Science, faith and religious education

We should be positive about scientific knowledge and use it to inform and enrich our faith. This is essential for the Church to grow and to convince young people that their faith is reasonable. Religious education in schools is the place to start.

by Gerry Wake

‘Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.’ This is a quote from Pope John Paul II in 1988 - one of only 43 (less than two per year) listed on a website of quotes covering his pontificate. Presumably, it is considered one of his more significant statements. I believe the Pope is telling us that we should value scientific knowledge and use it, wherever possible, to enrich our faith.

In my experience, over the past 50 years, comments on science by the Church have usually been expressions of opposition - to either a specific area of science or the application of scientific knowledge in a particular way. In most cases they have been appropriate. But there have been many instances of Church spokesmen making negative comments on an aspect of science on which they are ill-informed. Also, I cannot recall a single positive comment about science (or scientists) being made from the pulpit of a Catholic Church. Overall, there appears to be a reluctance by Church authorities in Australia to acknowledge the value of scientific knowledge.

Increasing numbers of Catholics in Australia are either rejecting their faith or not succeeding in passing it on to younger generations. The reasons for this are many and complex. But I believe that the overly negative attitude of the Church to science has been a significant factor in the turning away of many intelligent young people from the Catholic faith.

In their secondary and tertiary studies they come to appreciate the value of advances in science, but are often unable to reconcile this with views expressed on behalf of the Church. These young people are the ones who will eventually have a large impact on the rest of society and could make a very positive contribution to the Catholic community, both laity and clergy. Furthermore, as implied in John Paul II’s statement, an informed appreciation of modern science is needed for the development of a mature religious faith amongst adults in this modern age. 

Some recent positive signs

Scientific knowledge cannot undermine faith - but a negative attitude of the Church to science can do just that. We need to be positive and use science as John Paul II urges. There are signs that this is happening.

The recent debate about Intelligent Design (which in no way can be considered bona fide science) has had some positive outcomes.

The director of the Vatican Observatory, George Coyne SJ, has spoken out recently on how our current understanding of the origin and evolution of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth gives us insight into how God works with this world (The Tablet, Dec. 10, 2005). God does not do this by intervening in the evolutionary process. He is the origin of the laws of the universe. It diminishes God to look upon him as a response to a need to fill gaps in our scientific knowledge of biological evolution that led ultimately to the emergence of humans.  In his article, Coyne touches on a topic that could have immense ramifications for our faith. ‘It would be scientifically absurd’, he says, ‘to deny that the human brain is a result of a process of chemical complexification in an evolving universe.’

The Nobel laureate and neurobiologist, Gerald Edelman, is firmly of the view that consciousness in humans is rooted in the neural processes in the brain, which have arisen during evolution. In his 2004 book Wider Than the Sky: the phenomenal gift of consciousness Edelman makes clear his hope ‘to disenthrall those who believe that the subject of consciousness is exclusively metaphysical or necessarily mysterious’. Rosalie Osmond, in her review of Edelman’s book (The Tablet,  July 3, 2004) is surprised by ‘how little attention theologians, and the Church in general, seem to have paid to these matters’.

There is no doubt that continuing advances in the neurosciences will further our understanding of consciousness. Let us be open to the possibility that they will also allow us to achieve a deeper insight into the nature of the soul itself. 

Closer to home, it has been gratifying to see the recent articles like that of Ennio Mantovani svd, in The Australasian Catholic Record (Jan 2006), dealing with theological issues arising from the evolution of life on Earth. Mantovani makes it clear that ‘evolution has found acceptance into the mainstream of Catholic theology’.

From a scientific viewpoint evolution raises difficulties about Adam and Eve as the earliest humans, and the original sin committed by them as an historical event. He shows how this can be resolved to the satisfaction of both evolutionists and creationists as long as each looks at the real issue, which is not original sin - rather, it is ‘the mystery of Christ’.

A Christian evolutionist will get the intended message of the Bible - in relation to Christ - through an understanding of the creation and fall as myths (so that we have as myths insight) while the creationist will get the same message through acceptance of them as historical events. Mantovani’s article is a welcome and positive contribution.

I expect that the thinking within the Church will change gradually to favour more and more the evolutionist’s interpretation of the ‘beginning’ events of the Bible. What is essential is that we accept that there are currently differing views on whether or not the creation and fall are historical events, and we should urge the faithful to respect these different views.

A great opportunity   

Humans appeared  about 200,000 years ago, and thus have been around for less than the last 0.01 per cent of Earth’s existence.

Christianity is a comparatively recent phenomenon in human history. But more recent still are the dramatic advances in scientific knowledge. Science will continue to progress well into the future – possibly for millions or more years.

Our Church has so far been slow to take advantage of new scientific knowledge. There is an urgent need, at this relatively early stage in Christianity and science, to remedy the situation. It must be done if we want our faith to remain relevant to those being born into this rapidly changing world.

The challenge should be met primarily by the way the relationship between faith and science is presented in religious education programmes - and in other ways - in schools. There are three main issues.

The first is stated clearly by Denis Alexander in his 2001 book Rebuilding the Matrix: Science and Faith in the 21st Century. He says, ‘the idea that science and faith are mutually incompatible is a presupposition that tends to be absorbed unconsciously as a “fact”, usually during schooling and via the impact of the mass media.’

With respect to schooling, this issue should be addressed from the earliest years, based on an approach developed by professional educators. It is not just a matter of avoiding negative reference to science. Rather, the value of scientific knowledge should be engendered in the minds of the children, both within and outside religious education programmes.

Secondly, as students progress through high school they should be encouraged to appreciate the value of scientific knowledge in enabling a deeper understanding of their faith.  Regardless of whether or not they are studying science as a subject, they should be given the opportunity to develop an accurate and sufficiently detailed understanding of the more significant findings of science that are relevant.

These would include the origins and evolution of the universe and of life on Earth. This information should be integrated into the teaching of the scriptural message. There should be no attempt to ‘hide’ aspects of science that might be seen as difficult to reconcile with ‘knowledge’ revealed through Scripture. Students need to appreciate that the interpretation of Scripture, particularly the Old Testament, will continue to undergo its own ‘evolution’ in the light of new findings in science.

Finally, in the very senior years, students should be able to distinguish between scientific knowledge and its applications - frequently as technology. They should appreciate that, especially in relation to the latter, ethical issues will arise; and the issues will be seen differently within a pluralistic society. They should be fully informed on the precise reasons underlying the particular views held by the Church on a number of key issues. ‘Blind’ faith should be discouraged.

All students should graduate from secondary education with the clear conviction that scientific knowledge, whatever it reveals in the future, cannot conflict with faith; and that faith needs to work in ‘dialogue’ with science if it is to ‘flourish’. I urge professionals in religious education to take up the challenge to help bring this about.

Gerry Wake is Emeritus Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Sydney and a Fellow of the Australian Academy of Science. For more than 35 years he taught undergraduate students in Science and Medicine, as well as postgraduate students in Science. He also has been heavily involved in scientific research,  mainly in the area of biochemistry and molecular biology. A parishioner at Sacred Heart Parish, in Pymble, he has been a member of the Liturgy Committee over several years.


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