Friday, March 06, 2009

At Vatican Darwinfest, Design is the "Delusion"

All week in Rome, last month's 200th birthday of Charles Darwin is being commemorated with a conference on evolution at the Pontifical Gregorian University, sponsored by the Pontifical Council for Culture.

Early on in the festivities, the Curia's top-ranking American made headlines for taking a swipe at the Oxford atheist Richard Dawkins, with whose "God Delusion" Cardinal William Levada has long been, by his own admission, "fascinated":
Levada, head of the Vatican's Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, said the Catholic Church doesn't stand in the way of scientific realities like evolution, saying there was a "wide spectrum of room" for belief in both the scientific basis for evolution and faith in God the creator.

"We believe that however creation has come about and evolved, ultimately God is the creator of all things," he said on the sidelines of the conference.

But while the Vatican did not exclude any area of science, it did reject as "absurd" the atheist notion of biologist and author Richard Dawkins and others that evolution proves there is no God, he said.

"Of course we think that's absurd and not at all proven," he said. "But other than that ... the Vatican has recognized that it doesn't stand in the way of scientific realities."

The Vatican under Pope Benedict XVI has been trying to stress its belief that there is no incompatibility between faith and reason, and the conference at Rome's Pontifical Gregorian University was a key demonstration of its efforts to engage with the scientific community.

"The false contraposition between Darwinism and the Church," is how the Vatican's newspaper, L'Osservatore Romano, headlined its story on the conference.

By week's end, however, the focus has shifted to complaints from supporters of intelligent design that their views have been given short shrift. A Turkish critic of evolution in attendance claimed he was silenced, while organizers held that intelligent design and creationism were kept off the table as the concepts "are considered to be ideologies and do not reflect good science, theology or philosophy":
The Discovery Institute, the main organization supporting intelligent design research, says it was shut out from presenting its views because the meeting was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, a major U.S. nonprofit that has criticized the intelligent design movement.

Intelligent design holds that certain features of life forms are so complex that they can best be explained by an origin from an intelligent higher power, not an undirected process like natural selection.

Organizers of the five-day conference at the Pontifical Gregorian University said Thursday that they barred intelligent design proponents because they wanted an intellectually rigorous conference on science, theology and philosophy to mark the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin's "The Origin of Species."

While there are some Darwinian dissenters present, intelligent design didn't fit the bill, they said.

"We think that it's not a scientific perspective, nor a theological or philosophical one," said the Rev. Marc Leclerc, the conference director and a professor of philosophy of nature at the Gregorian. "This makes a dialogue very difficult, maybe impossible."

He denied the decision had anything to do with Templeton's funding for the conference. "Absolutely not. We decided independently within the organizing committee, in total autonomy," Leclerc said.

The Pennsylvania-based Templeton Foundation, which has an estimated endowment of $1.5 billion and awards some $70 million in annual grants, seeks to fund projects that reconcile religion and science.

At least three of the conference speakers, including two members of its scientific committee, serve on the Templeton Foundation's board of advisers.

The Templeton representative at the conference, Paul Wason, director of the foundation's science and religion programs, said the grant had no strings attached.

"They sent us the proposal after they had most of the speakers already. We decided to make the grant in part because it is a really good speakers' list," he said.

The foundation has criticized intelligent design in the past and says on its Web site that it doesn't support any research or programs that "deny large areas of well-documented scientific knowledge."

An official with the Pontifical Council for Culture said the Templeton grant covered almost half the meeting's budget. But the official, the Rev. Tomasz Tramfe, also denied Templeton put any restrictions on who was invited to speak.

The Discovery Institute's president, Bruce Chapman, said he wasn't surprised intelligent design was kept out. But in an e-mail, he said the conference didn't speak for the Vatican as a whole, where he said evolution and intelligent design "remain in serious and fruitful dialogue."

Begun on Tuesday, the conference ends tomorrow.