A “War” between Science and Religion?

Someone told me a few days ago that something like ten percent of Catholics leave the Church because they think there’s a “war” between Catholicism and modern science. I don’t generally put much faith in such statistics because there are many variables. Whom did they ask? How dedicated to the Catholic faith are respondents? Were they pretty much already headed out the door anyway? People oftentimes like to “dress up” their loss of faith with some intellectual justification. The purported enmity between science and Catholicism is as good as any.

But let’s suppose for a moment, just for the sake of argument, that these numbers are roughly accurate. The thing that really bothers me about this news is this: there is no conflict between Catholicism and modern science. Catholicism has never denied the reality of what Thomas Aquinas used to call “secondary causality.” The Church has always affirmed that God can work in and through natural causes.

So, for example, there is no more problem for Catholics over evolution than there is over normal human reproduction. On the one hand, we say that God “intended” your existence from all eternity. And yet, Catholics have never denied that the proximate cause of your existence is father and mother, sperm and egg, meiosis and mitosis, and all the rest.

Besides, no serious historian of science takes seriously anymore the thesis that the relationship between science and Christianity is one of constant, irreconcilable “conflict.” The “conflict” thesis has been replaced by what is sometimes called the “complexity” thesis. Sometimes there was a conflict, but at other times the Church was a key supporter of scientific development, and in other cases the two simply didn’t overlap.

So why are these people leaving?

I mean, let’s say that we found out that people were leaving the Church because they said that they didn’t want to be part of a Church that made use of albino assassins: “What? The Church doesn’t make use of albino assassins. That’s just silly.” We might suspect that the people in question had been reading Dan Brown’s idiotic book, The Da Vinci Code. And we’d probably say to ourselves: “They left the Church over that? They threw over a centuries-old tradition of worship and theological reflection, with all its amazing saints like Francis and Dominic and Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and all the intellectual firepower of fathers and doctors of the Church like Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil the Great, Athanasius, and so many others because a minor con man, trying to make a buck, told them that the Church makes use of albino assassins. Do they believe that there are sacred monkeys in the Vatican? People spread that rumor too.

The Pontifical Academy of Science
The Pontifical Academy of Science

There are all sorts of reasons why people decide to leave the Church. Catholicism can be hard. It asks a lot. And the rewards are not exactly material: no new cars, large screen televisions, yachts, and the like. There’s an old reply to the saying, “You’ll get your reward in the next life” which goes: “You’d better, because there’s certainly no reward in this one.”

And then, of course, there’s the problem of evil, which is in fact a real problem, not a made up problem, like the “conflict” between science and Catholicism. People experience real suffering, real pain in the world, and they have every reason to ask: Where is the supposedly “all-good God” in the midst of all this?

When C. S. Lewis was an atheist and thought about this problem, he realized that he actually had no basis for complaint – not as an atheist. What had caused him to think that the universe should be “good” at all? Indeed, what right did he have, apart from a belief in some ultimate Goodness, to make any distinction between “good” and “evil”? Quite frankly, it’s only the rumor that there just might be something like an “all-good God” that produces the so-called “problem of pain” in the first place. Without a caring, loving God, anything is possible. And as Dostoyevsky famously said, “Without God . . . everything is permitted.”

Still, evil and suffering, pain and death: these are hard realities to bear. And it’s easy to get angry with God when you expected Him to treat you better. Like all good relationships, the one with God takes work.

But to leave the Church because of some supposed “conflict” between science and Catholicism? That’s like leaving your wife because some dubious character tells you he thinks she’s secretly a Russian spy. If it were true, no one would blame you for leaving. But if you just took someone’s word for it, and left your wife on that basis alone, I think we’d have to say you should have been a little more circumspect, that perhaps your beloved wife deserved a little something better from you: something like a little faith.

And yet, the reality remains: someone is filling young people’s heads with this false story. If you want to see an example of it, I suggest watching a little piece of anti-Catholic bigotry entitled “Galileo: On the Shoulders of Giants,” an “award-winning” after-school special for kids that has almost nothing to do with Galileo, and everything to do with instigating hatred of the Catholic Church. You might also take a look at two patently anti-Catholic tracts: John William Draper’s The History of the Conflict Between Religion and Science and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom. These are the geniuses who started the fairy tale about everyone believing the world was flat until Columbus proved it wasn’t.

The truth, of course, was that no one in Europe thought the world was flat (just read Dante). The story is absolutely false. It’s pure propaganda – just like the story about the “war” between science and religion.

