Science and Faith

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Galileo and the Cardinals, by Jean-Leon Huens (1921 – 1982), National Geographic

In our modern age (within the last 100 years or so), there has been a deliberate push to pit science against religion and vice-versa. This conflict primarily exists in the Protestant world, but bleeds over into Catholicism as well. Nowhere is this more evident than in the ongoing conflict between evolution and creationism. The players have changed over the decades, but the conflict has not. I’ll use the modern players for the purpose of this essay.

On the one hand, we have the atheists, who assert that man is the product of evolutionary processes, and the universe itself is the product of similar processes, spanning billions of years. On the other hand we have Evangelical Protestants, which consist (but are not limited to) Baptists, Pentecostals and “Born Again” Christians of all stripes. Many of these (not all but many) are staunch advocates of young-universe creationist theories, wherein evidence is cited to assert that the earth was created in six literal 24-hour days and the entire universe is less than 10,000 years old. The primary drivers behind this movement today are Evangelical Protestants (not all but many), but I should point out that some (not all but some) traditional Catholics subscribe to this as well. I’ve even met some people in this camp who still subscribe to the geocentric theory on the motion of planets and stars. I discourage my readers from laughing at these people. They’re not stupid. Actually, many of them are highly educated with very brilliant minds. If you laugh at them, you commit a sin of prejudice, and are no better than those who laughed at Nicholas Copernicus and Albert Einstein. Leave them alone and show some maturity for heaven’s sake. Everyone has a right to be heard. You don’t have to believe everything some people say about a proposed theory, but to ridicule and mock them is a terrible thing.

What I’m going to relate to you now are my views on this matter, and I believe I am in good standing with the Catholic Church on this one.

“Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth” — (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159).

For those who say the Catholic Church is against science, let me say the Catholic Church embraces scientific research.

“The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers” — (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 283).

My view on science in relation to my Catholic religion is very simple. They are separate. That’s right, they are separate. That’s because I understand science for what it really is. A scientific theory is merely the best explanation for acquired data that we currently have — until a better one comes along.

That’s why scientific theories are constantly changing, evolving, updating, etc. It’s because they’re not designed to be permanent. They’re designed simply to explain data, as good as possible for now, until more data can be acquired that alters the theory. In the medical field (in which I worked for many years) we deal with this all the time. We use one medication or therapy to treat a patient, until new evidence arises that tells us another medication or therapy is better. So we just adapt to the new theory. That’s all there is to it. One of the biggest problems we experience in the medical field is when we run across a doctor or nurse who refuses to accept the new standards of medical care, and insists on doing everything the older ways. Can you imagine that!?? It does happen though.

So tell me, hypothetically speaking, suppose you were sick or had an accident, and needed to visit an emergency room at a hospital. On the west side of town is the County Hospital, where they do everything the old-fashioned way, boasting in a practise of medicine that hasn’t changed in over a hundred years! Consistency is their motto. Then on the east side of town there is the City General Hospital where they use the latest in diagnostic and treatment available. Which one would you go to?

If it were me, I would definitely choose the City General Hospital rather than the County Hospital for that nasty gash on my leg. At City General I suppose I could expect some cleaning, stitching and a hefty dose of antibiotics as treatment. While at the County Hospital, they would be just as likely to cut the whole leg off to prevent possible infection. After all, they’ve been practising medicine the same way for over a hundred years!

You see what I mean, science is an evolving discipline. It’s better than it used to be, but it’s nowhere near finished. Guess what? It will never be finished. The nature of science, true science anyway, is to constantly question itself. Theories must be challenged, and this in turn gives rise to newer and better theories. We certainly wouldn’t want to base our medical treatment on practises that are over a hundred years old. Nor would we want to base our beliefs about the world around us on theories that are obsolete. Yet this is exactly what many people in our modern society do.

Here I must draw a distinction between science and scientism. We know what science is. It is based on the scientific method. It’s theories are not intended to be dogma. They are flexible and even changeable. They are designed to be the best explanation we have for the data — until a better one comes along. In contrast, scientism is not very scientific at all. Scientism is simply an attempt to make science into a religion. The idea behind scientism is that science can explain everything, and should be relied on for everything, including our most fundamental religious and moral beliefs. Many atheists and agnostic subscribe to scientism, and not necessarily science itself.

As you can see, scientism has nothing to do with actual science. It’s just a man-made philosophical creed that tries to use science to back it up. As a Catholic Christian, I believe in science and the scientific method, but I categorically reject scientism.

