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“Oh, I don’t believe in God. I’m a scientist. The more you know about science, the more you leave aside the ‘opiate of the people’ as a fairy tale of the unenlightened past.”
That’s what some scientists think. Others know better.
And some of that latter group have come together to foster fellowship among Catholic scientists, and to provide mentors and role models for young Catholics going into science and mathematics. They give witness to the harmony between science and faith, and host an annual conference.
The group, founded in 2016, is called the Society of Catholic Scientists. All the members — so far 1,000 and the group is growing rapidly — have doctorates in a natural science (including mathematics and computer science) or are graduate students and undergraduate science majors. Many of the members are scientists who are globally recognized as leaders in their fields.
The scientists have taken a motto from St. Bonavanture: “knowledge with devotion, research with wonder.”
And they dialogue both with Catholic theologians, philosophers, and historians of science (who can become “Scholar Associates of SCS”) and scholars of other faiths and those without faith.
Destroying the myth
We asked the president of the Society, Stephen M. Barr, and three of his colleagues, to tell us what we must do to destroy the false impression that faith is opposed to science:
1Learn some history of science
It is a myth that science and faith don’t go together. Partly, it comes from ignorance of scientific history. The Scientific Revolution was made by people of faith, such as Kepler, Galileo, Pascal, and Newton.
Whole branches of science were founded by Catholic priests, including geology (Nicolas Steno), astrophysics (Angelo Secchi), genetics (Gregor Mendel), and Big Bang cosmology (Georges Lemaître).
The attitude of scientists for centuries was captured by this prayer of Kepler: “I thank you, Lord God our Creator, that you have allowed me to see the beauty in your work of creation.” It remains the attitude of many scientists today.
More than 1,000 of these scientists from six continents have joined the new Society of Catholic Scientists in less than three years. At its annual conferences, deep questions are discussed from the perspectives of both cutting-edge science and the timeless wisdom of the Church’s philosophical and theological tradition.
The first SCS conference, for example, dealt with “Origins” — of the universe, of habitable planets, of life, of species, and of human language. The theme of the 2019 conference, which will be held in early June, is “What does it mean to be human?” There will be talks on topics ranging from Neanderthals to genetic engineering.
The example of men and women who are rigorous in the pursuit of scientific truth and faithful in their embrace of revealed truth is perhaps the best antidote to the myth of science-faith conflict.
2Don't flatten things
Michael B. Dennin:
The impression that faith is opposed to science comes from two opposite mistakes. One is that only physical reality exists. The other is that God is a thing like other things, except much more powerful, in effect a magical being.
One view flattens out the world, the other flattens out God. Neither does justice to the depth and richness of reality as we experience it, which goes beyond physical reality alone and beyond mere things, however powerful. God is not just a part of reality, but the fullness of reality, its ultimate depth.
Humanity’s quest has been to understand reality in all its glory, and science is a wonderful part of that quest, but not the whole quest. Understanding physical reality gives us insights into Nature and also God. And yet God, though immanent in Nature, infinitely transcends it.
We are able to approach God more deeply through revelation, which means through Christ, who is the “fullness of revelation,” as the Catechism of the Catholic Church reminds us.
When science and faith appear to contradict, we are misunderstanding one or both of them.
But our understanding of revelation is not complete, because God also infinitely transcends our minds. Yet, when properly understood, scientific discoveries combined with our own experiences and the experiences of the community of faith provide deep insights into core realities. These include the facts that God exists, God loves us, and God wants to have a relationship with us.
We should keep in mind the words of Pope Benedict XVI, who said that when science and faith appear to contradict, we are misunderstanding one or both of them.
3Read better books
Jonathan I. Lunine:
It is not likely we will persuade everyone who thinks that science and religion are in conflict … after all, St. Paul was unable to completely win over the Athenians! But one can put a dent in their arguments.
First, we must convince those Christian brothers and sisters who reject certain key discoveries in science — the ancient age of Earth and cosmos and natural selection as a driving force that evolves species — that these are solidly established and not in conflict with faith. Books by Kenneth Miller and the “Thomistic Evolution” group are helpful in this regard.
