Catholicism and science

Catholicism is interesting in the way it can be such a big tent. Protestants go their separate ways when they disagree, which I guess gives them some clarity at the expense of unity. But especially the way Catholics respond to science in so many different ways is fascinating.

There are plenty of Catholic conservatives who strenuously oppose a modern scientific picture of reality. Many conservative Catholics reliably support distortions of science that promise to restore a God-centered view of the universe. So you get plenty of Catholics involved in the intelligent design style of creationism. See, for example, this review of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?, by British Christian anti-evolutionist and philosopher Lohn Lennox. I haven’t read the book, but my acquaintance with Lennox so far leads me to believe that it’s typical intelligent design tripe.

But then, for every Catholic intelligent design proponent like Michael Behe, there’s also a Catholic defender of science such as Ken Miller. Mind you, I can’t be fully enthusiastic about Miller, as he seems to merely displace intelligent design onto cosmology. But even with his own misinterpretations of science, Miller is at least a strong and reliable voice for proper science education. And for every Catholic cardinal or theologian making antiscience noises, there’s a Catholic theologian speaking up for science, such as John Haught who was a very effective witness in the Dover ID trial. Again, I can find plenty to gripe about in Haught’s work, such as the way he struggles to read some progressive qualities into evolution. But in the end, he’s relatively harmless. If all theologians produced warm and fuzzy but insubstantial anti-materialist writings like Haught, we could just ignore theology and get on with the serious business of acquiring knowledge about nature.

In the end, I guess we just have to hope that the more liberal Catholics get the upper hand over their stricter colleagues.

Update: The Vatican is shutting down the observatory at the Pope’s summer residence. This news story finds some symbolic significance in this act, but I don’t know enough about the whole context to be able to say anything about it. There’s also a protest against a Papal visit by Italian scientists, due to the antiscientific stance of the present Pope. Again, I don’t know enough about the context to comment. But clearly not all is well between official Catholicism and scientific institutions.

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About Taner Edis

Professor of physics at Truman State University