An Interview with Fr. Paul Robinson
Editor’s Note: The following is an interview with Fr. Paul Robinson concerning his recent book, The Realist’s Guide to Religion and Science.
Father, it has now been nine months since the publication of your book, and it seems to have stirred up some controversy!
Indeed, it has. And while I did not write the book for that purpose, I did anticipate that it might make some waves.
What has the controversy centered on?
Really, something that is a small part of the entire work, namely, the contents of chapter 7 (there are 11 chapters all up). In that chapter, I voice some strong objections to Young Earth Creationism (YEC) and point out that Catholics are free to embrace the Big Bang Theory, if they wish.
Why do you object to YEC? Isn’t that the safest of positions?
On the contrary, I find it to be quite dangerous. It runs straight into theological, philosophical, and scientific problems.
Well, it all starts with the assumptions that the adherents of YEC make. The first assumption is that of “biblicism,” namely, the idea that the Bible is authoritative over all other sources of knowledge, including science, reason, and especially the Catholic Church. Based on this assumption, they conclude that Genesis is meant to teach truths about all areas of knowledge, including science.
Then, they proceed to read Genesis as teaching that the universe must be 6,000 years old. Since this, in their minds, is the inspired sense of Scripture, it cannot be wrong, regardless of whatever evidence might counter that idea.
Like what evidence?
Such as, for instance, the entire body of evidence brought to us by our high-powered telescopes. They show that the light coming to us from distant stars and galaxies is millions of years old, not thousands of years old.
But isn’t that based on some assumptions?
Absolutely. For scientists to conclude that the light coming from the stars is really millions of years old, they have to assume a principle called uniformitarianism. This is the idea that the laws of nature are the same throughout the universe (sameness in space) and for the entire history of the universe (sameness in time). Scientists have to make this assumption to even be able to do science, since they are looking for laws of the universe, and the universe cannot have laws without this uniformity.
As I point out in The Realist Guide, this assumption only makes sense if there is a consistent God, outside of the universe, who is able to establish laws for it and make it run consistently. Let atheist scientists take note of the implicit theism of their assumptions.
Couldn’t God have changed the speed of light sometime in the past and so made it that the light only looks old, but is not really old?
Of course He could. And this question of yours brings me to the second assumption of YEC adherents. Because the universe appears old and this contradicts their interpretation of the Bible, they refuse the principle of uniformitarianism. They claim that God periodically changes the laws of nature and this is the reason why, for example, the light from distant galaxies looks old, but is not actually old. The laws for light now are not the same as they were in the past.
Why do you find this problematic?
I have three problems with this. The first problem is a theological one. A God who periodically changes the laws of His own universe is one who wants to prevent humans from investigating it using their reason. The modern scientist, for instance, makes measurements of distant light, assumes uniformitarianism is true, performs certain mathematical calculations, and then reasons that the light is a certain age. But, in actual fact, his conclusion is false, if God has periodically reconfigured the universe. If such is the case, there is no way for the scientist to use natural reason to discover the age of the light.
But doesn’t the Bible teach him that?
Well, that is precisely the claim of YEC, that all knowledge comes from the Bible and thus that the Bible is meant to teach us science. For them, our senses and reason tell us that the universe is old, while the Bible tells us that the universe is young. Thus, we are meant to reject reason for revelation. In other words, the YEC position sets up an either-or situation for the believer: you either take reason or revelation, but you cannot accept both.
And you say this creates a theological problem?
Yes, because it makes God out to be something of a tyrant. He creates humans in His own likeness by giving them a rational soul. Then, they use their reason to discover fascinating facts about the universe He created. But God steps in, revealing to them that what their reason found is false, because He made a world that only appears old, but is not actually old.
Can’t such a choice be justified on the part of God?
It can…for all the wrong reasons, especially by someone like Martin Luther. You see, he saw reason as an enemy of faith, because his was a faith without reason, a faith held on the basis of presumption, not on the basis of reasonableness. This was why Luther attacked reason with his typical vehemence. He thought that God shared his own hatred of reason. Thus, he claimed that God purposely reveals things in the Bible that are against reason, so that humans will learn not to trust their reason. Through revelation, believers learn to abandon their reason for the glory of God.
Does this view also line up with sola Scriptura and biblicism?
Yes. If God put all knowledge in the Bible, then He needs to teach humans not to look for knowledge in other areas. He has them think they have learned something from the world around them, then He steps in with a revelation from the Bible to say, “No, that is only a trick of your mind. If I was consistent, your inference would be true. But I have not run the universe consistently, so that you will learn not to trust reason and instead will trust the Bible alone.”
For me, this is not a fatherly God, but an overbearing God, one who gives a gift (reason) for the purpose of taking it away. I blame much of the modern world’s theophobia on this Protestant idea of God.
I think I understand what you are saying. But I am not following how that theology follows from a young universe. Didn’t the Fathers all agree that the universe was young?
Yes, they did, but they did not have telescopes and so did not have solid scientific evidence indicating that the universe is ancient. Since their science was primitive, Pope Leo XIII instructs us in Providentissimus Deus that we do not have to follow the Fathers in physical matters, where they sometimes erred. We only have to follow them in matters of faith and morals.
Besides, the Fathers did not have the biblicist mentality that sets Scripture against reason and all other forms of knowledge. Thus, we can expect that they would have been willing to accept evidence for an old universe, if the science of their day was able to find that evidence.
Luther did not have telescopes, either.
