Catholic Birder

Birds have had my attention for over 30 years. God for just a few. Before birds were a passion. Now they are a confirmation. Saint Francis of Assisi, patron of birds, pray for us.

December 13, 2005

Catholic beliefs are for the birds

Stephen Barr is now writing for the First Things blog. I don't always agree with him but he, along with Mariano Artigas, helped me reconcile my thoughts about science while I was first exploring my new faith. Today he describes a philosopher's stumble in declaring Darwin the “destroyer” of God. Though, I don't think much of his use of our feathered friends.

December 13, 2005
Stephen Barr writes:
The philosopher Daniel Dennett visited us at the University of Delaware a few weeks ago and gave a public lecture entitled “Darwin, Meaning, Truth, and Morality.” I missed the talk—I was visiting my sons at Notre Dame and taking in the Notre Dame-Navy football game.

Friends told me what I missed, however. Dennett claimed that Darwin had shredded the credibility of religion and was, indeed, the very “destroyer” of God. In the question session, philosophy professor Jeff Jordan made the following observation to Dennett, “If Darwinism is inherently atheistic, as you say, then obviously it can’t be taught in public schools.” “And why is that?” inquired Dennett, incredulous. “Because,” said Jordan, “the Supreme Court has held that the Constitution guarantees government neutrality between religion and irreligion.” Dennett, looking as if he’d been sucker-punched, leaned back against the wall, and said, after a few moments of silence, “clever.” After another silence, he came up with a reply: He had not meant to say that evolution logically entails atheism, merely that it undercuts religion.

Jeff Jordan’s question underlines how the self-appointed defenders of the scientific method are trying to have it both ways. Don’t allow religious philosophy to intrude
into biology classrooms and texts, they say, for that is to soil the sacred precincts of science, which must be reserved for hypotheses that can be rigorously tested and confronted with data. The next minute they are going around claiming that anti-religious philosophy is part and parcel of the scientific viewpoint.

One of the glories of science is that people come together to do it who have all sorts of religious beliefs, philosophical views, cultural backgrounds, and political opinions. But as scientists they speak the same language. It is a wonderful fellowship. I have written research papers with colleagues (and friends) who are fierce atheists and think my Catholic beliefs are for the birds, and they know that I think their atheism is for the birds. Yet we respect each other as scientists. People like Dennett who wish to equate science with their own philosophical views (presumably out of vanity) risk doing immeasurable harm both to science itself and to its prestige. He is entitled to his philosophical opinions, but he is not entitled to claim them as the utterances of science.


I believe it was Dennett who coined the term “brights” for those who reject religion on scientific grounds. Dennett would of course make his own list of “brights”, but poor Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Newton, Boyle, Lavoisier, Ampère, Faraday, Maxwell, Kelvin and almost every other founder of modern science wouldn’t make his list. I am sure they don’t mind, however. They will make the list of people who have actually contributed to human knowledge.

And why should not Catholic beliefs be for the birds? Atheism is surely not for the birds. Without God there would be no birds. With God the birds sing. Though they do sometimes need reminding, as Saint Francis knew.

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My little sisters, the birds, much bounden are ye unto God, your Creator, and always in every place ought ye to praise Him, for that He hath given you liberty to fly about everywhere, and hath also given you double and triple rainment; moreover He preserved your seed in the ark of Noah, that your race might not perish out of the world; still more are ye beholden to Him for the element of the air which He hath appointed for you; beyond all this, ye sow not, neither do you reap; and God feedeth you, and giveth you the streams and fountains for your drink; the mountains and valleys for your refuge and the high trees whereon to make your nests; and because ye know not how to spin or sow, God clotheth you, you and your children; wherefore your Creator loveth you much, seeing that He hath bestowed on you so many benefits; and therefore, my little sisters, beware of the sin of ingratitude, and study always to give praises unto God. Saint Francis of Assisi - c 1220

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