Science and Religion: Is Synthesis Possible?

Editorial FAITH Magazine July – August 2011

Defining Terms

The long-running debate over science and religion is frequently hampered by the different ways in which the words "science" and "religion" are used. At the outset of any discussion it is best to pin down as far as possible what we intend by these terms.

What Do We Mean By "Science"?

The word "science" has its roots in the Latin for knowledge or wisdom. At its broadest, it simply refers to any systematic study of reality. This is how the word was used from medieval to early modern times. Natural science referred to the study of the structure and workings of material realities, the wisdom that frames the material order. Theology was considered to be the highest of all sciences because it studied the highest wisdom of all, revealed by God. Theology is the study or contemplation of God as the source of all Wisdom. In the medieval system, the various sciences were held to have their own proper subject and method, but they were not thought of as ultimately separate. In fact theology was called the "Queen of Sciences" because it considered reality in the light of theultimate Illumination afforded by the Self-revelation of the Divine Mind, the highest point of synthesis.

In the modern world the word "science" is used almost exclusively of the natural or material sciences. Even within that context it has come to have various interrelated but distinct meanings. It refers to the methodology and conduct of particular experiments and research. It also denotes the various theories that unify multiple areas of discovery and insight such as relativity, genetics and evolution. Often it can indicate the understanding of the world around us at the conceptual or philosophical level which has been revealed in a fuller light by scientific research. Examples of such "science" are the Copernican revolution, the atomic and molecular understanding of matter and the periodic table of elements, and the vastly enhanced image of the cosmos afforded by contemporaryastrophysics.

What Do We Mean By "Religion"?

The word "religion" can be even more diverse and diffuse in its meanings. It encompasses those aspects of human life and culture that are concerned with the ultimate meaning and destiny of human nature and the relationship of the individual and of society with the supernatural. In our own thinking, the religious instinct is natural to human beings; we are drawn to the Divine in whose image and likeness we are made and in whose environing wisdom and love we find our proper harmony of life and our deepest fulfilment. In Catholic theology this upsurge of the human spirit is itself prompted by the initiative of God's grace and completed by the revelation that culminates in Jesus Christ who is God manifest in the flesh.

However, in popular parlance the word "religion" encompasses a wide array of phenomena with sometimes overlapping areas of belief and practice, but with many contradictory doctrines and features too. Some religions, like Buddhism for example, do not believe in a personal deity, and some involve little or no definite doctrine at all, being little more than tribal and family ritual traditions with no formal belief structure. Those religions that have sacred writings do not all make direct claim to divine revelation and authority, and many hold mutually exclusive doctrinal and moral teachings. Some religions have historically involved practices, such as ritual prostitution and human sacrifice, which are deeply abhorrent to the Abrahamic faiths. Viewed simply as a human phenomenon, therefore,there is really no such single thing as "religion". It is not a univocal term.

What Do We Mean By "Synthesis"?

So when we discuss the possibility of a synthesis between science and religion, what do we mean? We do not mean that laboratory research and theological enquiry can be freely intermingled or combined indiscriminately. It remains true that each of the sciences has its own proper subject matter, its own area of competence and its proper methodology. But do they connect in any way? Can their conclusions be brought together within a unified world view?

Today, far from being seen as the queen of sciences, theology has effectively been excluded from any synthetic understanding of the world. The view that everything about reality, including humanity, is built on an exclusively material base has been steadily gaining ground. Religion is increasingly dismissed as at best mythological and at worst wholly irrational or irrelevant.

When we speak of synthesis, what we mean by "science" is the philosophy of science based on the truths uncovered by scientific discoveries. And by religion we mean Christian, specifically Catholic, theology based on the truths revealed by God in Christ and defined by the Church. However, let us note straight away that these are not just academic concerns. For science and theology are concerned not just with theories but with the objects of these studies - the worlds of matter and of spirit.

How, if at all, do material reality and spiritual reality connect and interact? Do they form a unified whole with a single purpose? Can we discern an overarching Wisdom that informs the identity and goal of both as a single, integrated reality?