The funny thing about scientism is that all too often, many of the scientific theories it uses to promote itself are actually over a hundred years old! For example; up until about fifty years ago, most proponents of scientism asserted that the universe was eternal. For a while, it appeared that the Catholic Church was going to butt heads with science on this matter because Vatican I solemnly defined that everyone must…

“confess the world and all things which are contained in it, both spiritual and material, as regards their whole substance, have been produced by God from nothing” — (Canons on God the Creator of All Things, canon 5).

This contradicted all the disciplines of science in the 19th and early 20th centuries, which postulated that the universe (all matter and energy) is eternal and could never come from “nothing.”

However, in 1931, a Catholic priest named Fr. Georges Lemaître, (backed by Dr. Albert Einstein) countered this assertion with the “Big Bang Theory” on the origin of the universe. So much for the eternal universe notion. It is now an established scientific theory that the universe did indeed have a beginning.

Today, proponents of scientism push the idea that the evolution of species is a fact, and therefore the Bible, and consequently Christianity itself must be false. This is childish thinking to say the least, for many reasons, but I’ll just go through a small handful here…

  1. The Bible nowhere says that the human body didn’t evolve from some lower form.
  2. The Bible nowhere tells us the actual age of the earth, the sun or the universe.
  3. The Bible nowhere specifically says the sun revolves around the earth. It does make mention of the sun stopping its motion in the sky, but it doesn’t explain exactly HOW that happened.
  4. The six-day literal creation theory has never been universally accepted in Christianity. From the earliest writings of the Church Fathers, it would appear there were a sizeable number of Christians who interpreted the six-day creation story using what is called the “day-age” theory, wherein each “day” represents an undefined “age” of world history, not necessarily a literal 24 hour “day.”
  5. The Bible tells us that God created man out of the “dust” or “slime” of the earth. This is scientifically provable, since human beings are made of composite matter that can easily be found in the soil of the earth. However, what the Bible does not tell us is HOW God went about this creation process. Did he use more primitive models of human bodies, before he gave us our human souls? The Bible is silent about this.
  6. The only thing the Bible actually says, with any certainty of interpretation, is that God created all things. It doesn’t say how, it just says that he did. It also says that God “breathed” into man, and man became a living soul. This is important, because it would seem to imply that what makes man different from the rest of the animals is that God is personally invested in the creation of man in a way that is very different from the rest of his creation.

So that’s it. That’s all the Bible really says about the origin of humanity and the universe. Right from the start, the scientism assertion, that Christianity demands belief six literal 24-hour days, falls flat on its face. Science is just as compatible with Christianity as medicine. Even the Catechism tells us that the Scriptural reference to the six-days of creation is likely symbolic…

“Scripture presents the work of the Creator symbolically as a succession of six days of divine ‘work,’ concluded by the ‘rest’ of the seventh day” — (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 337).

So you ask me, am I an evolutionist? My answer is no. You ask me, am I a creationist then? Again, my answer again is no. I am neither, because I don’t have to be one or the other. Instead, I am open to theories from both sides of the debate, and weigh them in my own mind, based upon their merit as I understand them.

Guess what, the Catholic Church wouldn’t care if I picked evolution or creationism. Nor does she care that I choose neither. It’s my mind, and I can exercise reason on this matter in any way I choose, so long as I comply with the moral standards of the Catholic Church.

“Methodical research in all branches of knowledge, provided it is carried out in a truly scientific manner and does not override moral laws, can never conflict with the faith, because the things of the world and the things the of the faith derive from the same God. The humble and persevering investigator of the secrets of nature is being led, as it were, by the hand of God in spite of himself, for it is God, the conserver of all things, who made them what they are” — (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 159).

There are many Catholics who are evolutionists, and the Church is fine with that, so long as they confess that God obviously guided the evolutionary process. Pope Pius XII, way back in 1950, declared…

“the teaching authority of the Church does not forbid that, in conformity with the present state of human sciences and sacred theology, research and discussions . . . take place with regard to the doctrine of evolution, in as far as it inquires into the origin of the human body as coming from pre-existent and living matter—[but] the Catholic faith obliges us to hold that souls are immediately created by God” — (Humani Generis 36).

Still, there are some Catholics who remain literal six, 24-hour day creationists, and the Church is fine with that too, so long as they confess that God was the one who did the creating. This should be no problem for either type of Catholic (creationist or evolutionist). It is a wise and prudent position for the Catholic Church to take on this matter.

