Q11: Can a scientist be a Catholic believer?

Throughout most of the history of science, the idea that a scientist could not also believe in God made no sense to most people in those countries where science was advancing. Most people believed in God (as most still do), and there was little conflict between belief in God and the work of doing science.  In the late 19th century two books appeared, one entitled History of the Conflict between Religion and Science by John William Draper, and the other the two volume History of the Warfare of Science with Theology by Andrew Dickson White. These books created a narrative that there were two warring camps in western society, science and religion, that were engaged in an existential battle. The controversy in the 1920’s over the teaching of evolution in schools in the United States seemed to confirm and even amplify this “warfare” paradigm, so that the notion that a scientist could be religious was suddenly seen as self-contradictory.  Recent studies document that this is largely a Western phenomenon that is puzzling to scientists in non-Western cultures. 

In fact, according to polls taken over the past century, the number of scientists who believe in some sort of higher power has hovered between 40-50%. And Catholic doctrine neither requires a literal interpretation of the Genesis story in the Bible nor a rejection of Darwinian evolution. Catholics work in many fields of science, both practicing lay Catholics and members of religious orders. The inventor of the Big Bang model for the origin of the universe was a Catholic priest --- Georges Lemaître --- who made many scientific contributions to cosmology and served prominently in the Vatican as prelate to the Papal Household. The Jesuits maintained one of the first comprehensive worldwide networks of seismometers, and its director in the first half of the twentieth century was a Jesuit priest --- James B. Macelwane,  who made many original contributions to the field, and was elected President of the American Geophysical Union --- the professional organization of geophysicists in the United States which posthumously established a medal in Macelwane’s honor. Jesuit priests and brothers have for more than a century conducted cutting edge research in astronomy through the Vatican observatory, and two of its directors have been awarded prizes by the US professional organizations of astronomers and planetary scientists. Dominican priests teach and do research in science at Catholic universities in the US and around the world. These are only a few examples of the harmony between science and the Catholic faith --- and by extension, faith in general. 

Today, the Society of Catholic Scientists, founded in 2016 to witness to the harmony of science and faith, counts 1250 scientists and students in science as its members. Indeed, rather than question whether a scientist can be a Catholic believer, one might instead wonder how a pure materialist can conduct science when a strictly materialistic point of view does not allow for the assurance that the human brain is capable of distinguishing truth from its own illusory perceptions. Einstein found the comprehensibility of the universe to be a great mystery, while Lemaître in contrast said “Both of them (the scientist-believer and the scientist-nonbeliever) attempt at decoding the palimpsest of nature …. The believer perhaps has an advantage of knowing that the riddle possesses a solution…that its degree of difficulty is presumably measurable with the present and future capacities of humanity.”

Resources for further study

The Conflict Model of Science and Religion:

Science and Religion. Lawrence Principe. The Great Courses, 2006. Lecture 2.

Faith, Science, and Reason: Theology on the Cutting Edge (2nd edition), Christopher T. Baglow (Midwest Theological Forum, 2019), Chapter 2.

“A Catholic History of the Fake Conflict Between Science and Religion,” Christopher T. Baglow, Church Life Journal, May 4, 2020, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/a-catholic-history-of-the-conflict-between-religion-and-science/

Fr. Georges Lemaître: 

“Faith and the Expanding Universe of Georges Lemaître,” Jonathan Lunine, Church Life Journal, April 4, 2019, https://churchlifejournal.nd.edu/articles/faith-and-the-expanding-universe-of-georges-lemaitre/

Non-Western views on Faith and Science

Eklund, E.H. et al. Secularity and Science: What Scientists Around the World Really Think About Religion. Oxford University Press 2019.

 


Other Questions