As someone who teaches college level earth science courses, I take great interest in how science and religion are interpreted in the home. Through the years, I’ve known many students (as well as colleagues) who have erroneous ideas of God and the concept of the universe being a creation, and how God and the concept of creation relate to the sciences. As a result, many students, when confronted with facts and truth, lose their notion of God and their “faith”. Indeed, by the time many students come into my classroom, they regard God as something of a fairy tale. (It should be noted that this is in no way a slight on my students or my colleagues. On the contrary, I hold them with the highest regard and esteem. I bring them up precisely to illustrate why some of the most intelligent and thoughtful people struggle with concepts of faith.)
This is tragic, and many parents seem to despair when considering if there is anything they can do to help their children navigate the wonder years of college while maintaining their faith. The good news is that there is, and it should also prove to deepen your relationship with God. For starters, we need to embrace the sciences, and stop trying to wedge God into the picture.
This may at first sound sacrilege, as if I’m asking you to kick God out. But this is not what I mean. Instead, I’m suggesting that you stop forcing God into the equation as if He’s some missing piece of the grand puzzle of the universe. Science needs to stand alone (if you will) apart from any notions of God. In other words, our faith and belief in God should not influence our science. As astrophysicist Father George Coyne states “If I were an atheist, my science would be exactly the same”. This is important to maintain good science.
There are many ways in which we can muck things up very quickly when we try to put God into the equation, and I’ll deal with a few here.
The Great God of the Gaps Fallacy
“God is not a God of explanation [a God of the Gaps]. If I were seeking a God of explanation…I’d be driven to atheism.” – Father George Coyne, Former Director of the Vatican Observatory.
The Great God of the Gaps fallacy is a simply using God to explain the [temporarily] scientifically unexplainable. Science does not have all of the answers to the universe…yet. However, the universe is finite, and thus, it is conceivable – though highly improbable – that one day we may have the answers that explain everything there is to know about the physical universe.
For now, there are a lot of unanswered questions. Many well-meaning Christians have a tendency to put God into the equation in order to explain the temporarily unexplainable. If you’re one of these good people, I say with all due respect, that your god is too small and will grow ever smaller as science advances. If you think this isn’t serious and real, consider Richard Dawkins, one of the poster boys of modern atheism.
In a very honest response to the above quote from Father Coyne, Professor Dawkins explained his atheism this way…
“When I believed in God, it was precisely a god of explanation that I was looking for. When I realized that he wasn’t an excellent explanation, I lost my faith in him.”
This interview can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L15e2sNZsU
How tragic that this man, who at one time, had faith, but lost it, because his notion of God was that of the “Great God of the Gaps”. Many of us now know him as one of the prime evangelists for the “new” atheism.
In the early 1900’s, scientists believed that the universe was in a steady state – neither expanding nor contracting. The great Albert Einstein recognized that everything has gravity. However, since science at the time could not explain why the universe wasn’t collapsing on itself, Einstein hypothesized that there must be an equal force pushing out against gravity in order to keep the universe in its current state. Can you imagine some of the Christian explanations? “Jesus is this opposite force!” “It is the energy of God keeping the universe intact!”
Enter Father Georges Lemaître, Physicist and Catholic Priest. You may not have heard of Father Lemaître, but I’m sure you’ve heard of the Big Bang Theory. In 1927, Fr. Lemaître, after months of calculations and observations of the cosmos, introduced the concept of the Big Bang and an ever expanding universe. This meant no more steady-state theory, which also meant that Jesus was no longer the opposite force to the inward pull of gravity.
Fr. Lemaître explained that the universe had a beginning, and that everything – EVERYTHING – in the universe was condensed into the size of a golf ball. This, he called the “Cosmic Egg”. After the Big Bang gained acceptance within the scientific community, Pope Pius XII congratulated Fr. Lemaître by stating that the good priest had shown that the universe had a beginning, thus demonstrating the need for a Creator. But remember, God is not a God of the Gaps, and Father Lemaître was well aware of this. Father Lemaître responded …
“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”
This is not to do away with the contingency argument of St. Thomas Aquinas. Ultimately, the universe has to have an un-causable cause, or as Aristotle calls “the unmoved mover”, i.e. God. However, this steps into the realm of philosophical argument. The problem starts when we try to make God a part of science, or rather, let our beliefs shape how we do science. This is not removing God from science, per se, but maintaining a more profound respect for God.