You see, the Catholic Church has held this position on science and religion for a very long time. Let’s take the Galileo incident as an example. Typically, the popular media likes to portray it this way…

Galileo discovered that the planets orbit around the sun and that the earth is not the centre of the universe. Galileo went to Rome to try to tell the Catholic Church this. In response the Catholic Church excommunicated Galileo for heresy, and then tortured and killed him.

I write this narrative above because this is actually how I’ve seen it portrayed on real news media outlets. The only problem is that it’s so factually incorrect, it’s hard to know where to begin. I suppose we could start with the first sentence and work our way through…

“Galileo discovered that the planets orbit around the sun and that the earth is not the centre of the universe.” Actually, that’s factually inaccurate. Galileo did not discover this. That was actually discovered by Nicholas Copernicus some 67 years prior. In 1543, Copernicus published his work entitled “On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres” and dedicated it to Pope Paul III. His work was well-received in Rome as a valid scientific THEORY. Since then, many professors (a good number of them Jesuit priests) in Catholic universities around Europe openly taught Copernicus’ heliocentric theory on the motion of planets. Galileo came some time later, and using his invention of the telescope, was able to document the motion of planets more precisely, giving further validation of Copernicus’ theory. Galileo likewise believed the sun (not the earth) was the centre of the universe. Both Galileo and Copernicus would later be proved wrong on that last point, because the universe is much bigger than either men could imagine at that time, but that’s a moot point here.

“Galileo went to Rome to try to tell the Catholic Church this.” It is true that Galileo went to Rome to share his discovery. It is also true he was unsure as to what Rome’s response would be. There were many country parishes in rural areas throughout Italy that were not fond of Galileo and suspected him of heresy. There were also the Protestants, who were certain Galileo was a heretic and wanted to burn him at the stake. However, when Galileo arrived in Rome, he was elated to discover what a warm welcome he received, and how many prelates were eager to view his telescopes. This experience was penned by Galileo’s own hand in a letter he wrote back to his home town. The fact was, Copernicus’ theory on the motion of planets had been taught in many schools in Rome for some time, and a good number of Roman bishops and cardinals were already believers in the heliocentric theory. Again, however, it was considered theory, and back then, there was a legal wall of separation between science and religion. As long as scientists stuck to science, everything was fine.

“In response the Catholic Church excommunicated Galileo for heresy.” This is where things get really problematic, because you see, the statement is categorically untrue in that context. Galileo was eventually excommunicated, years after presenting his evidence to Rome, but not because he was able to prove a theory that many in Rome already believed. Rather, because Galileo could not keep the legal separation between science and religion. He was entrapped by some of his opponents, who asked him to reinterpret the Bible for them in light of the heliocentric theory. This was a “no-no,” because Galileo did not have faculties to interpret Scripture. He was a scientist. In that time, scientists were supposed to stick to science, but that isn’t what got him excommunicated. In an attempt to salvage Galileo’s public image, Pope Urban VIII (a friend of Galileo) invited Galileo to present his findings in Rome and make the most convincing argument possible. Now Pope Urban VIII was himself a geocentrist, but he was open to discussion and enjoyed a lively debate. Besides, Galileo was his friend, and he couldn’t stand to see his reputation smeared by opponents who entrapped him. This is where Galileo made his biggest mistake. In his defence thesis entitled “Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems,” Galileo did a masterful job defending the heliocentric position, but in doing so, he mocked and humiliated anyone who held to the geocentric position. His friend, the pope, held to the geocentric position! Oops! It is unknown of Pope Urban VIII ever read the paper. What is known is that once the prelates of the Vatican read it, they immediately sprung into action to defend the pope. Galileo was found guilty of heresy for teaching science as religion.

“And then tortured and killed him…” This too is factually inaccurate. Galileo was never tortured and he was never killed. Indeed, there were many who wanted to do this to him, and now with the sentence of heresy and excommunication over him, it would have been very easy for something like this to happen. When Pope Urban VIII was informed of what had happened to his friend, he ordered that he be placed under house arrest, with Vatican guard, FOR HIS OWN PROTECTION. Galileo refused to back down, and so he lived to a ripe old age in his own villa (a small mansion by the standards of that time) and died of old age.

These are the facts of what actually happened in regard to the Galileo incident. The truth is, the Catholic Church never forbade the teaching of the heliocentric theory. Nicholas Copernicus was praised for it. Jesuit priests all over Europe taught it at universities. It continued to be taught at Catholic institutions even after the Galileo incident. Galileo was excommunicated and placed under house arrest (for his protection) for not distinguishing the separation between science and religion. That is all.

