‘Gullible’, ‘credulous’, ‘enemy of moral progress’: mindless adherents to a tragicomic ‘zombie Christ’ – a garble of outdated social mores and dangerous superstition.
This is how some champions of ‘evangelical’ or ‘new’ atheism have depicted Christianity and its adherents, spreading their message on talk shows, radio programs and digital media throughout the world.
Some Christians have responded in kind, wielding their own sectarian brand of self-righteousness.
But Sydney-based philosopher and priest, Father Bernard Purcell is not one of those.
His latest book, From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution, was printed for a second time last year.
Its treatment of some of the latest developments in science and philosophy suggests Fr Purcell has little time for “take down, drag ‘em out” debates between avowed scientists and religious apologists.
The University of Notre Dame academic says he does have a fair amount of time for the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, if not for their firm conclusions. At least, Fr Purcell says, they are interested in asking the right questions.
“I have a respect for them simply because, as human beings, they are not satisfied to stay within the confines of the natural sciences,” Fr Purcell told The Record in a telephone interview from Sydney.
“At times, we could say they are trespassing, going beyond the boundaries of their science, as though their science allows them to speak about all sorts of other questions that their science doesn’t deal with.
“But scientists are human beings. Even those who have an agenda which looks quite atheistic are not satisfied with just simply ‘doing science’.
“They want to know who they are and where they came from, just the same as everyone else.”
The new atheists’ biggest problem, Fr Purcell says, is that they cannot justify their own science.
Instead, they attribute their knowledge to methods they depict as obvious and matter-of-fact and not the stuff of social construction and prevalent assumptions.
“Their activity denies what they are saying because their activity cannot be explained by neural movements around the brain,” Fr Purcell says.
“Where does their science come from? Science isn’t a matter of [simple sensory inputs]; of feeling; of touching; of all the stuff animals do better than us.
“Effectively, [new atheists] want to say we are only higher versions of animals, and yet, when you meet these guys, the thing that strikes you is they are not like animals at all, trying to win a battle like rutting stags. They are people interested in the truth.
“That desire for truth is not an animal quality. It has nothing to do with survival – reproduction, feeding et cetera.”
Fr Purcell debated Richard Dawkins on an Irish radio show in 2009. He quizzed Dawkins on his infamous ‘letter to his ten-year-old daughter’.
In that letter, Dawkins exhorts his daughter to only believe the ‘evidence’ before her, to the exclusion of ‘false’ claims to truth, such as ‘tradition’ and ‘revelation’ (Dawkins never ended up sending the letter but released it to the public some years later). Fr Purcell asked him why he wrote it.
“You wrote that because you loved your daughter,” he asked during the debate. Dawkins agreed. “Would you accept, then, that that love for your daughter, which is really something very important, is not something that you could ever prove with the methods of the natural sciences?”
“He admitted that,” Fr Purcell told The Record.
“[New atheists] themselves admit that their science doesn’t get them everywhere. Aristotle said the same in 350BC, saying it was the mark of an educated human being not to look for more proof than the subject allows,” Fr Purcell said.
He also points to the ethical concerns of scientists engaged in the ‘Manhattan Project’ from 1942-1947 – the project to construct the Allies’ first atom bomb.
“They knew the answers to ethical questions, whatever you think about it – its use or development – isn’t to be found in physics or chemistry. The answer is to be found at least in moral philosophy or ethics,” Fr Purcell said.
From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution is principally concerned with questions as ever new as they are ancient; questions such as: ‘What do we mean by ‘human’?’, and ‘What does it mean to be human?’
Such questions invite more ideas and information than any one area of knowledge could hope to supply on its own.
However, while not being sufficient in themselves, the discoveries of natural science are invaluable in helping to answer those questions, Fr Purcell says.
The chapter headings in From Big Bang to Big Mystery illustrate this conviction best: ‘What science is and how it can complement rather than replace or invalidate philosophy and revelation’; ‘How we belong and yet – because of the ‘human revolution’ – don’t fully belong to the hominid sequence’; and ‘Darwin and the evolution of evolution’, as examples.
Integration of different types of knowing is something with which Catholics have long been comfortable, despite the popular misconception to the contrary”, Fr Purcell says.
Meanwhile, contrary to popular belief, the Catholic Church has had “a great record” in the pursuit of scientific truths, even accounting for the case of Galileo Galilei, he said.
