Science and Religion, Rightly Understood

Let me start with a confession: for much of my misspent youth, I was fascinated with math and science – the more abstract the better: fundamental particle physics, not chemistry; cosmology, not biology. In my youthful naiveté, this seemed the royal path to wisdom, the way into the very heart of things. Later, I came to understand my error. But even now, I still read into these subjects – I just finished a fascinating survey of the current understanding of subatomic particles. Of course, such things have gotten quite complex – the basic science requires very high-level math that no mere amateur (which is to say, an ordinary lover) can entirely follow any longer.

Still, I’m both proud of and humbled by the ingenuity and industriousness of scientists and engineers who – not only by proposing theories but by designing equipment and experiments – have been able to take us back towards Planck time, which seems to be the ultimate limit of observation in this universe. In case you were wondering:


That’s a relatively simple equation, which means about 10-43 seconds after the Big Bang. If only our philosophers and theologians attacked their own proper subjects with as much daring, ambition, and precision.
Scientists have made such amazing discoveries attending to the humblest, tiniest realities. Until the middle of the twentieth century, the atom still looked like a mini-solar system. That’s still not an entirely false view for certain purposes, but the picture became complicated through discovery of particles with names like quark, muon, tau, and qualities like charm, spin, flavors, and more. To say nothing of new forces, fields, anti-matter.

All this may seem of no interest to the average person, but it’s out of this careful tracing of the most elementary building blocks of the universe (or what seem so for now) that our glorious and tragic race has been able to track back towards the Big Bang, which may – arguably – point towards some sort of transcendence. As good philosophy and theology have long realized, our world of contingent beings must depend on some necessary being beyond “things.” But this isn’t the only reason – for Catholics at least – to be interested in the advances of science.

It’s worth remembering that the slander that the Church is anti-science did not arise because the Church was opposed to science per se. The resistance to Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo – confused as the memory now is – came from stubborn adherence to an earlier science, the geocentric Ptolemaic system, on the part of some (not all) Churchmen. Dante’s Divine Comedy is a brilliant embodiment of how that science and spiritual truths were deeply intertwined in the high Middle Ages.

A great irony in this large sweep of intellectual history is that the Church was not even defending a Biblical cosmology (insofar as the Bible even has a cosmology), but the Ptolemaic system (Ptolemy: circa 87-170 AD), developed by pagan Greeks. That cosmology served well enough in its day, but was superseded, as all models eventually must be, by later advances. (C.S. Lewis’ The Discarded Image is the best and wisest guide to that bygone worldview.) But therein lies a lesson.

Some of my own friends have claimed that the Big Bang or other scientific theories are connected to the doctrine of Creation. Interestingly, the Belgian priest Georges Lemaître, a mathematician who first proposed an inflationary universe theory in 1927, despite resistance from Einstein, objected when Pius XII made that connection. Science stops at physics and only has indirect relations to metaphysics. If the Big Bang proves to be just another intermediate model, it will make little difference to the notion of Creation.

Fr. Robert Spitzer knows the current science and approached it with the proper caution – and unusual brilliance – in his New Proofs for the Existence of God. Many others, I’m afraid, are not so circumspect in either embracing or critiquing modern science.

A tee-shirt seen in Los Alamos this summer
A tee-shirt seen in Los Alamos this summer

That includes our dear brothers and sisters in the media: the new pagan oracles. It’s remarkable how little they learn or remember when it comes to religion and science. Most journalists know next to nothing about current science, yet assume it must raise obstacles to belief.

Pope Francis recently remarked that evolution and Creation are not incompatible – a truth that almost doesn’t need re-stating. It set off a media firestorm. John Paul II called evolution “more than a hypothesis” in a 1996 speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. It touched off a similar reaction. I appeared on CNN back then and told a disbelieving interviewer that fully-habited nuns in a 1960s Catholic grade school (in the dark pre-Vatican II days, at that) taught me essentially the same thing.

Catholics are not Fundamentalists. We need to repeatedly make that clear not only to the media but to family, friends, co-workers, actors in the public square. We believe in faith and reason – and welcome science and appropriate technologies, as do most sane people. We shouldn’t have to remind ourselves and others about this. But we are bearing the burdens for certain kinds of Christians wary of God-given human reason.

We are in a constant struggle with our lazy and sloppy media, and an educational establishment that still believes absurdities such as “Columbus proved the world was round” (a late-nineteenth century invention – read Dante boys and girls). They all kinda-sorta think, if that’s the right word, that anyone who really believes in traditional Christianity must also believe, like the most extreme among the Fundamentalists, that the world began 4,000 years ago and that the Bible rules out evolution.

Hence, the clown-like antics whenever a pope – as all have since Pius XII in the 1950s – declares that Creation and evolution are not mutually exclusive. There’s a large task of cultural repair – and mere justice to our forebears – to be carried out. It’s long past time that all of us, in whatever station in life, take up that burden.

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of The Catholic Thing and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent books are Columbus and the Crisis of the West and A Deeper Vision: The Catholic Intellectual Tradition in the Twentieth Century.