What are the actual tensions between science and religion? (pt. 1)

(Part II here)

Ever since I read about the re-hashing of the myth of Giovanni Bruno in the reboot of the Cosmos series (and then later watched the actual program) I’ve wondered what a good account of the conflict between modern science and Catholicism would look like. These pop conflict narratives arise all the time (to be seen by millions) and then are patiently and thoroughly exposed as pure nonsense (to be read by thousands), but there is rarely an attempt to articulate where exactly the tension between science and Catholicism arises. There must be some sort of tension here: such dedicated cultivation of these indefensible cock-and-bull stories is a fumbled attempt to speak about something.

Appealing to mere hatred of the Church doesn’t explain enough. Why do other groups not manifest hatred in this way? Modern literature, art, and architecture or even engineering, farming, and economics have all arguably made great advances over the Middle Ages, but none of them feel the need when explaining themselves to appeal to their supposed triumph over the forces of darkness and superstition. Science and Politics alone appeal to this sort of triumph-of-reason view, and the political appeals have largely died off. At any rate, they seem easier to explain as mere economic conflicts between kings and clerics. But is there any real conflict we can point to between “science and religion”?

I have a few ideas. Others to follow.

1.) A disagreement over who persons should look to for relief.  As St. Thomas puts it, man knows he is subject to a higher being because of the defects he perceives in himself, and so he must look for another to help. He sees he is weak, prone to sickness, prone to evil, baffled by the universe. But there is a legitimate tension over whether we should look to God or to humanistic reason for what Descartes would call “the relief of man’s estate”.

It is inarguable that we spent centuries trying to cure sickness not by research based medicine but with relics, pilgrimages, and heavenly intercession; that we tried to figure out what drives the world by appeal to animistic and narrative explanation and not any critical analysis; that we weren’t very good at dividing things that were actually verified from what made for a compelling story. William James gives many examples of this in his final lecture in Varieties, and Robert A. Scott gives a thorough and very sympathetic account of the use of relics in Miracle Cures. It’s hard to avoid concluding that the sort of relief that people sought for centuries in religious practice is now the sort of thing we are only comfortable entrusting to science.

Most people simply don’t see the world as a sacramental presence of God, but as a series of interrelated machines for which science supplies the operating manuals. It’s difficult to see how these two visions are compatible visions of the world. At the moment, the sacramental reality has been banished from everywhere except the Liturgy. This was, perhaps, a worthy reform that made, or perhaps it is horrid blasphemy. But it is a clear point of real tension.


  1. March 20, 2014 at 1:14 am

    Knowing feedback is important, and realizing that I have nothing to say, I feel I should at least say this: This promises to be an excellent series. Please continue.

  2. Geoffrey said,

    March 20, 2014 at 7:58 am

    I would add to your list:

    (1) Natural and historical science seems to contradict the traditional narrative of the Bible on many points. For instance, there does not seem to have been a global flood, genetics has quite nearly proven there was no “first man” so to speak, the Exodus event was most likely much more complex than one would be led to believe, etc.

    (2) Israel displayed the exact same dynamics of prosperity and decline as any other country, due to climate changes, warfare, and other causes with apparently purely human or natural explanation. Why then, should we believe it was specially chosen and guided by God?

    (3) Mental illness mitigates the culpability for most serious sins. Moreover, the advent of memetics as a serious field of study, as well as the findings of neuroscience, cast doubt on whether our decision making is truly autonomous and not predetermined. Not only does this challenge the traditional Christian view of man, but also of his redemption. Pretty much only Calvinists would welcome parts of these findings, and they too would most likely be troubled by evolutionary accounts of psychology and cognition as a faux-ordered epiphenomenon actually arising from the random competition and mental mutation of subcenters of consciousness within the brain.

    Perhaps the biggest strike against modern naturalism though is that it takes a Thomistic theologian, not an atheist, to come up with a compelling argument in support of the conflict narrative between science and religion.

    • March 20, 2014 at 8:57 am

      One difficulty in speaking of tensions is that we have to strive to make it a real tension: a battle between conflicting forces. In this case the relevant “force” is some goal or social good, and so my guiding hermeneutic is to look for competing goods. We can’t explain much by just saying all modern people are godless or all ancients are primatives in need of Enlightenment and reform. To some extent the charge will always be true, but it eliminates the conflict and seeks to replace it with an account of mere reform and Enlightenment on the one hand or social collapse and descent into the age of iron on the other. Your points might serve as a good point of departure for this, but especially the first.

