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Science and Faith; metaphysical principles; Theocentric;

scientistic, rationalistic, liberal, democratic, humanistic, relativistic, egalitarian, self-determined

Rev. Rama Coomaraswamy


'Science has remained an anti-intellectual movement based on naive faith.'
Alfred North Whitehead.

Is often said that there is an irreconcilable conflict between Religion and Science. Unfortunately, such a characterization falsifies the issues. The conflict is not between Religion and Science, but between the attitudes and beliefs of 'traditional' man and his 'modern' counterpart. The confusion arises because the latter, with little if any justification, like to consider himself 'scientific'.

In the following discussion I shall characterize 'modern man', be he scientist, philosopher, politician or theologian, as holding to certain specific attitudes. Dominant among these is the idea that evolution is a law of nature, that man has 'evolved' from some primitive state to his present advanced condition, and that this 'progression' will continue indefinitely. Beyond this modern man's outlook can be characterized by such terms as 'scientistic', 'rationalistic', 'liberal', 'democratic', 'humanistic', 'relativistic', 'egalitarian', and 'self-determined'. Despite the fact that these labels are subject to a variety of interpretations and may at times even be antagonistic to each other, they have a certain substratum, in common. I shall summarize these for the sake of discussion as:

1) Evolutionist and Progressive;

2) Anthropocentric,

3) Lacking any sense of or need for the sacred,
4) ignorant of all metaphysical principles.

As opposed to these, the traditional viewpoint is Theocentric. It is based on the principle of a 'fall' from a state of grace in which man directly communicated with God; the need and gift of a Revelation by which means man can return to his primordial and sacred condition, and a metaphysic which explains the nature of God, Truth, Reality and the very essence of man. The traditional position can be said to look back to a 'Golden Age' when the gods and angels lived among us, while the Modern attitude necessarily looks ahead to a future and man-made Utopia. Not only our spiritual lives, but also our view of the world we live in, our politics and our sociology, will be influenced by which of these two sets of principles we adhere to.

It is impossible for these two attitudes not to find themselves in conflict. At stake are two radically different views of man, his nature and his destiny. It is this conflict which is at the heart of this symposium and in many ways at the heart of the problems faced by the Catholic Church since Vatican II.

Before proceeding it is essential that we define our frames of reference. Consider science. This is defined as 'a branch of study concerned with the observation and classification of 'facts' '. Science deals with measurable phenomena, its laws resume past experience and its closest approximation to truth is by means of statistical averages. Such a methodology can never establish absolute or objective certainties but only predict that what has happened in the past will probably occur in the future. When the scientist departs from the measurable, when he reasons or speculates about the facts he has gathered, he defines the results as a 'working hypothesis' or a 'theory'. As more facts become known, theories are modified and even radically changed. The conclusions of science are never stable, but rather can be described as a constantly changing 'consensus'. They are 'objective' only in so far as they can be quantitatively demonstrated, but they are never 'universal' in the sense that they are absolute or applicable throughout time and space. Those who doubt this have but to look at the innumerable and rapidly changing cosmological theories proposed for our consideration over the last 50 years. Needles to say, those who adhere to the traditional viewpoint can have no argument with measurable fact.

Faith, properly understood, also deals with facts, though not of a measurable or quantitative order. By Faith traditional man understands the conformity of the intelligence and the will to a body of Revealed truths given him as a deposit 'in principio' and are transmitted through the medium of TRADITION. His adherence to a given RELIGION 'binds' him to them. Faith is belief when the volitive element predominates over the intellectual; it is knowledge when the intellectual element predominates over the volitive. This explains why it includes both the character of fervor and certitude. However strongly we my feel about what we believe - and feelings have their legitimate role to play - such truths are objective because they can neither change nor be contradicted by reason; they are universal because being true, they apply always and everywhere. They are not held 'blindly' for their acceptance or rejection depends, not on how we 'feel', but on the use of our intellect and will.

