If You Love Science, and Love God, You’ll Love This Event

Faith and science are often presented as being incompatible, but Catholics in the sciences know better

(photo: Jan Matejko, “Copernicus” (1872))

A new interdisciplinary conference that will probe the connections between faith and science is being held this week at the Thomistic Institute at the Dominican House of Studies in Washington, D.C. 

The conference, which is co-hosted with the Society of Catholic Scientists, will bring together scholars in wide array of disciplines—including molecular biology, astronomy, organic chemistry and experimental condensed matter physics—to talk about issues on the forefront of science and religion. The conference runs from Wednesday through Friday. 

Lectures topics will include the compatibility of modern neuroscience with the soul and the relationship of physics and Thomism. Speakers will include Dr. Karin Oberg, a Harvard astronomer; Dr. Stephen Meredith, a neurologist at the University of Chicago; Dr. William Carroll, a Research Fellow at Oxford; and Dr. Daniel de Haan, a divinity professor at Cambridge, among many others.

This is the first time the conference has been held. It has its roots in the experience of the Thomistic Institute’s speaking events at secular college campuses, a program that launched three years ago. (I previously profiled the Thomistic Institute’s campus outreach for the Register here.)

“We could give many examples of the perceived tension between science and religion, but I think the popularity of these talks reveals one in particular. In my work with Thomistic Institute student leaders this year, I’ve discovered that students feel the pressure of a kind of reductive materialism that limits the human person just to material constituents. Students articulate this concern through their questions and through their request to have talks on Free Will and ‘Neuroscience and the Soul,’” said Fr. Raymund Snyder, a Dominican who is the Director of Campus Programs and Evangelization at the Thomistic Institute. 

The idea for the conference arose when a group of neuroscientists contacted the Thomistic Institute to suggest a symposium on Thomism and neuroscience, according to Snyder. From there they decided to broaden the conference to encompass other disciplines, aiming to draw graduate students who are in the hard sciences or philosophy of science, Snyder said. 

“There is a great hunger, particularly among students in the sciences, for coherent conversations on the relation of the Catholic faith and science,” said Father Thomas Davenport, a Dominican who holds a Ph.D. in physics from Stanford and is one of the presenters at the conference. “Many Catholics recognize that there should be harmony between faith and science, especially in the light of statements from recent popes, but they often worry about the details. Grad students in the sciences live in the details in their own studies and research and so naturally want to apply some of that to their faith as well.”

Father Davenport said one goal of the conference is to “build up a community,” connecting graduate students in the sciences with established scientists who share their faith. 

“Second, we hope to show these students that it is a good and valuable thing to think deeply about their faith and to apply their analytical and intellectual skills to the truths we profess. While we are not looking to convert them all into philosophers or theologians, it is important for those who spend their days wrestling with the truths of nature to recognize that the faith is not ‘wishy-washy’ or ‘hand-wavy’ but that it is intellectually serious and reasonable,” Father Davenport added. 

Beyond those goals, Father Davenport said conference organizers aim to play a role in the ongoing discussion about the relationship between faith and science in the public square. Often, he said, the two are presented as being incompatible. Catholics in the sciences, however, know better, recognizing that “the Catholic intellectual tradition has much to offer to correct this misconception and to show the harmony between our faith and the study of the natural world,” Father Davenport said.

“We hope that this conference and future ones like it will help a new generation of Catholic scientists have confidence in their faith and the tools to speak about it to their communities,” he added.

For those who cannot attend, the Thomistic Institute will publish podcasts of the lectures on iTunes and SoundCloud, which can also be accessed through the Thomistic Institute website. Organizers hope to make the conference an annual event.