Thursday, December 4, 2008

Athens Science Conference Offers an Ambiguous Message

On November 14, the journal Science published an article "Vatican Science Conference Offers an Ambiguous Message." That same week I was studying Acts 17, where Paul talks to philosophers in Athens. In particular, they call him a "seed-picker" at first, which can be translated "babbler." Or, perhaps, a title much like the one above could be placed on Acts 17.

At the 2008 conference, a cardinal from the Vatican named Schönborn presented on the Catholic church's position on evolution (Schönborn's own position has been muddled by a controversial op-ed in the New York Times a few years ago, but the confusion I detect here is in the audience as much as behind the podium):

Schönborn's prepared talk at the conference was not the source of controversy. "It was so very abstract," says Gereon Wolters, a philosopher of science at the University of Konstanz, Germany. "It offered the standard view that evolution is okay" but that "evolutionism"--a term used by religious conservatives for the promotion of atheism through evolutionary biology--"is not." [Now note the mixed response of the scientists:] Some scientists even saw signs of progress in the talk. "I was relieved to hear the cardinal clearly distancing himself from intelligent design," says Francis Collins, former director of the U.S. National Human Genome Research
Institute in Bethesda, Maryland, "referring to that 'school' as having made

The sparks flew when the cardinal fielded questions. "He still expressed reservations about whether evolution can account for all aspects of biology," says Collins, including whether Darwinian evolution can account for the generation of species. "It was preposterous," says Abelson, who says that the meeting took " a step backwards" in the church's relationship with science. Wolters was disappointed, too: "Schönborn has the same intention as the pope has--to fight evolutionism," he says, but "he is
just repeating this creationist gibberish" used by U.S. proponents of
intelligent design. Wolters adds: "Fighting science in this way is a losing

Other scientists at the meeting disagree. The cardinal's doubts about evolution do not represent a conflict between the church and science, says Werner Arber, a geneticist at the University of Basel, Switzerland, who co-organized the meeting. "Relations continue to be good." Schönborn gave "a confused lecture," says Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis and a member of the academy, but "the church's position on evolution, insofar as it can be said to have one, is
unchanged. … There is a belief in a creator who existed before the big bang
and set the universe in motion, which is something that cannot be proved or
disproved by science."

My take? The confused response from the scientists does not mean the cardinal was confused. Maybe he was, but I can't tell from the tone of the remarks being made. The commentary echoes the ending of Paul's speech in Acts:

32 And when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked, while others said, “We will hear you again on this matter.” 33 So Paul departed from among them. 34 However, some men joined him and believed, among them Dionysius the Areopagite, a woman named Damaris, and others with them.

So the audience's confusion or lack thereof doesn't imply anything either way about the cardinal's speech. I just can't tell. I can tell that mentioning a creator in the 21st century is kind of like mentioning the resurrection in the 1st century: lots of different responses. I hope the cardinal agrees with my take on things, but the five different scientists seemed to hear five different things in the speech. Maybe I'd hear something else.

Bottom line: the fragmentation and confusion is not just on the church's side. Science has its own conflicting schools of thought and nuances of speech to work out. Words like "babbler" or "confused" are the kind of accusations that easily boomerang back on their speaker. When will we get to the point where we're actually listening to each other and not looking to categorize a speaker based on a few catch-phrases?

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