Unfortunately modern man sees science, not as a specialized kind of knowledge about the material world we live in, but as an almost 'mystical' concept encompassing his most cherished convictions; his belief in evolution, progress, and that all reality is subjective, measurable, and centered on man qua man. For him, what science cannot measure and explain with its limited methodology simply doesn't exist - all that is knowable is encompassed within its aegis. For modern man the scientist has replaced the priest, and when he speaks - even if it be outside the realm of his competence - his words are imbued with quasi-divine authority. Everything modern man believes in - be it hygiene, socialism or modern psychology, is described as 'scientific', an adjective which seemingly endows its subject with the quality of truth and objectivity. It is to Science that we are directed in seeking a solution to our every problem. Modern man often proclaims his belief in science, and well he should, for science, or rather 'scientism;, has become his religion. He accepts its fuzzy 'dogmas,' not because they, are rational or intellectually compelling, but because he feels they are true. Such a faith is 'visceral' and 'blind'. It defies definition and can be described as an 'immenantist awareness finding its source in the subconscious'.

For modern man, faith - be it in 'scientism' or religion - is always bears this character. It is never the acceptance of a given body of doctrine, bur rather a hazy 'feeling' that is personal, individualistic and subjective. William, James well perceived this in describing religion as the 'feelings, acts and experiences of individual men as they apprehend themselves to stand in relation to whatever they consider the divine'. 'Experiential' is the popular phrase. Given this premise and our egalitarian prejudices, everybody's faith is considered personal, and of equal value. But if such is the case, how can one speak, of universal truths that we are free to accept or reject? Other problems follow: if our beliefs as to what is right and wrong, good and bad, just and unjust are also rooted in the subconscious, how can we speak in a rational manner of building a better world or of converting our concept of 'justice' into social or economic practice? Such a view of Faith of course demands great tolerance and the only way to avoid chaos in the public domain, is to accept those elements of belief which the majority of individuals agree upon and to relegate everything else to the private realm.

Traditional man, placing science in a hierarchal relationship to the totality of truth, sees no conflict between what is demonstrable by measurement and what he knows from Revelation. His attitude towards the 'modern scientistic outlook' with its claim to the totality of truth and its refusal to recognize any moral master is however quite another matter. In no way can he give his assent to irrational postulates such as progress, evolution and the perfectability of man qua man - ideas which have their origin in man's collective subconscious rather than in God. If any conflict exists, it is not between science and faith properly understood, but between modern and traditional attitudes.

Many religious leaders would resolve this conflict by means of an 'Aggiornaimento' - that is, by blending the latest scientific ideas with religious values. Let us consider some of the consequences of such an attempt. The first step required for bringing religion 'up to date' is the acceptance of the idea that our beliefs are subjective and have their origins in the subconscious. On the religious level this allows man to dream of uniting all the various 'ecclesiastical communities' into a single body. Gone will be the conflicts based on man's adherence to strict doctrinal formulations. Everyone's faith becomes respected as equally valid, and once some common ground is found, mankind can get on with the task of building a better world. Modern day Catholics are perfectly free to describe their faith as 'experiential', or as a 'dialogue with God'. Indeed, as Andrew Greeley's study pointed out, 46% of bishops and 69%. of priests hold that faith is 'primarily an encounter with God RATHER than an assent to a coherent set of defined truths.'

Far more illustrative of the search for an aggiornamento is the modern Church's Magisterial acceptance of evolution and progress. So pervasive are these concepts that many of us have been convinced that, unless religion accepts them it cannot survive. Yet as I hope to show, they are as unscientific as they are not theological. If we believe in them, it is not because they are demonstrable fact, not because they are Revelation, not because they are rational, not because one iota of evidence has ever been presented in their favor, but because we feel they 'must be' true. Their acceptance demands a visceral commitment, a blind and totally modernist faith. Let us examine them in greater detail.


