Pope Benedict XVI: Thanks For Supporting Science
    By Hank Campbell | February 27th 2013 02:19 PM | 3 comments | Print | E-mail | Track Comments
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    As American culture becomes more polarized, with various constituencies aligning themselves on left-right graphs, religious groups are not going to win with a subset of people, even among rational scientists who should be immune from motivated reasoning. If the Catholic church wants to hold a conference on stem cells but doesn't include the controversial and, to-date, wildly overhyped human embryonic stem cell research among its discussions of adult and induced pluripotent stem cell breakthroughs, it's all yelling about Galileo and bans and general political theater on blogs only read by people who need a new shot of confirmation bias.

    With a new Pope coming soon, all those people who hate religion or aren't Catholics anyway are happy about the supposedly 'conservative' Pope Benedict XVI being gone. With their cultural blinders fully engaged, they refuse to see his positives; namely, his consistent support for science. Back to back, we have had the most pro-science Popes of the past hundred years and that is saying something; Catholics are generally pro-science. Werner Arber, a Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist, was named president of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences in Rome in 2011 - an institution that has existed since 1603. You want non-geopolitical? Its scientists chosen from all over the world get to argue at the only Academy of Sciences that truly operates beyond national boundaries.

    Pope Benedict also created The Science and Faith Foundation specifically to halt the growing schism brought on by the militant demographics whose voices are as over-represented in places like science academia as young earth creationists are in religion. Both sides use these tiny, loud minorities to paint stereotypes about the entire groups they oppose.  

    That the Pope or Catholics are (or even were) anti-science is a modern myth. A Catholic priest, Fr. Georges Lemaitre, came up with the Big Bang Theory. Gregor Mendel, the father of genetics, was a monk, and 'time is relative' was in the Confessions of St. Augustine.  The 'grand synthesis' that Catholics came up with to incorporate science was created by Thomas Aquinas, who saw the need in the 13th century to redo doctrine to accept Aristotle and Ibn Sina. Dr. Karl Gilberson at Huffington Post notes that Galileo, the man consistently trotted out to claim how anti-science religion is, was one of the first presidents of that first real academy of sciences ever created. All those men existed in times when society was far more religious than today, so exaggerations that religion is suppressing science now are somewhat silly. Instead, the Internet has made it possible for both poles in the culture wars to demonize each other. 

    Just like environmental advocates can never find anything good about America today, cultural advocates will find something in religion to complain about. But it's a mistake to lump all religion in with anti-science evangelicals just like it is a mistake to assume that all scientists are anti-religious, immoral atheists worshiping the god of data.

    Are there challenges? Sure. As physicist Dr. Stephen Barr phrases it, a little less Thomistic tradition and a little more ability to allow modern science to guide metaphysics is needed. The space-time manifold is a real thing, relativistic, and St. Augustine nailed it - but I bet both he and Aquinas would agree plenty of other concepts need an update.


    An interesting thing that I've seen first hand: Catholics who become scientists tend to remain Catholic for the rest of their lives (my quantum physics professor among many others in college was a devout Catholic). Evangelicals who become scientists usually become agnostic/atheist. I've decided that the difference is that many Evangelicals are taught (for example) that the earth absolutely MUST have been created in 6 days or there couldn't be a god. If you are taught that and you believe it, it is no wonder they become agnostic/atheist when they get a science education.

    I've never been able to figure out why evangelicals pick the numbers they do. Okay, if it's 6 days, why does that have to be 6,000 years?  Why not 2 or 13 billion or anything else? Generally, literalism is a bad idea.  If the Bible is literal, I am in big trouble, and I will keep getting denied:

    Aquinas discussed science right at the very beginning of his monumental Summa. His conclusion is that natural science is a subset of theology because theology deals with both natural and supranatural realities.

    So it has always been obvious that catholicism is not anti-science per se, but that it assigns itself a superiority in, firstly, metaphysical interpretations and, secondly, in the direction that science should take. The logical conclusion of such a techno-theocracy is not far away from the Magisterium of His Dark Materials. The Vatican is very careful at picking its enemies and Pullman hit a very exposed nerve - his books include a lot of history of science.

    The Vatican has also been smart in distancing itself from other Christian sects that promote beliefs that fly in the face of established science. This is not new. The Galileo case should be seen in the above context - it was not a question of knowledge, but the control of knowledge. The Jesuits taught Galileian science to the Japanese while Galileo languished under house arrest. Japan was very far away and there was no danger of those ideas infecting European Catholics until a metaphysical accommodation could be made with a heliocentric system.

    One way to really see how the Vatican promotes its style of science is to read the Osservatore Romano. [Update: the OR website has changed and has a sponsor so just go to] However, it is only written in Italian and daily editions are available online only until the next edition is published. Weekly digests are published in many languages, including English, but they do not include all the daily articles.