Another reflection on the culture wars. In the Times of London, William Rees-Mogg comments, in A pope for our times: why Darwin is back on the agenda at the Vatican, on how the Catholic Church seems to be accepting scientific Darwinism. I have to say “seems” because the process is slow and tentative.
Past leaders of the Church had a turbulent relationship with some of the heroes of science. Galileo was tried by the Inquisition, for instance, for publishing books which promoted a heliocentric view of the universe. The trial of Galileo has proved to be a lasting embarassment to the Church that has not been undone by his posthumous rehabilitation. Galileo’s case was not, of course, a simple matter of the Church insisting on a religious interpretation of the universe against a scientific view. Galileo’s views were contrary to scientific theories that were well regarded at the time. One of the Church’s mistakes trying to judge a scientific dispute, and another was using the scientific issue to punish Galileo for insulting and mocking the Pope.
The Church in the modern world is focussed on culture and the emotional life, and it has trivialized scientific knowledge, when it addresses science at all. One of the lessons of the Galileo story is that the Church should leave science alone. That alone does not explain the Church’s reluctance to accept Darwinism. The fact is that billions of Catholics are still invested in the truths that the Church has taught over the last few centuries, and the Church has tended to emphasize the importance of religious belief over scientific knowledge. As an institution, the Church is very well aware of how its teaching play, when compared to the simple social pleasures of Pentecostalism and fundamentalism, not to mention Islam, in the hearts and minds of people immersed in traditional cultures.
The real story is that the Church is distancing itself from American fundamentalism and other systems that insist on the literal truth of the sacred writings of Judaism and Christianity. There is tradition in the Catholic Church, going back to St. Augustine, renewed by Pope John Paul II in his 1996 speech Truth Cannot Contradict Truth, that avoids making claims about the physical world, based on metaphysics, mystical insights, magic or revelation, that might be refuted by empirical science. Catholics take a different view of the Bible than fundamentalists. The Church’s traditional perspective on the Bible is that it is a dangerous thing to read it literally, and that it should be interpreted and taught by authoritative Church leaders.
In the New Statesman, Edward Skidelsky reviews Earthly Powers: religion and politics in Europe from the French revolution to the Great War by Michael Burleigh(ISBN 0007195729), which is a book about European history, with a conservative religious perspective. This helps to explain the resistance resistance to “secular” ideas within the culture of the Catholic hierarchy and intelligentsia. It starts with the French Enlightenment and the French Revolution. The liberal interpretation of the French Enlightenment is that a few heroic thinkers – the philosophes – rejected Christian religion as a system of beliefs promoted by a priestly class for their own aggrandizement and the perpetuation of a repressive aristocratic political and economic structure. The philosophes believed that in the long run religion would die off as reason and science revealed the true state of things, but also that in the short run the masses needed religion because they had been indoctrinated, and because they had a psychological need to believe in something. The philosophes tried to satisfy and control the masses by creating artificial religions and religious movements, which failed. When medieval religion failed, the psychological needs formerly satisfied by religion attached themselves to insidious secular movements like nationalism, capitalism, communism and fascism. Burleigh’s book argues that the traditional religious outlook was more constructive and benevolent than its liberal critics say, and that the inhumane totalitarian ideologies of the the 19th and 20th centuries were caused by the collapse of the medieval outlook.
He paints an idyllic picture of a happy, cohesive, well-ordered medieval Christian world. There are many problems with that picture. While religions have played a part in most cultures, it is hard to say how much faith most people had in the power of the gods and what part religion played in influencing many aspects of daily living. The medieval Christian world that the conservatives idealize was a small world, and a confused and chaotic one. It would seem to me that the psychological needs and social forces responsible for the catastrophic brutality of the modern era were always present, and held in check by other social forces. Religion has always been more of a theory or a story operating on top of social forces. Religion often operated in the service of the dark forces of human culture – domination and power, greed and ambition, playing out in tribalism, nationalism, racism, colonialism, globalism. It seems farfetched to blame the wars and genocides of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries on the rise of atheism in the 18th century and the decline of religion, but it also seems plausible that a religion that teaches that all humans are precious to God is a greater check on aggression than an ideology based on self-fulfilment.
There is a provocative essay in the New York Sun by Adam Kirsch, The Folly of Prayer for Prayer’s Sake, which ends with a quote from Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh:
“The drawing-room paper was of a pattern which consisted of bunches of red and white roses, and I saw several bees at different times fly up to these bunches and try them, under the impression that they were real flowers; having tried one bunch, they tried the next, and the next, and the next. … As I thought of the family prayers being repeated night and morning, week by week, month by month, and year by year, I could not help thinking how like it was to the way in which the bees went up the wall and down the wall, bunch by bunch, without ever suspecting that so many of the associated ideas could be present, and yet the main idea be wanting hopelessly, and for ever.”
The essay makes a valid point about religion. From the outside, it all looks like superstition and magic. Religion is based on faith, a special personal trust in the truth of a story about the real nature of things. Without faith, a religion is a mythology in the service of the status quo, an ideology reinforced by fiction, emotion and willpower.
Unfortunately faith, like other forms of trust, is vulnerable. One of the ill-effects of religion is that faith often becomes captured and harnessed to the pretentions of a ridiculous and superstitious belief system. The Catholic Church, while vastly pretentious in many of its teachings, is trying to avoid superstition.