Yesterday’s Los Angeles Times has an op-ed by Robert Barron called “The myth of the eternal war between science and religion.” Barron happens to be the Auxilary Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Los Angeles, and is somewhat of a religious media star, with a YouTube channel, his own ministry (Word on Fire), and lots of books and articles to his name.
In the op-ed, he not only uses familiar and erroneous arguments to argue for the harmony of science and religion, but also takes the opportunity to decry “scientism,” a pejorative word that, to Barron, means the erroneous idea that only science can tell us what’s real.
Here are his arguments (his text indented):
Science fails because it can’t tell us what the ultimate cause is. The universe is “contingent,” and that contingency proves God:
Many respondents [to Barron’s YouTube attacks on New Atheism] display what I call “scientism,” the philosophical assumption that the real is reducible to what the empirical sciences can verify or describe. In reaction to my attempts to demonstrate that God must exist as the necessary precursor to the radically contingent universe, respondent after respondent says some version of this: Energy, or matter, or the Big Bang, is the ultimate cause of all things. When I counter that the Big Bang itself demonstrates that the universe in its totality is contingent and hence in need of a cause extraneous to itself, they think I’m just talking nonsense.
The answer is obvious: why isn’t God contingent: in need of a cause extraneous to Himself? The theologians wriggle out of that one by saying that God is the Cause that Doesn’t Need Its Own Cause. But that’s bogus, for why doesn’t the “universe”, or the system of multiverses (if we have one), comprise something that doesn’t need its own cause? I’m always baffled at the argument that when you get to God, you can stop asking about causes. The “Uncaused Cause” argument (or the “Uncontingent Cause”) is simply silly—it’s wordplay. But that’s the nature of Sophisticated Theology™.
There are Other Ways of Knowing
That there might be a dimension of reality knowable in a nonscientific but still rational manner never occurs to them. In their scientism, they are blind to literature, philosophy, metaphysics, mysticism and religion.
Note that he refers to “dimensions of reality” rather than “truths about the universe”. Well, yes, emotions and feelings and revelations can be seen as “dimensions of reality,” but they don’t tell us what’s real except that somebody feels something. And although I have great respect for literature and philosophy (but not for metaphysics, mysticism, and religion), those disciplines can’t tell us what is true about our cosmos. I still have not come across a truth about the Universe discernible from literature or art alone that cannot ultimately be traced to science—broadly construed as a combination of empirical observation, testing, doubt, rationality, and replication.
Science and religion are harmonious because there were (and are) religious scientists.
Leaving aside the complexities of the Galileo story, we can see that the vast majority of the founding figures of modern science — Copernicus, Newton, Kepler, Descartes, Pascal, Tycho Brahe — were devoutly religious. More to the point, two of the most important physicists of the 19th century — Faraday and Maxwell — were extremely pious, and the formulator of the Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaitre, was a priest.
If you want a contemporary embodiment of the coming together of science and religion, look to John Polkinghorne, a Cambridge particle physicist, Anglican priest and one of the best commentators on the noncompetitive interface between scientific and religious paths to truth.
I’ve discussed this in Faith versus Fact, and won’t belabor the issue except to say 1) back in the old days, everyone was religous, and 2) the fact that humans can hold in their heads two conflicting and incompatible ways to discern “truth” does not prove that those ways are compatible.
Science was made possible by Christianity.
As Polkinghorne and others have observed, the modern physical sciences were, in fact, made possible by the religious milieu out of which they emerged. It is no accident that modern science first appeared in Christian Europe, where a doctrine of creation held sway. To hold that the world is created is to accept, simultaneously, the two assumptions required for science: namely, that the universe is not divine [JAC: what he means is that God is divine but the universe, as God’s physical creation, is not itself divine] and that it is intelligible.
If the world or nature were considered divine (as it is in many philosophies and mysticisms), then one would never allow oneself to analyze it, dissect it or perform experiments on it. But a created world, by definition, is other than God and, in that very otherness, open to inquiry.
Similarly, if the world were considered unintelligible, no science would get off the ground, because all science is based on the presumption that nature can be known. But the world, Christians agree, is thoroughly intelligible, and hence scientists have the confidence to seek, explore and experiment.
Bogus again. Modern science could be said to have started with the ancient Greeks, but also began in the Middle East and in China. The fact that it proliferated in Europe may have little or nothing to do with Christianity which, after all, denigrated and suppressed the use of reason during the Dark Ages. Science is not a product of Christianity, but of the Enlightenment values of reason and inquiry, and perhaps also of certain developments in Europe like the printing press, things had nothing to do with Christianity. Besides, the claim that the universe is intelligible because God made it does not follow. God could easily have made an unintelligible universe. We discovered that the universe was intelligible by following our secular noses and finding it so, not because we knew it in advance because God made it.
Christians didn’t agree in advance that the world was “thoroughly intelligible” because God made it. Perhaps a few scientists like Newton thought that, but think of the number of puzzling phenomena once ascribed to God but understood understood by secular scientists: epilepsy, lightning, mental illness, the “design” of plants and animals, the Big Bang, and so on. Religion was not a promoter of scientific understanding, but often an impediment. By putting God in as a gap-filler (which religion still does with things like consciousness and morality), it prevents the very understanding touted by Barron.
Here’s Barron’s ringing finish:
This is why thoughtful people — Christians and atheists alike — must battle the myth of the eternal warfare of science and religion. We must continually preach, as St. John Paul II did, that faith and reason are complementary and compatible paths toward the knowledge of truth.
It is the notion that “faith and reason are complementary” that is the very reason why science and religion are incompatible! Science, which incorporates reason and observation, is the only way to find out what is true. Faith is, and must be, a complete failure at finding out what is true, for it abjures evidence in favor of revelation, authority, and ancient scripture. The failure of faith to find truth is definitively shown by the fact that all the diverse religions of the world, using faith, haven’t settled on a consistent notion of God. Is there no God, one God, or many? Is he a theistic or Deistic God? Is there a Trinity? Was Jesus the Messiah, belief in whom is essential for attaining salvation? Is there a Heaven or a Hell? Are gays damned? Can women be priests? All these—and much more—are questions that have been hanging for centuries, impossible to resolve through faith.
In contrast, there’s only one brand of science, and that science has led to enormous progress in understanding the universe over the past five centuries. Faith and reason complimentary? Balderdash! When theologians tell me some real truths about the universe (and not just moral strictures) that faith has produced, then I’ll listen to them.
h/t: Janet D.