Catholicism and theistic evolution

July 28, 2014 • 9:59 am

Below is part of a short post called “What does the Catholic Church teach about evolution,” appearing on The Catholic Difference, produced by the Parish of St. James in Hopewell, Virginia—very close to where I went to school in Williamsburg. This is pretty much official Catholic doctrine as I understand it. The emphasis in the second paragraph is mine.

Doesn’t the theory of evolution go against the biblical account of creation?
This question can be answered only if we understand clearly what the Bible actually says about creation. A careful reading of the account in the Book of Genesis indicates clearly that the so-called “six day” account of the creation is a poetic description of the origin of the world, which makes two points very clear: first, that everything in the universe was created by God and that, therefore, contrary to what some other religions teach, nothing in creation is to be worshipped as though it were a god or a part of God. The story of the creation in the Book of Genesis in the Bible is not, and was never meant to be, a scientific document giving the scientific details of how the universe came into being and how it has developed since its origins.

The view prevailing among most theologians today is that there is no conflict between the evolution model of the origin and development of life and the truths presented in the Book of Genesis. It still remains true that the origin of every human soul is a new act of creation by God and creator. (That is why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person.)

A few points:

1.  They use the old canard that Genesis wasn’t meant to be a “scientific document giving scientific details.” I wish they’d just be explicit and say “Genesis wasn’t meant to be taken as literal truth: it’s an allegory.” That goes for the whole Bible, which is often excused by theologians as “not a textbook of science.” But if the Bible is an allegory (i.e., an extended metaphor), are there any parts of it that are true? Tell us, Catholics, which ones? And how do you know?

And if it’s “very clear” that Genesis is mere poetry and not fact, why do roughly half of Americans feel otherwise? Where does it say in Genesis: “WARNING: The following book is allegory, and is not intended as a representation of fact. DO NOT CONSTRUE IT OTHERWISE.”? It’s curious that Church fathers such as Aquinas and Augustine, who were presumably very careful readers of Genesis, did construe much of it as fact!

2. The Catholic Church certainly does not see all of Genesis as an allegory. Church doctrine is still that all modern humans descend from Adam and Eve, the sole ancestors of humanity. Science tells us that that is wrong: that the bottleneck of the Homo sapiens lineage was around twelve thousand people, not two (Adam and Eve) or eight (Noah and his extended family).  Now how Adam and Eve continue to relate to Original Sin is something for Catholic fabulists to decide. If the Church maintains, as they still do, that Adam and Eve were the only two ancestors of humanity, then they are in clear conflict with science. If they agree that Adam and Eve were made-up metaphors, then either Jesus died for that metaphor or Catholics must confect a new story about where “original sin” came from. This is a severe problem for Catholicism.

3. Before genetics definitively ruled out Adam and Eve, the one big conflict between Catholicism and evolution was the Church’s insistence that somewhere in the lineage leading to modern Homo sapiens, a soul was inserted by God. Not only that, but each new human being involves God creating a new soul.

Of course what a soul consists of isn’t defined explicitly, but its insertion is a violation of naturalistic evolution. A soul is obviously something that distinguishes us from all other species, and is presumably something connected to the possibility of an afterlife.  But the statement above implies that it’s also something deeply connected with the human ability to be “conscious” and to “think,” “feel,” and “decide.”

Well, some animals can do all that, but they don’t have souls.  And all of those mentations can be explained by evolution, for we see them in our soul-less relatives.  No, I thought a soul was something more than that.  To Alvin Plantinga, the human trait that cannot be explained by evolution is the “sensus dvinitatis,” the ability to apprehend truth that leads us to perceive and worship God.  Plantinga argues, falsely, that humans’ ability to perceive truth is something that also couldn’t have evolved, though I don’t think he’d see the sensus as a soul. I won’t go into detail about how our ability to perceive truth (and our inability to perceive many truths) can be explained by natural selection, with no God needed. I’ve done that here, and I do that in my book.

It’s time for Catholics to tell us precisely what they mean by “soul,” and how they know that our species has it but other creatures don’t.  Maybe they’ve done this, but I’m not about to go digging into the theological literature again. All I know is that they haven’t specified exactly when God put it into the human lineage.

4. Please, religionists, if you do accept evolution, stop calling it a “model”! That is a term that creationists used when opposing the “creation model” with the “evolution model.” Call evolution either a “theory” or a “fact.” It’s far from just a model.

