Faith and science are deeply complementary

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"Big Bang Theory lends its name to a television comedy about a virtuosic physicist who cannot be bothered by religious irrationality..."

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Tuesdays with Thomas

The Big Bang theory, besides being the widely accepted model for the beginning of the universe and deeply informing the scientific fields of astronomy and physics, has taken on a certain cultural significance as well. Along with Darwin’s theory of evolution via natural selection, the Big Bang theory epitomizes the stunning capacity of scientific inquiry to penetrate the veil of billions of years of prehistory to explain our collective origins. This sentiment, however, has a much less attractive corollary; that because creation stories have been the province of religion for millennia, these objective accounts must represent the triumph of human reason over mysticism and faith.

So it is that the Big Bang theory lends its name to a television comedy about a virtuosic physicist who cannot be bothered by religious irrationality, and that a redundant and lopsided debate between popular scientist Bill Nye and young-earth creationist Ken Ham was presented and received as a definitive battle between science and Christianity. Alongside this contrived conflict, there exists a popular perception that religious establishments have long used their power to restrict scientific progress and persecute innovative thinkers at every turn. In a 2009 episode of Family Guy—back when the show was still popularly regarded as a smart comedy rather than obnoxious trash—two characters visit an alternative universe where Christianity never existed and find that here “the dark ages of scientific repression never occurred and humanity is a thousand years more advanced.” The existence of an age-old conflict between science and Western religion is taken more or less for granted in popular culture. It is remarkable that such a willfully ignorant consensus has managed to persist.

The existence of an age-old conflict between science and Western religion is taken more or less for granted in popular culture. It is remarkable that such a willfully ignorant consensus has managed to persist.”

— Thomas Toghramadjian

A history lesson may come as a surprise to those who see scientific progress as casting aside superstitious theistic creation narratives. Far from resisting scientific advancement, the Western Christian tradition has made innumerable contributions to the world’s scientific understanding. The theory that the universe had a clear beginning in space and in time, for example, was first propounded in the early 1930s by Father George Lemaitre, a Belgian mathematician and Catholic priest. By analyzing the observed “red shift” in wavelength from faraway stars, Lemaitre concluded that they must be accelerating outwards from a single initial point. His conclusions came in direct conflict with the orthodoxy of his time, firmly held by everybody from Albert Einstein down, which held that the universe perpetually existed in a stable state. The idea of a “day without yesterday,” as Lemaitre put it, was repugnant to many of his contemporaries, largely because it implied creation. The term “Big Bang,” in fact, was first used contemptuously by atheist physicist and steady-state proponent Fred Hoyle to describe Lemaitre’s theory. Secularism didn’t drag religion kicking and screaming towards the Big Bang—if anything, it happened the other way around.

Neither were Darwin’s theories remotely difficult for the Church to stomach. The fundamentalist creationist movement, which made its first stand against the teaching of evolution in public schools at the 1925 Scopes Trial, is merely a 20th Century phenomenon of American Evangelicalism. But St. Augustine, whose writings are deeply influential for Catholic and even Protestant doctrines, concluded as early as 408 A.D. that the seven days in Genesis referred not to literal days but rather indefinite periods of time. And it was another Catholic clergyman, Augustinian monk Gregor Mendel, who discovered and explained the genetic laws of heredity that provide the mechanism for natural selection.

Even during the Middle Ages, a period inexplicably notorious for persecution of scientists, the Church provided a venue for scientific inquiry and discovery in Europe. Various Catholic orders funded the continent’s only research universities, and preserved the classical philosophy that gave rise to the Renaissance in their monasteries. This was not an incidental consequence of the Church’s vast influence—its theology provided a motive for abstract scientific investigation which had no other imminent purpose. Dr. James Hannam, a historian and author who holds a PhD from Cambridge University, explains:

“It was only during the nineteenth century that science began to have any practical applications… Before then, the only reason to study science was curiosity or religious piety. Christians believed that God created the universe and ordained the laws of nature. To study the natural world was to admire the work of God.”

Besides the apocryphal instance of Galileo’s trial, which has been greatly exaggerated (The dispute about heliocentrism was scientific rather than doctrinal, and Galileo was never tortured, practically incarcerated, or banned from further experimentation) the Church was overwhelmingly a catalyst, not an impediment, for progress during the Middle Ages.

Amid all of the contrived controversy between religion and science, a few hopeful mediators point out that the two are not mutually exclusive, and that there is common ground to be found. But even these individuals understate their case. Western religion and science have not only room for compromise, but centuries of close interdependence behind them. To be sure, theology and biology are very different fields. But there is no reason why anybody should think that the two greatest sources of human understanding, our answers to the questions “why?” and “how?” are, or ever have been, fundamentally at odds.

 

TUESDAYS WITH THOMAS is published weekly.  Columnist Thomas Toghramadjian engages readers in topics ranging from politics to literature to science.

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