“The truth of our faith becomes a matter of ridicule among the infidels if any Catholic, not gifted with the necessary scientific learning, presents as dogma what scientific scrutiny shows to be false.”
Thus spake the Dominican priest Thomas Aquinas in the 13th century. Aquinas was a master of the syllogism, and his idea of scientific scrutiny was that conclusions had to be based on premises which themselves were either self evident or had been objectively demonstrated. I thought of Aquinas when I wrote a post yesterday about Albert Einstein, who was in the business of putting together premises and conclusions. In a sense, Aquinas and Einstein came at the question of the origins of the universe from opposite directions. Aquinas was a man of faith, but he believed — and sought to demonstrate in his “Summa Theologica” — that a person could arrive at the existence of a First Cause — God — through reason alone.
Einstein didn’t believe in God in the sense that Jews and Christians and Muslims do. In that sense, he didn’t believe in a god at all, no matter how hard religious folks try to hear him saying otherwise. However, Einstein’s lifetime of inquiry into the physical laws that govern the universe did lead him to speculate — forgive me if I don’t express this precisely — that somewhere beyond the seemingly endless questions about the universe must lie some force that governs it.
I recently discussed all this — Aquinas, Einstein, God, the origin of the universe — with, of all people, the actress Sandy Duncan.
By “of all people,” I don’t mean to imply that there is anything surprising about Sandy Duncan discussing such things. In fact, I gathered she gives such things quite a bit of thought and has had provocative conversations about them with her two adult sons. I only meant that I would be unlikely to talk to Sandy Duncan at all, except that she was scheduled to appear in a new play that examines the outfall that can occur when science and religion collide head-on. The actress was to play the title role in “Creating Claire” by Joe DiPietro, but she took ill, withdrew from the cast, and was replaced by another talented performer, Barbara Walsh.
DiPietro’s play begins previews tomorrow night at the cradle of new theatrical works, the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick. The title character, Claire Buchanan, is a teacher but now works as a docent at the Museum of Earth and Sky in upstate New York. She leads visitors on the Origins of Life Tour, reciting a script that focuses on the evolution of species. The script is the brainchild of Victoria Halstead, museum director and friend of Claire – in that order, as things work out. Victoria encourages a docent to “personalize” the presentation as long as the glosses are innocuous, but Claire is no automaton, especially when a reference in the script to “random mutation” complicates her attempt to understand a fact of her own life. Claire and her husband, Reggie, have an autistic 16-year-old daughter, Abigail, and Claire has been considering how the process described by Charles Darwin could result in an individual such as Abigail. Eventually, Claire’s contemplation creeps into her talks at the museum as she suggests to visitors that the processes of nature may have been – gasp! – designed. Once that genie is on the loose, there is hell to pay, as it were.
Victoria — to be played by Lynn Cohen – puts her own belief in science and her vision for the museum ahead of friendship when she learns about Claire’s transgression. Reggie – a high school teacher who has considered his bond to Claire a “mixed marriage” only to the extent that he is an atheist and she is an agnostic — is stunned by this change of Claire’s train of thought. Disagreements over Abigail’s status have already revealed strains in the couple’s relationship; Claire’s public speculation about a “designer” pushes those strains to the breaking point.
This play, however, is not a death struggle between science and religion so much as an examination of intellectual openness and honesty. Claire is willing to at least entertain an idea that had been anathema to her but does not insist that others accept that idea. Victoria and Reggie opt to defend their “rightness,” as Duncan called it, regardless of the professional or personal consequences. The implications for contemporary political discourse may be painfully obvious.
Believe in God or not, but in the end it is Claire, and not the more “scientific” Victoria and Reggie, who seems to have heeded Einstein: “Only daring speculation can lead us further, and not accumulation of facts.”
May 6, 2009
As I was driving to Passaic last night, I was listening to songs by Kate Smith that had been recorded from her radio broadcasts. It occurred to me that she might have been surprised if she had been told that people – well, one person at least – would be listening to those songs 60 years later while cruising along an interstate highway.
I also thought yesterday morning, when the women on The View were talking about evolution, that Charles Darwin might have been surprised – and maybe a little dismayed – to know that 150 years after the publication of “The Origin of Species” people would still be arguing about his ideas.
But we are still arguing. The latest flurry of discourse – the one that got the tongues wagging on The View – was a study from the University of Minnesota that showed the degree to which high school biology teachers influence whether students accept the idea of evolution or question it based on its perceived conflict with the idea of creationism.
A story on the web site sciencenews.com included this passage: “For example, 72 to 78 percent of students exposed to evolution only agreed that it is scientifically valid while 57 to 59 percent of students who were exposed to creationism agreed that it can be validated.”
In other words, the survey suggests that high school teachers who introduce the religious idea of creationism into a science class may influence a considerable number of students to deny what is constantly being reinforced by studies of the effects environmental factors have on life forms from one generation to the next and over longer spaces of time.
I believe that high school students should be exposed to the full range of ideas that have been held and still are held by large parts of the population – including the idea that existence itself and particular things that have existence are brought into being by a deity, however that may be expressed in various religious and philosophical disciplines. I don’t believe the biology class is the place to teach that. It belongs in the humanities curriculum. To exclude from a student’s education at least the main themes on the subject of creation that are held by Jews, Muslims, Christians, Hindus and others is to send him off to college or into the working world with an incomplete understanding of how most of the people on the planet think.
The discussion on The View didn’t have any intellectual depth, and it seemed to imply that a person must choose between belief in evolution and belief in the idea of a First Cause. That’s partly because the women were using the term “creationism” as though it stood for every shade of thought about a divine or supernatural origin of existence. Students who aren’t taught otherwise but who are exposed to such a simplistic public discourse on the subject might draw that erroneous conclusion.
Pope Pius XII, hardly a progressive, wrote in his 1950 encyclical letter “Humani Generis”:
“The Teaching Authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions, on the part of men experiences in both fields, take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—for the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God.”
More recently, in 1996, Pope John Paul II – taking note of what Pius had written – added this:
“Today, almost half a century after publication of the encyclical, 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.”
Many Catholics, I’m afraid, are unaware of this point of view and I know that many of them are creationists as such, rejecting evolution out of hand. They and parents like them, more than the biology teachers, may ultimately be responsible for this outdated argument to go on for at least another generation.