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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Popeular Science

By Phil Plait

On Monday, Pope Francis was speaking at the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and dropped something of a bombshell: He said that the Big Bang and evolution are not contrary to Catholic beliefs.

What’s funny to me is that for people paying attention, these statements aren’t bombshells at all. To me it’s not newsworthy that he said these things, it’s newsworthy that people think they’re newsworthy.

Part of it is understandable. After all, it was the Catholic Church that condemned Galileo four centuries ago, when he claimed that the Earth moved around the Sun. However, that’s not exactly what happened; yes, what Galileo was saying was heresy, but he was also a colossal jerk and mocked the Church, in essence daring them to persecute him. Even then, they only put him under house arrest. Don’t get me wrong: The Church was the dominant force of ignorance during the Dark Ages, but the public notion of Galileo as hero against a monolithic and unsympathetic Church is a bit too black-and-white.

Still, that’s the public perception. And the last Pope, Benedict, (among other things) was not necessarily a big supporter of evolution, saying humans are “not the products of chance and error” (which in itself is a fundamental, if I may use that word, misunderstanding of how evolution works).

On the other hand, he made some conciliatory statements about science as well, saying, “there is much scientific proof in favor of evolution, which appears as a reality that we must see and which enriches our understanding of life and being as such.”

But let’s not forget Pope John Paul II, who said,

… new knowledge has led to the recognition of the theory of evolution as more than a hypothesis. It is indeed remarkable that this theory has been progressively accepted by researchers, following a series of discoveries in various fields of knowledge. The convergence, neither sought nor fabricated, of the results of work that was conducted independently is in itself a significant argument in favor of the theory. 

That’s beautifully stated.

Remember, while the Catholic Church may not be the favorite of progressives for any number of reasons—and I can think of quite a few (including, of course, the biggie)—being stridently anti-evolution is not one of them. That is more the province of Biblical literalists, who, historically and currently, have not generally been Catholics. Even many Protestants support evolution, though that would be more of a theistic evolution, with God setting things in motion and the laws of Nature taking over from there (which is also what the Popes seem to support as well).

The problem here is, in my opinion, one of polarization of “belief” in science and religion in America,* primarily due to the unholy marriage of the Republican Party and religious conservatives as the “Religious Right.” Despite the rock-solid fact that we are not a Christian nation, that concept has been loudly and often claimed by GOP politicians, increasingly honed over the years and sharpened to a fine point. Today, a Republican presidential candidate might as well stand up and say they eat live puppies rather than they “believe” in evolution. This science versus religion rhetoric has polarized our country so badly that a lot of people perceive all religion to be totally anti-science, and that’s not true, and not fair.

Another part of this is the broad lack of scientific understanding by the American public. This is exacerbated by the same people on the far right (both in schools and on the pulpit) who misrepresent science, casting it as strictly opposed to their particular religious thinking (which, to be fair, in many cases it is, because these folks believe in stuff that’s provably wrong). And while this type of belief and scare-mongering of science is not universal, it is widespread and pushed by the media.

And that makes what the Pope said news, instead of generating more of a “Oh, that’s nice” reaction.

My own views on all this, obviously, are not as black and white as many others I read. For example, I think religious people believing in theistic evolution is fine. I don’t believe it myself, but if folks want to believe in God for personal reasons and still accept the science, then good on them! At the very least, they’re not trying to legislate young-Earth creationism and other provably wrong concepts be taught in the classroom. And if they accept the science there, perhaps they can continue in that direction in other areas as well.

I’d far rather discuss the Big Bang with Pope Francis than with Ken Ham.

From polls and other reports it seems to me that most people in this country support science broadly and in many specific cases, even as they hold tightly their personal religious beliefs. That’s why I also think there is a huge amount of room for dialogue here, a place where people of faith and people of science can come together. There are places where we cannot, of course, due to zealotry and demagoguery. Unfortunately those people are loud (and many are even louder now due to midterm elections next week).

But this is why I’m very happy to see the Pope say these things, and to see they’re making news. It’s also why I support people like Katharine Hayhoe, who is a religious evangelist and climate change scientist; Baptist Pastor C. Welton Gaddy, who doesn’t want religion taught in public schools; Reverend Barry Lynn, who is dedicated to the separation of Church and State; and my friend Pamela Gay, who is a fervent and terrific advocate for science and reason, and also a Christian.

So while I’m happy to hear what the Pope said, I’m not at all surprised by it. And I can hope that if he continues to say things like this—and that other religious leaders join him—then it will no longer be news. It’ll just be the way things are.

*I put “belief” in quotation marks because science isn’t a belief system

Correction, Oct. 29, 2014: I originally misspelled Katharine Hayhoe's first name.

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