Why do Catholics believe in evolution?

Posted on November 9, 2011


Originally posted on An American Atheist.

I first asked myself the above question when I attended a summer evolution institute at the University of California, Berkeley, titled “Think Evolution,” which consisted of a series of crash courses in current, frontier research in the field of evolution.  I received many amazing lectures from leading scientists in their field, and met some very interesting people who were in attendance.  One such person was a self-proclaimed Catholic and a biology teacher at a Catholic high school.  I asked her something along the lines of, “So, how is it teaching evolution to religious students?”  I remember her reply, “It’s fine, the Catholic Church is OK with evolution.”  I left the conversation at that, and we proceeded on with our tasks for the day.  However, I had held a question back in order to avoid offense; what I really wanted to ask her was this:  If the Catholic Church came out against evolution tomorrow, would you still accept it as fact?  Or, in other words, why do you believe in evolution?  Because it is fact, or because your religion permits you to?

I have become very interested in this question, but I find myself in a bind.  I am very concerned with what people believe, since beliefs are the basis of actions, and actions have real-world consequences.  But I am also very concerned with why people believe the things they do.  Catholics claim that their religion is compatible with evolution, although it must be noted that it is also compatible with its complete rejection.  And this is where it gets tricky; should we try to make Catholics justify their belief in evolution within the context of their religious beliefs, or should we avoid pressuring people who already believe in evolution into feeling the need to reconcile a dichotomy which may lead them to reject evolution in favor of their religious beliefs?  I don’t know the answer to this question, but I don’t think it can be formulated as a simple yes or no.  However, I will here demonstrate that the Catholic assumption asserting the compatibility between Catholicism and evolution is false, and then let you decide whether or not you wish to pursue this issue with individual Catholics.

I think that, in order to avoid constructing straw men during this discussion, a clear outline of the Catholic stance on evolution should be given.  I will not paraphrase, but rather I will quote directly from catholic.com regarding their position on evolution (bold mine).

Concerning biological evolution, the Church does not have an official position on whether various life forms developed over the course of time. However, it says that, if they did develop, then they did so under the impetus and guidance of God, and their ultimate creation must be ascribed to him.

Concerning human evolution, the Church has a more definite teaching. It allows for the possibility that man’s body developed from previous biological forms, under God’s guidance, but it insists on the special creation of his soul. . .  So whether the human body was specially created or developed, we are required to hold as a matter of Catholic faith that the human soul is specially created; it did not evolve, and it is not inherited from our parents, as our bodies are.

While the Church permits belief in either special creation or developmental creation on certain questions, it in no circumstances permits belief in atheistic evolution.

Seems straight forward enough—in order to be a Catholic, you must believe that God’s hand guides evolution (also known as Intelligent Design, or ID), and that the soul was specially created and is a discrete property that does not evolve incrementally.  It also makes it clear that you cannot believe in completely naturalistic evolution.  Evolution, as described by science, then, is incompatible with Catholic faith.  This is because evolution is more than a statement of the fact that organisms share common ancestry.  It’s a process that specifically stresses the superfluousness of postulating a guiding, supernatural force.  In fact, it is this aspect of evolution that makes it so strong.  That, and the fact that no “guidance” has ever been observed since scientists have been studying biological evolution.  But let’s suppose the Catholic Church didn’t just shoot themselves in the foot regarding their claim that evolution is compatible with their faith.  Let’s see what taking the Catholic Church’s position to its logical conclusion really requires an individual Catholic to believe.

Firstly, Catholics believe that animals do not have a soul and that humans have a soul.  Souls are discrete and binary, that is, you cannot have half a soul, but must have 0 or 1 soul depending on whether or not you are human.  And secondly, Catholics acknowledge the fact that evolution requires a real organic contingency of biological forms.  Right away there is a serious problem–at which point in the evolution of man did the soul appear?  To accept biological evolution requires acknowledging that modern man has been formed by incremental steps from a common ancestor.  Given that reality, there is no sharp border between our common ancestor and what we are today; it’s a gradient, connected by real biological entities.  This position then leaves the question regarding the origin of the soul quite fuzzy, as this must have taken place in a discrete generation given the discreteness of the soul itself.  In other words, some soulless non-human mother must have given birth to a fully modern human imbued with a soul, and this soul-bearing human must have then given rise to the rest of humankind.

Makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?

That is the kind of explanation you get when a belief founded on a false premise is taken to its logical conclusion.  The most parsimonious route to take would be to remove God from the equation completely, but this is a lot to ask from those who draw a significant portion of their self-identity from their faith.  For those whose faith is non-negotiable, which is the case for many religious people, the most parsimonious course of action would be to simply reject evolution and retain essentially the entirety of their previous belief system regarding the nature of reality.

So, what do you think we, as atheists and freethinkers, should do?  Do we enlighten Catholics with the logical conclusion of their beliefs, and run the risk of them rejecting evolution outright?  Or do we pick our battles and let them believe in evolution, even though it may be a severely tainted version which essentially endorses Intelligent Design?

I admit that I don’t know the answer to this question, but if I had to choose either way, I would have to argue in favor of waving the banner of truth, regardless of the possibility of undesirable outcomes.  All beliefs need justification, and I don’t want people to blindly believe in anything, even if it’s something I am desperate to have them accept.  The strategy of the atheist movement shouldn’t be merely a battle of memes, but rather a battle of ideas to be evaluated.  It is to teach critical thinking, and not simply to have people blindly parrot good ideas.  But I am curious for different perspectives on this issue, so please leave a comment if you have one.

Posted in: Atheism, Religion, Science