86 thoughts on “Catholicism and theistic evolution

  1. I’m still left wondering how they can take seriously a story about an enchanted garden with talking animals and an angry wizard. Aren’t they a bit old for that kind of story?


    1. Yet they so easily dismiss the notion of Santa Claus. Kind of makes me wonder if they really dismiss Santa on account of lack of evidence or simply because believing in Santa is unpopular…

    2. My old roommate and I used to make each other burst out in laughter every time we’d be out somewhere and see a church sign or a bumper sticker extolling the virtues and infallibility of “the word.” One of us would look at the other as dead-pan as possible and simply say “the bible has a talking donkey in it.”

    3. I salute your attempt to present xian beliefs as childish, but it is damn hard to improve on how infantile they actually are.

      From my point of view apologetics, all of theology actually, is inspired by the desire, subconscious or otherwise, to try and recloak the obviously infantile in a mantle of sophistication. Largely by merely insisting with an authoritative mien that it is so, and by using lots of long, often made up, words. Especially in those instances where there are perfectly suitable, much more commonly known and used words.

  2. It’s worse than that! There was a papal encyclical called Humani Generic in 1950, which addressed evolution specifically:

    It says that:

    – Adam was a real person
    – he committed original sin
    – no human lived after Adam who wasn’t directly descended from him
    – Adam was an individual and must not be taken to mean a number of human ancestors in an allegorical sense
    – if evolutionary theory contradicts any of this the Catholics are not permitted to believe evolutionary theory

    There you have it, folks.

    1. Don’t worry, there’s a solution!

      “We are Adam, and we are Eve. … The man and woman of Genesis … are intended to represent an Everyman and Everywoman. They are paradigms, figurative equivalents, of human conduct in the face of temptation, not lessons in biology or history.”

      1. Wait. Does this mean the genealogies in Genesis 5, Genesis 10 and 11, Genesis 25, Genesis 36, and Genesis 46 are all just metaphorical genealogies for Adam, Noah, Abraham and his sons, Jacob and Esau, and Jacob’s sons, all connected to each other via these genealogies? And if it’s not acceptable to take these genealogies as being true, why is it acceptable to take the two creation myths and blandly say that they demonstrate humans were made in the image of God and fell into temptation? That’s like erasing the only bit of evidence the believer has for actually believing.

        1. Or perhaps every couple in the 12,000 committed original sin to pass on to their descendents? Ridiculous.

          They can try all they like, but there’s no way to make a lie into the truth.

      2. “In the six decades since that document, Father Guinan continued, “the Catholic Church has accepted the use of historical-critical tools to understand the Scriptures, which are, among other things, historical documents.”

        How convenient. Also misleading, since their history is of myth construction, not a documentation of historical events.

        But beyond that problematic basis, the catholic church implicitly admitting there is no truth in their myth texts (while not explicitly admitting it of course), I don’t see how they haven’t compounded their problem of explaining away the existence of pain, cruelty et cetera (‘sin’). Why was the very existence of a species correlated with that, and why our specific species? No allegory can explain that.

        And as Jerry notes, why ‘Jesus’?

        1. I think Fr. Guinan should be less ambiguous. I’d rephrase his statement as, “In the past six decades, the Church has abstracted away the meaning of obviously wrong premises to the point where, through much hand-waiving, they become compatible with modern historical analysis and scientific findings. When a theologian is cornered, refer to the Magisterium and the lack of specifics on the issue at hand; in the case of obviously erroneous claims by the Magisterium, refer back to the the theologians. Wash, rinse, repeat.”

    2. I think it’s worth noting that the encyclical is inconsistent with modern data about human origins; the facts of evolution rather than the theory of it. Things could have turned out differently; our genetic studies could have pointed to a very small-population bottleneck. But they didn’t.

      The reason this is important is because it shows the church is still up to its Galileo-like tricks, even in the 20th century, making claims about the empricial world (only to have science shoot them down). In 1950 the RCC leadership probably thought that claiming a real Adam was “safe” from science: it was a fact that science could never refute, being safetly buried in the past. They simply had no inkling of the power of 21st century genetic analysis techniques.

