Op-Ed

The myth of the eternal war between science and religion

For the last several years, starting long before I was appointed auxiliary bishop in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles, I've been posting short commentaries on YouTube. I've covered movies, music, books, cultural trends and more. But I've given special attention to New Atheism, a social and political movement that began in the early years of this century that promotes the view that religion should be actively countered. Among other videos, I've published three answers to Christopher Hitchens' book “God Is Not Great,” a brief presentation of some classical arguments for God's existence, and a rejoinder to Bill Maher's movie “Religulous.”

I've received countless responses to these videos, mostly negative. Setting aside the venomous and emotion-driven comments, I've been able to discern a few patterns.

Many respondents display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe. In reaction to my attempts to demonstrate that God must exist as the necessary precursor to the radically contingent universe, respondent after respondent says some version of this: Energy, or matter, or the Big Bang, is the ultimate cause of all things. When I counter that the Big Bang itself demonstrates that the universe in its totality is contingent and hence in need of a cause extraneous to itself, they think I'm just talking nonsense.

The obvious success of the physical sciences, evident in the technology that surrounds us and facilitates our lives in so many ways, has convinced many of our young people (the vast majority of those who watch YouTube are young) that anything outside the range of the empirical and measurable is simply a fantasy, the stuff of superstition. That there might be a dimension of reality knowable in a nonscientific but still rational manner never occurs to them. In their scientism, they are blind to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, mysticism and religion.

Another recurring theme on my YouTube forums is the disturbing assumption that science and Christianity are, by their natures, implacable enemies.

Again and again, my interlocutors resurrect the story of Galileo to prove that the church has always sided with obscurantism and naive biblical literalism over and against the sciences. The Catholic philosopher Robert Sokolowski has argued that the founding myth of modernity is that enlightened thought was born out of, and in opposition to, pre-scientific religion. And this is why, Sokolowski says, the conflict between religion and science must be perpetually rehearsed and revived, as a kind of ritual acting-out of the primal story.

But this myth is so much nonsense. Leaving aside the complexities of the Galileo story, we can see that the vast majority of the founding figures of modern science — Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Tycho Brahe — were devoutly religious. More to the point, two of the most important physicists of the 19th century — Faraday and Maxwell — were extremely pious, and the formulator of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaitre, was a priest.

If you want a contemporary embodiment of the coming together of science and religion, look to John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge particle physicist, Anglican priest and one of the best commentators on the noncompetitive interface between scientific and religious paths to truth.

As Polkinghorne and others have observed, the modern physical sciences were, in fact, made possible by the religious milieu out of which they emerged. It is no accident that modern science first appeared in Christian Europe, where a doctrine of creation held sway. To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science: namely, that the universe is not divine and that it is
intelligible.

If the world or nature were considered divine (as it is in many philosophies and mysticisms), then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it or perform experiments on it. But a created world, by definition, is other than God and, in that very otherness, open to inquiry.

Similarly, if the world were considered unintelligible, no science would get off the ground, because all science is based on the presumption that nature can be known. But the world, Christians agree, is thoroughly intelligible, and hence scientists have the confidence to seek, explore and experiment.

This is why thoughtful people — Christians and atheists alike — must battle the myth of the eternal warfare of science and religion. We must continually preach, as St. John Paul II did, that faith and reason are complementary and compatible paths toward the knowledge of truth.

Robert Barron is auxiliary bishop of the Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

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A version of this article appeared in print on November 12, 2015, in the Opinion section of the Los Angeles Times with the headline "I've had enough of `scientism'" — Today's paperToday's paper | Subscribe
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