Somewhere along the line of modern history, the idea has taken root, spread, and become commonly held among seculars that religious people hold to a Faith that is separate from, and at odds with, natural reason. Modern science, following the lead of modern philosophy and modern secularized religion, has fallen for the heretical notion that there are two separate tracks of history: a material track, which many assume to be the true one and to which many attach all their trust, and the spiritual one, which is reduced by many to mere fantasy; a delusion held by believers to bring hope to their otherwise short, desperate, and meaningless existence. We are confronted with atheists who claim that science, rather than faith, has sole claim to real knowledge. Atheism, they claim, is a more reasonable and informed position than faith. Faith is portrayed as superstition; something that stands purely above reason. We have faith, they say, because we prefer being faithful to being reasonable. Some atheists claim that people of faith would rather be told what to believe than to use intelligence to determine truth for themselves.
On the contrary, Catholic faith is not fideism (belief that we cannot approach knowledge of God through natural reason, and that we can only rely on faith and authority), which was condemned by the first Vatican Council. Natural reason, which includes utilization of the physical sciences, always leads us in the same logical direction as supernatural faith. The Church has always recognized the non-contradiction of science and faith, and understood that proper religious beliefs are always able to coexist with scientific knowledge. Authentic theology is never at odds with accurate science, and in fact the two can be, and should be, complementary; using each other as aids to mutual advancement. When there appears to be a contradiction between scientific observation and theological belief, we do not have to choose which one we will believe and which one we will reject, we simply have to double-check our understanding of both. The problem is always found in our perception of science or faith; our misinterpretation of one or the other, and never in the truth of either discipline.
This attitude was present even in the midst of the Galileo controversy, an event which is commonly hurled against the faith by atheists who claim that the Church is opposed to scientific discovery. In a correspondence related to this case, Cardinal Robert Bellarmine stated “if there were a true demonstration that the sun is at the center of the world and the earth in the third heaven, and that the sun does not circle the earth but the earth circles the sun, then one would have to proceed with great care in explaining the Scriptures that appear contrary, and say rather that we do not understand them than that what is demonstrated is false” (Bellarmine’s Letter to Foscarini, April 1615). In other words, when science which seem to contradict doctrine is proven to be true, the Church will never deny those demonstrations, but rather will reevaluate its theological position.
While atheists claim that religious people are unreasonable, unscientific, and slavishly obedient to a system of belief, it can be seen that it is in fact these atheists themselves who irrationally adhere to their non-belief even in the face of clear observable evidence, sometimes even going so far as postulating fanciful hypothetical possibilities in attempts to sidestep concrete empirical data. In his book Modern Physics, Ancient Faith, renowned physicist Stephen Barr points out, “How ironic that, having renounced belief in God because God is not material or observable by sense or instrument, the atheist may be driven to postulate not one but an infinitude of unobservables in the material world itself.” As an inductive method, science always moves from particulars towards universals; it starts with observations and tries to move towards general conclusions based on the empirical data. Some scientifically inclined atheists, on the other hand, ignore those observations which naturally lead to God in an attempt to protect their preconceived notion that God does not exist.
Another irony is that this debate, which some claim to be a clash between faith and reason, is not really rooted in either of these categories. According to Barr, “The fact of the matter is that there is a bitter intellectual battle going on, and it is about real issues. However, the conflict is not between religion and science, it is between religion and materialism.” Stephen Barr and several other recent authors have pointed out that religion not only supports natural science, it is in fact what makes natural science possible and necessary. Barr suggests “as non-scientific as the Bible was in its outlook, in a number of ways its message helped to clear the ground and prepare the soil for the much later emergence of science. It did this in part by overthrowing the ideas of pagan religion … all of the things which the pagan had learned to venerate as divine were reduced to the status of mere things by Jewish and Christian teaching.”
In his article,“‘Cosmos’ and One More Telling of the Tired Myth,” Fr. Robert Barron recognized that many of the leading figures of the modern scientific movement were either Christians themselves, or educated at Christian institutions, or both. According to Barron, “all of the founders would have imbibed the two fundamentally theological assumptions that made the modern sciences possible, namely, that the world is not divine—and hence can be experimented upon rather than worshipped—and that the world is imbued with intelligibility—and hence can be understood…. Without these two assumptions, the sciences as we know them will not, because they cannot, emerge.”