There are several possible positions on this question:

1. Opposition - Competition
2.  Identity – Conflation
3. Separation - Coexistence
4. Synthesis without confusion

Opposition - Competition

In this position, science and religion are thought to make mutually exclusive truth claims. Either science explains everything or religion does. Radical creationists can be found on the religious side of this divide, although not all who are called "creationists" go as far as to dismiss all science as opposed to faith. On the scientific side are the secular materialists who deny a priori the existence of anything transcending the material cosmos. As the Oxford University chemist Peter Atkins puts it in his new book On Being:

"If absolutely and unreservedly everything is an aspect of the physical, material world, then I do not see how it can be closed to scientific investigation ... The scientific method is the only means of discovering the nature of reality."

Atkins even argues that "the substrate of existence is nothing at all", because the total electrical charge of the universe is zero due to the balance of positive and negative particles. "Charge was not created at the creation. Nothing separated into equal and opposite charges". Since matter is really nothing, he concludes that nothing really matters or even really exists.

Like most atheist scientists he shows himself to be a very poor philosopher. With rather obvious sleight of mind he has made "Nothing" into a Something with cosmic potential. The scholastic mind of the middle ages called this materia prima and recognised that it cannot exist except in relation to a principle of form - a principle of organisation and identity. Even if there are only positive and negative charges at the beginning, there is already a system and a context, a meaning that encompasses those mutual definitions. And where there is meaning, there is Mind.

The tendency of most Western scientists is to be reductionist, looking for the key to existence in the lowest common components of matter/energy. Yet in doing so they fail to notice that the most basic concepts of their science depends on matter embodying organised information at every level. To reject reductionism in this way is to be open to the question: What is the Prime Principle of Organisation?

Within the terms of its own reference as an enquiry into material things, experimental science cannot address the question of the ultimate cause of the universe. It is not within its remit. However, in its broader, philosophical sense, scientific thought cannot escape the question of creation because it is about the Cause of all causality. Faced with the ultimate question of where the ordered energies of the universe and ordering laws of science themselves come from, many atheist materialists simply abdicate the search for truth and say that there is no reason.

Others, like Atkins' fellow Oxford academic, Thomas Nagel, are more honest in admitting that this refusal to face the ultimate question thrown up by scientific enquiry is based on a desire to avoid its conclusion and a positive will to disbelieve:

"...even if in due course science has to throw in the towel and, heaven forbid, concede that the universe was created by God, I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn't just that I don't believe in God and, naturally, hope that I'm right in my belief. It's that I hope there is no God! I don't want there to be a God; I don't want the universe to be like that." {The Last Word by Thomas Nagel, Oxford University Press, 1997)

The material creation is not merely neutral towards God, it positively points towards its Creator. The science or wisdom we discover within the constitution of matter can and does bring us to recognise that higher Wisdom who creates and sustains it to an end and purpose which is indeed beyond the remit of natural science.

Identity - Conflation

The second possible position with regard to science and religion is to identify them more or less completely by seeing the evolving universe as driven by a single energy which runs through and builds into everything that we call matter and everything that we call spirit. This is explicitly the thought of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin within Christian theology, and also of many variants of New Age thinking. For him all spiritual realities, including the soul of man and indeed Christ Himself, are the product of matter in evolution, because evolution is itself the product of God who immerses Himself in matter; and the "spiritual energy" that is latent in all physical energy crystallises into the presence of the Divine. Such a world view can be found in more subtle and nuanced forms in thethought of other major thinkers in Catholic theology.

The all-embracing sweep of this way of seeing the world has its attractions, but when matter and spirit are identified in this way, it has some serious implications which are not compatible with orthodox Christianity. The process of cosmic evolution becomes the measure of all reality, spiritual as well as physical. The moral law and doctrinal truth are no longer objective, but are ever-changing as human nature itself evolves. Most serious of all, the literal Divinity of Christ is compromised, and the distinction between God and creation is blurred - a mistake that can eventually lead to pantheism.

