I am really flattered to see that Uncle Karl Giberson has devoted an entire column on the HuffPo Religion page attempting to debunk me. I’m not quite as famous as Maru or Henri, but this will do.
Giberson is exercised by a recent post in which I criticized an Oxford Catholic theologian’s attempt to show that, because of the prescient lucubrations of St. Thomas Aquinas, we now see that there is no conflict between evolution and science. I criticized as well the Vatican’s attempt to harmonize science and faith by setting up a special foundation to “build a philosophical bridge between science and theology.” Well, you know that’s the Bridge to Nowhere. And as for the theologian, Wiliam Carroll, he made a claim that I thought fatuous:
“A proper understanding of creation, especially an understanding set forth by a thinker such as Thomas Aquinas, helps us to see that there is no conflict between evolutionary biology or any of the natural sciences and a fundamental understanding that all that ‘is’, is caused by God,” Professor William E. Carroll of Oxford University’s theology faculty told CNA [Catholic News Agency] Aug. 22.
In his HuffPo piece, “Science and religion talks remain controversial,” Giberson first compliments me for posting energetically (sadly, he uses the word “blog”) and for trying to keep up with modern theology, before he goes after me for being “uncharitable” in attacking both Aquinas and the Vatican’s attempt to marry science and faith. His beef? That I criticized the characterization of Aquinas as some kind of prophetic accommodationist:
Nevertheless, I think [Coyne’s] critiques of the Vatican project are slanted and unfair. For starters, Thomas Aquinas is not being “trotted out” to make some point, as though he were some obscure figure cherry-picked from a pantheon of options because his 13th century view of creation comports with contemporary views of evolution. Aquinas is, by most estimates, the most important Christian thinker since St. Paul, and his views on creation have informed all subsequent thinking on the topic by both Protestants and Catholics.
Who ever said he was “trotted out” as an obscure figure cherry-picked from a pantheon of options? I said he was trotted out because among all famous Catholic theologians, he is the one most cited by modern accommodationists as supporting their views: according to them, Aquinas said that it was okay to read scripture metaphorically.
The thing is, he didn’t. First of all, Carroll is dead wrong—though Giberson doesn’t mention this—in claiming that there is no conflict between evolutionary biology and Catholicism. Aquinas bought huge swaths of the Bible literally, including those bits that are diametrically opposed to evolution. Even Giberson knows this:
Like other thinkers from previous centuries, Aquinas certainly held beliefs that we can no longer embrace. Coyne mentions that Aquinas believed the earth was 6,000 years old, for example, and thought the events in Genesis, including the Eden story, really happened as described. “So let us hear no more,” he concludes, “about Aquinas showing that there’s no conflict between the Bible and science.”
And if you read Aquinas, he doesn’t say that the Bible can be read completely metaphorically. What he said was that the Bible can be read both literally and metaphorically, but when there was a conflict in the book of Genesis, and elsewhere, literalism takes precedence (see my earlier post for the supporting quotations). So again, it’s a gross distortion to see Aquinas as the Great Accommodationist. Nevertheless, Giberson tries to save St. Thomas’s bacon:
What Coyne is missing here — because he opposes harmonizing science and religion — is the difference between beliefs that Aquinas shared with his century, embraced uncritically because they were not controversial, and Aquinas’s more original thinking in response to the challenges of his day.
Aquinas’s central insight — the one that is appropriately defended as his enduring claim and not just something that everyone accepted in his time — is that the foundation of the Christian doctrine in creation is the belief that God created and upholds everything, including the laws of nature. This remains relevant today because it lets us distinguish between God as the primary cause or source of the laws of nature, and the activity of the laws themselves.
Well, remember that Aquinas lived in the 13th century, and we really didn’t have many “laws of nature” then. Yes, Aquinas proposed a “natural law” for both objects and humans, but it’s not clear to me that this is the same thing as saying that the principles of physics and biology and chemistry all obeyed regularities imposed by God (remember, Aquinas lived well before Copernicus).
