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Musing on “An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion”

February 10, 2022


I have been reading John Haldane’s short book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Religion. Though the entire book—as the title attests—is indeed about religion, Haldane invites his readers to recognize that there is no such thing as “religion in general.” There is nothing out there in the real world, no particular thing, called “religion.” The term represents a mere abstraction. Like “animal” or “plant,” it denotes a wide and diverse category of things unique in themselves.

“Science and religion are not opposed to one another.” We have all made this claim. But stated as such, there is a sense in which what we are saying is nonsense—at least when the words are taken at face value. When I make such a declaration, I don’t really mean religion is compatible with a scientific worldview. What I mean is that my religion, the Catholic religion, is compatible with science. To be sure, there are some religions—indeed, there are some strains of Christianity—that would reject the idea that faith and science (or even more broadly, faith and reason) cohere. This position is called fideism, and Christian proponents as eminent as Søren Kierkegaard have held it. But this is not the Catholic position.

“There is no such thing as ‘religion in general’ any more than there is any such creature as ‘animal in general,’” writes Haldane. This is worth pondering because it is true; and it has implications for evangelization. To make unqualified assertions about the compatibility of “religion and science” is an imprecision, and one that may lead our nonbelieving interlocutors to believe we are making a statement on behalf of all religious systems of thought. And if that is what they believe we are intending to convey—that “religion in general” is not opposed to science—then we should not be surprised that they don’t buy it.

In the Catholic faith, we recognize what Jacques Maritain called “degrees of knowledge.” There are different ways of thinking about reality: empirical, mathematical, metaphysical, mystical, and so on; and there is an objective hierarchy that exists within those degrees. Each aspect of this hierarchy is not walled off from the others; rather, there is an organic unity among them. This is because God is the author of all truth, and as Pope Benedict rightly reminded us in his famous (and controversial) Regensburg Address, “Not to act reasonably, not to act with logos, is contrary to the nature of God.” Thus, it is against God’s nature to contradict himself.

This is why, as Christians, we cannot ignore or reject the epistemological importance of scientific thinking. The scientific method allows us to peer into God’s handiwork and see his divine wisdom and beauty concretely manifest—though imperfectly borne by the finite. We also consistently remember that science is a perpetually changing and inferential enterprise. Science does not deal in certitudes. There is no perfect science. Nonetheless, the Catholic venerates the physical sciences for what they can and do teach us about ourselves and the rest of God’s creation, and implicitly, about the creative mind of God. 

St. John Henry Newman was a chief exemplar of the Catholic attitude toward science. Consider the following comments concerning Darwin’s theory of evolution in a well-known private letter he penned to a fellow clergyman in 1868: 

As to the Divine Design, is it not an instance of incomprehensibly and infinitely marvellous Wisdom and Design to have given certain laws to matter millions of ages ago, which have surely and precisely worked out, in the long course of those ages, those effects which He from the first proposed. Mr Darwin’s theory need not then to be atheistical, be it true or not; it may simply be suggesting a larger idea of Divine Prescience and Skill. 

In these words, we see a synthesis of the Catholic spirituality and a genuinely scientific attitude. Newman does not pledge that Darwin is right. He is not prepared to make such a commitment (nor is he precluding himself from doing so at a later time). But he recognizes that, nonetheless, even those scientific theories that seem on their face “atheistical” may indeed be discovered to be quite the opposite.

Many Christians and other religious believers would, of course, be scandalized by the above words from Newman. But that is because they do not assume the Catholic position. Or they do not think beyond the surface of his words, about the nature of God nor about the nature of science, given who God is. And this brings us back to my original point. Religion is not a thing but a category—and a mighty broad and diverse category at that.

But the Catholic religion is something particular. It bears a specific identity, and it is manifest in the world we experience; and it is not in conflict with science. It could not be, given what the Catholic Church teaches God to be. Catholicism cannot in principle be in conflict with science, for the Catholic Church has always understood that this one world, in all of its layers of intelligibility, is created by one and the same Logos who is always thinking each and every layer into existence at every moment. It is against this God’s nature to contradict himself, and from this divine mind has the human mind been born. The world studied through the scientific lens is, as Cardinal Ratzinger writes, “being . . . being-thought.” As such, no true way of knowing can ever be opposed to any other true way of knowing. True science can never be in conflict with true religion. But this is not the claim of “religion in general.” Nor could it be, because “religion in general” claims nothing. Rather, this is the careful claim of Catholicism.