Sunday Sacrilege: Cant can’t

Sophisticated is not a synonym for true.

Probably the most common dodge used by defenders of religion against atheist critics is the magic word “sophisticated,” as in, “You only attack the crudest forms of religion, but avoid the more challenging, sophisticated forms of faith.” It’s an invalid defense in two ways: one, those crude forms of religion are the most common and the ones promoted by the rascals in power, so it’s perfectly reasonable to address the most dangerous kinds of religion, especially since the theologians so rarely do so (although they seem to have plenty of time to attack atheism). Two, “sophistication” is a word that implies only an argument elaborately refined, not one that necessarily has the virtue of truth.

I would never deny that there are many smart people among the believers, some are incredibly brilliant and thoughtful scholars. Theology is also awesomely sophisticated and complex, and I think it’s an indicator of the intelligence of the men (mostly) behind it that they have erected such a fantastically intricate collection of rationalizations for such deeply absurd ideas; Anselm and Aquinas, to name a few, were men of genius who applied the power of human reason to prop up archaic superstitions, and their intellectual craft, misapplied as it may be, was remarkable.

We should also recognize the historical fact of religion’s influence on scholarship. If I’d been born a thousand years ago, I would have aspired to the priesthood myself; it was virtually the only outlet for men of the mind to apply themselves. Even up to about 500 years ago, it was almost the only option for the literate and bookish, and most of the smartest men in Western history made it to their position by virtue of the priesthood directly or indirectly, through a religious education. That, of course, has all changed now, and I suspect that we can credit the proliferation of third rate minds in religion to the fact that there are secular options now, and the really brilliant men and women of our time can pursue science and art while completely bypassing religion, and they’re smarter to do that than to continue to posture for the follies of faith.

But yes, religion is full of clever people who make sophisticated arguments, bolstered in particular by a long history of literate savants who built up vast archives of painstakingly dense rationalizations; if nothing else, religion has accumulated an armor of twisty, convoluted logic to defend itself: “Here, you can’t criticize the core of our beliefs until you’ve mastered two thousand years worth of ancient documents and arcane commentary!”

But of course we can. We can look at inputs and end results, we can ask whether the crusty, flaky detritus of centuries of focused reasoning actually gets the job done and dismiss it if it does not. We can look at a Rube Goldberg machine, which is most definitely sophisticated, intricate, and complex, and ask if there isn’t a simpler, smarter way to get our back scratched, and say, aren’t there a lot of potential points of failure in the steps shown here, and wasn’t it a ridiculous amount of work to set up for such a simple task?


So let’s take a look at some of that sophisticated religion that it’s claimed we Gnu Atheists neglect. Let’s go straight to the heart of that bastion of elaborate ritual and reasoning, the Catholic church, and in particular, let’s examine where the teachings of the church overlap with a scientific subject with which I have some familiarity, evolution. What happens when the power of great religious minds are brought to bear on reality?

It’s not pretty. As most people know, the Catholic church has declared a nominal truce with science on the subject of evolution, stating that it has no conflict with the idea of a gradual evolution of human beings from other animal forms over millions of years, and the teaching of evolution in Catholic schools has, as far as it goes, been commendable. As far as it goes. What you may not know, though, is that the church has drawn a line in the sand which it will not tolerate seeing crossed; they have insisted that they have a kind of line-item veto on science, and they actually reject some of the more fundamental aspects of evolutionary theory. This is their sophisticated theology: a set of excuses to deny scientific conclusions.

The Archdiocese of Washington has laid it out beautifully and clearly. It’s a very nicely written piece — see, they can even have good writers — that makes what I suppose those critics of atheism would call a sophisticated argument (although, strangely, I’ve noticed that whenever we focus on something specific in theology, it suddenly becomes by definition less sophisticated and the wrong argument to criticize). It’s still very, very wrong and deeply weird.

The first Catholic reservation about evolution eviscerates the theory: it retains only the concept of gradual transformation of species (which preceded Darwin) and rejects the mechanism, the entire key insight that Darwin provided and makes the idea both powerful and non-intuitive.

Material Sufficient Causality? Not! We also discussed that Catholics may be open to the scientific teachings of evolution but that they cannot accept it uncritically, without certain distinctions. Catholics are free to believe in some sort of evolutionary or gradual process as a secondary cause of biodiversity. But we simply cannot accept a theory which says that the sufficient cause and complete explanation of all life is the combination of natural selection and random mutations. The words NATURAL and RANDOM are positively meant to exclude intelligent activity by God by most proponents of the Theory of Evolution. Catholics can come to accept a kind of theistic evolution wherein God is the primary cause of all secondary causes. But we are not free to accept the Theory of Evolution as most commonly proposed without the necessary distinction that natural selection and random mutations are not sufficient causes or a complete explanation for the existence of all things as they are.