But even granted that, Aquinas also accepted many exceptions to the laws of nature, including the miracles of the Garden of Eden, the Resurrection of Christ, and the existence of a soul. All of these violate at least the laws of nature known today. And really, how does God “uphold everything”? Many modern theologians say that if the universe operates by known laws, it doesn’t need any damn upholding. God made the laws, and then retired to put his feet up on a cloud and watch the show. Would atoms and stars fly apart if God isn’t busy holding them together? If God disappeared, would the “laws” (actually, just regularities) vanish too? Giberson doesn’t tell us.
What Giberson is doing here is reverse-engineering modern accommodationism to say that it’s the same as that of Aquinas. And to some extent, it is: plenty of modern theologians have a deistic view that is superficially similar to what Aquinas said: God started everything, created the regularities of nature, and then let the show go on by itself. Unfortunately, Aquinas also accepted plenty of irregularities.
It’s a sign of how pathetic theology is, and how little it has moved on, that people like Aquinas are still cited as exemplars of how to reconcile science and religion. We didn’t even know much about science in his day, and the problem of reconciliation has become far worse: we now know about the Big Bang and evolution. Aquinas’s views are in direct conflict with those. Citing Aquinas as an accommodationist is like citing Archimedes in support of the modern laws of physics.
Still, Giberson pretends that there is no conflict, no “debate,” between science and religion:
Unfortunately, such dialog between science and religion will continue to be widely misconstrued as a “debate,” largely because Andrew Dickson White [author of History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896)] did such an effective job painting it with that brush. White’s influential polemic, one of the holy books of the New Atheists (you can download it for free at infidels.org) has been widely condemned for its irresponsible scholarship, but convenient mythologies can be hard to displace. I have just started teaching a course at Stonehill College titled “Does Science Disprove God?” and one of the primary goof the course will be to expose the poverty of White’s thesis.
Is Uncle Karl kidding here? Does he really think there is no conflict? Giberson just left an organization—BioLogos—that dealt with this “debate” on a daily basis. The “dialog” between science and religion consists, in America, of many religious people rejecting stuff like evolution and global warming. That’s no dialogue; it’s a refusal to listen. The real dialogue is a one-way street: science tells theology it’s wrong, and theology (as Giberson is doing here) reverse-engineers its philosophy to accommodate scientific facts. Theology has nothing—nothing—to contribute to science. Why are we supposed to listen to theologians, except to refute them?
In fact, at the end of Giberson’s piece, he admits that religion stops people’s ears:
The Vatican project, executive director Father Tomasz Trafny told the Catholic News Agency, raises the important question of “how to offer a coherent vision of society, culture and the human being to people who would like to understand where to put these dimensions — the spiritual and religious and the scientific.” At a time when religiously motivated concerns make it almost impossible to discuss the warming of our planet, the curriculum in our schools and even the reproduction of our species, we should embrace efforts at dialog, not assault them.
Well, the whole purpose of Giberson’s former organization, BioLogos, was to embrace dialogue with evangelical Christians with the aim of converting them to Darwinism. That failed. In fact, the reverse seems to have happened—BioLogos is getting more and more evangelical, floating various theories about how Adam and Eve might have been real people.
Speaking of that, did I mention that the modern Catholic Church still takes a profoundly antiscientific view on at least two evolutionary issues: the uniqueness of humans in having a “soul,” which mysteriously appeared sometime in the hominin lineage, and the Church’s insistence that Adam and Eve were the real progenitors of all humanity, whom they afflicted with original sin? It looks like even Aquinas wasn’t so effective at dragging the Church toward modern science.
I close with a comment following Giberson’s piece by Bob Metcalfe, which pretty accurately sums up the state of the art: those scientists who do try to reconcile science and faith almost invariably turn out to be religious. The rest of us don’t see the point.
It seems to be religious people and have this overwhelming need to reconcile religion and science. As an atheist I don’t find any need to do this at all. If religion and science conflict – science is probably correct, religion is probably wrong – end of story.
Except that I’d substitute “invariably” for “probably.”
And here’s Uncle Karl’s new book: