Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Pillars of the faith

I've spent most of my adult life in the company of men of the Congregation of Holy Cross, a Roman Catholic community of priests and brothers with missions in education and service to the world's poorest. It has been a rewarding association. By my experience, the CSCs are an extraordinary group of men, and I've profited greatly from my friendships.

The congregation puts out a periodic in-house magazine/newsletter called Pillars, and the current issue is devoted to the relationship between religion and science. I can't resist comment.

The theme-setting essay begins, as usual, with reference to the "unfortunate" Galileo affair, then turns to Darwin and evolution (with the mandatory mention of the Catholic monk Gregor Mendel). The Church, we are told, has come to terms with heliocentrism and common descent. Church teaching does not require us to believe in any sort of supernatural suspension of the laws of nature or intrusion into natural processes, argues the author of the essay. God does not act in competition with natural processes, but "in hidden unseen ways within them." What is essential to retain is "our fundamental religious conviction and experience that God is the ultimate source of all things."

Well, fine. One can't argue with that. If that's all there is to it then there can't be much of a conflict between science and faith. I could come home to the Church with only a modest silencing of doubt. But that's not all there is to it. As usual, the author steers clear of real conflicts that are not so easily waved away with the glib assertion that science and religion focus on different aspects of reality.

The Creed, for example, is chockablock with conflicts.

Consider just one aspect of the Creed that would seem to be so fundamental to traditional religion that it's hard to see what is the point without it: personal immortality, with its attendant eternal reward or punishment. Here science and religion are clearly addressing the same aspect of reality, and science has discovered a huge amount about what makes a personal self. If science accounts for anything with even a modest degree of certainty, it is the inseparability of self and the living material body.

And what's the response of the believer? There can be no conflict if immortality is "properly understood," they say, but we are never told what that proper understanding might be. We are also told that God acts in mysterious ways available only to the eyes of faith, which seems to contradict the idea that God only acts through natural processes, not in contradiction to them.

I have no problem with those who chose to believe in personal immortality against all evidence; I'd like to believe it myself. And I'll be the first to admit that science is amendable and doesn't know everything. But let's not pretend there's no conflict. We either ignore the conflict or we don't.