Evolution as Metaphysical Fig Leaf

Evolution as Metaphysical Fig Leaf November 26, 2012

If I were to stop you on the street and say, “Hey! What do you believe about particle physics?” and you were *super* on the ball you’d shoot back, “Whaddaya mean ‘believe’?  Particle physics is not faith.  It’s science.  It’s about the measurement of the metric properties of time, space, matter and energy.  It’s not about faith in a supernatural Trinity of Persons or angels or love or mercy.  Why are you babbling about ‘belief’?”  If you weren’t that much of a stickler for precision, odds are pretty good that you might still be able to babble out something you remember from high school or Popular Science about smashing atoms, or the word “quark” or maybe even something something E=MC2. You could probably give a rough account of how a nuclear bomb works. But mostly, at the end of the day, you wouldn’t know all that much about particle physics, or hydraulics, or the Krebs Cycle, or how all that petroleum wound up under the earth’s crust, or why an “a” shows up on your computer screen when you press “a” on the keyboard or a great many other areas of scientific expertise. You’d have a vague general knowledge you gleaned from TV or the web. If pressed, you might realize that there were aspects of all these fields that didn’t make sense to you and prompted questions. Or you might have no knowledge at all. And that would be okay. Nobody would regard you as a reprehensible moral and intellectual defective for not knowing all that much about these areas of science.

But when people express ignorance and lack of expertise in the matter of evolution, all of a sudden secularists appear from nowhere to wring their hands about the horrific vast metaphysical implications of our “shocking” lack of knowledge and the Dark Threat of Faith to Reason and Intellect:

Issues like evolution and the age of our universe and the planet Earth are more than just differences of opinion, they are the great divide between faith and knowledge.

No. They are a relatively unimportant divide between ignorance and knowledge for ordinary people on a day to day basis, because outside the fields of study which deal with cosmology and evolutionary theory only a tiny hothouse of Christians and atheist fundamentalists are passionate about this stuff. As Rod Dreher says:

I don’t know a soul — aside from scientists, science educators, theologians who work in this area, or former colleagues at the Templeton Foundation — who ever talks about the age of the earth, God, and evolution. I care about this stuff more than most people I know, but until I went to work for Templeton, I rarely gave the topic much sustained thought, except episodically, e.g., when reading newspaper stories about the controversy in this or that school system. It’s just not the sort of thing that comes up, and when it does (or when it did with me), I would tend not to engage, because the last thing I wanted to do was argue in a social situation about religion, unless I had to. Granted, for some churches, this is a very big deal, but they only really talk about it with people who already agree with them.

And this is even more true for atheist fundamentalists than it is for Christian fundamentalists.  Christian fundies can take a break from polemicizing about the War Between Godless Secular Humanist Evolutionism vs. God to talk about other stuff.  But people who run sites like Evolution is True are more or less committed to making the same cramped and monotonous atheist arguments sneering at God and Christianity over and over again.  I frankly admire their stamina, if not the folly of their commitment to this boring chore.   But for those not fanatically dedicated to the cause of Evolution vs. God, it gets old pretty fast.  And so does the hue and cry about the crisis we all face if everybody does not believe (note that word) in evolution.  And if *that’s* boring, more boring still is the curious class consciousness of the Entrapment Media as they turn a blind eye to the fact that ignorance of evolutionary science is hardly a conservative ailment.  As Daniel Engber at the normally ritually impure but this time useful-to-conservatives Slate observes, candidate Obama was as squishy as Rubio on the evolution litmus test:

1) Both senators refuse to give an honest answer to the question. Neither deigns to mention that the Earth is 4.54 billion years old.

2) They both go so far as to disqualify themselves from even pronouncing an opinion.I’m not a scientist, says Rubio. I don’t presume to know, says Obama.

3) That’s because they both agree that the question is a tough one, and subject to vigorous debate. I think there are multiple theories out there on how this universe was created, says Rubio. I think it’s a legitimate debate within the Christian community of which I’m a part, says Obama.

4) Finally they both profess confusion over whether the Bible should be taken literally. Maybe the “days” in Genesis were actual eras, says Rubio. They might not have been standard 24-hour days, says Obama.

