Catholic scientists explore connection between faith, science

By Michelle Martin | Staff writer
Wednesday, June 12, 2024

More than 100 Catholic scientists from around the world and representing a variety of disciplines gathered at the University of St. Mary of the Lake/Mundelein Seminary June 7-9 to connect with one another, learn and refresh their spirits at the seventh conference of the Society of Catholic Scientists.

Society president Stephen M. Barr said he and five others started the society in 2016 as a way to help Catholic scientists understand that they were not alone, and to show others that science and faith are not incompatible.

“We wanted to create a fellowship among Catholics who are in science,” said Barr, professor emeritus in the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. “Religious people in sciences feel quite isolated. They also are invisible.”

Barr said he has seen surveys showing that 70% of young Catholics believe that there is a contradiction between science and faith, and that there are many scientists who think it is impossible to believe in science and God at the same time.

“People rarely hear from scientists who are believers,” Barr said. “We want to witness to the scientific community and to the world at large that there are many scientists who are believers. Be a place where Catholic scientists can interact with each other.”

Since its founding, the society has grown to more than 2,250 members, and has chapters in Spain and Poland, he said. For its members, the universe offers a glimpse of the divine.

“Christian writers since ancient times have said that ‘God wrote two books,’ namely the book of Scripture and the ‘book of nature’ (or ‘book of the universe’) and that we can learn about God from both books,” he said in an email. “So to scientists who are believers, what they learn about the universe also teaches about God. The great Johannes Kepler, one of the founders of science and a devout Christian wrote, ‘I thank you Lord God our Creator, that you have allowed me to see the beauty in your work of Creation.’ That is also the attitude of SCS.”

For Barr, whose area of study is particle physics, the conference provided not just an opportunity to connect with people but also to learn about other areas of science from experts in those fields.

While some of the other conferences have had themes, including one two years ago on stewardship of the earth, this year’s was more general. It did include several presentations on artificial intelligence, which has been a hot topic for the past several years.

Other common topics include evolution, often a stumbling block for people who see a conflict between faith and science, and the possibility of extraterrestrial life.

This year’s conference featured Martin Nowak, a professor of mathematics and biology, delivering a talk titled, “Does Evolution Lead to God?”

Nowak, who uses mathematical models to observe and explain evolution, argued that it does.

“Here is a current worldview, the idea that science explains all there is, that the material word is all there is,” he said. “If you press naturalists, naturalism is defined by the idea that there is no God. But hang on. Science does not explain mathematics. If a mathematician explains a theorem, he does not need science. Mathematics does not need science in order to find truth. Does science need math to find truth? Absolutely.”

Math, he said, is “ordered thinking.”

“All understanding is ultimately mathematical,” Nowak said. “The thought of God is the most mathematical thought. God has given us to understand some aspects of this mathematics.”

Another biologist, Suzanne Bohlson, a professor at the University of California-Irvine, discussed her conversion to Catholicism as an adult.

She grew up in a family of scientists, she said, and while there was discussion of and belief in God, they did not belong to any particular church or religion.

She found her way to an understanding that faith is supernatural, a gift that people can ask for from God but not one that can be given from one person to another.

Bohlson said she looked to scientists and philosophers such as Blaise Pascal and Cardinal Avery Dulles and their conversion experiences.

Cardinal Dulles, she said, went to Harvard to study philosophy, and there he was also introduced to classical philosophers and Catholic theologians.

“He came to a conclusion, that Christianity was a superior philosophy,” Bohlson said. “He could rationalize it, but he didn’t have faith. Then, he was taking a walk along the Charles River, and there was a flower budding from the tree. He stared at the flower, and he knew there was God.”


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