Science and Religion

The recent decision to award the Templeton Prize for religion to a scientist — and an agnostic one, no less — means that the relationship of science and religion is once more in the news. Is science in mortal combat with religion? Prize-winning physicist Freeman Dyson doesn't think so. Neither does another leading agnostic scientist.

In his latest nonfiction best seller, Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life (Ballantine, 1999), Stephen J. Gould, the popular paleontolo-gist and evolutionary biologist, expounds on the case that science answers how and religion answers why. Just as religion cannot and should not judge scientific truth, he says, science cannot and should not judge moral truth. In arguing for this perspective so persuasively, Gould places himself in the tradition of some of history's best and most thoughtful scientists — and expresses from a “purely scientific” vantage point what the Church has always taught.

What does this mean for the friction between science and religion? Was the whole thing just an unfortunate misunderstanding on both sides all these years? Is it over now?

The potential for heated debate between scientists and theologians is still with us, and it has to do with the object each group pursues and the assumptions each makes along the way. The purpose of religion is to know and love God, and the purpose of science is to understand the world around us. Cardinal John Henry Newman pointed out in The Idea of a University (1852) that religion and theology start with God and revelation, while science, by necessity, does not. For example, when a scientist examines what causes the weather, it is understood that angels are not going to be part of the explanation. In this sense, scientific research is irreligious, or better yet, materialistic. It is this absolute materialistic focus of science that often makes religious people uncomfortable, yet scientists are correct in being vigilant against invoking nonmaterialist agency in their examination of how nature works.

The Catholic teaching is that science must be free to judge its findings based on the empirical evidence, not constrained by a priori conclusions dictated by theology or religion. For those who think science conflicts with faith, this is a difficult idea. The reasoning, unaltered since St. Augustine examined the question, is that God's revelation taught by his Church and known by faith will not contradict his handiwork, the created universe. And the way we learn about creation is through reason applied to observation.

Much of Gould's book is spent tracing the history of science and religion in order to demonstrate that the two have always been distinct, with past conflicts between science and religion owing to incursions into each other's domain. Gould rightly insists that the need for distinction cuts both ways, and that the scientific method cannot answer the ultimate questions of purpose which religion addresses.

Evolution Revolution

Gould examines the history of science and religion in that potentially most-destructive interface between the two: evolution. The Catholic Church has never condemned evolution of the human body, and a recent statement by Pope John Paul II reaffirmed what the Church had already said. Yet this subject still captures the imagination of many devout people who think that evolution compromises God's role in creation; it also excites many non-believers who claim that evolution is evidence against the existence of God.

Both of these points of view are simplistic, and neither has the support of evolutionary biology or Catholic theology. First, science cannot tell us anything about the human soul, for the soul is a spirit and outside of the materialistic domain of science. Second, the use of animate rather than inanimate matter to create the human body is immaterial to the question of whether human beings are made in the image of God. That image, according to St. Augustine, is in the human ability to reason — to “seize truth by the intelligence.” However, John Paul II points out taht man is an “image of God” precisely in the body as male and female.

If science and religion can be distinguished in the abstract, in the human person they are impossible to segregate, for human beings are moral beings and no one can evade the question of purpose. Even the agnostic answer, that the purpose of human existence cannot be known, creates its own ethical climate. Just as personal piety does not enable a scientist to dispense with rigorous and objective experimentation, good scientific methodology is not a justification for unethical or immoral research. It might be good science to let rats infected with the bubonic plague loose in Detroit to observe its epidemiology, but it is bad ethics.

In the matter of religion, Gould inadvertently demonstrates this fact. Clearly a man of honesty and candor, Gould explains the reasons for his own agnosticism and his profound respect for religion as a phenomenon of the human experience. Yet in spite of his sincere civility, he displays a prejudice that religion demands the ability to believe in contradictions, which in turn requires a suppression of reason. In an uncharacteristic research error, Gould explains in a footnote that the doctrine of the Trinity is based on the three natures of God — Father, Son and Spirit. Of course, this is precisely what the doctrine of the Trinity does not say. Catholic teaching, consistent through the centuries, maintains that there is only one God comprised of three persons, all three of whom share the same divine nature.

The purpose of science is to know about creation; the purpose of religion is to know the creator.

Three persons in one nature is not a contradiction; it is a mystery. That the inner life of God should be a mystery is reasonable; that it is a contradiction is absurd. Gould's mistake is like accidentally flying the flag of a foreign country upside down. Such a mistake is understandable, but it betrays an ignorance of certain fundamentals of the Christian faith.

In Search Of …

Gould's lack of religious learning does-n't hinder him from articulating a thoughtful appreciation of the contributions of both religion and science. But are the two equals, like heads and tails, or poetry and prose? No. The ways faith and science seek an understanding of reality are divergent from one another. Science proceeds from the realm of the physically observable. Theories about how things work change as new observations come to light. Faith is open to the possibility that things not seen may yet exist. Understanding of how creation operates may deepen, but no finding can change the basic belief, for example, that God is active in people's lives.

For example, in the Middle Ages human life was known to be in the womb at the moment of quickening, when the unborn child was first felt by the mother. What happened in the womb between intimacy and quickening was a mystery. The study of biology revealed that human life begins at the moment of conception. This fact advanced the Church's understanding of the Immaculate Conception. The Church did not add to what faith already knew about Mary's sinlessness, but was able to refine that understanding with the insights provided by science. (A curious corollary is that the Church continues to insist on the scientific fact that human life starts at conception, while many scientists are quite prepared to perform mental and linguistic gymnastics in order to deny this fact in pursuit of political or economic agendas.)

There are two manners by which Catholic scientists can approach the dichotomies between faith and science. One is to be a bench-top scientist, performing a day job competently while reserving their Catholicity for their private life. The Catholic philosopher Etienne Gilson said that the highest compliment to be expected from this approach is, “Although he is a Catholic, you would never know it.”

This lacks the missionary action demanded by our baptismal commitment to bring Christ into the world. It is based on the idea that holding the Catholic faith somehow compromises scholarship, as if St. Thomas Aquinas were less of a philosopher because he is also a theologian, or Pascal less of a scientist because of his faith or Gregor Mendel's genetics were compromised because of his monastic life.

The Catholic approach to science, as with any human endeavor, is to strive for excellence in that endeavor. Catholic scholars must be excellent scholars; Catholic scientists, excellent scientists. To offer one's work to the service of Christ is to demand that it be more than just competent. Although the realms of religion and science are distinct, science serves religion by striving for scientific excellence. No amount of good intentions would have made up for poor architecture when designing the great cathedrals of the Middle Ages, and no piety would have revealed the principles of genetics to Gregor Mendel if he did not couple original experimentation with careful observation.

If science can instruct faith, can faith instruct science? Yes — not as science per se, but in the way scientists see reality. The insight Gould gives us into the agnostic mind is very illuminating. Agnosticism breeds a vision of things living so that they might die, with all being futile in the final analysis. The Christian religion is quite clear on this point. Life itself is good, existence is good, just being is good: “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Wolves, spiders, lice, mosquitoes and mildew are all good. This fundamental belief in the goodness of life — the deep sense that life is a gift which is not negated by death — stems from faith in the Incarnate God. For the Catholic scientist, this faith animates the quest to know and understand nature, demanding a rigorous application of the tools of reason. Thus science done badly is not just bad science, but an insult to the gift of life itself. And faith is the best safeguard against the temptation to be satisfied with mediocrity.

David Beresford, a biologist, writes from Lakefield, Ontario.