Way beyond the New Atheist nonsense

George Weigel

Given the intellectual flimsiness of their work, it’s best to look for cultural causes to explain the “New Atheists”’ popularity. And surely one factor here is the now-canonical notion in Western high culture that biblical religion is incompatible with modern natural science: an idea rooted in the notion that the “scientific method” is the only way to get at the truth. (William Shakespeare, call your office.)

Yet facts are stubborn things. And the fact is that two Catholic priests, Gregor Mendel, OSA, and Georges Lemaitre, were pivotal figures in creating two of the most important scientific enterprises of the 21st century: modern genetics, which is giving humanity previously unimaginable powers over the human future, and modern cosmology, which is giving us glimpses of the universe in the first moments of its existence.

Mendel is perhaps the more familiar figure; most high school biology classes explain how the Moravian monk developed gene theory and the theory of inherited characteristics (with its distinction between recessive and dominant traits) from his studies of the humble pea. Lemaitre, a Belgian, was a brilliant mathematician who first articulated the Big Bang theory of the universe’s origins and subsequent expansion. That proposal, ridiculed by some at first, now reigns supreme in astrophysics and seems to have been verified by the astonishing work of the Hubble Space Telescope. Watch for Father Lemaitre’s bold idea to gain even further traction by the findings of the James Webb Space Telescope when it begins orbiting the sun, a million miles from Earth, in a few years.

So unless one wishes to assert that Mendel and Lemaitre were split personalities who said Mass in the morning and did science in the afternoon, thereby dividing their lives into hermetically-sealed containers, the cutting edges of modern science itself would seem to rebut the claim that “believer” and “scientist” are mutually incompatible human types.

St. John Paul II was fascinated by the hard sciences (physics, chemistry, astronomy) throughout his life; for decades, he hosted at Castel Gandolfo a bi-annual seminar of leading figures in those fields, so that he could keep abreast of developments in their disciplines. But for John Paul II, everything eventually pointed to the New Evangelization. So even before he began using that term, he sent a letter to the head of the Vatican Observatory, noting that “those members of the Church who are either themselves active scientists, or in some special cases both scientists and theologians, could serve as a key resource” in bridging the chasm that too often separated modern science and biblical religion. Those scientists and scientist-theologians, the Pope continued, “can also provide a much needed ministry to others struggling to integrate science and religion in their own intellectual and spiritual lives.“

John Paul II’s challenge has now been taken up by the Society of Catholic Scientists [weigel.link/catholicscientists]. From a standing start last year, the Society now has almost 400 members, 80% of whom hold the doctorate in the natural sciences, the rest being primarily graduate students. That’s an impressive head-count for such a new outfit; it also suggests that membership in such a Catholic organization is not an impediment to being taken seriously in the highly competitive academic world of natural science. SCS’s inaugural conference in April was addressed by scholars from Harvard, Oxford, MIT, Penn, Brown, and the University of Texas at Austin.

The moving force in organizing the Society has been Dr. Stephen Barr, professor of theoretical particle physics at the University of Delaware. Barr’s engaging and accessible articles have long been familiar to readers of First Things, and those looking for something different by way of vacation reading this summer might pick up the recently-published collection of his essays, The Believing Scientist [weigel.link/barr] (Eerdmans). There, Steve Barr discusses everything from evolution to the mind/soul debate to Big Bang cosmology to science-as-ersatz-religion, while gently skewering a few luminaries who begin to talk nonsense when they venture beyond their remit as scientists.

The Bible teaches that God impressed his intelligibility onto the world through creation by the Word. When that conviction weakens, faith in reason begins to crumble and the result is the intellectual playpen known as post-modernism. In renewing the covenant between faith and reason, the Society of Catholic Scientists serves the good of both – and of our culture.

COMING UP: Science is an act of worship

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Bill Nye the Science Guy and the recent Marches for Science would do well to learn a thing or two from Vatican observatory director Brother Guy Consolmagno, who argues that science is so much more than simply studying the natural world; it’s an act of worship.

Students at Regis Jesuit High School were treated to a special visit by the Jesuit brother April 20 for an all-school assembly in which he spoke of the crucial juncture of life the students are in. Following the assembly, he hosted two Q&A sessions for students interested in the convergence and compatibility between science and faith. An evening presentation open to the public was also held in which Brother Consolmagno addressed the question, “Does Science Need Faith?”