“I’m not explaining it away. John Paul II apologised for it, but it is not, in itself, a clear example of the Church being against science.”
Half the craters on the moon were named after Jesuits and the Order still maintains observatories around the world; Jesuits are regarded as the fathers of the science of seismology (other Christian denominations, too, have made marked contributions to science, notable amongst their number, several prominent Anglican priests in the 19th century).
“The story of modern science emerging against a repressive faith mechanism that was terrified of the truth is exactly the opposite of what happened,” Fr Purcell says.
“Natural science developed within a Christian matrix … science grew out of the Middle Ages, out of a [civilisation] in which you knew the world wasn’t God.”
That helps to explain, he says, why science didn’t exist in any substantive sense in ancient Greece, where ‘god’ and ‘the world’ were not separated clearly enough, or in ancient China, or in any comprehensive sense, in the pre-modern world of Islam.
Whereas science might have emerged strongest in the Christian West, the tumult of the Reformation, the rise of rationalism and the rise of its religious corollary, biblical literalism, did immense damage, Fr Purcell says.
He cites John Henry Newman, (“along with Darwin … the other important intellectual of the 19th century”) in saying that Catholicism and the theory of evolution have never been inherently incompatible.
Opponents of the theory of evolution, Creationists and Intelligent Design enthusiasts, make many of the same mistakes as the new atheists, Fr Purcell says, referring to the observations of the English philosopher of science, Michael Ruse.
“He has been critical of people like Richard Dawkins, saying they are smuggling their atheism into their biology, that is, they are reading into their biology an understanding of ‘no god’, which isn’t in any biological theory.
“I would say that Intelligent Design people, on the other hand, smuggle theism into their, as-it-were, ‘science’.”
Modern Creationism, Intelligent Design’s predecessor, arose out the polemics that followed the publishing of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life in 1859.
Followers of Darwin, not Darwin himself, spoke and wrote “as if the theory of evolution explained absolutely everything”, Fr Purcell said. “That naturally provoked religious people to say it didn’t.”
Many Christians embarked on a project to make the Bible perfectly explicable to themselves, arguing for a literal reading of Genesis, even going so far as to suggest that fossils had been deviously placed in the earth to fool us.
“The writers of Genesis knew very well that that wasn’t the case. They fitted creation into the Jewish understanding of the liturgical week. They wanted you to understand that the whole notion of seven days, and of the rest, was to show that the universe was rooted in something like a cosmic liturgy to the worship of God.
“If you are doing biology, biology is religion-neutral. It doesn’t deal with questions like the existence of God either way. It neither proves, nor disproves the existence of God.
“Cardinal Newman knew [this]. Providing you didn’t have a limited reading of Genesis, it was no threat to your faith whatsoever.
“We’ve always had the advantage in a way. It is a disadvantage if you have a Church tradition which is in fact very anti-intellectual. I’m not saying that of many churches now but you certainly find it in some American churches,” Fr Purcell said.
The Catholic Church’s intellectual heritage is not just a thing of the past.
“We’ve just had two of the greatest popes we’re ever going to get. I think they’ll be canonised together at some stage,” Fr Purcell said.
One of those popes, when he was Archbishop Joseph Ratzinger of Munich, provided the correct way to understand Genesis in a series of lectures he gave in 1981. “He is showing you the genius of the writers of Genesis … [what they wrote] is a very clear polemic against the gods of their own time.
“They are showing you that the sun and the moon and the stars are not God. Light, for example, is created before any of those. They are already being demoted.
“[Those authors] were already working through profound issues and then they come to what a human being is; the image of God; the notion that we are responsible for evil; that the devil is there but that we are co-responsible at least,” he said.
“It is a really profound anthropology and theology; far more profound than the fundamentalists think it is.”
Response to From Big Bang to Big Mystery in his native Ireland and the US has been very encouraging, he said – so much so, that he has been asked to write a simpler version for high school students.
It is a field of inquiry more Christians should be involved in and one in which Christians ought to have more confidence.
He is reminded, he said, of being present for Pope Paul VI’s speech at the conclusion of the Second Vatican Council in which the pontiff said, after the theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, that faith and reason could never be in contradiction.
It is a statement that rings true in his own work.
“Belief and science never contradict each other,” Fr Purcell said. “They never will.”
From Big Bang to Big Mystery: Human Origins in the Light of Creation and Evolution is available here.