Where’s the Conflict?

In the first of the thirty-two correspondences between a junior tempter and his devilish uncle Screwtape “discovered” by CS Lewis, the latter cautions his nephew Wormwood not to “use science (I mean, the real sciences) as a defense against Christianity. They will positively encourage him to think about realities he can’t touch and see.”  Yet, to most people science is a great enemy of Christianity.  It seems that Satan has taken the exact opposite approach to Lewis’ discovery by using what is seen to debunk what is unseen.  But he always operates under illusions and half-truths, especially when it comes any supposed conflict between science and religion.  The two can never conflict even if, at first sight, there are apparent contradictions…[because] we know, in fact, that truth cannot contradict truth” (St. John Paul II, Address to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, October 22, 1996).

In addressing why any conflict is not real and only apparent, we must begin by recognizing the dependence that science has on faith.  All of science rests upon two fundamental assumptions.  Like most first principles they cannot be proven, but instead require faith on the part of the person.  The scientist is no different in this regard because he believes first of all that the world itself is intelligible.  It is the assumption that there is a law behind what is being studied that drives us to discover the law.  No reasonable person would set out to discover something that he believed was truly random in the statistical (as opposed to the scientific) sense.  This leads to the second point, namely that the scientist assumes that the human mind has the power to accurately grasp that which he is seeking to discover.  Intelligibility requires intelligence to measure it.  Every scientist bases assumes his instruments can provide accurate measurements and depends on this.  The mind, as the instrument of the scientist, too must have the capacity to grasp reality.  Both are necessary for science and both must be taken on faith.  As Chesterton says, the “Materialist cannot explain why anything should go right, even observation and deduction.  Why good logic should not be as misleading as bad logic, if they are both movements in the brain of a bewildered ape.”

What does the faith of the scientist have to do with religion?  The intelligibility of the universe is a religious assumption because it necessitates an Intelligence behind it.  In other words, it requires a God, and not just any kind of God, but the Judeo-Christian God.  Only He is a God of reason or Logos.  Historically speaking it was no accident that modern science arose when it did—in the midst of a Christian culture. In fact, it is certain Christian fundamental ideas that allowed the emergence of scientific thought to begin with.  The study of science arose because of a belief in a transcendent Creator who endowed His creation with orderly physical laws.  Scholasticism was responsible for the rejection of the pantheistic approach to nature.  Christian belief debunked the idea that created things have a mind of their own and but instead followed fixed physical laws.   In fact, the pioneers of modern science, such as Galileo, Kepler, Harvey, and Newton thought that by pointing out the wonders of creation they would lead people to the praise of the Creator of those wonders.

Gregor Mendel

Why is it then that scientists are often the ones leading the way of the New Atheist movement?  Chesterton hinted at the answer in his quote regarding the Materialist, but it is because they use science as a smokescreen for their philosophy.  While Science and Christianity cannot conflict, Christianity and Scientific Materialism are natural enemies.  The Materialist believes all reality is only matter (or at least ultimately derived from matter).  It is easy to prove that this philosophy is true when you assume it to be true.  Not surprisingly, when you use instruments that are designed to measure matter to measure the immaterial, you will never find them.  It is like walking around with a calculator looking for a cell-phone signal and denying its existence to the people talking on their phones.

In many ways modern scientific materialism is no different than ancient paganism.  The pagans saw the supernatural everywhere.  Things were gods or the playthings of the gods moving at the whim of the gods.  The Judeo-Christian religion demolished all such superstition.  The two Creation accounts in Genesis are mainly written to debunk the superstition of the Babylonians by showing that their gods were actually made by the True God and in fact were not gods at all.  So it is ironic that the materialist now comes along and accuses the Christians of superstition by debunking the Creation accounts.  The materialist sees his mission as one of freeing mankind from superstition.

But superstition by definition is an irrational or unfounded belief.  The reason why Christianity was able to free the pagans from superstition was because it is a religion that is reasonable and with a belief in the natural world.  Christians may believe in the miraculous, but they view it as a supernatural act.  In other words, the miracles of the Christian faith rest upon the natural world.  You cannot have the supernatural without the natural.  It is precisely the understanding that men naturally die that allows us to see the Resurrection for what it is.  The very foundation of Christianity is rooted in an unwavering belief in intelligibility and predictability of the natural world.

This is why the First Vatican Council in its first canon said ““If anyone says that the one, true God, our creator and lord, cannot be known with certainty from the things that have been made, by the natural light of human reason: let him be anathema.”  In other words it is an article of faith that you don’t need faith to believe in God.  To believe in God is the most reasonable thing one can conclude based on the intelligibility of the universe.

It is not without irony then that the Materialist accuses Christians of superstitions when in fact it is they who are superstitious.  For their claim is most certainly not a scientific but a religious one.     What they actually believe is irrational.  They are just as superstitious as the most superstitious of the ancient pagans.  As Stephen Barr has pointed out, the ancient pagan thought that his actions were controlled by the orbits of the planets while the materialist says they are controlled by the orbits of electrons in his brain.  Rather than speaking of fate like the pagan, he speaks of determinism.

In the nearly three centuries since the rise of modern science, mankind has learned more about the workings of the universe than in all the previous centuries combined.  We know more about how things work with each day.  This ought to lead us to deeper wonder and awe and we learn more about the Designer Who made all things to reveal Himself to us.  This is why Screwtape was so vehement with Wormwood about staying away from true science.  But once philosophy is masquerading as science, we run the risk of it drawing people from God in a way that Lewis’ characters would have reveled in .

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