What do we lose when we sacrifice science?

The Director of the Vatican Observatory visited Australia recently and kindly wrote this contribution for Aurora.


Modern science is the child of the scholastic tradition, nurtured in the Church’s medieval universities. The founders of modern science were almost all deeply religious, many of them priests or monks: the high Middle Ages featured Albert the Great, Robert Grosseteste, Roger Bacon, Jean Buridan, Nicholas Oremse, Nicholas of Cusa. 

Copernicus was a cleric and friend of the Church, Kepler and Newton were devout Protestants. Even Galileo himself remained a faithful Catholic (his two daughters were nuns). He wrote excellent theology and would have been appalled at anyone who would use science as an argument for atheism. Even during the trials that Galileo endured, surely the nadir of Church-Science relations, the Church’s chief theologian, Robert Bellarmine, admitted that if science should ever demonstrate a behaviour (like the motion of the Earth) contrary to a simple reading of the Bible, “one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them, than that what is demonstrated is false.” 

A brief survey of our oldest scientific journals, like the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London or the Comptes Rendus de l’Academie des Sciences of Paris, shows that many of the authors of scientific works through the Enlightenment and into the 19th century were clergymen. Unlike most people of their era, they had the education, free time, and inclination to pursue a study of nature. 

Religion tells us who created the universe. Science merely tells us how it was created. That principle is so self-evident, and so rooted in Christian tradition, that you have to wonder: why does a small but passionate minority so defiantly attack science even in the face of the firestorm of opposition they’ve incurred from the intellectual elite?

Certainly part of the problem is that they have a false picture of science, thinking that it consists merely of “facts” (to be memorised before the final exam) that claim to have been “proved” beyond question. Likewise, though, some scientists are equally ignorant of religion, thinking it consists of nothing but quotes from the Bible (to be memorized before the next Sunday school class) that can never admit to uncertainty. But faith is not inimical to doubt — if you didn’t have doubts, you wouldn’t need faith!  And if science already had all the answers, there’d be no reason to keep doing more science.

Much of this prejudice can be traced back to anti-Catholic popular writers of the 19th century who wanted to use the presumed certainties of science to mock a Church that they thought was wedded to a literal interpretation of scripture. But the more bitterly scientists argue against the fundamentalists, mocking their beliefs and insulting their intelligence, the more the fundamentalists are confirmed in seeing science as their enemy. 

A deeper issue today is a cultural one. The trash that fills our theatres and TV screens, and the daily horrors in the news, seem to reflect an out-of-control culture that has lost touch with basic, commonly held ideas of morality. To many people, this looks like a direct outgrowth of the godless materialism found in the deterministic science that flowered in the 19th century.

Astronomy, with its clockwork planetary motions, was once the symbol of godless mechanistic science. That was a naive view of nature, of course, as modern physics has shown. If anything, physics now appears to be more akin to some sort of mysticism, at least in the popular imagination. But biology — trying to describe a far more complex system than any set of planetary orbits — so far has had neither the degree of success that 19th century physics had in describing its phenomena, nor the humbling experience that 20th century physics had of reaching the limits of a purely mechanistic world-view. 

Precisely because it is still so incomplete, the study of life leaves itself open to the fallacy of the God of the Gaps. You might be tempted to believe in a God who supernaturally takes care of all the bits that biochemistry can’t explain (yet). Or you might hold a naive faith in deterministic physics, certain that it will always succeed in accounting perfectly for all the phenomena (eventually). 

A little more humility on the part of we scientists certainly couldn’t hurt. Can’t we learn from our past mistakes of arrogance? Biology needs the ethical foundation of religion if it is to avoid some future genetic-engineering Chernobyl. And if history is any guide, the time will come (though we know neither the day nor the hour, nor who’ll get the Nobel Prize for it) when molecular biology will run up against the limits of its current mechanistic world-view. Yet it’s only by pushing biology further and further that we will eventually find those limits. Research into Evolution will ultimately teach us more about how God acts in this world. 

But the fundamentalists must also confront the unpleasant possibility that their passion to suppress science is based ultimately on a lack of faith. To quote St John Paul II, writing about evolution, “truth cannot contradict truth”. If you believe in the truth of God, you will not fear what science discovers — nor mistake today’s science as the last and final truth. 

As we have seen, science is the child of the Church. Like Abraham offering to sacrifice his son Isaac, fundamentalists are willing to sacrifice this child — along with their intellectual reputations, their children’s education, the fruits of science to come — on the altar of their “faith.”  That desire to offer everything to God is admirable. But do they have the faith of Abraham to hear God’s reply? “Do not lay your hand upon the child.”

Br Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director, Vatican Observatory. You may like to visit the Vatican Observatory.

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Br Guy Consolmagno SJ Image
Br Guy Consolmagno SJ

Br Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director, Vatican Observatory. You may like to visit www.vaticanobservatory.va/content/specolavaticana/en.html

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