Randall Smith

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is the Scanlan Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston. His most recent book, Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner’s Guide, is now available at Amazon and from Emmaus Academic Press.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Ever since the 16th century, science has concerned itself with a particular aspect of phenomena, namely their common measurable properties. These measurements can be correlated and the constant relationships between them expressed in differential equations. Using these equations, we can make predictions. If there is a systematic variation between the theoretical and observed results, scientists modify their equations until the two correspond.

    To take an example, does science prove that the moon “causes” the tides? No, that is to confuse a functional relationship between variables with a causal relationship between things. As Bl John Henry Newman insists, causality is one of the first lessons we learn from our own experience, “that experience limiting it to agents possessed of intelligence and will. It is the notion of power combined with a purpose and an end. Physical phenomena, as such, are without sense; and experience teaches us nothing about physical phenomena as causes.”

    Now, Catholicism teaches us about a Divine Intelligence and the causality of Intelligence is Will; but intelligence, causality and will are things that science does not even address, so no conflict between Catholicism and science is even conceivable.

  • Duncan Idaho

    All in all, a good article. But then there are those of us who left over legitimate doctrinal issues (perpetual virginity of Mary, celibate priesthood, Purgatory, justification by faith alone).

    • Mark Chance

      One of those things you list is not doctrine, and salvation is not by faith alone, but by grace received through faith.

    • didymus46

      All three major Reformers, Calvin, Luther and Zwingli, believed that the Blessed Mother was perpetually a virgin.

      • Duncan Idaho

        Well, even brilliant men can’t be right about everything.

        • Mark Chance

          But somehow you can be.

          • Duncan Idaho

            No, but I’m right in believing Mary and Joseph had other children, the natural way.

          • Mark Chance

            Says you. Other people, who comprise the majority of Christians throughout history, believe otherwise. Given that none of these alleged children are specifically identified as Mary’s children in Scripture, Scripture itself cannot definitively settle the question. That leaves the issue in the hands of whatever authority is the next best. I conclude that the next best authority is the Church and not you. After all, Scripture mentions the Church, calling her the pillar of truth. Scripture doesn’t mention you at all.

          • Duncan Idaho

            Well, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. What I fail to understand is why Catholics find it so important to go to the mat to support this doctrine, other than to raise the status of Mary to be some sort of Co-Redemptrix or Mediatrix.

          • Mark Chance

            What I fail to understand is why people expect anyone to believe that Mary’s perpetual virginity is reason to leave the Church.

          • Paul Vander Voort

            It’s simple: Mother of God, Assumption of Mary, Immaculate Conception of Mary, Perpetual virginity of Mary, Mary as Mother of all Christians, Co-Redemptrix, Mediatrix, Queen of Heaven OR Mary, the Mother of Jesus.

          • Mark Chance

            Reject the fallacy of the false dilemma. It’s liberating.

          • Paul Vander Voort

            I reject the Queen of Heaven don’t you? Or are there two?

  • Tarzan

    Many perpetuators of this war theory are progressives. But they themselves have their own war with science. Look at their global warming “theology”, or their denial of any difference between the sexes with their SSM and gender identity nonsense.

  • Randall B. Smith

    Dear Mr. Idaho,

    Yes, these are “legitimate” doctrinal issues. So are the doctrinal issues concerning the Incarnation of Christ, the resurrection of the Body, one baptism for the remission of sins, and the notion that the Son is “one in Being” with the Father. When one says about any of these “I don’t believe that,” one has confessed, in effect, I am not a Catholic. So too if one were to say, “I don’t believe that God became man in the person of Jesus of Nazareth,” then one is merely admitting that he or she is not a Christian. That’s fine. These are serious doctrinal issues.

    But please understand, in such circumstances, one hasn’t “left” the Church, the person in question never believed the Church was the Church. Just as we don’t get to pick and choose among the things Christ said which we agree to accept and which we’d rather reject (I like the part about love, but I’m not groovin’ on that part about picking up my cross every day; and come to think of it, a whole bunch of us left when Jesus said that if we didn’t eat his body and drink his blood, we couldn’t have eternal life), so too we don’t get to pick and choose among the Church’s teachings. Just as the first makes me the “lord” and Jesus the one being taught by me (Peter tried this when he told Christ not to go to Jerusalem to get crucified), so the second makes me the one judging and the Church the one judged. In which case, I am the Church — a Church unto myself — and the Church is, well, pretty much whatever I want it to be. The natural consequence of this view to my mind is, as the great English poet John Milton once put it: “Every man a church unto himself.”

