Catholicism vs. Materialism

In TCT column a few weeks back, I suggested that there was no “war” between science and Catholicism because Catholicism has always accepted that grace does not violate nature, but perfects it. And that God, as the Creator of nature, can and usually does work in and through natural causes. Thus Catholics who understand Church teaching on this matter do not refuse to take their children to a doctor on the grounds that they want God to do the healing because they realize God can work in and through medicine. No Catholic couple in their right mind refuses to have conjugal relations when they want a child on the grounds that they want “God to create their child.” There is no either/or between God and Nature.

Unfortunately, some scientists, egged on by news reports about attitudes towards science among Biblical fundamentalists, continue to think there is. Catholics must do everything they can to disabuse scientists of the notion that belief in God inevitably brings with it such a false choice.

Scientists are quite right to be frustrated with believers who use religion as a “science stopper.” When such religious believers have convinced themselves that God is responsible for some effect, then they resent scientists who try to find natural causes for that effect, believing (wrongly) that if science discovers a natural cause, then God can’t possibly be involved. This is foolish.

Natural science shows us how God works in and through Nature. Catholics interested in science should treat reading the Book of Nature the way they treat reading the Book of Scripture. An honest interpreter would never falsify a passage of Scripture, or hide it, because he or she trusts that God is the Author, and one must never lie about what God has said. So too, an honest reader of the Book of Nature would never falsify data, or hide it, because he or she believes that God is the Author of All Things. And one must never lie about the way God has “spoken” in and through Nature.

But let us say that we have done everything we can to convince scientists that there is no “war” between science and religion, no either-or between God and natural causality, would that make peace? Sadly, no. Why not? Because the so-called “war” isn’t really between science and religion.

It’s a conflict between believers in reductivist materialism (the notion that all reality can be reduced to matter in motion, including realities such as free will, love, altruism, and morality) and those who aren’t reductivist materialists.

It simply suits the rhetorical purposes of the reductivist materialists to pose the conflict as between “science” and “religion” – as if that meant a wrestling match between the forces of “progress,” and those who are “stuck in the Dark Ages.”

[Image: Kelsey Kremer/Iowa State Daily]
So, for example, no matter how much John Paul II’s “theology of the body” called upon some of the most interesting continental philosophy of the twentieth century, there were still ignorant bigots who said of it: “See, the Catholic Church is still stuck in the Dark Ages.”

I study that much-maligned period, the “Middle Ages,” and I can tell you without the slightest hesitation that John Paul II’s “theology of the body” is definitely not “medieval.” You might not like or even loathe modern phenomenology, but one thing you simply can’t say about it is that it’s “stuck in the Dark Ages.”

So why does it suit the purposes of reductivist materialists to pose the conflict as though it were between “science” and “religion”? One reason is that if you ask people straight out: “Do you believe in reductivist materialism?” reductivist materialism loses.

Most people seem convinced that they have free will and aren’t materially “determined,” that love is an actual reality in the world, not merely an epiphenomenon of the motion of atoms in the brain, and that there are certain moral principles like “Don’t kill,” that people should observe. It’s much easier to reify two camps, “science” and “religion,” and pose them as exclusive contraries rather than make people think through the philosophical implications of reductivist materialism.

So why does society at large allow these posers to get away with this obvious falsehood? Quite frankly, because it serves another, deeper social purpose. As philosopher Charles Taylor has argued, whereas classically, in all societies, persons defined themselves in relation to a divine or cosmic order, the modern person tends to view himself as “self-defining.”

When you see Nature as expressing a transcendent order, especially an order revelatory of divine Wisdom, then you believe that human flourishing is best served by contemplating, understanding, and living in accord with that cosmic order.

When, however, your goal is to control nature for your own purposes, when you wish to see “nature” merely as “matter” to be formed according to your own autonomous will, then you fear anyone who might convince the public-at-large that any view of nature other than the one that serves human autonomy – and worse yet, one that might help ground certain moral constraints on human autonomy – is “dangerously “out of step” with modernity.

So let’s be honest: there is a war between the materialist idea about nature and what Catholicism teaches. The Catholic Church teaches that nature is “good, very good,” and that man flourishes by conforming himself in wisdom to the moral order. Modern materialism says that nature becomes good when it is conformed to human will and that there is no moral order other than the order we create by forcing our own will on things around us.

Let’s call for a vote on those two options: freedom over nature, or freedom in accord with nature. It’s not clear to me that the Church would win. But at least we would be clear where the real conflict lies, and what the Church really stands for in this battle.

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.