Former evangelical Christian convert to Catholicism, Senator Sam Brownback, has written an article for the NY Times OP-ED pages to explain his position on evolution. Brownback’s piece hardly illuminates his view in a way that might matter to voters. He notes that asking participants in last week’s Republican presidential debate to raise their hand if they “do not believe in evolution” prevented him from sharing his position with the “nuance and subtlety” the subject deserves.
The result of Brownback’s effort to elaborate a more nuanced and subtle view is, however, a strained concoction that advocates a theologically Roman Catholic approach to science, while simultaneously hinting that Brownback rejects the notion of evolution – a position that is sure to please the evangelical Republican base. I suspect that the strange evolutionary brew Brownback cooked up for this article might be less a product of his real beliefs and more a product of Brownback’s wish to appeal to all parties by claiming a seat on both sides of the fundamentalist versus non-fundamentalist fence.
Early in his piece, Brownback presents the contemporary Catholic position that studying nature and observing natural processes is one way to examine the creative activity of God. In contrast to the evangelical and fundamentalist point of view, the Catholic view does not require that scientific discovery pass religious doctrinal muster. Instead, reason and scientific knowledge are complementary to faith. Brownback writes:
“The heart of the issue is that we cannot drive a wedge between faith and reason. I believe wholeheartedly that there cannot be any contradiction between the two. The scientific method, based on reason, seeks to discover truths about the nature of the created order and how it operates, whereas faith deals with spiritual truths. The truths of science and faith are complementary: they deal with very different questions, but they do not contradict each other because the spiritual order and the material order were created by the same God.”
The Catholic Church does not take a doctrinal position on evolution, but treats the material details of evolution as a subject best addressed by biologists who study these matters. In practice, this means that most Catholic churchmen and most educated Catholics believe in evolution, although there is no religious requirement to hold any particular belief on the subject.
Brownback tries to reassure non-evangelicals who might fear he is a fundamentalist fanatic by suggesting that he has no quarrel with their belief in the scientific approach. He even says that faith “supplements” the scientific method, a position that is deeply at odds with what most evangelical Christians believe. He softens that blow by emphasizing the centrality of faith in human experience:
“Faith supplements the scientific method by providing an understanding of values, meaning and purpose. More than that, faith — not science — can help us understand the breadth of human suffering or the depth of human love. Faith and science should go together, not be driven apart.”
So far, still Catholic. But Brownback has no intention of losing the evangelical base. This is where things get sticky. Brownback continues:
“The question of evolution goes to the heart of this issue. If belief in evolution means simply assenting to microevolution, small changes over time within a species, I am happy to say, as I have in the past, that I believe it to be true. If, on the other hand, it means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic vision of the world that holds no place for a guiding intelligence, then I reject it.”
Huh? Who is arguing that belief in microevolution means assenting to an exclusively materialistic, deterministic view of the world? Moreover, Brownback’s statement about microevolution tells us nothing about his view of macroevolution – the evolution of species. He drops a reference to microevolution into the discussion because it signals evangelicals that he rejects the notion of species evolution… sort of. Anyone else care to parse Brownback’s comments above and figure out where he actually stands on so-called macroevolution and the evolution of species?
Without explicitly rejecting macroevolution, Brownback manages to sound like he might reject it – or not reject it. Brownback further muddies the waters with more evangelical pseudo-science by insinuating that he might believe in “intelligent design” when he tosses in the more vague term “guiding intelligence.”
So, the problem with Brownback’s piece is that the real question dividing evangelicals and most of the rest of educated humanity is the question of so-called macroevolution. For all of his
obfuscation nuance and subtlety, Brownback has ducked that question. And this, I suspect, is why Brownback didn’t like the way the question was asked during the presidential debate. During the debate, he was not offered sufficient opportunity to duck the question.
I notice that Radosh.net saw this in much the same way in his post "What does Sam Brownback think about evolution?" Other than Catholic versus evangelical distinctions, the point is the same.
Reading a few others on the subject, you may notice that words and phrases like politically motivated, false dichotomy, doublespeak and twisting are prominent:
Brownback's effort to sit on both sides of the fence on this one was, as Friendly Atheist said, just digging himself a deeper hole.