      The lesson here is that all this separate magisteria talk is baloney: the RCC isn’t and doesn’t want to be limited to spiritual claims. They didn’t stop making claims to having divine knowledge about how the world works after the Galileo – they kept doing it, with instances of them doing it as recent as the 1950s. And it is likely that they will keep trying to make claims about the empirical world whenever they see some ‘gap’ in scientific understand that could have theological import to them.

      1. In particular, they are *still* playing “philosophy of mind of the gaps”, despite the conservation-law objection to psychoneural dualism being decisive for ~100 years (or more, but …)

    3. They also have a problem with ‘souls’.

      30% of fertilized human eggs, according to the wife of a friend of mine (she is a retired senior lecturer in midwifery) self abort.

      Does this mean that somewhere there is a resting place for these ‘souls’? Just as there is a resting place for odd socks, pens and loose change.

      The question was put a Deacon in the RCC several months ago – I am still waiting for an answer – no I’m not!

  3. There you go, being all strident again. You’re just avoiding the best arguments for religion. Ground of Being. Or something.

    1. Take a half pound of ground of being add a quarter cup of SophisticatedTheologianTM broth. Add chopped onion, carrot, celery and garlic to taste and garnish with some of Uncle Deepak’s woo sauce and voila, you have the best arguments for religion.

      1. You forgot to infuse the ground of being with the love/creativity/intelligence/some-other-mental-thing-Sastra-would-have-pointed-out god. And then you should have sprinkled on the “Jesus-was-a-great-moral-teacher” and “we-get-our-morality-from-the-ten-commandments” arguments. Lastly, if you want it nice and thick, mix it in liberally with a session of atheist-bashing. Throw in some flavour of biblical-literalism-is-a-recent-phenomenon, and that should make it so thick that you can make bricks out of it. The perfect treat to get stuck in!

  4. Jerry your output astonishes me. You fearlessly address the things that matter. The average person needs to read your stuff. We all know the apologists will have little use for it, or more than likely, simply refuse to think about it. Reading this post it struck me how far back the Church has had to set up its defenses. It knows it must recognise the scientific evidence, but it still hangs on to a theistic Creator and so makes room for him when it comes to what they feel makes the human special: a soul. They’re hanging by a thread.

    1. I share your appreciation of this website, however I don’t share your optimism about the church hanging on by a thread. I’ve met ‘atheist’ physicists in the nuclear industry who cannot accept a deterministic view of consciousness – there must be a ‘spark’ of life. The church has proved very good at promoting ignorance over the years. They are not about to stop soon. How many US citizens profess to believe in Genesis? How fast are faith schools expanding on this side of the pond?

      This website is a beacon of light. We need more.

  5. “This question can be answered only if we understand clearly what the Bible actually says about creation. A careful reading of the account in the Book of Genesis indicates clearly that…”

    And virtually every one of the over 30,000 distinct Christian sects will begin explaining their interpretation of the bible the same way, with the same confidence.

    “the bible is clear”

    Christians keep using that phrase, but I do not think it means what they think it means.

  6. “…why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person…”

    This is just a not-so-elaborate god of the gaps argument. And why is it always a “leap?” I don’t see why these sorts of questions can’t be ultimately explained by a process of incremental changes over time. It’s possible that Science will figure this out, zap another gap, and the faithful will retreat to another corner.

    1. The nail in the coffin of the “leap”: establishing communications with other species through sign language, etc. Most of the people I meet who believe in the “leap” have never heard of such experiments.

    2. It is inherent in darwinian evolution that there isn’t any such ‘leaps’. That gap was zapped by Darwin.

      So these sects are making an extraordinary claim with … zip evidence. The trick is that they state their big lies with a straight face. “… the principle—which is quite true within itself—that in the big lie there is always a certain force of credibility …” [ Adolf Hitler, ]

    3. “This is just a not-so-elaborate god of the gaps argument. And why is it always a “leap?” I don’t see why these sorts of questions can’t be ultimately explained by a process of incremental changes over time.”

      The common beliefs are that consciousness, sentience, or whatever you want to call it:

      – is irreducible (basics like experience of colour can’t be broken down further),

      – is binary (you either have it or you don’t),

      – is supernatural/categorically a different thing from physical material or otherwise defies any scientific explanation,

      – is unique to humans (or at best, shared only with a handful of other animals),

      – and magically has a moral worth that should never be undermined.