I bring all this up to illustrate a point. How many times have you heard the above narrative without the explanation that I followed with? How many times have you been told, over and over again, that Galileo was excommunicated, tortured and killed, because the Catholic Church rejected the heliocentric theory on the motion of planets? How many people just blindly believe this? The answer is millions! Yet none of it is true.

The Galileo incident is a perfect example of how bad it can get when people can’t distinguish science from religion. Thankfully, we don’t have to worry about things going this far today. One has to understand the political-religious tinderbox that was Europe in the early 17th century. Such tensions no longer exist. To me however, this whole thing serves as an object lesson of why we should never base our religious beliefs on science, and likewise, never base our scientific theories on religion. The legal wall of separation between science and religion existed in the 17th century for a reason. The laws no longer exist, but common sense should dictate that we keep them in their proper perspective. There is no risk of anyone ending up like Galileo today. However, one can still end up looking rather foolish in the public eye.

Scientific theories are just that — THEORIES. They are more than just a guess. They do have considerable evidence backing them up, but there is something we should all understand about them. A theory is not a religious dogma. It was never meant to be that, and it can never serve that purpose. Using a scientific theory as a religious dogma is a lot like using a refrigerator to bake cookies. Such a machine was never designed to do that task. We should use science to understand the evidence of HOW the world WORKS. Religion, on the other hand, tells us WHY the world IS. That’s why a Catholic priest can get a degree in science and come up with a theory regarding origins like the “Big Bang” for example. That’s why nuns can become doctors. That’s why monks can become professors and teach evolution in Catholic universities. Each thing must be put in its proper place, and it must be used for the right purpose. Science can tell us much about HOW we got here, but it can’t tell us anything about WHY we are here. That is the job of religion, and no religion does this better than Catholic Christianity. Science looks for facts. Religion looks for truth. Yes, there is a difference.

My religious faith is not built on the first chapter of the Book of Genesis. It is built rather on the four Gospels of the New Testament. As far as I am concerned, the first chapter of Genesis is open for debate on interpretation — both literary interpretation and contextual interpretation. I do not interpret the Bible using science. Nor do I interpret science using the Bible. I use science to interpret science and the Bible (as well as Tradition) to interpret the Bible. I think this is a balanced approach. If you ask me what I think of the first chapter of Genesis, I believe it is a Hebrew poem and nothing more. I believe it conveys certain moral and theological truths, but in poetic form. I do not believe I’m supposed to interpret it as literal scientific evidence. I know there are many who will call me a “heretic” for this, and most of them are Protestants, but it really doesn’t matter to me. The Catholic Church is fine with my interpretation and I would venture to say that many prelates within the Church probably agree with it. My faith is based on this historical truth of Jesus Christ, and to the best of my knowledge, Jesus never said I had to believe in scientific evolution or the six literal 24-hour days of the creation story. As good as I can tell, I think Jesus is more concerned with what I believe about him and how I act accordingly.

6 thoughts on “Science and Faith

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  1. For those who say the Catholic Church is against science, let me say the Catholic Church invented what today’s English speakers call science. The earliest account of the scientific method in writing was written by a Catholic priest, Robert Grosseteste. Afterward, the Church imposed its most severe punishment–he was elevated to bishop!*

    As for the Young-Earth Protestants and Flat Earth Christians of any sort, St. Augustine answered them fully when he taught that any apparent contradiction between Scripture and facts plainly evident means that it is our understanding of Scripture that is wrong.

    * That wasn’t really intended as a punishment but that’s how being made a bishop, especially of a see as notable as the Diocese of Lincoln in England was at the time, often turns out to be.

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  2. Shane,
    I, too, as a geological engineer and geologist have similar views on the creation of the world. As Catholic Christians we are to believe that God created the universe and that He created the first couple who subsequently fell. What I struggle with and which is not discussed much is if there was no death until after the fall, then at least Adam and Eve would have walked the Earth with dinosaurs.

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  3. Fine article. Please let me add a shameless self-promotion for my web-book about the intersection of science and Catholic teaching, “Truth Cannot Contradict Truth.” See here:
    https://scienceandthechurch.catholicscientist.com/
    Essays on the Catholic Church as midwife to science, the Limits of Science, Creatio ex Nihilo and cosmology, the Anthropic Principle–are we special, Evolution, Ensoulment and Artificial Intelligence, and Why a Scientist can believe in Miracles.

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