To a certain kind of modern atheist mind, a ready-made narrative will leap into action when they reflect on such successes. Science has ridden to the rescue once again, they will say, enabling us to begin the return to normal life after lockdowns and quarantine and masks, and what has religion done? Nothing.
The supposed antagonism between science and religion is a commonplace of secular thought, and has been for a very long time now.
There is a sort of foundation myth of science, which goes something like this: before Christ, in classical times, the Greeks and Romans were making great strides in understanding the world. Then Christians took over the Roman Empire and imposed their own superstitious dogmas by force. Non-Christian schools were suppressed and Christian mobs attacked libraries and killed “freethinkers” – atheist accounts often mention the burning of the Serapeum and the murder of the female scholar Hypatia, both in Alexandria, as examples. Catherine Nixey’s 2018 book The Darkening Age, is an attempt to add some scholarly weight to this narrative.
On this account, the intellectual hegemony of the Catholic Church was established and maintained by state force and led to a decline in scientific knowledge, because scholars who appeared to question the church’s beliefs about human behaviour or the universe would be excluded from universities or punished by the secular authorities. This hegemony was gradually weakened from about the fifteenth century onwards, first by the Renaissance, i.e. the recovery of Greek and Roman learning, and then by the Reformation and the Enlightenment, and by genetics, geology and cosmology in more recent times.
Now that we have so much more detailed knowledge about the world, atheists would say, religion is simply not needed any more. One anti-faith polemic, published at the height of the New Atheism fad in 2007, is called The Failed Hypothesis, reflecting this view that religion is redundant as a way of explaining the nature of things. Of creation, the author Victor Stenger said, “the data strongly support the hypothesis that no such miracle occurred”.
This narrative is not without merit. Early Christians did engage in violence against pagan institutions and individuals, and suppress alternative religions. There has certainly been obscurantism in our thinking about science over the years, and it is true that the Church’s reaction to new scientific discoveries has sometimes been marked by fear and hostility rather than openness. Nevertheless it is not true that we have to choose between adherence to the scientific method or adherence to the truths of Christianity.
Some of the great scientific discoveries have been made by Christians who saw their investigations as an outworking of their faith. There is not one single tenet of orthodox Christian belief that has been refuted by increasing scientific knowledge. I have sometimes heard people say that “surely in the twenty-first century you cannot believe in Virgin Births and the resurrection of dead people and turning water into wine”.
But as CS Lewis pointed out in his book Miracles, people in the first century already knew that in the ordinary course of events virgins do not bear children and that dead people do not come back to life. They were not stupid. The whole point of miracles is that they are exceptions to normal rules and the way we usually expect the universe to work; as the OED puts it, they are events “not explicable by natural or scientific laws…attributed to a divine agency”.
To believe that God can sometimes act in a way that transcends the workings of the material universe is not to believe that the everyday workings of the universe aren’t important or don’t matter.
Indeed, the possibility of the whole scientific enterprise is itself an argument for the existence of God. The whole premise of what we normally term science is that the universe works in an orderly, law-governed way, that there are laws which we can discover and understand. A car is designed on the basis that we reliably understand the circumstances under which fuel will burn; when SpaceX launches a rocket they are making complex calculations grounded in the predictable interactions of forces like gravity and thrust. That the universe is like this, that it has a comprehensible and integrated structure, is an argument for an intelligence behind its creation.
There is no clash between Christianity, rightly understood, and the investigation of the world by the gathering and testing of empirical data. Pope John Paul II puts it this way in his great encyclical, Fides et ratio: “Faith and reason are the two wings on which the human spirit rises”. The truths of Christianity and the truths of science cannot contradict one another, because all truth ultimately comes from God.
Niall Gooch is a regular Chapter House columnist. He also contributes to UnHerd.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund