Religion in a Culture of Science, Skepticism, and Do-It-Yourself Spirituality
Science and the ultimate questions
First, has science rendered religion irrelevant? It did seem so with the materialistic and mechanistic science predominant at the beginning of the twentieth century. Science portrayed the physical world as nothing but matter and energy interacting, according to deterministic laws of cause and effect, like a well-oiled machine. The world machine explained itself and seemed assured that as science continued to advance, religion would give way to a naturalistic, materialistic worldview. However, with the quantum revolution in physics and the genetic revolution in biology, science itself moved away from that mechanistic and materialistic model. Instead of mere matter and energy, scientists in many fields now speak of nature as matter, energy, and information. The more science has advanced, the more it has discovered patterns of mathematical symmetry and order in nature.
In physicist Stephen Barr’s book Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, he argues that modern advances in physics, rather than confirming a materialistic worldview, have suggested a view of reality more congruent with the ancient worldview of religion: a universe with a beginning, special and uniquely fine-tuned characteristics that make it hospitable to life, and capabilities of human thought to transcend and reach beyond matter.
Within the life sciences, geneticist Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome project, in his work The Language of God, claims that his study of the genetic code strengthened his faith in a divine Creator.
Neither scientist rejects modern scientific accounts of the origin of the universe and the evolution of life on this planet, but both claim science points toward God as the ultimate Source of the complexity and order they discover within nature.
As science advances, it asks increasingly complex questions about the universe, eventually arriving at questions scientific methods are incapable of answering. In his history of the big bang theory of the origin of the universe, astronomer Robert Jastrow describes scientists as slowly climbing the mountain of knowledge, following the evidence that leads them step by step to the very beginning of the universe—only to arrive at the top of the mountain and find theologians already there with answers to their questions. With its amazing capabilities to answer questions of “What?” and “How?” science does not contain within itself the means to answer ultimate questions of “Why?” Why is there a universe? What is its meaning and purpose? Those questions remain relevant, and we must turn from science to religion to find answers.
Scientific advances in genetic engineering, embryonic stem-cell research, and human/animal hybridization, to name a few, raise profound ethical questions science cannot answer. What is the value of the human person? What distinguishes what we can do scientifically from what we ought to do (or avoid doing) ethically? If science cannot answer these questions, where can we turn?
Perhaps we should reconsider the relevance of religion with its rich and ancient reflections on human morality and universal codes of virtue and value that have been applied and adapted again and again to the ethical challenges that have arisen through the ages.
Catholicism becomes uniquely relevant to these modern challenges. The Catholic Church has a long history of reflection on the natural moral law and its application to changing historical and cultural challenges. At the center of the Church’s reflection on the ethical issues raised by scientific advances is an unwavering commitment to the dignity and value of each human. According to Catholic teaching, each person is created in the image of God, each person is loved by God, and each person’s life is a gift from God. Catholicism finds that dignity enhanced even further by the mystery of the Incarnation of Christ. God became man in Jesus Christ, thereby uniting himself to every human. In an age in which the potential misuses of science threaten human life and dignity, this profound affirmation of the dignity and value of each person assures the continuing relevance of the Catholic religion.