The ‘Error’ of Evidence

Confession time: I like EWTN.

Specifically, when I’m out after 9 p.m., I like to listen to EWTN’s open-line call-in show, where a priest or other host answers listerners’ doctrinal questions. The perspective often is fascinating, as the questions and answers frequently focus on Catholic doctrines with which I’m either totally or mostly unfamiliar. The show also comes from a conservative, even fundamentalist background, which leads to plenty of eyebrow-raising while I’m running whatever errand I’m on.

One of those moments came the other night, when the host – I don’t remember her name – piggybacked on Pope Benedict XVI’s Sunday sermon on insincerity. Benedict called insincerity a mark of the devil, apparently using Judas’ failure to stop following Jesus after he stopped believing in him as an example because Jesus calls Judas a devil in John 6. Let’s set aside the fact that Jesus also calls Peter the devil, and that insincerity is perhaps the least of the reasons Jesus would call Judas a devil – betrayal, hypocrisy, lack of concern about the poor all spring to mind.

The host used the point to jump into a talk about people who teach error, even if they do so sincerely. And she listed several of the things people teach that she – and the Catholic Church – find erroneous. Here are some of those, as best I can remember:

  • That the Bible is not the inerrant Word of God
  • That abortion is not murder
  • That gay people should have marriage rights
  • That oral contraceptives do not lead to breast cancer.

And that’s where the eyebrow went up.

What an interesting, and unintentionally revealing, inclusion. The others are all big, broad matters of faith and opinion. They are not contradictions of fact. The closest is the idea that abortion is murder, but that’s just based on a technicality – murder is a legal term defined by the state, and the state in fact does not consider abortion to be murder, but a statement that abortion is murder is usually and correctly understood as a statement of opinion and a disagreement with the reality, not a denial of it.

So the Bible being inerrant is a matter of faith. That abortion is murder is a matter of opinion, and the gay marriage question is fraught with both faith and opinion issues.

But the link of oral contraception to breast cancer? Pretty sure that one’s not in the Bible, at least not directly.

There is a slightly increased risk of breast cancer associated with oral contraceptives, but it goes away after 10 years of nonuse, and there is also a decreased risk of ovarian cancer associated with their use – all this according to the National Cancer Institute. So it’s certainly fair, I think, point out that the phrase, “Oral contraceptives lead to breast cancer,” is an overstatement, more false than true in its tone and implications. Yet this speaker places rejection of the statement as “teaching error.”

If it sounds ridiculous to lump scientific findings on contraception in with bigger moral questions such as abortion and gay marriage, it’s only because the host takes the conservative religious view of science to its natural extreme – if we can discount scientific findings on the origins of the universe and the evolution of man based on our preferred reading of scripture (not the only reading or even the most logical or historically consistent reading), there is very little stopping us from doing the same on any other issue in which science disagrees with our own opinions, provided we can find some sort of scriptural justification for the opinions in the first place. If you believe the Bible proscribes contraceptive use, then the conservative approach requires the dismissal of any so-called “facts” that would imply positive benefits to the use of contraceptives.

The example provides the clearest view yet of why we need to rethink our view of science. It’s so often placed in opposition to matters of faith and scripture – the Bible says this, but science says that. But why shouldn’t the study of God’s own creation be complimentary to how we understand his word? The Bible says this, and science says that. It’s long past time to stop being afraid of the evidence God has left for us to discover and start embracing it as part of his continuing revelation to us of the kind of God he is.


3 thoughts on “The ‘Error’ of Evidence”

  1. I agree, that is at the very least a gross exaggeration if not manipulative overstatement and likely made because scare tactics are quick and easy ways to influence behavior. On a similar note to your closing statement, just this morning I commented to a friend about Bill Nye’s recent statement about creationism that it is probably going to only serve to close the door a little tighter against what scientific exposure children of the stringently religious may already be limited. Barring the impossibility of the two concepts civilly ignoring each other, there really needs to be a more vocal middle ground between what is too quickly becoming extremes and I applaud you adding your voice to that quiet sensibiity.

  2. But why shouldn’t the study of God’s own creation be complimentary to how we understand his word? The Bible says this, and science says that.

    And this is a very traditional Catholic position, embraced by (among others) Thomas Aquinas, Catholic theologian par excellence and Doctor of the Church, who wrote of God’s two books, scripture and nature, which could hardly contradict each other, since both have the same Author.

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