By the same token, the objectivity of scientific law and scientific enquiry is also compromised by conflating matter and spirit at every level of creation. Matter is determined by laws that can be expressed mathematically. Even the so-called - and much misunderstood - uncertainty principle, and quantum physics as a whole, work according to precise levels of mathematically expressible variability within a defined system. Scientists are rightly suspicious about attributing spirituality to material processes or bringing religious ideas directly into the laboratory.

Separation - Coexistence

For some, this has led to a third option with regard to science and religion: saying that they do not contradict but simply coexist in their separate arenas. They may coincide in persons who are scientists and also believers, or in private encounters between individuals, but there is no possibility of, or need for, a synthesis between our scientific and religious world views.

It was Stephen Jay Gould who first suggested that science and religion represented parallel and non-overlapping magisteria, or sources of authority. The chief problem with this world view is that it allows for more than one "truth" about reality, truths which merely coexist in discrete personal and cultural worlds. There are Christian philosophers and theologians who do espouse this sort of post-modernism, but it is quite incompatible with orthodox Catholicism. However, scientists who promote the idea of non-overlapping magisteria are often just dismissing religion as something subjective, leaving science to deal with the realm of the objective.

The problem is that when we say that science and religion can simply coexist in their own worlds we fail to answer the new atheists who are winning over vast numbers in our society. They know that science is highly successful at unlocking the secrets of the physical world; and unless religion can be shown to engage with the new horizons uncovered by the scientific world view, they will remain unconvinced. Our primary mission as Christians is to evangelise the unbelieving world. We cannot do that if we abdicate any claim to truth or wisdom outside our private "religious" world. We must answer the claim that God is made redundant by science. Not only can we do that, we can go much further. We can show that the Wisdom revealed in Christ makes fuller and more rational sense of our world andof our own existence than the secular world view.

We do not say that history and religion merely "co-exist". We say that Christ is "the key, the centre and the purpose of the whole of human history" (Vatican II, Gaudium et Spes, n.10), as well as unlocking the very meaning of all creation. In Catholic thinking, the history of the universe and the history of salvation are not unrelated events.

Synthesis Without Confusion

Is it possible to make a new synthesis in which the place of theology as queen of all the sciences, including the sciences of matter, is revindicated? Synthesis does not imply confusion, but a clear understanding of how things correlate within a unified perspective. Not only does Scripture affirm and the Magisterium define with certainty that Nature points to God's existence (Vatican I, Dei Filius 2, Romans 1:19-20), the Catechism tells us that scientific (CCC 283) and spiritual questions are "inseparable" (282), because "the universe, created in and by the eternal Word ... is destined for and addressed to man ... called to a personal relationship with God. Our human understanding, which shares in the light of the divine intellect, can understand what God tells us by means of hiscreation" (299). Faith then leads us "beyond the proper domain of the natural sciences" (284) to seek God Himself. So "the revelation of creation is inseparable from the revelation and forging of the covenant of the one God with his People" (288). Finally all orders and all the laws of reality, "visible and invisible", are brought together under Christ as Head (Ephesians 1).

Science studies the world from the point of view of its physical components. Theology studies the same world from the point of view of what it tells us about God, and of what God has told us about creation, about ourselves, and about Himself.
the point of view of what it tells us about God, and what God has told us ..."

Revelation, as the highest Wisdom, synthesises and illuminates all the insights of the lower sciences. So, while scientific enquiry and theology retain their own proper methods, there's only one reality, illuminated by both reason and revelation. If it comes from the Mind of God, synthesis must ultimately be possible. Unless you say there's no such thing as Truth, just different "truths" that "coexist".

