Being Reasonable About Faith and Science

The recent “Modern Science/Ancient Faith” conference explored the oft-misunderstood relationship between science and Catholicism

“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. Consequently, 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 of 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, par 159.

Portsmouth, RI
—Can faith exist in a world where science is demonstrating ever more details of creation and the evolution of human life? Is there a place for science among those who believe that the Book of Genesis is God’s inspired revelation?

Such questions anchored “Modern Science/Ancient Faith,” a conference sponsored by the Benedictine-run Portsmouth Institute, housed in Rhode Island’s Portsmouth Abbey School, on June 22-24. The event brought together some ninety scientists, theologians, philosophers, clergy, lay faithful, and skeptics—or some mix of the above—to explore the dialogue between the natural sciences and Christianity.

While few participants expressed difficulties with the coexistence of faith and reason, the how of this coexistence wasn’t always in agreement. Some demanded a decidedly scientific approach to questions of beginnings. Others championed a more literal understanding of Genesis. This made for polite but fiery discussions that began in the early summer’s heat of the Abbey’s grounds and now continue online.

After opening with Adoration and the Rosary, the first talk was a review of the Galileo affair by Rev. Dom Paschal Scotti, O.S.B. His presentation set an amicable tone for the conference by demonstrating Christianity’s affinity for the natural sciences. The priest made clear that the driving issue at play in Galileo’s run-in with the Church was not an inherent fear of science. Rather, most Catholic theologians and scientists working with Galileo fought with the astronomer to keep scientific observations in their proper arena.

And as in the modern debates about issues such as evolution or climate change, what further inflamed the Galileo saga were the nuances of human sin, politics, and egos. According to Fr. Paschal, relations between Galileo and the Church were complicated by issues such as tensions between the Dominican and Jesuit orders; secular pressures on Pope Urban VIII; Galileo’s often aggressive approach and sometimes sarcastic writings; and the effects of Protestantism’s demands for sola scriptura.

Fr. Paschal noted that, human failings notwithstanding, an incarnational faith by its nature intersects with the natural world and, thus, the sciences—and this may explain why Christianity was the fertile ground from which the natural sciences could take root.

 “The respected historian of science, Edward Grant … sees Christianity as supportive of science and the Christian Middles Ages as laying the foundations for the Scientific Revolution,” wrote Fr. Paschal. Later, the priest noted that the conference was an important one since there remains an unfortunate metaphor of “warfare” between Christianity and science by many outside of academic circles, most especially in the media.

Mindful that the faith-reason link remains a tough sell even within academic circles—especially among fundamentalist Christians and atheists—Dr. John F. Haught, Senior Fellow of Science & Religion at Georgetown University, offered a “dramatic” or “narrative” appreciation of how the universe is not idle, but remains in a formative, evolving state.

Haught said that we can better appreciate the meaning of creation, and better know our creator, by acknowledging that because the story of the universe is not complete, neither the natural or theological sciences can, on their own, truly explain “what it’s all about.” Haught made his points with references to traditions found in St. Augustine and St. Bonaventure. He also lamented “an often third-grade understanding of theology” held by both atheists and some who demand a literal reading of Sacred Scripture.

Florida State University’s Dr. Michael Ruse, a specialist in the history and philosophy of science, agreed that sound science is being impeded by animosity between the “new atheists,” such as the English scientist Richard Dawkins, and biblical fundamentalists. He also applauded the Catholic predisposition that holds faith and science in relation. A self-described “religious skeptic,” Ruse sought to foster a “middle way” to bring order to faith-reason debates.

Two other conference speakers—Brown University’s Dr. Kenneth Miller and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s Dr. William A. Dembski—demonstrated that such debates are very much alive.

Miller is a well-known defender of evolutionary science while Dembski defends Intelligent Design, which has been described by some as an exploration of a less “materialist” explanation for how humans came to exist than most evolutionists allow. Others see Intelligent Design as just another form of biblically literal creationism. Both Miller and Dembski have been on opposing sides of legal disputes between citizens and public school districts over how to teach the origins and development of life.

At the conference, Miller, a Catholic molecular biologist, gave an overview of findings from fossil records and genome studies that show adaptations and intermediary steps in the evolution of life. Miller also championed his faith’s allowance to let science be science—in particular quoting Pope Benedict XVI. Miller’s intent was not to minimize the place of God in the lives of believers, but to emphasize the role that reason in general, and scientific reason in particular, should play in the lives of the faithful.

When asked about the many questions that evolutionary sciences have not answered, Miller responded that “to say ‘nobody really knows’ is not the same as ‘we know nothing.’” Miller urged his fellow Catholics—and all religious believers—to not look for God in areas of science that have not yet been explained, because someday scientists may answer those questions, too.

Dembski, a mathematician and professor of philosophy, spoke in agreement with much of what evolutionary sciences have demonstrated. But he noted that in areas such as the development of life, its increasing complexity, and its self-awareness, science has much more to explain than it has—or can. Dembski made a critical distinction between matter and information and he asked if there is something “outside” of matter that is informing it, guiding the cosmos and life to develop as it has.

“If natural selection is the method that evolution uses, that’s fine,” Dembski said after his talk. “But where does the information needed for this process come from?”

Miller later said that Dembski was being “disingenuous” in stating acceptance of specific elements of evolution, such as natural selection, “and the record proves this.” He added that science has in fact demonstrated that life has an innate ability to “harvest” from its environment the information needed for adaptation. Miller said that he and Dembski “are oceans apart” in their views.

Dembski has since wrote in that “Miller devoted about twenty minutes of [his] talk to going after me personally, lifting dated (2005 and 2006) and out-of-context quotes from the blog and trying to discredit me with some outright fabrications.”

Perhaps the nature of such debates is why conference planners ended with Fr. Nicanor Pier Giorgio Austriaco, O.P., a professor of biology at Providence College. The Dominican priest showcased the long Catholic tradition that weds faith and reason and proposed ways to reconcile science with the Book of Genesis.

For Carmel Motherway of Wickford, RI, the conference helped her understand how faith and reason inform each other, and how faith must remain in society for the common good. “I’m old enough to remember the ‘love’ of the 1960s and the past few years we’ve tried ‘hope,’” Motherway said. “Maybe it’s time we focus more on faith—especially since faith and reason are not antithetical.”

The conference was the latest summer gathering by the Portsmouth Institute. The institute’s executive director Jamie MacGuire, a 1970 graduate of Portsmouth Abbey, hopes that the relaxed June conferences will make growing contributions to Catholic thought “in the spirit of the Benedictine tradition.”

MacGuire said that this year’s theme was proposed because the school will soon break ground on a replacement for its science center. “As an educational institution we truly seek to build our students faith while developing their love of reason,” he said. “This conference is really an example of who we are.”

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About William L. Patenaude 35 Articles
William L. Patenaude MA, KHS has a master's degree in theology and is an engineer and 33-year employee of the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management. His debut novel A Printer’s Choice, has been described as "a smart, suspenseful Catholic sci-fi novel, with a richly imagined fictional world."