      It’s true that the Bible fails as a History text in many ways, and more so the earlier the period we draw from. But to put this in perspective it’s important to remember that for St. Augustine it also failed just as much at being a polished rhetorical text. Augustine and the other Latin Fathers developed a whole theory of allegorical reading to explain how the text had profundity in the face of what they saw as glaring crudity of expression. As we look on Augustine’s problem, we’re of course tempted to say that the text wasn’t trying to be high rhetoric at all, and so to see it as failing in this regard is to play the cheap trick of saying that someone failed in a game they were never trying to play. We’re at least open to the same sort of critique when we critique scripture as a historical text. But then, just what was Scripture trying to do? What sort of account was it giving of the world, and, if it is filled up with fable, oversimplification, mythic elements, and other sorts of things are these things capable of being integrated into a desirable life, or do they all need to be reformed away?

    • TimL said,

      March 20, 2014 at 11:26 am

      So is there no real content to your post? is it just the after effect of the mechanical workings of the brain?

      “cast doubt on whether our decision making is truly autonomous and not predetermined”

      This undercuts your ability to make statements that have any veracity with respects to the nature of things.

    • Margaret Nowak said,

      March 22, 2014 at 3:35 pm

      Memetics and evolutionary psychology – pseudoscienses.

  3. TimL said,

    March 20, 2014 at 11:37 am

    “Mental illness mitigates the culpability for most serious sins.”

    This is too confusing in the context of your post.
    Considering that, modern findings “cast doubt on whether our decision making is truly autonomous and not predetermined”.
    How do we know the researchers have true information for you to conclude that, “Mental illness mitigates the culpability for most serious sins.”.

    Maybe you’re inability to make a real decision is locking you into believing that mental illness mitigates culpability.
    Or, maybe those researchers who ‘discovered’ this were also locked into a decision that was well beyond the reality of things.

    Just as important, how do we even know that mental illness actually does mitigate for ‘the most serious sins’?

    Maybe that mental illness came on from sinful decisions the person made before prior to having the mental illness?
    I’ve interacted with many, many, many people who have had terrible anxiety and depression…. people with dark, morbid intrusive thoughts about hurting others.
    We talk about how this initial anxiety even came on, so many of the cases seem to be rooted in an unwillingness to be patient, caring, concerned about others. Making selfish decisions and allowing anger, frustration, and spite to fester.

    Geoffrey, I think you’ve got a real problem on your hands if you just simply start with “mental illness”.
    It’s like you assume that in cases of mental illness it just indiscriminately drops on any unassuming person…. completely independent of life styles, habits, behaviors, thoughts they may have had that could have lead to this.


  4. Bob Drury said,

    March 20, 2014 at 8:00 pm

    Modern man adores science not because he knows anything about science, but because he is awed by technology. What sign does Catholicism offer comparable to the automobile, etc.?

    • TimL said,

      March 21, 2014 at 9:36 am

      “What sign does Catholicism offer”?

      You mean, what technological innovations does Catholicism offer to establish it’s validity?

      (please correct me if I’m understanding your question wrong).

      But, why would technological innovation establish the truth of a belief system?
      Or, why would a particular belief’s veracity have to hinge on whether the content of that belief can produce something like a blender that spins faster or a microwave that heats more quickly?

      • Bob Drury said,

        March 21, 2014 at 1:41 pm

        I meant to imply that both science and Catholicism require thought. In contrast, modern man can avoid thinking, while still believing science to be true because he is both awed by and contented with technology (who isn’t?). Catholicism does not offer material awe or material contentment. Catholicism loses on that superficial level, characteristic of its modern tension with science.

    • Margaret Nowak said,

      March 22, 2014 at 3:51 pm

      There was a transition from older furnace types to blast furnace in medieval times. It was technological succes. We can compare it with a little forethought to some contemporary transition: from wire-bound telephone to mobile phone for example. Did Catholic church have to offer something similar in medieval times? No. Why in our timest hen?
      M: N.

      • Bob Drury said,

        March 22, 2014 at 8:41 pm

        Please excuse my failure to communicate. I don’t disagree with you or TimL. Acknowledging the truth of both science and Catholicism, requires thought not impressions. Modern technology is awesomely impressive. When modern man acknowledges the truths of science because of the awesomeness of technology, it is not by rational thought. Content with thoughtless impressions, he dismisses Catholicism as if it were in competition with science.

  5. Margaret Nowak said,

    March 24, 2014 at 12:02 pm

    ” awesomeness of technology” – I think it already happened in 19th century. You can see it in literature, memoirs, poetry – It was the time of positivism. Now its i time of neopositivism: fascination of technology again.

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