All Things Together Under Christ

We can and we must show people that the laws that control and direct the vast unity of our cosmos point positively to God. Indeed we would go further and say that the whole cosmos was created as a cradle for Christ and we would expect everything in the material universe to bear witness to that fact if we could but understand it properly. The very laws of matter are aligned upon the Incarnation as their ultimate goal. This will not be predictable from studying the laws of matter themselves. The full meaning of entities does not lie in their lowest common denominator, but in their highest goal and principle of unity. All the specificities of matter in development will be found to make their most perfect sense and find their fulfilment in the coming of God in the flesh. Matter itself iswritten on the principle of prophecy - that is to say that it is a manifestation of a wisdom and order that is fulfilled in the higher gift and event.

We do not want to mix up science and religion indiscriminately as disciplines, but we do urgently need to show how they interrelate within an overarching vision of God's creative wisdom and purpose. We have minds that not only enquire but successfully unlock the secrets of the universe and put them to use in our own new creations of technology. The fact of Man as a spiritual being of mind as well as matter is the ground of both religion and science. And religion as a fact of Nature and a necessity of Nature in human history logically precedes science. The very fact that human beings are scientists derives from the transcendence of humanity over Nature and bears witness to that transcendence. Religion embodies the seeking for the highest wisdom that can direct and fulfil the humanspirit.

But, as we have already noted, the question is deeper than science and religion as human activities. We need to know what the relationship is between matter and mind. This is not an academic question, for the two orders of reality meet in our own human nature. The laws that frame our physical world and our own physical bodies, and the higher laws that frame our spiritual identity and destiny are not mutually irrelevant categories. We are one being. It is all the work of the One God.

Edward Holloway wrote:

"The failure to relate body and soul accurately in the processes of evolution is a cardinal misfortune in the work of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a mistake which vitiates, indirectly, the various other aspects of his synthesis. In fact there is a way in which we can show how man can be one with the process of evolution and its crowning glory, and at the same time a 'special creation', without juggling with words and meanings. Likewise the cosmic equation of energies which is the universe becomes intelligible once we see that it is centred on a truly transcendent Mind which is not identified with the flow of matter-energy itself.

Mind is that which controls and directs substantially and of its nature: Matter-energy is that which is controlled and directed substantially and of its nature, by Mind." (Catholicism p. 11)

This is the core principle of what Holloway names "The Law of Control and Direction".

"The Law of Control and Direction ... is not a law of matter in a specific sense. It is not the law of this or that event and effect. It is a Law in Matter that is cosmic and all-inclusive, so that the entire universe is one equation of meaningful development in mutual relativity of part on part at all times and throughout all space." (Catholicism p. 64)

Scientists already intuit that the various laws of matter/energy are really a partial expression of a unified law that makes the universe a single "equational" reality. It is the very thrust of science to connect everything on a mathematical as well as an experimental level. We can go much further and say that the whole cosmos will only make sense, even as a material equation, within a higher Wisdom or "Law" that relates all creatures to the Creator; relates body and soul in Man as one creature without confusion of orders, and Man to God as his true environment; and, finally relates all Creation and the whole of humanity to God Incarnate in Christ as their source and their goal.


Galileo's famous quip that "the Bible was written to show us how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go" is, of course, true. Similarly, the stars cannot reveal the depths of God any more than they can redeem us from sin and draw us into the fullness of Divine Intimacy. Yet the heavens do proclaim the glory of God (Ps 19) and the human mind does begin to recognise its Creator though created things. Moreover, Christ sheds light on the meaning of all things and brings them to perfection: even the stars of the night sky find their ultimate purpose as the crowning glory of the vocation of matter through Our Blessed Lady, through whom God becomes Incarnate as Lord of all Time and Space, as we graphically proclaim every Easter on the Paschal candle.

While scientists like Brian Cox give popular and compelling accounts of the wonders of the universe (see his BBC2 TV series of that name), and atheists like Dawkins and Hawking claim it all disproves God, we need to show how science and religion come from one Wisdom and lead to the One Wisdom Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Science and religion do come together "in persons", but it needs to be in persons who can give answers to a sceptical world and restore the full Catholic vision of Creation in Christ.

See our first Road from Regensburg entry for some relevant Papal comments.

Faith Magazine