Modern physics has given us a number of very convincing mathematical theorems and empirical data sets which point towards the existence of a transcendent God, but the most convincing arguments still come from the realm of philosophy, which is actually quite scientific in the classic sense of the word (“to know” something). Perhaps the most famous of these is the Thomas Aquinas’s proof of the necessity of a Prime Mover, also known as the Argument from Causation. According to this logic, everything must have a reason for being something rather than nothing. Each instance of a “contingent” being must have a cause for being here. The chain of causes/explanations cannot be circular—it has to be linear and start somewhere. Some have looked at this simplistically as a chain of physical processes (such as a row of dominos toppling over in succession), but while this may be a helpful and valid example, it is somewhat limiting. Aquinas was not so much concerned with physical causes as he was with ontological ones. This chain is not so much about how as why. In The Restoration of Christian Culture, John Senior wrote, “Anyone in his right mind can see that all of this around us and including us is not a sufficient reason for its own existence. Either there is an ultimate Existent (which we call God) who is sufficient reason for existence, or there is no reason for the existence of anything—which is radical absurdity, and radical absurdity is not a reasonable alternative.”
The final blow to the atheist argument from science comes after all the evidence has been presented and the observer is asked to come to his own conclusion. Science and reason would dictate that our decisions should honor the factor of probability in relation to possible outcomes. We ought to weigh what we will provide or, more specifically, sacrifice, in the hopes of a desired outcome, and simultaneously weigh that sacrifice against any possible undesired outcomes. In other words, before we decide how much resources we are willing to supply to any venture, we need to know what we stand to gain from it if we do, or, on the other hand, what we may lose if we don’t.
Blaise Pascal, the seventeenth-century French mathematician and Catholic philosopher, applied this logic to the question of the existence of God: the investment in question is our life, the desired benefit is eternal happiness, and the undesirable risk is eternal suffering. In his famous work, the Pensees, he stated, “I should be much more afraid of being mistaken and then finding out that Christianity is true than of being mistaken in believing it to be true.” Pascal very reasonably pointed out that if we are willing to give our lives, which are remarkably short in comparison, we may (if our hopes in God turn out to be true) gain everlasting bliss. If, on the other hand, we decide that God’s existence and his revelation seem unlikely and therefore choose to dismiss them and the demands made by them, we may (if our presumptions prove to be wrong) lose our chance for eternal happiness and instead receive eternal damnation. According to Pascal,
If you win, you win everything, if you lose you lose nothing. Do not hesitate then; wager that he does exist. Here there is an infinity of infinitely happy life to be won, one chance of winning against a finite number of chances of losing, and what you are staking is finite. That leaves no choice; wherever there is infinity, and where there are not infinite chances of losing against that of winning, there is no room for hesitation. Since you are obliged to play, you must be renouncing reason if you hoard your life rather than risk it for infinite gain, just as likely to occur as a loss amounting to nothing.
According to this logic, it seems ridiculous to place your wager on the assumption that God does not exist. Additionally, the odds are even further tilted (as if 70-80 years versus eternity is not leveraged enough) since it is only by matter of opinion that a life lived apart from God’s law would be more enjoyable than one lived in accordance with it. Natural law philosophy teaches us that we achieve a greater level of happiness (eudaimonia) when we live according to God’s law than if we live in opposition to it. According to this theory, we receive natural rewards and punishments according to our participation with the logos; the ordering principle through which God created the world. Therefore, being obedient to God makes us far happier even in this life than being disobedient would. With this understanding, even the 70-80 years which you could theoretically “live it up” proves to be less than attractive.
Pascal identified that those disbelievers who credited their disbelief to reason were in truth not only unreasonable, but also self-deceptive. “At least get it into your head that, if you are unable to believe,” said Pascal, “it is because of your passions, since reason impels you to believe and yet you cannot do so. Concentrate then not on convincing yourself by multiplying proofs for God’s existence but by diminishing your passions.” Pascal recognized that disbelief was ultimately rooted in the desire to disbelieve, and perhaps most commonly rooted in desires for other things which may preclude a life of faith. Atheists, in Pascal’s perspective, should spend less time trying to postulate theories to support their disbelief and more time asking themselves why they are so vehemently proposing and clinging to them. The question for all of us is: where will you place your bet?
Editor’s note: The image above of Blaise Pascal was painted by François II Quesnel in 1691.