This is true. But he did have the theology I have described. Though he did not consider the Bible as contradicting reason on the question of the age of the universe, he did consider it contradicting reason in other areas. My claim is that the YEC movement, which has its origin with Protestant fundamentalism, embraces the same theology as Luther. YECers admit that the universe appears old; they just claim that God either directly created a young universe with an old appearance, or that He changed the laws of nature. Either way, they are lining up with Luther’s theology.
But Catholics have to believe that God created Adam and Eve directly. Wouldn’t this entail the same conflict between faith and reason?
Not at all, for two reasons. The first is that Adam and Eve are just two individual persons, not the whole universe. Even if God created them with the appearance of having passed through childhood, when they had not, this would not spell the end of science. When God creates the universe in a fully formed state, with the appearance of being old, or when God periodically changes the laws of the universe, then we have a problem.
Secondly, we may presume, God did not create Adam and Eve with the appearance of having passed through infancy and childhood. Our first parents would have concrete reasons to believe what God was telling them by revelation, namely, that He had created them as adults. They would not have navels, they would not have memories of childhood or adolescence, they would not have memories of their putative parents, there would be no other humans around, and so on.
So the problem is not really with God creating something fully formed?
Exactly! The problem is God creating something fully formed AND creating it in such a way that it seems to have a long history, when it doesn’t, and then telling us that He created it fully formed. This is the scenario that the Reformers wanted to project on the Christian God, in order to turn Him into a Creator who hates the very gift of reason that He gives man and so finds ways to convince man to distrust reason.
You mentioned two other problems with the YEC position.
Yes, a philosophical problem and a scientific problem, both deriving from Protestant theology. What we must realize is that the idea of a God who is consistent in the running of the universe and one who is not consistent are two very different ideas of God. The inconsistent God is more willful than reasonable. He is what is called a “voluntarist” God, a God who does not have to be reasonable in His activity.
The Reformers’ dislike of reason and the Reformers’ corresponding desire that revelation be the only source of human knowledge made them see God in this way. For them, not only must we expect God to be arbitrary, we must see that He needs to be arbitrary. Only then will the universe be unintelligible to reason.
How does that cause philosophical problems?
It makes one gravitate towards a false philosophical position called “nominalism.” Nominalism denies the existence of natures or essences outside the mind. An essence is a distinct way of existing, like dogness or catness. It indicates a nature that belongs to a certain class of individuals that all exist in the same way. All of the concepts in our minds are essences. This is why there have to be essences really existing outside of our mind for our ideas to tell us anything about reality.
How does this connect with a voluntarist God?
Well, if God were to give essences to things, it would be because He has ideas in His own mind, certain patterns according to which He creates things. And if He has ideas according to which He creates, then His will must conform to His intellect in creating. William of Occam and the Reformers two centuries later did not want there to be any restriction on God’s will. Thus, they held that God does not give essences to things.
The result is that humans must conclude that the concepts they form from reality are not actually true of reality. We have again a terrible blow to reason, but the Reformers were more than content to strike such a blow—it saved them from seeing the irrationality of their rebellion against God and His Church.
What about the scientific problem deriving from YEC?
I explained above how uniformitarianism is a necessary assumption to do science and how YEC attacks that assumption. Allow me to provide an example of how this destroys science.
Consider the work of Newton. The apple (supposedly) plunked down on his head and set him thinking about gravity. His insight was that the law of gravity working on Earth also applies in outer space, for the heavenly bodies. This enabled him to describe the motion of the planets around the sun using the same laws that we observe on Earth. In other words, the entire success of his three laws for planetary motion depended on the assumption that the laws of nature on Earth are the same as the laws of nature in heaven, that they are uniform throughout the whole universe.
You also gave the example of light above.
Yes. That example shows how the historical sciences rely on the laws of nature being consistent throughout time, as well as space. Looking into a telescope is like looking at the history of the universe in the trails of light coming from galaxies. The history is true, however, only if the laws for light have remained the same throughout time.
The light from the Large Magellanic Cloud that I can see here in Australia, for instance, would seem to be 163,000 years old. If God changed the speed of light, however, in 2,000 BC, my calculations would only be valid for the last 4,000 years. The same would hold true for any other calculations I would make about other galaxies. It would be the death of astronomy.
And you are saying that is what the YECers want?
No, I don’t think they want that necessarily, but it is certainly what the Reformers wanted. Regardless, YEC adherents must come to grips with the fact that such is the result of their theology, whether they like it or not. Their position makes religion an enemy of science and reason.
Which eventuality, I take it, you are not fond of?
Indeed, no. My entire book after all (not just chapter 7!) is about maintaining a proper harmony between religion and science, between faith and reason. This has always been the Catholic spirit. St. Augustine famously says that we must show the world that there is nothing in our sacred books that conflicts with reason. Catholics hold that reason is a precious gift from God and that He wants us to use it for His glory, not destroy it for His glory.
So it is a respect for reason that pits you against YEC?
Yes, certainly. But, in the end, my opposition to YEC dates from my seminary formation, where I was taught why Catholic exegetes reject YEC, under the guidance of the Church. God willing, I was also given a Catholic intellectual balance in Scriptural matters which, in turn, I hope I communicate to my own students.
What else is in your book?
An explanation of how the Catholic Middle Ages gave birth to modern science, why the Allah of the Muslims is also a voluntarist God, an in-depth criticism of atheistic science, including Darwinian evolution, and much more! The book also has a website with a blog, therealistguide.com. There, readers can find many resources related to the book.
How can people help get word out about the book?
I would think things would have to start with purchasing a copy from Angelus Press! Then, after having some familiarity with the book, a favorable reader could assist the book’s cause by writing a positive review on Amazon, rating the book on Goodreads, purchasing copies for friends and family, and sending possible reviewers my way. It’s a good cause!