Many Christians doubt their faith, as this writer once did, or abandon it altogether due to clashes between religious tenets and scientific findings. What often happens, though, is not so much that faith is hogwash, but that the faithful’s spiritual knowledge has not kept pace with the increasing sophistication of their secular learning.
Countless believers never go beyond Sunday school in their religious knowledge, and many others have no religion classes in college, just when their secular studies soar to university heights. So when that worldly knowledge seems to contradict religious beliefs, the latter lose almost by default, seeming primitive or superstitious.
Elevating the level of Christian knowledge is one objective in devoting some Republic Service columns to religion, like this article on faith and science. And as a further service to fellow believers whose beliefs are made seemingly untenable by modern ideas, please feel free to raise such issues with this writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
How do we know what we know?
In the mind of many, if not most people, the battle between faith and science is no contest. For those who hold fast to religious dogma, scientific facts pose no threat to its veracity. On the other hand, those who subject all assertions to the test of empirical proof, refuse to believe without seeing and testing. For both these camps, the other side poses no competition to their own views.
For this writer, the faith-science face-off is no contest, too. The two do not, in fact, contradict each other in many basic assertions. Rather, they offer different ways of understanding reality and finding truth.
Take the Resurrection. At Easter Masses last Sunday, most Christians renewed their baptismal vows, including their belief in one Supreme Being with three Persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the human life and death of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; and the resurrection of the dead in soul and body, beginning with Christ’s rising.
Scientists and atheists (they’re not one and the same, by the way) argue that such Catholic tenets cannot be proven empirically. Regarding resurrection, no dead person has been ever been scientifically proven to have come back to life in body and soul. Hence, its detractors insist, resurrection can’t happen.
Now the Church agrees that there is no absolutely conclusive scientific or historical proof for its paramount doctrines, from the Blessed Trinity to the resurrection of the body. Indeed, it is a fundamental attribute of God that He and His actions are beyond the finite grasp of human knowledge. No contest with science there.
Where religion and empiricism differ is over the assertion that what can’t be scientifically proven isn’t true. On the contrary, the Church admonishes that there are truths that can only be apprehended by faith. In sum, faith and science are two ways of knowing, and while the faithful may accept scientific knowledge, scientists make it their business to subject beliefs to empirical verification, rejecting what can’t be so proven.
Yet even here, there isn’t total disagreement. Leading scientists admit that many indisputable facts, such as miraculous cures, can’t be medically explained (that’s why they’re miracles). Or experts assert that scientific explanations have yet to be found for these amazing occurrences — something the Church would not reject outright.
In the beginning was reason
One more key point: Both religion and science are conceptualizations by the human mind, based on events, creatures and conditions encountered by people, including material evidence and measurements. Like the Blessed Trinity, gravity is a concept.
And such ideas are accepted or rejected based on how useful they are in figuring out and dealing with the world. For centuries, the idea of a flat earth made sense, until it was debunked when Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition returned to Spain even if it kept sailing westward.
The Vatican has also recast doctrines in light of scientific discoveries. A staunch defender of orthodox Catholicism, then-Pope Benedict XVI convened yearly conferences on creation and evolution. The latter, he acknowledged, was a useful theory. But like the Book of Genesis, the German theologian asserted that a Supreme Being laid out the universe in all its exuberant complexity and mathematical order.
Reason, Benedict said in a 2011 Easter address, “is there at the beginning: creative, divine reason.” Hence, while the Church may accept the Big Bang and evolution, it takes issue with those who insist that the universe and life came about with no divine intelligence directing their emergence and development.
And given the intricate rational order which science has discovered in all corners of the cosmos, the Christian view may sound more reasonable than the opposing belief that all the world’s complexity is just a product of chance.
Is it alive?
Another no-contest issue is the soul. Catholic doctrine holds that the fertilized ovum is already endowed with a soul. Thus, the unborn should be accorded the full dignity and rights of a human being from the moment of conception.
Many scientists and family planning advocates counter that conception isn’t the beginning of a new human being, since a fertilized egg cannot survive unless it is implanted in the womb.
Now the Church agrees that the fertilized egg cannot live without implantation. No dispute there. And science has never said that the ovum has no soul. Indeed, it has no views on the matter, since the soul’s existence cannot be proven by scientific methods.
So where’s the contest?
One thing both sides agree on is that after a spermatozoa fertilizes an ovum, a new individual exists with its own unique set of genes. That’s why it’s called conception: a new entity is conceived. The big question: Does he, she or it have a right to implant and continue developing?
Those who say no should perhaps check if it is circular reasoning to say that the ovum can morally be denied the uterine implantation it needs to be viable, because without that process it is not viable. Put simply: A is not viable without B; hence, it is not entitled to B.
It may be dangerous reasoning, too. Like the just-conceived unborn, a newborn infant, the destitute sick with killer diseases, and old people unable to feed themselves, among other helpless souls, are also unable to stay alive without help from others.
Does that make them unviable, too, by the IUD proponents’ argument, and therefore they can be rightfully denied what they need to live?
Plainly, in the controversies involving faith and science, neither has a monopoly on dubious reasoning.