    As for “justification by faith alone,” may I suggest reading the “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” put out by the Lutheran
    World Federation and the Catholic Church. You might find that the two sides in the conflict are not so far apart as you might suppose. Very much like the supposed “war” between science and religion, there is a lot less of a “war” going on as there is a misunderstanding of basic concepts.

  • Richard A Imgrund

    “Sciences are differentiated according to the various means through which knowledge is obtained. For the astronomer and the physicist both may prove the same conclusion: that the earth, for instance, is round: the astronomer by means of mathematics (i.e. abstracting from matter), but the physicist by means of matter itself.” Summa Theologiae, part 1, Q1, reply to objection 2.

    The sphericity of the earth was a toss-off piece of knowledge in the 13th century, in Europe anyway.

    • Michael Paterson-Seymour

      Eratosthenes gave a very creditable estimate of the radius and circumference of the earth in about 200 BC, from observing the difference in thee sun’s angle of inclination at Alexandria and Syene at the summer solstice. The difference was 7.2 degrees and Syene is some 787 km south of Alexandria.

      A slight inaccuracy in his calculations gave a value of 6,263 km for the radius. It is, in fact, 6,371 km, an error of 2%

      • dogged

        Eratosthenes–surely a man far ahead of his time. Too bad his ideas didn’t “stick”.

  • Dan

    My mom told me once that she left the Church because one time she was walking from the library with a stack of books, dropped the books by accident, and while picking them up a priest walked by and didn’t help her pick them up.

    Perhaps the problem of pain is at least in part a problem of pride. It takes some humility to accept that God allows suffering.

  • Bro_Ed

    It has always seemed to me that most of the “conflicts” between religion and science were not conflicts between deeply held beliefs, but rather conflicts between human beings, each of whom had a vested interest in the matter being decided in their favor. It often comes down to a personal, organizational, and/or a power related or financial interest.

  • Howard Kainz

    In my experience, the reason for leaving (or ignoring) is the Church’s position on sex and marriage.

  • Randall B. Smith

    Perhaps Prof. Kainz would agree with me that leaving the Church for its position on sex and marriage is much like the problem of leaving the Church because of its position on the Incarnation or the Trinity. It means the person involved never really believed the Church is the Church. They take themselves to be the ultimate arbiter and authority. And yet, the deeper truth is that for many such persons leaving the Church — whether it was Arians leaving in the Fourth Century or Enlightenment philosophes leaving in the Eighteenth or sexual liberationistas leaving now — the real “authority” was merely the current “spirit of the age.” To the degree that the Church didn’t accommodate herself to the current zeitgeist, it made certain people who didn’t want to feel uncomfortable being Christian or Catholic feel exactly that. And given the choice between “going along and getting along,” and the challenges of faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, some people preferred “the fleshpots of Egypt” over “wandering in the wilderness” with the one God, living and true, as their primary guide and, in many cases, their lone protector.

    Many of us today look back at the Arians and say: “They left the Church in favor of some neo-Platonic nonsense!” Or look at the Enlightenment philosophes and say: “Really? You thought ‘Pure Reason’ was going to bring heaven on earth? How dumb would you have to be about human motivations and emotion to buy into that obvious absurdity?” And let’s not even get started on the popularity of the Marxist hopes for creating a “worker’s paradise.” More like a gangster’s paradise. Will people look back in two hundred years and be any less stupefied that people abandoned the Church because she refused to accept what passes for wisdom currently about the blessings of widespread divorce and that, as they say about gay marriage, “it’s time”?

    I suppose you’ve seen the posters: “It’s Time.” Nice slogan. But a bit under-determined, one would have thought. It works in all sorts of contexts. The end of the Jewish disease in Europe: “It’s Time.” The commencing of the next great 1000 year Reich: “It’s Time.” Nuclear power: “It’s time.” The restoration of the Muslim caliphate: “It’s time.” The “time” is merely what the clock shows right now. And whatever “the time” right now is, it will be merely a part of “the past” in fairly short order. People who live for “right now” rarely find people who take the longer-term view much fun. Just ask any teenager.

    • eddie too

      I agree. I doubt most people who leave the RCC ever delve deeply in to the intellectual aspects of their decision. the ones I know mostly just did not want to submit to the Church’s authority. for the ones I know, the decision to leave the Church was not an intellectual decision. for them, the Church was wrong because it stood in the way of what they wanted to do, nothing more than that.