      Given that evolution by natural selection demands reducible organs from simpler antecedents, that means it has to claim that consciousness:

      – can be broken down further (colour experience can be reduced gradually to less conscious, then barely conscious, then non-conscious counterparts),

      – works along a continuum of change based on the usual modifications of genetic code that underlie other adaptations,

      – is categorically part of the natural world and amenable to scientific explanation,

      – exists to a lesser and greater extent across animal species,

      – and neither makes moral judgements nor backs down from its truth claims simply because some people find them morally untenable,

      then that presents something of an obstacle to popular acceptance. Unfortunately, it’ll take a while before people can be persuaded that greenness – or numberness, soundness, logicness, etc. – are not Platonic forms or fundamental and irreducible basics of consciousness. Because it’s just inconceivable to think otherwise, and nearly impossible to imagine what those daring Darwinian claims would even mean or look like.

      Perhaps we take our fundamental colour vision for granted?

      1. Especially as we have secular philosophers like John Searle insisting that “appearance is the reality” when it comes to consciousness. And he knows this how?

  7. I’ll answer the question as to how does the church now which sections of the bible are true and which are allegory and how this allows catholics to accept evolution….Et quia, ut dictum. You’re welcome!

  8. But if the Bible is an allegory (i.e., an extended metaphor), are there any parts of it that are true?

    Hell, I’ll make it easy for them.

    Just tell me what parts of the bible say that those other parts of the bible are allegory.

    Any how do you know that those parts aren’t allegory in and of themselves (meta allegory so to speak).

  9. The three laws of Catholicism:
    1) Everything in the bible is literally true.
    2) The parts of the bible that can be proven false are allegory.
    3) Biblical stories required to fill the coffers are literally true and as vague as necessary.

  10. A careful reading of the account in the Book of Genesis …

    To which of the 2 contradictory genesis accounts in the Book of Genesis would they be referring ?

  11. Epistemological disgust. That is what I feel when I think of modern day Catholics (and Xians in general) who appear willing to ‘turn ON and OFF the magic of life’ so that it smoothly accommodates their world view…one that justifies their ever-eroding cradling of an ancient myth in our modern universe.

  12. I’m still bloody curious about when our evolutionary “specialness” aka soul births started happening in our lineage?

    At what point did god decide we were human and started the precedence of soul inserting?

    Allegorically speaking, of course.

  13. “the bottleneck of the Homo sapiens lineage was around twelve thousand people, not two (Adam and Eve) or eight (Noah and his extended family)”

    That’s the hard part for most people to wrap their head around. Gradual incremental change is hard to grasp. It requires thinking. Magical processes are so much easier and more comfortable. Non-human, then human. That seems binary. An on/off switch. Instantaneous new definition.

    How on earth can a Jesuit biology professor (e.g.)dance around this?

    1. There is the concept of the mitochondrial Eve and the Y chromosome Adam. These are the two individuals who originated genetic markers in mitochondrial and Y chromosome DNA that are present in all humans today. They did not live at the same time, and were a part of larger human populations.

      1. Every gene traces back to a most recent common ancestor located in the body of a single individual. Richard Dawkins has been brilliant writing about how this works.

        I think I want to go read The Ancestor’s Tale again.

  14. Eve is descended allegorically from Adam because she was create from Adam’s rib. Since they don’t make a big hoo-haw about that, then I guess it’s not a literal allegory though. Must be an allegorical allegory.

    1. Or a metaphorical simile. Or something like that.
      I have run into nursing students who were surprised to learn that males and females have the same number of ribs.

  15. I’m sure that the lack of evidence for a human genetic bottleneck of two spells bad news for some strict versions of the Adam and Eve story, and that the concept of a soul has never been perfectly defined.

    However, don’t these two problems sort of cancel out, allowing the Catholic version to retain some consistency? That is, maybe they think that despite a population of thousands of our ancestors existing, the first souls were only given to two of them. The rest of the souls were brought into being via procreation. The key point would be that when an early human with a soul mates with an early un-souled individual, the progeny gets souls!

    I think this question needs to be settled. Maybe right after the question about the volume of a standard angel.

    1. The Lord, before creating each new soul, carefully scrutinizes the zygote’s pedigree. No Adam or Eve in direct line, no original sin so no soul.

      Means of course there are lots and lots of zombies amongst us. Car salesmen, would-be evangelists and telephone sanitizers mostly, but in God’s eye they’re mere furniture.

