“Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism – it’s turning God into a nature god.” — Guy Consolmagno, S.J.
Today is the Feast of St. Dominic who, along with St. Albert the Great, are the patron Saints of scientists. In honor of this Feast Day, I am going to again use this opportunity to celebrate the symbiotic relationship between faith and science. Unfortunately, it is a common perception that there is a conflict between science and religion. Part of the reason for that is the poor state of knowledge of both science and theology in the modern world. One of the purposes of this blog is to promote the mutually reinforcing methods of finding ultimate Truths through faith and science.
Religion in general and Christianity in particular has long been supportive of science, from the beginnings of the modern scientific method in the Middle Ages to the scientific advancements of the last 100 years. Set forth below are selective examples of leading scientists who were either clerics or devout lay Christians over the centuries:
Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543). A brilliant man and a Catholic monk, Copernicus held important positions in both secular and ecclesiastical government, all the while writing voluminously. A sophisticated economic thinker, Copernicus was the first to propose that increases in the money supply have a tendency to drive price inflation. But what he is remembered for today is his heliocentric theory of the solar system. Through patient observation and calculation, Copernicus displaced the earth from the center of things, reorienting the way we view everything and thereby ushering in the modern world.
Johannes Kepler (1571-1630). Kepler was a brilliant mathematician and astronomer. He did early work on light, and established the laws of planetary motion about the sun. He also came close to reaching the Newtonian concept of universal gravity – well before Newton was born! His introduction of the idea of force in astronomy changed it radically in a modern direction. Kepler was an extremely sincere and pious Lutheran, whose works on astronomy contain writings about how space and the heavenly bodies represent the Trinity.
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662). Pascal was a Catholic French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer and theologian. In mathematics, he published a treatise on the subject of projective geometry and established the foundation for probability theory. Pascal invented a mechanical calculator, and established the principles of vacuums and the pressure of air. Pascal also published several theological works beginning with Lettres provinciales, in 1656. His most influential theological work, the Pensées (“Thoughts”), was a defense of Christianity, which was published after his death. The most famous concept from Pensées was Pascal’s Wager. Pascal’s last words were reported to be “May God never abandon me.”
Robert Boyle (1627-1691). Boyle gave his name to “Boyle’s Law” for gases, and is regarded as the father of modern chemistry. As a devout Christian, Boyle took a special interest in promoting the Christian religion abroad, giving money to translate and publish the New Testament into Irish and Turkish. In 1690 he developed his theological views in The Christian Virtuoso, which he wrote to show that the study of nature was a central religious duty.” Boyle wrote against atheists in his day (the notion that atheism is a modern invention is a myth), and was clearly much more devoutly Christian than the average in his era.
Michael Faraday (1791-1867). Michael Faraday was the son of a blacksmith who became one of the greatest scientists of the 19th century. His work on electricity and magnetism not only revolutionized physics, but led to much of our lifestyles today, which depends on them (including computers and telephone lines and, so, web sites). Faraday was a devout Christian which significantly influenced him and strongly affected the way in which he approached and interpreted nature.
Gregor Mendel (1822-1884). Mendel was an Augustinian monk and professor of natural philosophy and eventually became the abbot of his monastery. And today he is recalled for his path-breaking studies of pea plants which showed the existence of recessive and dominant genes, an essential cornerstone of modern genetics.
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J. (1881-1955). My personal favorite. Teilhard de Chardin was a Jesuit priest, paleontologist and geologist from the early 20th century. Teilhard de Chardin’s primary field of study was human evolution. Teilhard de Chardin was a leader of the team that discovered the Peking Man, now known as Homo Erectus, in 1929. Teilhard worked hard to integrate his scientific findings into a broad vision of Christianity. Although Teilhard had some disagreements with the Church during his lifetime on the theological implications of evolution, the Church fully supported and encouraged Teilhard’s scientific research and publications. Today, Teilhard’s core ideas on the marriage of evolution (both cosmic and biological) and theological evolution (all of natural and spiritual creation is evolving towards a deeper union with God) is accepted as part of mainstream Christian theology.
Georges Lemaître (1894-1966). Known as the “father of the big bang,” Lemaître was a Belgian priest who first developed the theory of that the Universe originated in an instant flash now known as the Big Bang. Fr. Lemaître did his graduate work in theoretical physics at Cambridge University and Harvard. In 1927, while still a junior lecturer at the Catholic University of Louvain, he proposed an expansionary theory of the universe at odds with the then-prevailing belief that the universe had always existed in a steady state. Four years later, in 1931, he asserted that the entire universe began with what he called a “cosmic egg” or “primeval atom”. This theory was ridiculed by leading scientists of the time such as Albert Einstein and Sir Fred Hoyle (the latter derisively dismissed Lemaître’s theory as “the big bang”). Later that same year, Fr. Lemaître argued that not only was the universe expanding, its expansion was accelerating in speed. While it has taken decades, Lemaître’s theories have been confirmed in every major particular.
John Polkinghorne (1930 – Present). Dr. Polkinghorne is an English theoretical physicist, theologian, writer, and Anglican priest. He was professor of Mathematical physics at the University of Cambridge from 1968 to 1979, when he resigned his chair to study for the priesthood, becoming an ordained Anglican priest in 1982. He served as the president of Queens’ College, Cambridge from 1988 until 1996. Polkinghorne is the author of five books on physics, and 26 on the relationship between science and religion; his publications include The Quantum World (1989), Quantum Physics and Theology: An Unexpected Kinship (2005), Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion (2007), and Questions of Truth (2009).
Francis Collins (1950 – Present). Dr. Collins is an American physician-geneticist noted for his discoveries of disease genes and his leadership of the Human Genome Project (HGP). Collins led one of the groups to first sequence the human genome. He currently serves as Director of the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Prior to being appointed Director, he was the founder and president of the BioLogos Foundation, an organization which promotes discourse on the relationship between science and religion and advocates the perspective that belief in Christianity can be reconciled with acceptance of evolution and science. Collins also wrote the New York Times bestseller, The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief, which discusses Collins’ conversion from atheism to Christianity, evaluates the evidence for Christianity, and argues for theistic evolution. In 2009, Pope Benedict XVI appointed Collins to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.
Guy Consolmagno, S.J. (1952 – Present). Fr. Guy Consolmagno is an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory, where he also serves as curator of the Vatican Meteorite collection, positions he has held since then. In addition to his continuing professional work in planetary science, he has also studied philosophy and theology. His research is centered on the connections between meteorites and asteroids, and the origin and evolution of small bodies in the solar system. In addition to over 40 reviewed scientific papers, he has co-authored several books on astronomy for the popular market, which have been translated into multiple languages. An asteroid was named in his honor by the International Astronomical Union, IAU in 2000: 4597 Consolmagno, also known as “Little Guy”. In July 2014 he was awarded the Carl Sagan Medal for outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist to the general public by the American Astronomical Society. Consolmagno believes in the need for science and religion to work alongside one another rather than as competing ideologies.
Set forth below are additional resources on the intersection of faith and science:
Magis Center for Reason and Faith
The Catholic Laboratory
God and Science
Stacy Trasancos Blog
God of Evolution
Quantum Theology Blog
Wikipedia List of Christian Thinkers in Science
Wikipedia List of Jesuit Scientists
Wikipedia List of Quaker Scientists