    • St Donatus

      Wow, very very well said. This is the ultimate problem. But most Catholic’s seem to be told by their priests today the the Catholic Church is NOT the source of truth but only one of many. Yes, some of you will say that MOST priest don’t do that. Maybe they don’t in so many words, but when the are silent about the Church being the (Earthly) source of truth, they are allowing the world to make the case that it is not. I have yet to hear a diocesan priest say that the Church is the source of truth. (I have heard many FSSP priests say this though.)

      It is like a man who is blamed for a murder, hides all the proof that he is innocent, doesn’t defend himself in court, then after he is convicted, wonders why he is going to jail.

    • Steve D.

      “It’s time”….that made me laugh. As the old saying goes: he who is wedded to the present time, is soon to be widowed to the past.

  • James Belna

    If you want to assume that the theory of evolution can stand
    as a valid scientific explanation for the diversity of life, you are welcome to
    do so. However, it is a far different thing to say that evolution can be
    reconciled with the Judeo-Christian explanation of creation. If we honestly
    accept the theory of evolution on its own terms – that all forms of life are the
    result of a random, unguided process – we cannot also say that God created
    everything exactly as He always planned and envisioned it. In the beginning was
    the Word – and the Word includes references to, among other things, mustard
    seeds, lilies of the field, lambs, lions, and camels. The forms of these plants
    and animals could not be contingent in any way; they were predestined by the
    Word to exist, in the correct time, place, and form, irrespective of the
    vicissitudes of any natural process.

    Go ahead and see if you can find any evolutionary scientist
    who is willing to admit that man is a special case, and did not evolve from
    non-human ancestors. If the Church wishes to say that the descent of man from
    ape-like creatures is not inconsistent with Genesis, we must squarely address
    some interesting questions, such as how can two discrete members of a species be
    said to be the first man and woman, when there were presumably thousands of
    related creatures who shared the same genome? How can we make sense of the Fall
    and Original Sin, much less divine filiation, for an evolving species? And if
    we need to carve-out a special exception for man, why not for every other
    created thing?

    Maybe it can be done, but I haven’t seen anyone even go to
    the effort to seriously make the case. What I do see is a Church which is
    afraid to be thought of as anti-science, and so makes hasty and ill-considered
    concessions to our materialistic culture. And in the long run, I think that impulse
    may be responsible for a lot more people abandoning their faith.

    • RobertRoyal

      James , you raise some difficulties, but as Newman said, a thousand difficulties do not make one doubt. Google Edward Feser’s philosophical analyses of the question about evolution and the first human pair.

      • James Belna

        I hope it is still acceptable for Catholics to doubt that the theory of evolution is true, particularly as scientists cannot resolve many fundamental inconsistencies and contradictions among themselves. I understand why various popes felt the need to reassure the world that the Catholic Church accepted the implications of evidence that supported the theory of evolution, but we should hardly feel obliged to embrace it uncritically, or to overlook the points where it conflicts with our faith.

        I appreciate the referral to Professor Feser’s work, which I think is a creative approach to the problem of reconciling evolution and religious faith. But he seems to accept a God-directed view of evolution, which contradicts science’s claim that it is a random and unguided process. He also assumes that God intervened to uniquely ensoul Adam and Eve, and privileged the propagation of their ensouled DNA over that of the thousands of unensouled humans to the point that they eventually became extinct. (And he ignores thorny metaphysical questions about the spiritual status of the many subsequent generations of unensouled humans who at least outwardly were made in God’s image, or how a physical human body can be incidental to and distinct from the presence of a human soul). This is so far beyond the conventional secular understanding of natural selection that it is hard to see why we would even bother to indulge in such speculation in the first place.

    • Howard Kainz

      The Jesuit paleontologist, Teilhard de Chardin, tried to work out solutions to some of the questions you’re raising, but his approach hasn’t been adopted. At present, Intelligent Design theorists are working along the same lines. I think the main challenges are with understanding the source of DNA and the initial information embedded in living things, before any fossils or mechanisms of “natural selection.”

    • Micha Elyi

      First, there is no evidence that “all forms of life are the result of a random, unguided process”. But if you think you have a reproducible experiment that demonstrates such evidence, go ahead and show it. Be sure it accounts for sexual selection, which is not “random and unguided”.

      Second, God exists outside of time so speaking about God as if He is embedded in time is incoherent. One goes astray when speaking about God having “planned and envisioned” then having “created” because one has implicitly placed God in time.

  • Antonja Cermak

    humani Generis actually does require belief in one unique woman and one unique man that started the human species. This doesn’t seem consistent with the evidence. Further, it requires belief in man being created before woman, and that these 2 humans were in an ideal environment until the Fall. I understand why Pius XII wrote this, the whole of Sacramental theology falls apart outside of a Fall, but it needn’t and I think a better approach could have been had (i.,e. spiritual truths vis a vis scientific truths, would have been superior).