  16. This rationalization of Catholic doctrine is depressing to read. At least we’re flushing them out of their hiding holes and holding them up to the sunlight, or we’d be accused of slacking in our “jobs” and not looking for “the best religious arguments”.

    “The story of the creation in the Book of Genesis in the Bible is not, and was never meant to be, a scientific document giving the scientific details of how the universe came into being and how it has developed since its origins.”

    They’re right that it’s not “scientific”, but only because the concept of science as a discrete discipline hadn’t developed yet. They’re wrong to imply it still has anything worth taking seriously in it.

    The first mistake any Catholic makes is in thinking the biblical texts are anything other than total myths. It’s also notable that they apparently assume the early Jews and Christians somehow just couldn’t be that gullible, as if gullibility were a modern phenomenon that occurred only to fringe cults.

    “It still remains true that the origin of every human soul is a new act of creation by God and creator.”

    Romantic hogwash. This statement can’t even begin to muster an adequate defence in its favour, without falling into arbitrariness and circularity.

    “(That is why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person.)”

    This is just an Argument from Irreducible Complexity applied to humans, with all the flaws that go with it. What else is new?

    Catholics should be embarrassed to associate with this romantic, obscurantist backwardness, and stop thinking they’re somehow morally or culturally enriched by it. Even when they’re trying to avoid science’s sword, they merely find new ways to get skewered on it.

    1. I would have said that the “first mistake” was to accept the authority of a church hierarchy with the long history of financial and sex scandals with cover-ups that it has, far worse than the hierarchy of any other mainstream Christian denomination.

  17. 1. It was boring until it became infuriating. “That is why the evolution model cannot explain completely the leap from highly developed animal form to the fully conscious, thinking, feeling and deciding human person,” was just out of line and the worst for of God-of-the-Gaps argument.
    2. Genesis was just figurative? Was Jesus also just figurative? Because the new testament traces his lineage back to Adam.

    1. It’s less convincing even than that. In at least one of Paul’s letters – and note that Paul was writing to already-converted believers and trying to prop up their faith in most of them – Paul explains that Jesus is finishing the job Adam started (1 Corinthians 15, and Romans 1, I think). Given also his claim that Jesus is a descendant of David in Romans 1, and that in 1 Corinthians 15 it’s stated that Christ’s death and resurrection was in accordance to Scripture, and it’s peculiar to suggest that the Adam and Eve story (and other biblical stories) weren’t supposed to be taken at face value.

      At least, this is unless the church is going to admit the Jesus stories are total myths, too. In either case, they have yet to actually prove that the claims in their interpretation of the “metaphor” – for instance, original sin – have any justification independent of biblical sources.

    2. This books outlining genealogies in the Bible seem to me to be evidence against allegory or metaphor. You are right, if Adam is metaphor, is the whole lineage following him also a metaphor? What possible meaning does listing specific names have as a metaphor? They never seem to say how to determine what is and isn’t a metaphor, other than when scientific findings contradict something. Well, guess what? Scientific findings contradict all the graves in Jerusalem opening for the zombie apocalypse shortly after Jesus came back to life and floated off into Heaven. Game over on the literal interpretations. If we’re going metaphorical, go all the way, and then demonstrate what it could possibly stand for.

  18. Once one has acknowledged the absence of any common ancestor to humanity, the classical conservative Western Christian understanding of original sin and the nature of the atonement are pretty much gone.

    Modern Protestantism and Eastern Christianity (with its more mystical bent) have alternative understandings of the significance of Jesus (which are IMO much more morally appealing than the fundamentalist view), but ultimately one has to accept that the “fallenness” of humanity is due to the fact that our brain design is what engineers call a “kluge” created by climbing Mount Improbable and not in fact a product of any intelligent design. Our creation was even less intentional that of Victor Frankenstein’s monster.

    Jesus died because of the sins of the Roman government and the Sanhedrin, but not because of yours or mine.

    1. Once one has acknowledged the absence of any common ancestor to humanity, the classical conservative Western Christian understanding of original sin and the nature of the atonement are pretty much gone.

      Apologies if I’ve already pointed this out before on this site, but not all branches of Christianity believe in heritable “Original Sin” like Catholicism does. They teach that each of us inevitably sins and therefore deserves eternal separation from God.

      So I think those denominations could survive the non-existence of Adam more easily than Catholicism.

