Pope Francis and the Evolution of Catholicism

Pope Francis: Helping to Drive the Evolution of CatholicismThis week marked another interesting milestone in the ongoing evolution of Catholicism. Since Tuesday, media outlets across the globe have been abuzz with headlines like:

Headlines like these are intended to elicit surprise… The Pope believes in Evolution! And the Big Bang! Oh my!

But that’s not my reaction at all. Don’t get me wrong; I think this is great news. This will, hopefully, help nudge millions, maybe even billions, of humans a baby step or two in the direction of greater rationality. And that’s a good thing. Still, I have two other reactions.

First, I am relieved that Pope Francis does not deny the factual reality of evolution. Second, and more importantly, I view Tuesday’s news as confirmation of something that I have believed for decades. Catholicism (like all religions) is a meme, itself subject to evolution by natural selection. We are witnessing the continuing evolution of Catholicism.

Accepting the Reality of Evolution

I don’t find it surprising that Pope Francis accepts the reality of the theories of Evolution or The Big Bang. Frankly, I find it more surprising when people do not. I am a little surprised–but pleased–to see Pope Francis express these views officially, as The Pope.

In science, the term “theory” has a very precise meaning:

A scientific theory is a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world that is acquired through the scientific method and repeatedly tested and confirmed through observation and experimentation.

The Pope is simply taking the rational position of not denying the preponderance of scientific evidence that moved both Evolution and the Big Bang from the status of “conjecture” or “hypothesis” to that of “theory”. Denying the reality of scientific theories is, well, irrational.  (I’m not talking about modifying, extending, or replacing a scientific theory, given new scientific information–that’s how science works. I’m talking about denying a theory without evidence, simply as a matter of, well, faith.)

The Pope may also be taking the pragmatic position of not alienating the millions of Catholics already struggling to reconcile religious dogma with science. The Pope has masterfully adopted the stance that, while these scientific theories are real, they serve as proof of God. This positioning provides a path for millions to avoid choosing between these theories and their religion. (Evolution is a clever designer.)

Evolution of Catholicism

What I find most interesting about this whole story is that it supports the hypothesis (to my mind, the theory) that religions are memes. In this context, I use the term “meme” not in the recent colloquial sense of a catchy graphic/phrase shared and re-shared on social media (although in some sense, those do qualify as memes), but rather in the sense originally presented in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, in his seminal book, The Selfish Gene:

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’.  I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.

Religions do not exist, “out there”, independent of human minds. Rather, they are collections of ideas that replicate from one mind to another through human communication. They replicate from person to person, generation after generation, changing–mutating–from time to time along the way like a message in a game of telephone.

Over the millennia, religions (that often purport to be The Truth) have mutated into thousands of variations so different from each other that they go by different names and are seen as different, competing religions.

The evolution of Catholicism–the meme–has been underway for roughly 2000 years. Just in my lifetime, Catholicism has changed significantly. Females no longer wear veils in church, communion wafers may be taken in the hand, Saturday evening mass satisfies the requirement to attend mass on Sunday, the mass is no longer recited in Latin, and so on. And now, just since last Tuesday, Catholicism has changed significantly again. Evolution and The Big Bang are real.

The evolution of Catholicism is continuing, as concretely demonstrated by Pope Francis’s remarks on Tuesday. Who knows, one day, condoms may even help reduce the risk of HIV transmission.

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