Father Robert Barron notes in his Catholicism Series, that God is not the biggest part of the universe or some supreme being among many. He is God, apart from the universe. Nor is He the missing pieces of the puzzle. God is God. While God works and moves through the universe (and outside of it), God is, by nature, the One Who simply Is. He created the universe, but is not bound by it, and, as I’ll discuss next, is not a Dictator of it.
The Grand Design Fallacy
People who fall into the Grand Design fallacy view God as designing and dictating every detail in the universe. While at first, this seems to complement the notion of God being all-powerful and omniscient, it violates the fundamental concept of freewill and the creative nature of the universe and all that is in it. This poses a huge problem to those who are honest scientists (as well as for those who acknowledge the principle of freewill).
In the movie “The Theory of Everything”, Stephen Hawking’s character seems to have the premise that the idea of God must be one of a celestial dictator. If this indeed is Hawking’s view, then I don’t blame him for being an atheist. Not because the notion of a dictator is frightening or troublesome, but because it’s not consistent with what we know of the universe…nor is this consistent with our Catholic faith.
If God is a dictator, than ultimately, we are preprogrammed robots. If we are preprogrammed robots, than loving God and receiving His love is impossible. There would be no justifiable reason for executing justice, no real sense of personal responsibility, no such thing as freewill, etc.
What does this have to do with the “grand design” fallacy? Simply, in order for one to be a designer, one must be a dictator of sorts, i.e. one who dictates how things should be. For example, let’s say that you are planning to build an addition to your house, and you take it upon yourself to be both the architect and builder. No one but you is dictating the creation of this addition. To view God in this way puts Him in the role of the celestial dictator.
Instead of being a dictator, God is the inspiration and the life-giving being that moves through and outside of the universe. The universe was created by God to be creative, and nature has a certain level of autonomy. Thus, nature and evolution have played a huge part in how we have developed as human beings.
Let me use a painting to illustrate this point. When you see a painting, who do you say created that painting? God created the artist to have a certain amount of creativity, and when the artist paints a beautiful work of art, that painter (and the work of art) gives glory to God. We can rightly say that God was the source of the work, and that God was the inspiration, but we would never say that God painted it. In the same way, God moves through His creation, but He doesn’t dictate every detail. He has left much of this up to the creation to evolve itself. This is how we can say, “The heavens declare the glory of God”. This is truly amazing stuff! How much more amazing and wonderful God is! As Father Andrew Pinsent who is a Physicist, Catholic Priest, and the Research Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Religion and Science at Oxford University, states “[Nature] doesn’t prove God, but it gives us a sense of religious awe.”
As parent, I’ll give another example. My life and my wife’s life are extended to, and flows through our daughter. She has life because of our life. The early stages of our daughter’s life may be more controlled by us, but her autonomy increases with each day. In the same way, God is the Source and Creator of the universe and everything that is, but He is not a dictator.
This should not be confused with deism (that God set the universe in motion, but does not interact with it) or the Einsteinian view of an impersonal God. Rather, God has a relationship with the universe and all created things. Just as in any relationship, there is freewill and interaction between God and us. Thus, there is room for the miraculous (By miraculous, I mean the extraordinary miracles, such as the blind seeing, etc. In reality, miracles, or what I like to call “participatory” or “natural” miracles, are around us at all times. But, like a fish that doesn’t realize that it is swimming in water all of its life, most of the miracles around us go unperceived. Our consciousness is illumined when we recognize these natural miracles, say in a sunset or in a baby’s cry. This is, quite simply, recognizing God. As stated: “God is the Source and Creator of the universe and everything that is, but He is not a dictator”.). Still, God lets the universe, in a sense, evolve and shape itself…sometimes in ways that we may not understand or ways that may move us to question God’s goodness, and sometimes in ways that overwhelm us with awe and deep inspiration and gratitude. In short, we live in an amazing universe, and it is most likely that our species will never see the full picture and the meaning of everything on this side of eternity.