Second, women and men of faith must write better books to counter Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Jerry Coyne, and others. Their books are widely read and, to the typical reader who has little time to delve deeply into these questions, persuasive. Many of the books that purport to argue for the compatibility of science and faith are defensive; they either waste time in ad hominem criticisms or sound apologetic and unconvincing.
Frankly, the best arguments for the compatibility of science and faith come from authors who are scientists themselves—I would point to Stephen Barr’s “Modern Physics and Ancient Faith” and Guy Consolmagno’s “God’s Mechanics” as among the most convincing. But there need to be more such books, and better publicized.
Finally, the lives of recent outstanding scientists who were also people of faith provide some of the most powerful arguments of all—an exemplar being the cosmologist and Catholic priest Georges Lemaitre.
4Do good science, and good theology
Fr. Joachim Ostermann, O.F.M.:
There is the impression that science and faith are opposed, but, of course, they are not. Nature’s order and rationality, scientifically understood, are powerful arguments for faith. Physicists marvel at the depth of this order, all the way down to sub-atomic structures of pure mathematics and rationality. Biologists marvel at how, out of this, the complexity of life and personal existence emerges! There is no possibility that science could lead me away from faith.
Why would anybody see opposition? Because science can make you think that God is careless. Science also explains what seems meaningless: suffering and death. Biologists know that cell-cycle control can fail, as the control elements are not perfect. Therefore, we may get cancer. Even a young child. Even a person who did nothing wrong. It happens. It is scary, mysterious, and meaningless, but science explains it in merciless detail. This does not make the Creator look very good.
To understand faith and science together, we must know what gives meaning and how much God cares. Sometimes, scientific knowledge helps heal the sick. Sometimes, we are powerless and terrified in the face of suffering and death. But we understand something—that the suffering person is like us, even though he is suffering, and sustained and loved by God just as we are. As Christians, we see the suffering Christ, who is the divine Logos and God’s ultimate rationality, who shares our experience of suffering and death so that we will not be lost in it.
What does it take to correct the false impression? Good science, good theology, and talking about both without making a mess of either.
Stephen M. Barr (President, SCS) is Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Delaware and Director of its Bartol Research Institute. [PhD, Physics, Princeton University, 1978] Prof. Barr does research in theoretical particle physics, especially grand unified theories, theories of CP violation, neutrino oscillations, and particle cosmology. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society (2011). He is the author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 2003) and the Believing Scientist (Eerdmans, 2016). More information see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_Barr
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan I. Lunine (Vice-President, SCS) is David C. Duncan Professor in the Physical Sciences of Cornell University and Director of the Cornell Center for Astrophysics and Planetary Science. [PhD, Planetary Science, Caltech, 1985] Prof. Lunine does research in astrophysics, planetary science and astrobiology. He is a member of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, and among other awards is the recipient of the Jean Dominique Cassini Medal of the European Geosciences Union (2015) and the Basic Sciences Award of the Int. Academy of Astronautics (2009). He is the author of Earth: Astrobiology, A Multidisciplinary Approach (Pearson Addison-Wesley, 2005) and Earth: Evolution of a Habitable World (2nd ed., Cambridge Univ. Press, 2013). More information at astro.cornell.edu/members/jonathan-lunine.htmland en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jonathan_Lunine
Fr. Joachim Ostermann, OFM [PhD, Chemistry, Ludwig Maximilian Univ. Munich, 1990] Before becoming a Franciscan Friar, Fr. Ostermann had spent 20 years as a scientist working in various fields of biochemistry, cell biology, and medicine. He writes frequently on science and faith. See his webpage and writings here: https://www.franciscanfriars.ca/author/joachim-ostermann/
His scientific papers can be found here https://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&as_sdt=0%2C8&q=joachim+ostermann&btnG=
He can be reached at email@example.com
Michael B. Dennin [PhD, Physics, UC Santa Barbara, 1995]. Michael Dennin is Professor of Physics at the University of California at Irvine, where he is also Dean of the Division of Undergraduate Education and Vice Provost for Teaching and Learning. His research field is experimental condensed matter physics. Prof. Dennin has written a book on science and religion called Divine Science. His webpage is here: https://www.physics.uci.edu/people/michael-b-dennin
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org