      1. They still have to account for Christ’s death in the first place. Without an Adam and Eve you have no fall.

      2. I tried to appropriately qualify that. Most groups that have a modified understanding of original sin and atonement are in fact either modern Protestant groups (or otherwise very novel ones like Swedenborgianism or Mormonism) or Eastern Orthodox churches.
        That is why I said “classical conservative Western”. I didn’t want to get into more precise labels than that.
        Classical traditional Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Methodists, Anglicans, and Baptists to the best of my knowledge all believe in inherited original sin.

      3. Then you need to specify ‘sin’ more precisely. What forced (“inevitable”) behavior would humans have that isn’t present in animals? Language isn’t a ‘sin’ by any stretch of definition, and there are mutes…

        1. Cue Ham: “Sign language is Lucifer’s attempt at stealing the word of God. Don’t do it.”

  19. Yes, as Jerry asks, what the heck is a “soul” anyway? This made no sense to an eight-year-old in Catholic school way back when and no one has yet said what this word means. Still people use it as well as words like “god” and “spiritual” as if they really mean something. If they do, what?

    1. “Spiritual” is definitely easier to address than “soul”. Even Harris has written a nice piece on it.

    2. I think I was also around eight years old when I asked my parents where the soul is. I never got a good answer. Same for the question I asked at that age, “How do we know our religion is right and all the others are wrong?”

      1. James Joyce, likewise, though I think he was more like 16 (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man):

        “As he sat in his bench gazing calmly at the rector’s shrewd harsh face his mind wound itself in and out of the curious questions proposed to it… How comes it that while the first beatitude promises the kingdom of heaven to the poor of heart, the second beatitude promises also to the meek that they shall possess the land? Why was the sacrament of the eucharist instituted under the two species of bread and wine if Jesus Christ be present body and blood, soul and divinity, in the bread alone and in the wine alone? Does a tiny particle of the consecrated bread contain all the body and blood of Jesus Christ or a part only of the body and blood? If the wine change into vinegar and the host crumble into corruption after they have been consecrated, is Jesus Christ still present under their species as God and as man?”

    3. “Yes, as Jerry asks, what the heck is a “soul” anyway?”

      Given the existence of the phrase “soulless automatons”, I’m guessing it’s something to do with consciousness, and almost certainly a dualist notion of consciousness. However, gives:

      the principle of life, feeling, thought, and action in humans, regarded as a distinct entity separate from the body, and commonly held to be separable in existence from the body; the spiritual part of humans as distinct from the physical part.
      the spiritual part of humans regarded in its moral aspect, or as believed to survive death and be subject to happiness or misery in a life to come:
      arguing the immortality of the soul.
      the disembodied spirit of a deceased person:
      He feared the soul of the deceased would haunt him.

      There’s also a definition unique to Christianity in the British Dictionary section:

      the spirit or immaterial part of man, the seat of human personality, intellect, will, and emotions, regarded as an entity that survives the body after death related adjective pneumatic
      (Christianity) the spiritual part of a person, capable of redemption from the power of sin through divine grace

      1. Thanks for these definitions, but they just go around and around the question. “Spirit” means no more than “soul,” really. Neither word points to anything that we can see or talk about in any real, scientific way. The British definition is just as useless as the others.
        Why call consciousness “soul” when we can just call it consciousness?

        1. That’s like asking why we call a Ground of Being “God” when we can just call it a Ground of Being. Gotta sneak in their supernaturalism somewhere. And the whole point of sneaking that in is for religious apologists to put up a barrier to understanding, much less criticism, by pretending their knowledge is of a completely different class to what normally goes on, and has strong moral and social consequences and meaning.

          With a word like “soul”, they’re banking on the strangeness of consciousness as a gap to fill with their mysticism. Spirituality is, or seems to be (based on my own observations), based on the feelings like awe and wonder that make us feel awesome and insightful, mixes them in with a few Deep Questions of philosophy that might have something to them, and then offer stupid answers not worth knowing to flatter the subject. And what you get from that is a term – like “soul” – that makes almost perfect intuitive sense, especially to the religiously inclined, while being almost entirely useless in actually understanding the phenomenon.

          So what you’re noticing is a bug, but they treat it as a feature.