For Those Who Still Believe in Six 24-Hr Days of Creation
Often when I talk of evolution, I’m asked by fellow Christians “So, you don’t believe that the first two chapters of Genesis are true?” My answer is wholeheartedly “on the contrary, I believe every word”. But here’s the caveat. We should respect the Bible enough to want to understand it as it was meant to be understood.
So, we need to establish what the Bible actually is.
Simply put, the Bible is a collection of several books, written in several time periods in several locations, by several authors with various writing styles who wrote in various genres, and who were all inspired by God. So far, so good? Notice the last three words “inspired by God”. Some Biblical translations say “God breathed”. These phrases are taken from the Bible itself. Show me in the Bible where it says that the scriptures are dictated by God. You won’t find it.
Here’s the point. The Bible isn’t a word for word dictation from God, but a collection of works that are inspired by God…so inspired are they, that they are called “The Word of God”.
Because the writers were so varied, there are several types of literature contained in the canon of scripture. Some portions of the Word of God are factual and historical, as seen in the Gospels and in the letters of the New Testament. The accounts of Jesus’s virgin birth, His death on the cross, and His resurrection are all factual/historical accounts. Other portions are prescriptive, as seen in the Law, while other portions are descriptive, as seen in the story of David and Bathsheba (hardly a prescription of godly actions). Is it possible that some portions are moral tales or legends, such as the story of Jonah and the whale, the story of Sampson, or of Noah’s ark? Many orthodox scholars believe so, as do I. Indeed, there is evidence that these last three examples were moral epics that actually did not happen. But so what? Cannot God’s Word also contain artistic, poetic, and mythical moral writings? This is not to undermine one’s view of Scripture, but rather to elevate it to see that God’s Word is not limited to only the historical and factual.
One such poetic work is the story of creation. The story has rhythm and tempo, and is very artistic in language and style. It is a beautiful and, if we include chapter three, a tragic story that has strong moral lessons. It even has prophesies woven into it. But one thing that it is not, is a historical factual account of creation. As I reasoned back in my college days “The Genesis story of creation tells me Who created the universe. My science classes tell me how.” To view the Genesis creation story as a scientific account is to miss the point of the story and to have a very unrealistic view of science. Pseudo-scientists like the “Institute for Creation Research” have done much to undermine the bridge between real science and faith, and have – whether intentionally or unintentionally – done much to shroud the original intent of the Genesis creation story.
If we want to honor the Bible, we must stop reading it as a science book, and receive it for what it is: God’s Word, written in many styles, of which, science is not one of them.
In the following image, Father George Coyne states it much better than I could.
I can’t tell you how much I see faith mocked because of the erroneous notions that I mentioned above. It’s really heartbreaking. It makes me wonder how many Richard Dawkinses, Stephen Hawkings, and Carl Sagens there are in our grade schools and high schools today, who are being raised with these erroneous notions of God and faith. The good news is, science and faith are compatible when understood properly. My hope and prayer is that the next generations of great scientists are being raised with this proper understanding.
If you are looking for good material to read on science and faith, I encourage you to the following:
- Anything by Father George Coyne. I can’t stress enough the importance of this man’s work in both Astrophysics and in Catholic reasoning. There is also an excellent interview between Richard Dawkins and Father Coyne that I recommend everyone to watch found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3L15e2sNZsU
- Father Robert Barron’s website WordOnFire.org as an excellent resource, which includes excellent blogs and commentaries on current issues in science and faith.
- The works of St. Thomas Aquinas. Though Aquinas lived long before the birth of modern science, his philosophical arguments for the existence of God are remarkable.