Evolution and Progress are two sides of the same coin. According to these ideas not only is man at the apogee of a long evolutionary process, but evolution itself is a fundamental law of nature. By this I mean that Evolution as a concept is not limited to the biological realm, but manifests itself in every aspect of life. After all, if man Himself is a product of evolution, if man's mind is but highly organized matter than all man is involved with, all that has resulted from his efforts, must reflect the evolutionary process. It follows that the 'forces' of evolution - called 'progress' and 'historical determinism' by others - must play a dominant if not totally controlling role in our political, sociological, cultural and 'spiritual' development. Thus it is that mankind is still developing and advancing towards some higher condition wherein all men will be united ('globalization') and where strife and conflict will be eliminated and a 'new humanism' achieved. If religion is to remain a relevant force (quod absit), it must also take cognizance of such advances and adapt itself to them. As Paul VI said, 'if the world changes, should not religion also change... the order to which Christianity tends is not static, but an order in continual evolution towards a higher form.' All this is a far cry from St. Albert the Great's dictum: 'there is progress of the faithful in the faith, but never progress of the faith in the faithful.'

I have tied the idea of 'progress' to evolution. I assume we can all agree that by 'progress' we are not talking about the development of better mouse-traps. Rather we are concerned with the 'advancement' of mankind towards some higher state. In point of fact, the idea of 'progress', used in this sense, pre-dated Darwin by decades if not by centuries. One finds it used during the English Reformation where the 'Recussants' - those who refused to abandon the Catholic faith - were described as 'backward', while those who accepted the 'established' state-enforced religion - were 'progressive'. The concept was further developed during the so-called 'age of enlightenment' when people like Rousseau, Voltaire and Diderot dreamed of creating a perfect society without God. Kant embraced it in his 'Idea of a Universal History on a Cosmopolitical Plan,' a text in which he taught that history followed predetermined laws and revealed what be called 'a regular stream or tendency' which demonstrated a 'natural purpose' which would end in a 'Universal civil society.'

Spencer spoke of the 'law of progress' and defined evolution as 'a change from an indefinite incoherent homogeneity to a definite coherent heterogeneity through continuous differentiations and integrations.' He went on to teach that ''he operation of evolution is absolutely universal... Whether it be in the development of the earth, in the development of life upon its surface, in the development of society, of government, of manufactures, of language, of literature, science, art, this same advance from the simple to the complex, through successive differentiations, holds uniformly...'

Hegel taught that humanity was driven ceaselessly upwards by an all-powerful, all-rational 'It', and that the path of the ascent was an eternal, immutable, predestined, zigzag - his thesis and antithesis - always resulting in a higher synthesis. Evolutionary theory developed as a result of applying these ideas to biology. It provided a 'scientific' basis for man's belief in progress and found ready acceptance in a world that sought to free itself from all divine sanction. From, the time of Darwin progress and evolution have become almost interchangeable terms that are mutually supportive and pervasive influences in our lives. As an editorial in the L'Osservatore Romano states: 'no one today any longer believes in tradition, but rather in rational progress. Tradition today appears as something that has been bypassed by history. Progress on the other hand presents itself as an authentic promise inborn in the very soul of man' (Mar. 3,1977

Many of these ideas are incorporated into the documents of Vatican II .Consider such statements as 'The human race has passed from, a rather static concept of reality to a more dynamic evolutionary one... To a certain extent the human intellect is also broadening its dominion over time... bringing men hope of improved self-knowledge... Recent psychological research explains human activity more profoundly. Historical studies make a signal contribution to bringing men to see things in their changeable and evolutionary aspects... Thanks to the experience of past ages, the progress of the sciences, and the treasures hidden in the various forms of human culture, the nature of man himself is more clearly revealed and new roads to truth are opened... Thus we are witnesses to the birth of a new humanism, one in which man is defined first of all by his responsibility towards his brothers and towards history... Little by little, a more universal form of human culture is developing, one which will promote and express the unity of the human race...'

In a similar manner the Pontifical Academy of Science under the sponsorship of John Paul II informs us that 'Masses of evidence render the application of the concept of evolution to man and the other primates beyond serious dispute', and he himself has stated that 'all the observations concerning the development of life lead to a conclusion: the evolution of living beings, of which science seeks to determine the stages and to determine the mechanism, presents an internal finality... a finality which directs beings in a direction for which they are not responsible or in charge... (General Audience, July 10, 1985).

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