In light of these concordances, to call Rubio a liar or a fool would be to call our nation’s president the same, along with every other politician who might like to occupy the Oval Office. If a reporter asks a candidate to name the age of Earth, there’s only one acceptable response:Well, you know, that’s a complicated issue … and who am I to say?

That’s not to argue that Obama and Rubio are identical in mind-set (although it’s hard to tell what either thinks on the basis of his cagey public statements). It’s clear enough they differ on some scientific policies. At the same 2008 event in Pennsylvania, Obama went on to give this caveat:

Let me just make one last point on this. I do believe in evolution. I don’t think that is incompatible with Christian faith, just as I don’t think science generally is incompatible with Christian faith. I think that this is something that we get bogged down in. There are those who suggest that if you have a scientific bent of mind then somehow you should reject religion, and I fundamentally disagree with that. In fact, the more I learn about the world, the more I know about science, the more I am amazed about the mystery of this planet and this universe—and it strengthens my faith as opposed to weakens it. [APPLAUSE]

So Obama believes in evolution, and presumably he’d like to teach it in the nation’s public schools, while Rubio suggests that “multiple theories” should be given equal time. But even so, both men present the science as a matter of personal opinion. Obama doesn’t say, Evolution is a fact; he says, I believe in it.

Somehow the Republic survives despite a President who is fuzzy on evolution and calls himself a Christian.  It would survive if a Rubio did the same.  Just as it survived despite Lincoln’s woeful lack of education on the functioning of microchips.

So why, in this particular arena of science, do we always get the handwringing about the imminent death of America if every single American does not “believe” in evolution?  The key is in that word “believe”.  Atheist materialists (and snobby class-conscious secularists) place enormous false metaphysical importance on evolution as a fig leaf for their atheism and whole boatload of other social agendas they tie to it. They absurdly inflate the importance of this branch of science, as well as making category mistakes like my reader’s in order to insist that it is a) somehow necessary to Faith to deny evolution and b) somehow necessary to “knowledge” to deny Faith. It’s not, as any educated Catholic knows.  But they think it is.  And so, when a pol, like Obama, is largely committed to those other agenda items, they give him a pass on evolutionary fuzziness.

It is this sociological and muddled philosophical backdrop that lay behind the media’s little game with Marco Rubio last week. He was asked the question about the age of the earth as a “gotcha” in order to identify him as a member of the Brigade of Know Nothing Rubes for the delectation of secular lefties who like to pride themselves on being intellectuals. Corner that interviewer in an unguarded moment and ask him the details of cosmology and five’ll get you ten he has no more idea what the actual science is than Rubio does. What he was–obviously–doing was trying to tag Rubio with a tribal identifier marker as a Know Nothing Christian Fundamentalist. And it worked beautifully. He was, as secularists typically do, using evolution as a marker and fig leaf for a particular set of metaphysical commitments about God vs. science/reason vs. faith/etc.

My point in expressing my frustration with Rubio last week is that Christians have to be smarter than this in engaging the secular world and there is no reason they cannot be, since the tools for dealing with these false secular dichotomies of Faith vs. Reason and Science vs. God are laying around in the Catholic tradition, free for the taking. What Rubio *could* have done is actually speak from the Catholic tradition, which is imminently sensible and very smart about the relationship of science and faith. He could have had a teaching moment for both Christian and atheist fundamentalists (not to mention snobby secular reporters scoring shallow gotcha points). But instead, he made a complete hash of things because he does not know the Catholic faith.

So instead of going all “big mystery” on the reporter and saying it’s impossible to know if the world was really created in 7 days or not he could have squarely faced both the scientific and magisterial concensus and said, “Of course, the earth was *not* created in 7 literal days, but is about 4.5 billion years old in a universe that is about 13.5 billion years old. I’m no scientist (and I’ll be you aren’t either, GQ dude). So I would point you to the experts in their relevant fields for all the details on that. Meanwhile, if you are *really* asking whether I feel I need to choose between faith and science, I would say no since all truth is God’s truth and the God who wrote the Book of Nature that the sciences study also inspired the Bible. The problem is, we are bad readers, not that God is a bad writer. The sciences look at time, space, matter and energy. That’s it. That’s all. They can’t see beyond the natural world and therefore can give us no information on the existence or non-existence of a supernatural God.

