Monday, July 11, 2005

The Catholic Church and Evolution

Last week, Cardinal Christoph Schonborn, archbishop of Vienna, submitted this opinion piece to the New York Times. The news department of the New York Times followed up two days later with this piece, which raises questions about how the Catholic Church views evolution. Both the original opinion piece and the news article, which it spawned, strike me as unhelpful in the search for truth.

Cardinal Schonborn, like many other religious leaders, has waded into the murky waters at the intersection of religion and science. Both religion and science profess to search for truth in our world, so both should be described as a process rather than a conclusion. Tellingly, both religion and science fall into error the later relationship is reversed.

My position as a Catholic and as a scientist (OK engineer) is that religion and science cannot ever be in fundamental conflict. I believe that there is a God who created the world, set the physical laws of our universe, and continues to operate in our world in accordance with those laws (many of which we do not yet understand). Science is a quest to better understand the physical laws which govern our universe, so because those laws were created by God, it is a quest to understand God.

The biblical story of creation is as much about the beginning of free will as about the creation of the world. In a sense, the creation of free will motivates the entire reason for creating a universe. God created mankind to enable a loving relationship between Himself and each individual. God loves each of us unconditionally and calls us to love Himself in return through grace. Due to humanity's inability to enter fully into this relationship, the Father send Jesus into the world to serve as the prefect example of love and to provide an easier path to God through the resurrection.

The current understanding of evolution is that all species have a genetic variation with respect to their physical form and capabilities. Certain of these variations allow individuals or groups to prosper within their given environment more than individuals that have different variations. Over the course of generations, the effects of positive variations allow will allow a species to prosper in its environment and the original variation becomes a trait of the species. Given this process and assuming subgroups of a species are unable inter-breed, the two subgroups are likely to diverge (different environments) and ultimately not be able to produce viable offspring. Thus creating to separate species.

Where is the conflict with the story of creation and the current theories of evolution and natural selection? If God's objective is to create a being who posed free will and had the ability to love and be loved by God, why is evolution not an appropriate mechanism?

Is there chance or randomness involved? Perhaps there is from our perspective, but we do not currently possess enough information to know for sure. With perfect information, it may be that a being with free will will inevitably result every time life forms. There may be some chance about the form end result, but it is entirely possible that a being with intelligence and free will would be very well adapted to its environment and at over 6 billion strong, the human species' experience supports this.

Cardinal Schonborn quotes Pope Benedict as stating that, "We are not some casual and meaningless product of evolution. Each of us is the result of a thought of God. Each of us is willed, each of us is loved, each of us is necessary." To this I say, "Yes!" That is God's purpose. God wants us to exist and to love him. Unfortunately earlier in his essay, Cardinal Schonborn states:

Evolution in the sense of common ancestry might be true, but evolution in the neo-Darwinian sense - an unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection - is not. Any system of thought that denies or seeks to explain away the overwhelming evidence for design in biology is ideology, not science.

Why is it not true that an "unguided, unplanned process of random variation and natural selection" cannot be the mechanism by which God created man. It is not the system that seeks to deny God a place in the universe. Atheists do that. That they use a scientific theory to assail God does not mean that the proper response by intellectual Christians is to attach science. The Cardinal should redirect his rhetoric against the people who would use science against religion. Attacking science with religion is destined to be counter productive and worse confusing to the faithful who choose not to enter into the minutiae of the debate.

A few years back I notice a Darwin Fish on the back of a car. The person who put it there was likely and atheist and likely intended it as a jab at a framiliar Christian symbol. I liked it because I think that it expresses a truth about the relationship between religion and science: they are one in that they both search for truth and they are one in that symbol.

No comments: