My thanks to Steve, a Church of the Churchless reader, for letting me know that the Vatican says the faithful should listen to science. Since it is likely that a majority of U.S. Supreme Court justices soon will be Catholics, maybe this will help spur the court to make a correct decision if an Evolution v. Intelligent Design case comes up.
It was encouraging to hear that at least some Vatican functionaries have a decent understanding of what differentiates evolution and intelligent design/creationism: proof.
Monsignor Gianfranco Basti, director of the Vatican project STOQ, or Science, Theology and Ontological Quest, reaffirmed John Paul's 1996 statement that evolution was "more than just a hypothesis." "A hypothesis asks whether something is true or false," he said. "(Evolution) is more than a hypothesis because there is proof."
Intelligent design is a hypothesis. That’s all. Christianity also is merely a hypothesis, but I don’t expect the Vatican will be holding a news conference anytime soon to admit this. Nor will any other religion, the tenets of which all are hypotheses—not facts or even theories.
Advocates of intelligent design misuse these scientific terms: “hypothesis,” “fact,” “theory.” For example, in the case challenging the school board in Pennsylvania that wants to put evolution and intelligent design on an equal footing, it was claimed that “Charles Darwin’s theory is not a fact.”
Well, how could it be? Facts and theories are different according to definitions of the National Academy of Sciences.
A fact is an observation that has been repeatedly confirmed and for all practical purposes is accepted as true. A theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that can incorporate facts, laws, inferences, and tested hypotheses.
The theory of evolution is supported by countless facts. But a theory is more than a collection of facts. It is an explanation, a higher-order level of knowledge.
However, when speaking informally scientists also use “fact” to mean something that has been tested or observed so many times that there is no longer a compelling reason to keep testing or looking for examples. In this sense evolution is indeed a fact, as the “Is evolution a fact or a theory?” FAQ says.
Almost certainly, no religious hypothesis ever is going to become a fact. For a “hypothesis” is a tentative statement about the natural world leading to deductions that can be tested. Tested, not accepted on faith.
I can’t think of any genuinely religious hypothesis that has been confirmed by science after being tested. What statement in the Bible, Koran, Vedas, or whatever has turned out to be scientifically true?
I’m sure it’s possible to find general propositions that are in tune with modern science (this is the premise of “The Tao of Physics” and similar books), but so far as I’m aware no prophet or saint ever has revealed a hitherto unknown truth about the natural world.
If you’re looking for spiritual facts, they’re going to have to be directly realized and proved by yourself. Facts are observations. Spiritual observations, by definition, aren’t material. Thus they can’t be shared with others, as when we say “Look at that bird over there!” and the other person sees what we’re talking about.
With spirituality, no one ever is going to see what we’re talking about. That’s why science is science and religion is religion, notwithstanding the efforts of true believers to blur the distinction.
Cardinal Paul Poupard’s warning is apt: religion risks turning into "fundamentalism" if it ignores scientific reason. For once, the Vatican got it right.