This bit of ‘sophisticated theology’ is simply the very same idea Intelligent Design creationists have been peddling — seriously, it is completely indistinguishable except for the fact that Catholics are bold enough to name their intelligent agent God. It’s also the very same idea proposed by Ken Miller in Finding Darwin’s God, that there is an invisible magic man finagling evolution to shape it in the direction he wants, bypassing the known and demonstrated natural mechanisms that we’ve tested and verified.

The words NATURAL and RANDOM are not meant to exclude an intelligent agent: they are meant to accurately describe the process. The fact that gods become redundant is a side effect of the power of evolutionary explanations. All of our observations of evolution are adequately explained by random chance as the dominant force in our history, with directionality and function conferred by local, short term adaptation. There is no teleological force. There is no evidence of divine or even intelligent intervention in our past. Is this smart theology? To promote the counterfactual and unsupportable? It’s cunning and weird and increases the complexity of the model to postulate imaginary and unexaminable forces, but it doesn’t make it right.

This one reservation is enough to move Catholic theology well out of the domain of science and reason, but they go further with a second and apparently even more important restriction…and it’s also one that defies the evidence and simply doesn’t work.

[T]he Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experienced in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter…..When, however, there is question of another conjectural opinion, namely polygenism, the children of the Church by no means enjoy such liberty. For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

This “monogenism” is apparently an important (and sophisticated!) assertion. It’s an insistence on the idea that Adam and Eve were unique, real, and literal individuals and that the entire human race is directly descended from them with no other contribution from other individuals of that time. Some are fine with the idea that Adam and Eve were themselves the product of evolution and had non-human ancestors, while others insist that they had to have been divinely and magically created without parents, but at some point in time the Catholic god set these two, and only these two, people apart, bestowed them with souls, and set them to work procreating to generate the entirety of the human species.

That’s some genetic bottleneck. One pair. That’s it. Talking about populations defies sophisticated Catholic theology.

Unfortunately for them, it also defies population genetics and again violates the principles of evolutionary biology. Evolution is precisely about changes in populations over time, not individuals, and furthermore, a relatively recent bottleneck in genetic diversity that narrow would be apparent in our genomes. When you get right down to it, it turns out that Catholics are not supposed to accept evolution — they are only expected to embrace a superficial and literally falsified version of evolution that strips out the entirety of its mechanism.

Why would Catholics be required to believe such nonsense? Sophisticated theology, of course. In this case, it’s theology that can’t be distinguished from the rationalizations of Ken Ham and other such young earth creationists.

They also declare that Adam and Eve were real people and the sole progenitors of the human race, for exactly the same reason: original sin. Christian doctrine is built on the notion that all people are intrinsically guilty and sinful, and the specific crime they are guilty of is the act of disobedience by Eve described in the book of Genesis. While much of the rest of Genesis can be treated as poetic metaphor by Catholics, that ‘fact’ must be indisputable — we’re all sinners because Adam and Eve broke the rules in the Garden of Eden.

I know. Inherited guilt is absurd, but that’s how sophisticated theology works.

Why do Catholics have to prop up this concept of original sin? Because Jesus’s sacrifice makes no sense if it wasn’t done to atone for a universal crime. We all must have inherited that sin, or some of us are innocent and Jesus was irrelevant to us. Can’t have that! That would mean we weren’t subject to the domain of Christianity.

Of course, even if it were true that all 6.7 billion of us were descended from just two people, that doesn’t mean the whole principle of atonement by a proxy blood sacrifice isn’t stupid and irrational. I personally don’t feel that I need redemption from some imaginary crime that my many times great grandmother committed (I’d actually say “You go, Grandma!” if I could — disobeying a psychopathic tyrant seems rather commendable to me), and even if I did, having some mysterious third party get tortured to death does not alleviate my guilt in the slightest.

This one document from the Archdiocese of Washington is just one small sample of sophisticated theology. The Catholic church has thousands of documents like that, I’m sure, and millions of words, all going on and on about Original Sin and Christ’s Salvation. Every word in those volumes is rendered pointless by the evidence.

And this is the crux of the matter. The theology adds nothing to our knowledge, no matter how intricate or voluminous, and in fact it detracts from it when the sophisticated theologians insist that we must ignore the evidence where it conflicts with their fairy tales. I don’t care how sophisticated it is, and I have no problem admitting that clever minds have constructed an elaborate castle of wind and vapor for their fairy tales, but bullshit shoveled into majestic mountains must still slump into shapeless, decaying mounds when the props are knocked out with the facts.

It’s such a shame, too, that so many generations of sophisticated theology have distracted the good minds of so many, and amounts to nothing but a heap of compost now.