Speaking of his own path to becoming a world-renowned astronomer and a Jesuit, Brother Consolmagno encouraged the students to embrace this time of their lives and use it to find those things that bring them joy – and a bright future.

“This is the time when you become self-aware. This is the time when you have the chance to daydream,” he said. “Human beings do more than just put food on the table because we are more than just well-fed cows. We are creatures who dream. Now’s the time to bring God’s joy into your life.”

Brother Guy Consolmagno, the Vatican’s chief astronomer, visited Regis Jesuit High School April 20 and gave a presentation about the relationship between faith and science. (Photo by Andrew Wright | Denver Catholic)

Brother Consolmagno found that joy when he decided he wanted to be a scientist. He majored in earth and planetary science at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and became fascinated with meteorites.

“You can hold outer space in your hands, and I was hooked,” he said.

His vocation as a Jesuit brother never conflicted with his profession as a scientist. In fact, he tends to look at science as an act of worship.

“Science needs faith, it needs joy, or it wouldn’t happen,” Brother Consolmagno told the audience at his evening presentation. He related his work as a scientist to playing a game with God, much like a parent plays with a child as an expression of love.

“Spending time, sharing the joy, the little bit of discovery we get in a simple game that a kid can play – that’s how I feel when I’m in the laboratory,” he said. “I’m playing a game with God. God has set up the puzzle, it’s up to me to solve it. And when I get a little progress, I can hear God saying, ‘Yeah, isn’t that cool? Now let me show you the next step.’ That’s why doing science is an act of worship.”

Imaginary odds

The debate between science and religion persists, even to this day, but the two don’t have to be at odds, Brother Consolmagno said. In fact, the Catholic Church has historically played an important role in advancing scientific studies. After all, it was in the medieval universities, which were started to train priests and clergy, where the study of science began.

“We owe our system, not only of educating people, but also of letting other people know that you’ve been educated, [to] the Church,” he explained.

People are often surprised to discover that the Vatican has an observatory, let alone a team of scientists doing important scientific work, Brother Consolmagno said. The attitude that religion and science are at odds can do more damage than good, he said.

“How many great scientists have we lost by insisting there’s a war between the two? It’s out of my faith that I believe science can work, and it’s out of my faith that I can justify doing science,” he argued.

Two pursuits, one truth

Brother Consolmagno is far from the only religious with this attitude toward science. Father Tomasz Strzebonski, parochial vicar at St. Clare of Assisi Parish in Edwards, has a degree in theoretical physics – a product of his knack for breaking things and putting them back together as a child in Poland. He also grew up in a devoutly Catholic family, and faith was an important part of his life.

“I always had two worlds, but I never saw them as separate. I always saw them mingled together and I think that’s my perspective of how I see the relationship between faith and science,” Father Strzebonski said.

Science is propelled by questions, Father Strzebonski explained, and the main contention between faith and science lies in the other side’s unwillingness to ask questions.

“How many great scientists have we lost by insisting there’s a war between the two? It’s out of my faith that I believe science can work, and it’s out of my faith that I can justify doing science.”

“That fear of asking questions is what is creating the difficulty between the two, especially when it comes to [Christian] fundamentalists,” he explained. “It took a lot of time for the Church to realize that asking questions is not that bad.”

In questioning things – whether they be scientific theories or matters of dogma in the Church – people come to a greater understanding of how things work.

“With science, you’re not really changing the way the universe works, you’re gaining more of an understanding of it,” Father Strzebonski said. “It’s the same thing with the Church. We’re not changing things – faith is there, God is there – we’re just gaining more of an understanding of it. An understanding of God though faith, and an understanding of the universe through science.”

In a way, Father Strzebonski explained, both faith and science are chasing after the same end: truth.

“Both are seeking the truth. Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. When we are deepening our faith, we are getting closer to the truth,” he said. “The scientist, [too], is looking for the truth [about the universe].”

When it comes to questions of faith and science, Father Strzebonski said there should be no fear in not knowing the answers, but also to acknowledge that there are still many questions to which answers should be pursued.

“It’s very important to say there are questions that are not being answered in both faith and science,” he said. “It’s not a shameful thing not to know the answers, but I think it’s a shameful thing not to look for the answers.”

This story has been amended to correctly reference Brother Guy as a Jesuit brother.