Why the Supposed Conflict between Science and Religion Is Tragic Nonsense

March 22, 2022

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Just last week, I had the joy of speaking at Youth Day at the Los Angeles Religious Education Congress. My audience was about four hundred high school students from around the country, and my topic, at the request of the organizers of the congress, was the relationship between religion and science. They knew, as I have been arguing for years, that a major reason that many young people are disaffiliating from our churches is the supposed conflict between science and the faith. I told my young audience that this “war” is in fact a fantasy, an illusion, the fruit of a tragic misunderstanding. And I attempted to show this by looking at four themes, which I will briefly summarize in this article.

First, in a very real sense, the modern physical sciences came from religion. The great founders of science—Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Descartes, etc.—were, without exception, trained in ecclesially sponsored schools and universities. It was under the aegis of the church that they took in their physics, their astronomy, and their mathematics. More specifically, they learned in those institutions two essentially theological truths necessary for the emergence of the experimental sciences—namely, that the universe is not God and that the universe, in every nook and cranny, is marked by intelligibility. If nature were divine—as indeed it is considered to be in many religions, philosophies, and mysticisms—then it could never be an apt subject for observation, analysis, and experimentation. And if nature were simply chaotic, void of form, it would never yield up the harmonies and patterned intelligibilities that scientists readily seek. When these two truths, which are both a function of the doctrine of creation, obtain, the sciences can get underway.

God is not a being among beings, but instead the reason why there is an empirically observable universe at all.

Second, when science and theology are properly understood, they are not in conflict, since they are not competing for primacy on the same playing field, like opposing football teams. Utilizing the scientific method, the physical sciences deal with events, objects, dynamics, and relationships within the empirically verifiable order. Theology, employing an entirely different method, deals with God and the things of God—and God is not an object in the world, not a reality circumscribed within the context of nature. As Thomas Aquinas put it, God is not ens summum (highest being), but rather ipsum esse (the act of being as such)—which is to say, God is not a being among beings, but instead the reason why there is an empirically observable universe at all. In this way, he is like the author of a richly complex novel. Charles Dickens never appears as a character in any of his sprawling narratives, yet he is the reason why any of those characters exist at all. Accordingly, the sciences, as such, can never adjudicate the question of God’s existence nor speak of his activity or attributes. Another type of rationality—not in competition with scientific rationality—is required for the determination of those matters.

And this brings me to my third point: scientism is not science. Sadly rampant today, especially among the young, scientism is the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge. The undeniable success of the physical sciences and the extraordinary usefulness of the technologies to which they have given rise have produced in the minds of many this conviction, but it represents a tragic impoverishment. A chemist might be able to tell us the chemical makeup of the paints that Michelangelo used on the Sistine Ceiling, but he couldn’t, qua scientist, tell us a thing about what makes that work of art so beautiful. A geologist might be able to tell us the stratification of the earth below the city of Chicago, but he could never, again qua scientist, tell us whether that city is being justly or unjustly governed. There isn’t a trace of the scientific method in Romeo and Juliet, but who would be so stupid as to assert that that play tells us nothing true about the nature of love. In a similar way, the great texts of the Bible and the theological tradition are not “scientific,” but they nevertheless speak the profoundest truths about God, creation, sin, redemption, grace, etc. Both the cause and effect of scientism, sadly, is the attenuation of the liberal arts in our institutions of higher education. Rather than appreciating literature, history, philosophy, and religion as conduits of objective truth, many today relegate these to the arena of subjective feeling or subject them to withering ideological criticism.

My fourth and final point is this: Galileo is one paragraph in one chapter of a very long book. The great astronomer is often invoked as the patron saint of heroic scientists struggling to free themselves from the obscurantism and irrationality of religion. The censorship of his books by the Church, and the great scientist’s virtual imprisonment at the behest of the pope, is taken as the dark paradigm of the Church/science relationship. Obviously, the Galileo episode was hardly the Church’s finest moment, and in point of fact, John Paul II, expressing real contrition, explicitly apologized for it. But to use it as the lens for viewing the play between faith and science is crucially inadequate. There have been, from the earliest days of the modern sciences, thousands of deeply religious people involved in scientific research and investigation. To name just a handful: Copernicus, revolutionary cosmologist and a third order Dominican; Nicholas Steno, the father of geology and a bishop of the Church; Louis Pasteur, one of the founders of microbiology and a devout Catholic layman; Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics and an Augustinian friar; Georges Lemaître, formulator of the Big Bang theory of cosmic origins and a Catholic priest; Mary Kenneth Keller, the first woman in the United States to receive a doctorate in computer science and a Catholic religious sister. I believe it is fair to say that all of these figures understood the fundamental points that I have laid out in this article and therefore saw that they could be utterly devoted to both their science and their faith.

In conclusion, I might especially urge Catholic scientists today—researchers, physicians, physicists, astronomers, chemists, etc.—to talk to young people about this issue. Tell them why the supposed warfare between religion and science is in fact a delusion, and even more importantly, show them how you have reconciled them in your own life. We simply cannot allow this silly justification for disaffiliation to stand.

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