any case, it is not easy to see that Christianity is in any way superior to ethnic religion when it comes to embracing technology or science, much less Reason and rationality.

In the end, of course, Benedict found evolution wanting as a replacement for Christianity, which is how he insisted seeing it. “The cosmic aspect of religion…reverences the Creator in the power of being,” while evolution, he wrote, “cannot…provide a meaningful and comprehensible basis for ethics,” as though science hasen’t proven ethical behavior is part of the human package and completely outside of religion’s dictates. The theory of evolution, Benedict insisted, “ultimately remains a bloodthirsty ethic” and “the attempt to distill rationality out of what is in itself irrational quite visibly fails.”[17] His answer to science was orthodoxy.

I say all this to prove what a huge step forward for the Church Francis’ words represent. Of course, anything he says may be undone. We are past the point in believing that God is speaking through the Pope. If he was, we would have a God who frequently changes his mind. But more importantly, in many ways, we have a Pope who is finally catching the Church up to the beliefs of its adherents, who are always more socially liberal than their priests.

Nor are utterances like this of anything but a help to liberal politics in the embattled United States, where the forces of reaction threaten the fragile monument to the secular European Enlightenment that is the United States Constitution.

If the secular idea of government of the people, by the people, and for the people is to endure, it is ironic, but certainly true to say, that we will need more popes like Francis, and fewer like Benedict.

Notes:

[1] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, Truth and Tolerance: Christian Belief and World Religions. Ignatius (2004), 204.
[2] Ibid., 72.
[3] Ibid., 73-74 n 6.
[4] Ibid., 74.
[5] Mark Twain, The United States of Lyncherdom, written in 1901 but published posthumously in 1923 (Twain died in 1910).
[6] Emory Ross, “Impact of Christianity in Africa,” Contemporary Africa Trends and Issues (1955), 161-169.
[7] There are two types of cloning, therapeutic and reproductive. See The Document of the Holy See on Human Cloning, September 27, 2004 at http://www.vatican.va/roman_curia/secretariat_state/2004/documents/rc_seg-st_20040927_cloning_en.html. Accessed 5 July 2008. Both the Catholic Church and Evangelical Protestant groups oppose both type of cloning. Human cloning, Christian conservatives feel, usurps God’s position. Some liberal Protestant groups, on the other hand, are in favor of therapeutic cloning. For an overview of these positions see John H. Evans, “Religion and Human Cloning: An Exploratory Analysis of the First Available Opinion Data,” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 41 (2002), 747-758.
[8] The Roman Catholic position on birth control was enunciated on July 25, 1968 in Pope Paul VI’s Humanae Vitae (Latin “Of Human Life”). John Paul II endorsed the encyclical and Benedict has so far made no reference to it but failure to denounce it amounts to tacit approval. As one scholar points out, it is those who can least afford to have children who will suffer the most as a result of the Church’s stance, all out of fear of eternal damnation. See Jeffrey J.W. Baker, “Science, Birth Control, and the Roman Catholic Church,” BioScience (1970), 143-151. It is interesting that the Church’s pro-life stance only includes those who have not yet been born; once you come out of the womb, the Church could care less what happens to you – lack of birth control causes untold suffering, including death by starvation, for millions.
[9] Baker, 148.
[10] Ratzinger (2004), 78.
[11] Thomas Jefferson, Letter to Dr. Woods.
[12] Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part One, The Thomas Paine Reader, Michael Foot and Isaac Kramnick, ed. (London: Penguin Books, 1987), 424.
[13] And even then it did not actually admit that Galileo was right, merely that it was no longer a sin to think that Galileo might have been right.
[14] This apology regarding Galileo came 359 years after the Church forced him to recant his position, when Pope John Paul II expressed regret for how the Galileo affair was handled, and officially conceded that the Earth was not stationary, as the result of a study conducted by the Pontifical Council for Culture (31 October 1992). Vatican admits Galileo was right. New Scientist 7 November 1992.
[15] See the discussion in Jeffrey J.W. Baker, “Science, Birth Control, and the Roman Catholic Church,” BioScience (1970), 143-151.
[16] The Great Flood is, of course, not originally a Christian concept, or even a Jewish, but was much older and found in many cultures predating the Abrahamic religions, including the Sumerians, Akkadians and Babylonians. In the New World, both the Mayans (four couples repopulated the world) and Incans (two people repopulated the earth) believed there had once been a great flood. For the Fundamentalist view of the Grand Canyon see Grand Canyon: A Different View (2003) by Tom Vail, who claims the Grand Canyon is only a few thousand years old, and Grand Canyon: Monument to Catastrophe (1995) by Steven A. Austin of the Institute for Creation Research.
[17] Ratzinger (2004), 178-182.

Recent posts on PoliticusUSA