  20. Why isn’t soul sickness listed in the new DSM or any modern medical dictionaries? How about soul cures like exorcism -it worked for Jesus and certain popular horror classics in the 1970s. Perhaps modern medicine has come up with better ways to treat souls, like chiropractory or acupuncture. We could even add another entry to these dictionaries – atheist – “a person lacking a soul, therefore no soul treatment required.”

  21. As one who was raised Catholic, I didn’t need to read past the beginning of the first bolded sentence for my BS detector to begin flashing wildly.

    “The view prevailing among most theologians today is…”

    Look, if they’ve made one thing clear in their many, many past declarations of official Church doctrine, from contraceptives to the rights of women, it’s that the Catholic Church could care less about what “most theologians” think. The *only* thing that matters in such questions is what the Pope thinks, since he’s the only one with a hotline to the Big Guy.

    The “views” of any of the rest of the world’s inhabitants, be they philosophers, theologians, or scientists, are simply irrelevant to the question. And any implication like this one that they matter are a strong signal that you should prepare to be baffled with BS in whatever follows.

  22. On point 1, I’d argue that from a purely literary angle, biblical texts can be sorted into various genres: there are parts that clearly tell creation myths (Genesis even tells two contradictory ones), parts that are more like straight history (Kings, Samuel), parts that are unambiguously prescriptive (those famous passages in Leviticus), the prophetic books, and devotional (Psalms) and “wisdom” literature (Ecclesiastes) etc. (Leaving the New Testament out of it for the time being.) A theologian of the more critical school would accordingly weigh the claims of each book to represent the literal truth. Of course, they only really started doing so in the 1800s, and rapidly found the edifice of their faith crumbling around them. So it’s possible for theologians to accord different parts of the Bible different epistemic status, though of course once you depart from the “revealed word of god” line, you’re leaving a lot open to argument and are, from a religious viewpoint, on a pretty slippery slope. I would say it’s possible for “sophisticated” (or merely sophistic) theologians to maintain that some parts of the Bible are allegorical but, to stick to the example of Genesis, identify certain core claims that are crucial, e.g. the creation of man in the image of god, and somehow shoehorn evolution into this. The internally contradictory point about this is that outcomes are based on desired results, i.e. there’s a retreat to a theological minimum, which is what is required to keep the rest of the system going – the “man in god’s image” claim being central to Catholic ethics, for instance – and not necessarily what rigorous textual scrutiny would produce.

  23. Augustine on interpretation of Scripture:

    “Then, after gaining a familiarity with the language of the divine scriptures, one should proceed to explore and analyse the obscure passages, by taking examples from the more obvious parts to illuminate obscure expressions and by using the evidence of indisputable passages to remove the uncertainty of ambiguous ones.”

    De doctrina christiana, 2.9.14

  24. More on interpretation from Augustine. There is much much more on this, but I’ll stop here. Notice his interpretation (not explicit in scripture itself) regarding Jesus’ admonition to “be as wise as serpents.” I have a feeling Augustine was (for the most part) simply an honest thinker. Had he lived today I suspect the shape of his faith, if he still had one, would be much different.

    “And a number of men skilled in that language have conferred no small benefit on posterity by explaining all these words without reference to their place in Scripture, and telling us what Adam means, what Eve, what Abraham, what Moses, and also the names of places, what Jerusalem signifies, or Sion, or Sinai, or Lebanon, or Jordan, and whatever other names in that language we are not acquainted with. And when these names have been investigated and explained, many figurative expressions in Scripture become clear.”

    “Ignorance of things, too, renders figurative expressions obscure, as when we do not know the nature of the animals, or minerals, or plants, which are frequently referred to in Scripture by way of comparison. The fact so well known about the serpent, for example, that to protect its head it will present its whole body to its assailants—how much light it throws upon the meaning of our Lord’s command, that we should be wise as serpents; that is to say, that for the sake of our head, which is Christ, we should willingly offer our body to the persecutors…”

    De Doctrina Christiana

  25. Jerry,

    In SJGould’s book on MOMA, there is confirmation that John Paul II, in 1996, affirmed (quasi-dogma) the literal existence of Adam and Eve, and of orginal sin.

    It is my great regret that SJG (who was member of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences at the time) weaseled out of this by arguing, in a footnote, that he never bothered to check out what the Pope had in mind.

    He had less gumption that Father Lemaître, the great astronomer, who told Pius XII to shut up about the big-bang being the signature of God.

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