The John Templeton Foundation has just made a multi-million dollar grant to the Lumen Christi Institute in order to foster discussion about the relation between science and religion at some of the top universities in America, including the University of Chicago, University of Southern California, University of Pennsylvania, Cornell and Harvard, among others. While Lumen Christi is a Catholic institute, the impact of this grant program will, one can hope, be felt across religious denominations and academic disciplines.
Michael Le Chevallier, executive director of Lumen Christi, said, “Unfortunately, today, Catholics have inculturated some of the worst divisions between science and Christian faith into our own mental worldview in America.” And further, “You have a number of young adults who identify that modern science and the Catholic church are in conflict — often resulting in leaving the church” (quoted in Religious News Service, March 28).
Of course, in some strains of fundamentalist Protestantism in America, the anti-science position is just as strong or stronger: rejection of the role of evolution in life forms; rejection of vaccines; holding to young Earth creationism that the Earth is only 6,000 to 10,000 years old, etc., etc. Here in the Northeast, it may be hard to believe that millions of Americans hold these absurd positions but, if you travel across the country and into the South, you will see it with your own eyes.
There may well be plenty of reasons for leaving the Catholic Church, but the church’s rejection of contemporary science is not one of them. In 1992, Pope John Paul II even made a public apology on behalf of the church for the trial of Galileo 350 years before. The church got that one wrong. But on the other hand, the founder of the Copernican system of the solar system was Nicolaus Copernicus, canon of Frombork Cathedral in Poland. The founder of modern genetics, Gregor Mendel, was an Augustinian friar. The creator of the widely accepted Big Bang theory for the origin of the universe was George Lemaitre, a Catholic priest and professor of physics at the Catholic University of Louvan in Belgium. The list could go on.
Among Protestants, Sir Isaac Newton was a deeply religious man and wrote several religious works. In our own day here in the United States, the leader of the international project that first mapped the entire human genome, Dr. Francis S. Collins, is a religious man and wrote a book about his work titled “The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief” (2007). The book by Collins is one of the most interesting sources on this general topic because he is dealing with the implications of the discovery and unraveling of the language system employed in DNA.
It is a supreme irony that the field of biology, which caused the most famous challenge to Christian religion (Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection), has, by the 21st century, provided some of the most convincing evidence for the mind and hand and language of God being present in the world. This very evidence caused one of England’s most famous atheist philosophers, Anthony Flew, to reverse his position and publish his now famous book “There is a God: How the World’s most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind” (HarperOne, 2007).
It is not only the mind-boggling complexity of life forms from single-cell organisms to ourselves that changed Flew’s mind, it is also the mind-boggling complexity of the language code and messages that operate via DNA. This is a language/coding system that is way beyond what we have been able to achieve in our modern computer technology. Complex codes don’t come into existence by accident.
Even more persuasive for the existence of God/Creator/Initial Cause is the fact the language coding system has to exist before the life forms themselves, before the code makes its appearance, fully functional, in even one cell. The complexity of the genetic code and the amount of data present in even one cell is huge — in higher life forms, it is astronomical. Where does this pre-existing and non-material language system and data come from? This is the big question.
The Bible is not a book of science; however, the opening of the Gospel of John relates to the above question: “In the beginning was the Word (Logos), and the Word (Logos) was with God, and the Word (Logos) was God.” The Greek word used in this text is Logos, which means (then and now) “word, speech, language, reason, logic, proportion.” At least since the writings of Augustine (354-430), Christian thinkers have taken this passage to mean, by implication, the Divine Logos can be discerned in/behind all the created world. This, in a nutshell, was the impetus for the Western scientific tradition. It was this belief that there was reason and logic and Logos underpinning the world that caused Western Christendom to give birth to modern science. Those cultures that didn’t think the Logos was there, didn’t look for it and didn’t find it.
Another point: yes, evolution happens for sure, but why and how does it happen? Can the process all be explained merely by random mutation and accidental interactions/adaptations to the environment? I know a tiny bit about the calculation of probabilities, and to claim that randomness and accidents can end up constructing a human being is like claiming that a tornado could construct a Boeing 747 from a junk yard. It isn’t going to happen, no matter how many millions of years you allow for it to happen.
A similar point can be made when asking about the laws of physics and cosmology. We now know the laws of physics, at both the cosmic level and the subatomic level, had to be in existence before the Big Bang of 13.7 billion years ago. “Big Bang” is actually a misleading misnomer. It wasn’t an explosion that sent stuff all over the place in a disordered, chaotic event of destruction. It was the exact opposite. It was a highly rapid “inflation” from a point of infinite density, which placed everything in motion in a highly ordered, carefully calculated way. If things and energies and ratios were ever so slightly different, the universe would not have gone on or would not have gone on in a way that has led to complex, self-conscious life forms that can observe it.
It seems to me the universe is a very special place, and we have a very special place in it — we can observe it and admire its construction. While residing in it, we can also love and help each other — we can also do the opposite, because we have free will. (There might also be other conscious beings throughout the universe in other places doing the same thing.) The purpose underpinning the universe might very well be to create consciousness — to create beings that can be self conscious and also be Creator conscious.
To believe that mere chance could have created us and our universe requires an act of faith far beyond my meager capabilities. Furthermore, modern science points over and over again to a Logos underlying physics and biology. I have no patience whatever for Biblical literalists and young-Earthers and anti-science folks. I also have no patience for those who preach and teach that “science has replaced religion” or “science is incompatible with religion.”
Not only is Christianity compatible with science, Christianity gave birth to modern science. And for those who are paying attention, the most recent advances in molecular genetics, physics and cosmology all point to “in the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.”
It takes a huge amount of faith to be an atheist — faith in the efficacy of random, blind chance. There is a more reasonable faith, the kind of faith shown by Einstein when he said, “God doesn’t throw dice.”
John Nassivera is a former professor who retains affiliation with Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities. He lives in Vermont and part time in Mexico.