The Conflict Continues

‘On Faith and Science’

Long before the notorious trial of Galileo, the great twelfth-century philosopher and physician Ibn Rushd (Averroës) was banished from his home in Cordoba and saw all of his books banned and burned by the Islamic religious authorities, who denounced his belief in the existence of causality in the natural order—a causality he considered independent of God’s direct action in the world. As Edward J. Larson and Michael Ruse point out in their new book On Faith and Science, the clerics of Muslim Spain feared that, on their own, human reason, logic, and science could possess a power that threatened to make God seem unnecessary.

That fear remains widespread today among religious believers of all faiths—particularly so in the United States, where, for example, opposition to belief in evolution remains very high. But it has haunted the debate over the tension between religion and science for centuries. Ibn Rushd, who died just over a quarter-century before the birth of St. Thomas Aquinas, at least lived long enough to return home from his exile, but his work never attained the influence among Muslims that it did in Christian Europe, where it was translated and studied in the new medieval universities. Indeed, so great was Aquinas’s respect for Ibn Rushd’s explanations of the works of Aristotle, that Thomas always referred to him as “The Commentator.”

Science subsequently took root in Europe and blossomed during the Scientific Revolution, but not without casualties brought on by the same tensions that had plagued Ibn Rushd. The trial of Galileo haunted the Catholic Church for centuries—making it an easy target for Protestants attacking the popes after the Reformation, and for proponents of the Enlightenment who loathed any religious authority interfering with the progress of science.

In the view of Larson and Ruse, the longstanding debate has been ill served by the so-called conflict model that the Galileo case epitomizes, and their aim in this book is to argue that the relationship between science and religion is more complex than any notion of either conflict or simplistic complementarity allows. Larson, the Hugh and Hazel Darling Chair in Law at Pepperdine University, won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for History for his book Summer for the Gods: The Scopes Trial and America’s Continuing Debate Over Science and Religion. Ruse, the Lucyle T. Werkmeister Professor and director of the history and philosophy of science program at Florida State University, was a Gifford Lecturer and is the author of several books on the interrelation of science and faith. A staunch evolutionist and gregarious public lecturer, Ruse has irked some in the scientific community for collaborating on a couple of books with the leading proponents of the Intelligent Design movement in the United States. But he also enjoys ribbing his religious readers. At a recent conference at Notre Dame, I saw him depart from his prepared text on evolution and Christianity to quip, “Look, Adam and Eve never existed. Get over it!”

In its nine chapters On Faith and Science ranges through the history of science and philosophy, singling out the discoveries that had particular impact on religious doctrine over the past thousand years of Christian and, to a lesser extent, Jewish and Muslim culture. At the outset of the book, the authors pick up where Ibn Rushd left off, with the idea of independent laws of nature—or, as the Scholastics referred to it, the doctrine of secondary causes, the primary cause being God. The notion was not without its critics among Aquinas’s contemporaries, and in 1277 the archbishop of Paris condemned a number of propositions associated with the new natural philosophy. The idea that the world operates according to its own laws and regularities remains controversial in the evolution debate today, as Intelligent Design proponents attack the consensus of science on Darwinian evolution and insist that God’s direct intervention in the history of life can be scientifically demonstrated.

But as Larson and Ruse show in the first two chapters covering the early development of astronomy and physics—from the Copernican Revolution to the Quantum Revolution—the notion bore fruit earliest in the science of the heavens and moving bodies. The Copernican Revolution is often described as the first great shock that science delivered to the Western religious mindset, with the heliocentric system demoting the earth from its central, privileged position in the cosmos, making it just another planet orbiting the sun. But Larson and Ruse argue that what really bothered traditionalists was that Copernicus used the natural circular motion of the planets (including the earth) around the sun to explain the retrograde motions of the other planets, which periodically slowed and reversed direction before resuming their course. Once you assumed the sun was at the center of the system, you no longer needed to cite special causes (for example, angels) to explain what had seemed to the ancients to be an arbitrary phenomenon. Retrograde motion followed naturally from the laws of circular motion in a sun-centered system.

