One may smile, and smile, and be a villain.
Every time I see another atheist praising Pope Francis, I think of that quote from Hamlet. It could be worse, they say; at least he seems to have a conscience, he nods to the outcasts now and then, he may even be a tad more liberal than that last pope, so we should be thankful for the small improvement. I’m not. I’d rather have an unbeguiling bad guy in the papacy than the kind who does a better job of public relations. You’ve heard of the metaphor to describe optimists and pessimists: the optimist sees the glass as half full, while the pessimist sees it as half empty. But what about the guy who sees the glass as half full…of poison? Because that’s me.
There are a lot of issues in the Catholic Church that we all ought to find repugnant, say, child raping and forced birth and disease spreading policies, and I don’t see Pope Francis changing a thing about church culture on matters that are important. I’m going to focus on a less significant concern, but one that I find personally indicative, and one that I know a little bit about: evolution.
Gallup has been polling the American public on the question of evolution for 30 years, and the results have been remarkably consistent: a bit less than half our citizens have been reporting back as holding young earth creationist views. Here are the results of the 2012 survey:
|Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God guided this process||32%|
|Human beings have developed over millions of years from less advanced forms of life, but God had no part in this process||15%|
|God created human beings pretty much in their present form at one time in the last 10,000 years or so||46%|
A pessimist would say that 46% are creationists; an optimist would say that 47% believe in some form of evolution; I would say wait a minute — the poll designers don’t understand evolution (“from less advanced forms of life” is a clause that would have caused Darwin to cringe — “never say higher or lower”), and that 32% who claim evolution is divinely guided get it completely wrong, as badly as the young earth creationists. That’s poison in the cup, and we’re perpetuating misinformation if we continue to treat that as an acceptable answer.
People accept this “god-guided” caveat as a reasonable compromise in far too many circumstances. In the last presidential elections, for instance, Mitt Romney, one of the presidential candidates who did not raise his hand to testify in his disbelief in evolution at a Republican debate, later explained exactly what he meant.
I believe that God designed the universe and created the universe. And I believe evolution is most likely the process he used to create the human body.
That is not evolution. That is freaking bullshit. Evolution is not the magic wand used by the Space Fairy to conjure people into existence. Evolution is an unguided process. Nobody called him on it, though, because if you’d asked any of the Democrats, they’d probably mumble the same nonsense about believing in a god who created the world and then shaped it to his own ends. It’s the poisonous platitude injected into the culture to reconcile a creation myth to a biological process that directly contradicts their story.
The Catholic Church has a similar rationalization. The church “allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul,” according to catholic.com. Notice the magic words: guidance from a god, and a special creation event for an invisible ghost. And yet, somehow, everybody is under the impression that the Catholic Church has endorsed evolution.
That is not evolution.
If your auto mechanic said they used standard mechanical and electronic tools to fix your car, but oh, by the way, there’s a charge on your bill for the necessary sacrificing of a goat, would you trust their work?
Claiming that the inclusion of a teleological function within our understanding of evolution is a reasonable accommodation is a fundamental distortion of the evidence and reflects a serious misunderstanding of the science of evolution — an awkwardly common misunderstanding, but still definitively wrong. It’s a very common error to mistake a phenomenological description of a march of species as a proxy for the theory of evolution — but it’s not. From the very beginning, in its formulation by Charles Darwin, and in our current ongoing research in the field of evolutionary biology, evolution is a mechanism and a process. Many scientists before Darwin had hypothesized that species transformed into other species, but the Darwinian difference was that he proposed how these changes could take place.
Evolutionary theory is not about the detailed phenomenology of what species evolved into what, what structure is derived from what, or what gene is present in what frequencies in which organisms, although of course those details inform our understanding of evolutionary history or trajectories. What evolutionary theory is about is how environment and time and chance modified a species, how novelties and changes arose, and what processes changed the frequency of alleles in a population. These questions are all answered by understanding mechanisms, and we’ve got long lists of factors that shape evolution, from random chance to environmental selection to sexual selection to recombination to the constraints and opportunities of sexual and asexual reproduction.
Most importantly, nowhere in the lists of processes that enable evolution is intervention by a god. We’re explicit: there’s no teleology in evolutionary theory at all.
But religious meddling, including but not exclusively that of the Catholic Church, has poisoned the idea in the public mind, and made this nonsense about “guidance” and some special things being “created”, part of the common understanding of evolution. The revolutionary nature of the theory has been blunted by slathering it with this toxic, misleading lie.
And it’s everywhere!
Here’s Francis Collins, in The Language of God:
God, who is not limited in space or time, created the universe and established natural laws that govern it. Seeking to populate this otherwise sterile universe with living creatures, God chose the elegant mechanics, of evolution to create microbes, plants, and animals of all sorts. Most remarkably, God intentionally chose the same mechanism to give rise to special creatures who would have intelligence, a knowledge of right and wrong, free will, and a desire to seek fellowship with Him .
That’s the same manure Mitt Romney was spreading. Show me the evidence for any of that; how does Francis Collins know? This intentional intervention by a deity is not supported by anything in the science, it is all entirely derived from religious claims.
Then there’s the National Academies statement on the Compatibility of Science and Religion. This is painful.
Acceptance of the evidence for evolution can be compatible with religious faith. Today, many religious denominations accept that biological evolution has produced the diversity of living things over billions of years of Earth’s history. Many have issued statements observing that evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible.
Look at the Catholic statement that
evolution and the tenets of their faiths are compatible. Do you see any conflicts at all? I should think that the little unscientific addenda postulating that evolution is a guided process with a specific purpose and end would be setting off alarm bells in any scientist’s mind — but no, it’s the slick goo that lets the lies get injected smoothly.
Take a look at the results of the Gallup poll above once more. The real lesson of those numbers is that only 15% of the American public actually have the slightest glimmerings of the implications of evolution, 78% are creationists, and about half (at least!) of the creationists are actively spreading disinformation about the meaning of evolution.
I’ll believe people who tell me that Pope Francis is different when I see him demonstrating that he actually understands the import of evolution, that there was no guiding influence, that humans are a product of chance and natural selection, and that we aren’t any more special to the universe than a sea slug. And the only thing that would demonstrate that is an open repudiation of all of Catholic doctrine, which I don’t quite see the Pope doing.
And that’s just a small piece of the problem with the Catholic Church. If he’d actually been different, he wouldn’t have accepted the leadership of the world’s richest pedophilia ring in the first place. That alone is sufficient to mark him as a villain, smile and smile as much as he wants.