Only a scientist could fumble so badly the gift Pope Francis just handed science
Pope Francis (AFP)

I'm a huge fan of Why Evolution is True, the blog by University of Chicago biologist Jerry Coyne, who wrote a book by the same name.


But he's really blowing it when it comes to Pope Francis.

You probably heard the hubbub about this Pope saying that "God was not a magician," and that it's important for Catholics to embrace scientific ideas like evolution and the Big Bang.

No doubt a proclamation like that is going to produce a lot of responses, some more interesting than others.

But Coyne's response, published both at his blog and at The New Republic, really struck me as shortsighted.

Coyne pointed out that the kind of evolution Pope Francis is espousing is unscientific because it still credits God with putting souls in human beings, and for ascribing to God some kind of role in kicking off the Big Bang and getting evolution rolling.

Look, Coyne knows his stuff. He's correct that science doesn't need God to explain how evolution works, and that it's silly for the Catholic Church to hold on to the idea of Adam and Eve when there's no evidence that humanity descended from a single ancestor couple.

Pope Francis is still clinging to fairy tales, Coyne writes...

"What is clear is that creationism of some sort is still an essential part of Francis’s view of life. Although the media, intoxicated by a supposedly 'modern' Pope, is all excited about what Francis said, his views on evolution don’t differ in substance from that of his recent predecessors. As usual, Francis appears to be a voice for modernity but still clings to old dogma."

Sure, Coyne is correct.

But it's still a lame point of view, and here's why.

If Pope Francis has embraced a version of natural history that doesn't comport with scientific evidence, he's also embraced a version of earth's past that doesn't comport with the Bible.

And that's actually pretty huge.

The Catholic Church has been more friendly to science than other faiths for centuries, so it's not really a surprise that it would take the lead when it comes to evolution. But the really important point is that in such a top-heavy organization, it's the top leader himself who has just treated the Bible like it's the precious collection of Just-So Stories that it is.

Did you get that? Pope Francis just trashed the Bible's version of creation. That's right, the pope.

Why does that matter? Because in a world where many of our problems stem from fundamentalist extremism, moving a billion people away from fundamentalism is really a pretty good thing.

Here's what I'm getting at: What Pope Francis just did? That's really what we need Islam to do.

It was Jerry Coyne himself who brought my attention to a remarkable piece by Ali A. Rizvi titled "An Open Letter to Moderate Muslims." It's a piece which really opened my eyes, at least, about what Islam needs to do to curb rising fundamentalism in the face of extremists like ISIS.

Here's how Rizvi described Islam's special problem, as opposed to other faiths that have moved away from fundamentalism...

As much as the Pope opposes birth control, abortion and premarital sex, most Catholics today are openly pro-choice, practice birth control, and fornicate to their hearts' content. Most Jews are secular, and many even identify as atheists or agnostics while retaining the Jewish label. The dissidents and the heretics in these communities may get some flak here and there, but they aren't getting killed for dissenting.

This is in stark contrast to the Muslim world where, according to a worldwide 2013 Pew Research Study, a majority of people in large Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Pakistan believe that those who leave the faith must die. They constantly obsess over who is a "real" Muslim and who is not. They are quicker to defend their faith from cartoonists and filmmakers than they are to condemn those committing atrocities in its name...

The word "moderate" has lost its credibility. Fareed Zakaria has referred to Middle Eastern moderates as a "fantasy." Even apologists like Nathan Lean are pointing out that the use of this word isn't helping anyone.

Islam needs reformers, not moderates. And words like "reform" just don't go very well with words like "infallibility."

The purpose of reform is to change things, fix the system, and move it in a new direction. And to fix something, you have to acknowledge that it's broken -- not that it looks broken, or is being falsely portrayed as broken by the wrong people -- but that it's broken. That is your first step to reformation.

As Rizvi hints, this reform won't happen overnight. But it helps to have a major figure push it along with well-timed proclamations.

So imagine now if Islam had an influential leader who came out and said that the muslims of the world should embrace scientific concepts that directly contradict the Koran. It's really hard to do, isn't it? But Pope Francis just did that very thing for a large slice of the world's population, an advance that the world's scientists, even if all of them blogged their fingers until they bled, probably couldn't accomplish in a hundred years.

And even if an Islamic leader embraced a version of science that still had some magical thinking around its edges, and didn't quite line up with what's being taught in the science departments at the world's universities, still, such a pronouncement would be a huge accomplishment. And as Rizvi argues, it's exactly the kind of thing that Islam needs in order to move away from the trap it's in now -- with "moderates" unable to counter what the extremists are saying because they themselves can't let go of a fundamentalist view of their holy book.

I understand Coyne. He's right that Pope Francis still isn't pushing a version of life's history that lines up with the scientific record. (And as he points out, 27 percent of Catholics reject evolution anyway.)

But this world is going to be a whole lot better off when fundamentalist belief in fairy tale holy books goes away along with belief in stories of a great flood and a young earth.

And when you have the Pope behind that effort, you're a hell of a long way down that road. So don't blow it, science guys (and gals). Accept this gift with a smile and run like hell with it.