Kepler, Galileo, and especially Isaac Newton improved on Copernicus’s great program, letting go of the insistence on perfectly circular orbits in favor of elliptical ones, and fully describing the dynamics of the planets with Newton’s laws of motion and universal gravitation. But even Newton, perhaps bothered by this self-sufficiency, insisted God was still necessary to occasionally tweak the motions of the planets if any threatened to wander off course.

The laws of nature in the heavens were one thing, but applying such laws to human beings was something else.

The laws of nature in the heavens were one thing, but applying such laws to human beings was something else. And in the third chapter the authors deal with the impact of Newtonian mechanics on the concepts of the mind and soul. Descartes’ separation of an immaterial mind from the mechanics of the human body can be viewed in this light as a sort of pre-emptive strike to protect the unique status of the soul. If so, it was short-lived, as the advent of Darwinian evolution threatened to place everything human under the power of natural selection.

Here is where the real conflict with faith remains. The mechanism of natural selection was affront enough to nineteenth-century believers in the special creation of all species (including humans). But then, over the following decades and into the twentieth century, came the gradual awareness of the eons and eons of extinct species that lived and died long before humanity, coupled with the growing awareness of the waste and suffering these past eons implied. This added another layer of true disquiet to the belief in divine providence.

Can one call a God who presided over such gratuitous suffering good? As some theologians suspected, even the most accommodating attempt to square the God of the Bible with evolution wouldn’t get God off the hook when it comes to the widespread existence of evil and suffering. As evangelical Christian theologian John Schneider put it, the world revealed by evolution “depicts the planetary and biological past as one in which entire biomes have come and gone in apparently purposeless and brutal fashion, and reveals that ours is merely one of them” (“The Fall of ‘Augustinian Adam’” in Zygon, November 2012).

And more recently strides made by cognitive science appear to give added credence to a radical materialism that, in the authors’ view, undermines any religious belief in the transcendence of the human spirit. The mind and soul appear to be the by-products of brain. If there’s any reconciliation to be had between science and faith here, they write, perhaps it can be found in the realm of quantum mechanics, although they do not delve deeply into the topic themselves.

What about humanity’s own origin—and the theological doctrines associated with it, chiefly Original Sin and The Fall? There have been attempts by Catholic theologians to accommodate these into an evolutionary perspective, but to date official pronouncements from the Vatican remain very general. At the pastoral level much confusion and misunderstanding about the science of human evolution and its implications remains. The Catechism does not discuss evolution at all, and continues to treat Adam and Eve as historical figures. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that  the popular press continues to assume a general distrust of science on the part of the church. Rome cannot live down the Galileo case. For example, when Pope Francis, shortly after being elected, asserted that there is no conflict between the notions of creation and evolution, it was treated as front-page news worldwide, even though both John Paul II and Benedict XVI had said the same thing on many occasions.

Not to close on a discouraging note, Larson and Ruse address the role of religious leaders in promoting a more protective approach to the world’s increasingly fragile ecosystem. They highlight the Catholic Church and in particular Pope Francis, who devoted his entire encyclical Laudato si’ to the defense of the natural world and worldwide efforts to reduce carbon emissions to counter the increasingly destructive effects of climate change. They also compare Pope Francis’s exhortations to those of Harvard’s E. O. Wilson, an outspoken atheist but also an outspoken proponent of seeing all life as an interconnected whole. Wilson has expressed great respect for the pope’s efforts in speaking out in support of the scientific consensus on climate change. In the authors’ view, both men, despite approaching the issue from widely different traditions, represent a way forward for atheists and believers in together meeting the challenges Mother Nature has in store for humanity. 


On Faith and Science
Edward J. Larson & Michael Ruse
Yale University Press, $30, 312 pp.

Published in the February 9, 2018 issue: 

John Farrell is a freelance writer based in Boston. He is the author of The Day Without Yesterday: Lemaître, Einstein, and the Birth of Modern Cosmology, published by Basic Books.

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