“Meanwhile, Genesis is using theological, not scientific, language that we moderns easily misunderstand. We can know this not only from the evidence of science read in the book of nature written by God, but by the teaching of the Church founded by Christ which does not insist in the slightest that the earth was made in seven literal days. Heck! The Catechism explicitly says that Genesis uses figurative language in CCC 390! I could, if you like, go into the details of the liturgical and temple symbolism that undergirds the Genesis account and makes it clear that the author is trying to portray the act of creation as the construction of a gigantic temple dedicated to the worship of the Creator, but I suspect your eyes will glaze over. If you want a good popular treatment, see Tim Gray’s and Jeff Cavins’ Walking with God.

“Anyway, suffice it to say that Genesis and the sciences are talking apples and oranges and there is no contradiction. The sciences are concerned with how, when, what, and when questions. Genesis is concerned with Who and Why questions. Perhaps you’d be interested in this fine book from Ignatius press on the recent conference on Creation and Evolution that was held at the Vatican?  Or if you prefer, there’s a fine little film out called Cosmic Origins, put together by a very smart Jesuit Fr. Robert Spitzer who is extremely well-versed in both physics *and* philosophy which helps ordinary people understand how faith and science complement each other.”

In short, instead of getting trapped in a gotcha by a secularist who just wanted to make him look dumb with a question calculated to code to his audience “Hey look! Another Know Nothing Fundy!”, Rubio could have learned his faith and a little science and avoided the fiasco, while educating both the reporter and his base. It was, to be sure, a political failure. But far more important, it was a catechetical failure, which is what concerns me as a Catholic interested in the Faith as it is lived in the public square.

That said, the fact remains that the *main* reason this is a problem is not that knowledge of cosmology is all that important to ordinary people in their daily lives, any more than knowledge of the working of the microchips in their computers is. Despite the handwringing of secularist agitprop specialists with apocalyptic warnings of the horrors that await if everybody does not believe and profess their faith in the saving power of Charles Darwin, the reality is that most people can and do live good and happy lives without knowing how old the earth and the universe are. Ignorance of things like cosmology is trumpeted as a crisis of metaphysical importance by secularists and atheist materialists, not because it really is, but because it is important to secularists and atheist materialists as a fig leaf for their philosophical, social and political agendas. In the same way, average people have lived good and happy lives without knowing all that much about hydraulics, gravity, or particle physics and nobody has ever talked as though this constituted a moral stain. But evolution has been invested with metaphysical significance by atheist fundamentalists, so they constantly make the sort of rubbish metaphysical pronouncements about it like my reader made. Nobody asks if you “believe” in gamma radiation, quarks, or pi (even though nobody as ever seen these things). But the language of faith (and heresy) is constantly deployed by both Christian and atheist fundamentalists when it comes to evolution.

This is why it’s important for Christians in the public square to clearly understand where science leaves off and metaphysics and theology begin. Some Christians will say, “It’s not a matter of dogma, so you can believe as you like.” 2+2=4 is not a matter of dogma either. But if you expect to be take seriously by mathematicians, you had best not embrace the curious new postmodern Christian notion that all knowledge is up for grabs and subject entirely to human whim, wish, and will. The Soviets tried that–shooting meteorologists for “counter-revolutionary weather forecasting” which did not fit in with Stalin’s Five Year Plans–and found that reality had a will of its own. Christians who wish to bear credible witness to people who know what they are talking about in their own field need to listen to Augustine:

“Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason?” St. Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, translated and annotated by John Hammond Taylor, S.J., 2 vols. (New York: Newman Press, 1982).

We have the tools–in the Catholic tradition–for doing what both Christian and atheist fundamentalists cannot do: teaching  people the healthy relationship between faith and reason.

Meanwhile, those who have some expertise in the sciences–and even more, people like GQ interviewers who have *no* expertise in the sciences but use evolution as a fig leaf for other vague metaphysical commitments to materialism–should consider the possibility that the Catholic tradition has rather more to say about the relationship between faith and reason than they might get from watching Bill Maher or Richard Dawkins.

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!