Behind the current social and political conflict about religion and religious freedom lies the contention that Christianity is implausible. More is involved in this contention than appeal to science, but the belief that Christianity is incompatible with the modern scientific picture of the world is a crucial element. Stephen Barr — Professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy of the University of Delaware, Director of the Bartol Research Institute, President of the Society of Catholic Scientists, and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith (2003) — spoke at the Catholic Information Center on March 19 concerning the claimed conflict, and harmony that he sees, between Christianity and science.
Barr said that he found the question of whether he has difficulty reconciling science with his Catholic faith a “strange question,” because many of the “same things … that make me a Catholic make me a scientist.” These include “a sense of wonder at the world, a desire to understand the reasons for things, and a belief that everything holds together in some coherent way.” Barr said that science and religion are “both ways of making sense of the world, but that Catholic faith has a much broader scope.” Faith answers questions of “the ultimate cause of existence, and our ultimate destiny.” Barr claimed that there is “no scientific fact that contradicts any teaching of the Church.”
Nevertheless, many people take any magical practice or superstition as evidence of the irrationality of religion. Science is confused by many with scientific materialism. This philosophy says that materialism is a scientific discovery. In it, matter is the only reality, while God and the human soul do not exist. Materialists not only say that God doesn’t exist, but that “in a certain sense, you don’t exist.” This is expressed in the statement “you’re nothing but a pack of neurons.” Materialists see science as on a “saving mission” to free humanity from irrationality and religion. This is “a grand struggle between reason and its enemies.”
As part of this struggle, some have claimed that science and religion are in principle incompatible. Science looks to reason and evidence, while religion looks to dogma, faith, and mystery. The ultimate source of science is the observable world, while the ultimate source of religion is unobservable. Science then proceeds by natural law, while religion proceeds by miracle, myth, and magic. The example of Galileo is reinforced in the minds of scientific materialists by contemporary (principally) Evangelical creationists, Barr said.
Those suspicious of faith then claim that scientific discoveries have steadily discredited or destroyed religious claims. Newtonian physics showed that the universe functions by impersonal laws, not the natural affinity of things for their purpose, while the enormous size and age of the universe showed the insignificance of mankind.
Barr said that Christianity has never been based on superstition, if this is understood as a denial of natural law. The Book of Genesis is held by some scholars to be a polemic against a mythological world. The sun and the moon are referred to in such a way that it is clear that they are not gods, nor are gods to be found in nature, according to Genesis. Rather the sun and moon and other visible things are the creation of God. Nature is orderly and lawful, not principally governed by the whim of unseen spirits. Clement I of Rome (AD. 88-99) was cited as saying that the heavens move “in quiet submission” to God, while nature functions according to God’s laws. Barr said that the idea of God as a rational lawgiver very likely gave rise to the idea of natural law. By contrast, he quoted the atheist scientist Edward O. Wilson to say that for the ancient Chinese, there were no “thoughts in the mind of God,” so the Chinese did not speculate on a universal natural order.
The same lawgiver can make exceptions to the laws of nature. The early scientists who discovered the laws of modern science were Christians who believed in both natural law and miracles, Barr said. While modern scientists think that if there is a natural explanation, God is excluded, traditional Christianity holds that God is evidenced in the natural order.
Barr quoted the Wisdom of Solomon 13:1-5 as an example of the traditional Christian understanding of the relation of God and the world. It says the order and excellence of nature testifies to the excellence of God, its author. In traditional Christian theology, God is held to ordinarily act through nature, and one should look for natural explanations first. The Catholic Church looks for natural explanations before declaring a miracle, Barr pointed out. The fact that most things have natural causes does not mean that there is no God behind them. As an analogy, Barr gave an example from Shakespeare’s play Hamlet. Both Shakespeare and Hamlet caused the death of Polonius in the play Hamlet, but they are causes in different senses. Shakespeare is the cause outside of the play, the “vertical” cause; Hamlet is the cause within the play, the “horizontal” cause.
Creation and evolution are not alternative explanations of the world, Barr claimed. He said that for materialists, we know things either by directly observing them in nature or by inferring their existence in nature from things observed. God, on the other hand, is not directly observable, nor a cause within nature. Nature gives evidence of God as a play’s author gives evidence of their being an author.
Barr said that the “conflict thesis” about science and religion arose in the nineteenth century. It is a projection of a modern conflict onto the past. Early modern scientists were also active in Christian churches. Barr noted that Copernicus was an official in the Catholic Church, the astronomer Johannes Kepler a devout Lutheran, Galileo a devout Catholic until his death, Rene Descartes as well Catholic until death, the mathematician Blaise Pascal a mystic, the chemist Robert Boyle “wanted to convert infidels,” and Isaac Newton spent as much time in the Bible and theology as in science. Barr identified “the two greatest physicists of the nineteenth century” as James Clark Maxwell and Michael Faraday, pointing out that they were “devout Protestants, even by the higher standards of those days.”
In medieval universities, Barr observed, science was first institutionalized, taught generation after generation. A large number of Catholic priests made major discoveries over the centuries, including especially Georges LeMaitre, the proposer of the Big Bang theory.
Many major 20th century discoveries have supported Christian faith, Barr said. In the twentieth century, the universe was discovered to have had a beginning. All ancient Greek philosophers favored an eternally old universe, and modern skeptics did as well, pointing to the scientific developments of the early modern period to the close of the nineteenth century. But the expanding universe discovered in the twentieth century pointed to a beginning of the universe in time. Pope Pius XII considered the Big Bang to be a very important scientific discovery, Barr said. Another discovery of the twentieth century he identified that supports Christian faith is the “anthropic coincidences” (or “fine tuning of the universe”) which involves the exactly balanced constants of nature which are necessary for a universe in which life is possible. Many scientists “fought tooth and nail” against the Big Bang until about twenty years ago, Barr said, but it is now generally admitted.
Barr noted that the Big Bang may or may not have been the beginning of the universe. The alternative is the idea of a multiverse. As Barr described it, it is a physical reality in which some constants of nature are not everywhere the same, although they are the same in its known portion. Barr said that while many religious believers consider the multiverse to be an obvious attempt to avoid the need for God in science, in fact most physicists, including most atheist physicists, hate the multiverse theory. It is not testable, he said.
Barr said that we are now becoming aware of “how profound and sophisticated the laws of nature are.” Kepler’s laws of planetary motion “are based on deeper, underlying laws.” Specifically, they are based on Newton’s laws of gravity and mechanics, for which one must know calculus. Newton’s law of gravity in turn is based on Albert Einstein’s theory of gravity, which requires curved space-time. Einstein’s theory is commonly believed to be “based on something deeper.” Superstring theory, which is even more comprehensive, is thought perhaps to be the ultimate scientific theory.
Barr concluded by saying that physicist Stephen Hawking has proposed that quantum fluctuations started the universe rather than God. But the problem with this, Barr said – as Hawking has pointed out – is that mere mathematics will not generate the universe. Something is needed to “breath fire” into the equations. God is needed to confer reality on the world.