God and Matter: The Evolution of the Evolution Debate

Cardinal Archbishop of Vienna Christoph Schönborn has stepped into the confused controversies surrounding evolution, and added some much needed clarity. 

Just enough clarity, mind you. Not too much. Not too little.

In a recent op-ed for The New York Times, “Finding Design in Nature,” Cardinal Schönborn issued a crystal-clear warning to proponents of Darwinism: Stop misusing Pope John Paul II’s words as blanket support for neo-Darwinian beliefs that go directly against Church teaching.

In 1996, John Paul stated that evolution was “more than a hypothesis.” But that was not all that he said, by any means. As Cardinal Schönborn stated, that string of four words — taken out of the context of his entire speech, and worse, of his many other statements about evolution  has been taken up by proponents of Darwinism as a ready-made, unambiguous stamp of approval by the Catholic Church of evolutionary theory.

Enough is enough. Neither John Paul II nor the Catholic Church ever gave unambiguous assent to the entire doctrine of neo-Darwinism precisely because, even while it has uncovered some important truths, its fundamental assumptions are in direct contradiction to the fundamental assumptions of faith. Witness Cardinal Schönborn’s wise words:

“The Catholic Church, while leaving to science many details about the history of life on earth, proclaims that by the light of reason the human intellect can readily and clearly discern purpose and design in the natural world, including the world of living things. 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.” 

Now witness John Paul II’s other words, words conveniently left unquoted by proponents of neo-Darwinism: “It is clear that the truth of faith about creation is radically opposed to the theories of materialistic philosophy. These view the cosmos as the result of an evolution of matter reducible to pure chance and necessity.” 

At its heart, neo-Darwinism is materialistic, and affirms evolution guided only by mere chance and necessity. God is entirely unnecessary. That is why Richard Dawkins, chief spokesman of today’s evolutionists, states smugly that “although atheism might have been logically tenable before Darwin, Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist.”

The Cardinal had become increasingly angry because evolutionists, including Dawkins, argued that evolution proves that God doesn’t exist, and no one should fear teaching evolution as a fact because the Roman Catholic Church affirms it as “more than a hypothesis.”

See the problem? Atheists who believe the world is the product of mere chance and material necessity are using the late Pope’s words against him to eliminate belief in a divine Creator. 

Well, the Cardinal had finally had enough when, this last May, physicist and avid atheist Laurence Kraus lashed out at those who dare question evolutionary theory, and whipped out the “more-than-a-hypothesis” snippet for support. Cardinal Schönborn’s Times op-ed directly challenges such twisting of words in the service of atheism—not just in the name of faith, but in the name of human reason and science. 

He quotes, against such misquotes, not only John Paul II’s other words, but the Catechism of the Catholic Church itself.

“Human intelligence is surely already capable of finding a response to the question of origins. The existence of God the Creator can be known with certainty through his works, by the light of human reason.” It adds: “We believe that God created the world according to his wisdom. It is not the product of any necessity whatever, nor of blind fate or chance.”

Contrary to the fundamental beliefs of neo-Darwinists like Dawkins, Kraus, et al, God can be known through his works, not as a matter of faith, but through reason, through scientific inquiry. Therefore, scientific-design arguments are not only permissible but demanded by the evidence, and scientific criticism of neo-Darwinism should be welcome. 

Neo-Darwinists have often used John Paul II’s words as a shield to ward off any and all criticisms of evolutionary theory, even and especially those that come from science itself. They wish to brush off all such criticisms as coming from know-nothing, religious fundamentalists.

Oh really? Listen to the words of Robert Laughlin, professor of physics at Stanford University, and sharer in a Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on the fractional quantum Hall effect:
“A key symptom of ideological thinking is the explanation that has no implications and cannot be tested. I call such logical dead ends antitheories because they have exactly the opposite effect of real theories: They stop thinking rather than stimulate it. Evolution by natural selection, for instance, which Charles Darwin originally conceived as a great theory, has lately come to function more as an antitheory, called upon to cover up embarrassing experimental shortcomings and legitimize findings that are at best questionable and at worst not even wrong.”

Laughlin is by no means alone. The number of scientific dissenters from Darwinism is growing because, as scientists, they realize that evolutionary theory is functioning like an ideology, a theoretical dogma that is being held onto with a kind of blind patriotism.

But such blind acceptance is no better than blind rejection. We can say that evolution is “more than a hypothesis,” that is, that it has uncovered some truths about microevolution. 

As John Paul II made clear in his other words, that does not mean that we affirm evolutionists’ every assumption and conclusion, either those that go against the faith, or those that go against science and human reason itself. 

Benjamin Wiker is a Senior Fellow with the St. Paul Center for Biblical Theology and a Senior Fellow with Discovery Institute.

Benjamin Wiker

Senior Fellow, Center for Science and Culture
Benjamin Wiker holds a PhD in Theological Ethics from Vanderbilt University. A Senior Fellow at Discovery Institute's Center for Science and Culture, he has taught at Marquette University, St. Mary's University (MN), and Thomas Aquinas College (CA), and Franciscan University of Steubenville.