    • Thomas J. Hennigan

      You have to read Humani Generis very carefully, as it says does not totally close the door on the possibility of polygenism. However, the most recent science seems to promote the idea of an “original Eve” from Africa. The Church should be very prudent with regard to scientific theories as they may tend to be replaced later by others. Therefore I think Pope Francis should stear clear of the global warming issue in the encyclical on ecology. The fact is that there is no scientific consensus on the global warming matter, and the bulk of the evidence shows that even if there is some amuont of global warming due to human intervention, something which is far from proven, the best thing to do is to sit back and enjoy the sun, as it might only be 1 degree celsius in a century. We are right now into a global cooling phase which is going on for some 13 years. This and other scientific issues are totally politicized so that the Church has no business in getting on the global warming bandwaggon, which I fear is what Pope Francis is going to do.

  • Paul Vander Voort

    I’ve never heard it expressed as “a “war” between Catholicism and modern science” before. I would express it as a rejection of the supernatural.

    • John Barbieri

      I agree.
      As science develops rational explanations for understanding the universe, the church is forced to retreat.

  • Veritas

    An interesting essay and some excellent comments here.
    These emigres are far less lethal to the Church than the un-catechized activists, feminists, and pro sexual revolutionary “Catholics” who are staying and working from within while trying to recreate a church in the image of Baal.
    I would love to say “Go in peace;” the problem is, they won’t go.

  • Thomas J. Hennigan

    Regarding Columbus, he went to the University of Salamanca and those he met there all knew perfectly well that the earth was not flat and they also realized that his calculations about getting to India by going west were way off, that the world was much bigger and also round.
    It seems to me that Stanley Jaki has masterly debunked the idea that Christianity and science are inimicaal. On the contrary he convincningly argues that only in a Christian environment did science arise in the first place, or could it arise, precisely due to the Christian understandinf of the world.

    I do think we need to do some smart apologetics so that young people will not be fooled by ridiculous arguments by the likes of Dawkins, Stephen Hawking, Hitchins and others. Fr. Robert Spitnzer, S.J. is doing a good job with his Magis Insittue for Faith and Science and he aleady has several books out on the matter. He argues that at present, with the laters advances in physics, there is an even greater concordance between faith and science. I am not saying that the scientifica method is capable of entering into the field of philosophy or theology, but its conclusions would seem to dovetail well with what Christian faith has always believed.

  • Dhaniele

    I would suspect that most people who leave the Church really have a variety of reasons for turning their backs on the truth. However, it is true that what modern science has to say and what people know about Adam and Eve does raise some reasonable questions. Most people are not going to delve into these matters (as the commentators on this article are willing to do). Most will simply find a justification for disbelief. Sadly, there are plenty of people who are out there to ambush people with these skeptical attitudes and searching for the truth can be like looking for the proverbial needle in the haystack. Unless you are blessed with an intelligent guide to lead you to the right books, it is easy to fall into disbelief or cling to a faith that apparently has no real rational justification.

    • David Collett

      You conciede you understand that people have many and varied reasons for leaving that the church yet you disqualify those reason by saying that they are turning their backs on the truth. This statment is a very risky one because you may osterdise part of the audiance by discrediting their reason by stating they are “turning their backs on the truth.” Your interpratation of truth is made by your life experiance and differs from anothers this does not meen they are “turning their backs on the truth.” only your interpratation of truth. Statements like this are in part why people leave, not only the Catholic, many organized religions. So the author of the above article is right in my opinion but reread your post from a readers point of view and maybe you will actualy see one of the many reasons you concieded people have.
      (sorry bout the spelling and place ment I have never been very good at that part of writing)

  • boonteetan

    Religion could not destroy civilization, nor science per se. Only humans could, via insatiable greed for wealth, uncontrollable desire for sex/drug, and absolute ignorance of own weakness.

  • dogged

    Galileo once opined that he believed that the Scriptures were inerrant. However, he quickly added that our interpretations of them may not be.
    In more recent times, the late evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould classified science and religion as “non-overlapping magisteria”. I can live with that.

  • IdPnSD

    You wrote – “… there is no conflict between Catholicism and modern science.” I consider math and science are completely wrong and religions, including Bible, are correct. For example can you add one apple and one arrange? No, you cannot. Thus math will never be useful for nature. On the other hand Bible says – what you sow is what you reap. It is a destiny statement. Your present is controlled by your past. You cannot have freewill.