Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Faith, Science and a Grownup's God

As Americans celebrated Independence Day, the world's scientists celebrated the discovery of the elusive Higgs-bosun, a sub-atomic particle first theorized half a century ago that would help explain why some particles gain mass. Popular culture has nicknamed the Higgs "the God particle."

In a July 9 Newsweek article, a physicist says this nickname for the Higgs is particularly unfortunate because, he argues, its discovery might actually help eliminate the need for God: "...it validates an unprecedented revolution in our understanding of fundamental physics and brings science closer to dispensing with the need for any supernatural shenanigans all the way back to the beginning of the universe," he writes, concluding: "The Higgs particle is now arguably more relevant than God."

While believers would understandably take issue with this assertion, perhaps one of the better qualified to tackle it is Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a.k.a. the Vatican astronomer.

Like the author of the Newsweek piece, Brother Consolmagno sees the importance of the discovery of the Higgs particle. He explains in an interview with Catholic News Service that "It indicates that reality is deeper and more rich and strange than our everyday life." While he doesn't directly rebut the assertion that the Higgs particle makes God obsolete, he does criticize the thinking behind it, saying it's bad religion to employ a "God of the gaps," i.e. to explain the missing parts of scientific discovery by saying that's where divine intervention occurred.

Father Thomas Weinandy, OFM Cap., head of the U.S. bishops' Secretariat on Doctrine, cites another  issue: "While the Higgs particle may help us in understanding the relationship between mass and matter, it does not explain why the Higgs particle itself exists." He notes that nothing in the nature of the universe, from a tree or a person to the cosmos themselves, demands that things exist. "There must be a being whose very nature demands that it exists and, because of this, is able to bring other beings into existence," he says. "That being is God."

To better understand these points about faith, science and the nature of existence, it's helpful to look at another infamous faith/science flash point: evolution. Like the discovery of the Higgs particle, evolution involved scientific discovery seemingly stepping into territory reserved for God in the Genesis creation accounts. And as the ensuing culture wars have played out from the Scopes Monkey Trial of the 1920s down to the various Intelligent Design-themed skirmishes on school boards, one suspiciously absent player has been the Catholic Church.

From the 1950 encyclical of Pope Pius XII, Humani Generis, to the 1996 address by Pope John Paul II to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, the position of the Catholic Church has ranged from openness to acceptance, seeing no clash between science and theology on the question of evolution. In fact, when the Pontifical Council for Culture held a symposium on Darwin in 2008, it invited leading scholars in biology and theology, but pointedly didn't include either biologists with aggressively secular views of their field or proponents of creationism and Intelligent Design.

One could argue that the Church learned the lessons of the Galileo dust-up of 400 years ago and started recognizing that science and faith seek to answer different sets of questions about human existence and ultimate reality. In making this important distinction between empirical fact and revealed truth, the Church moved to a deeper understanding of a God who is ever in control and works implicitly through the natural phenomena of creation, as opposed to clumsily and cartoonishly shoehorning Himself over them.

(Similar to science and religion, last year this blog tackled the topic of how faith perspectives fits into public policy debates.)

In both the origins of the universe and the species, the Catholic Church affirms the important work of science and, implicitly, calls on everyone, Catholic or not, to a more mature understanding of who God is and how God works. It's easy for physicists (and just about anyone, for that matter) to write off religion as somewhere between outdated and laughable when its adherents insist on presenting God, in the words of singer-songwriter Regina Spektor, "like a genie who does magic like Houdini or grants wishes like Jiminy Cricket and Santa Claus."

With this perception, there is nothing surprising about a lopsided commentary that couples an advanced grasp of science with an elementary grasp of God. It should challenge believers to approach their faith in such a way that, the next time something as tiny as a subatomic particle has universe-defining implications, no one will be able to say, in  the the words of the Anglican scholar J.B. Phillips: "Your God is too small."


Brian H. Gill said...

I'm very glad to see the 'science and religion' issue discussed from an informed Catholic perspective.

Given America's cultural history, it's not hard for folks to assume that "Christian" and Luddite" are synonyms.

Fine examples: I've quoted Brother Consolmagno's "Brother Astronomer," in another context. (A Catholic Citizen in America ())

Byeway said...

Scientists who argue against the "need" for a god are guilty of shortsightedness, which, interestingly, they would vigorously deny.

What they demand is a never-ending cyclical system of material existence which has no beginning nor end. Experimental evidence, which they demand, is of course entirely absent for this kind of material existence. Yet these "logical' minds can ignore this void and make a "leap of faith," allowing them to avoid the necessary conclusion that there must be something more essential -- something which does not have a source itself.

I call this "The Faith of Atheism" and I believe that those who hold this faith are unable to see themselves as "believers." How sad for them.