Why believe in God? Part III: Faith and Science

In a previous post I mentioned that Thomas Aquinas listed two major objections to the existence of God: the problem of evil and materialism. I addressed the problem of evil in Part II, and here want to say a few words about materialism—the objection that everything can be explained from physical properties alone. Spiritual realities are irrelevant. I think a more modern way to describe this problem is the question of “faith vs. science.” Which should we follow?

The phrasing of the question shows that people often see these as contradictory concepts. For many, “faith” means blindly trusting in something without real evidence, and “science” means relying on things that we can actually prove are true. This is not how we as Catholics understand faith. Faith is trusting in the word of another, while science (in the modern sense of the term) means a methodological study based on empirical observation and experimentation. While these are different, they are not contradictory. Both are ways to approach the truth. For example, we generally first come to know that the earth is round by faith in the word of another, and later are able to understand the proofs ourselves. In the physical sciences we can generally go back and work through the proofs that have come before us, but often it likewise relies on faith in the work that others have done. Progress is possible because we “stand on the shoulders of giants.” They are two paths to the same destination, and both are concerned with evidence and truth.

The main question, then, is what happens when the answers given by faith and science disagree? Maybe the most notorious case is that of Galileo and the discussion of heliocentrism. What does it mean if we discover by science that the earth orbits the Sun, while the traditionally people have considered the Bible to teach that the Earth is the center of the universe? I may devote an entire post to the Galileo case, but the short answer is that the popular version of the case is often historically inaccurate. The issue wasn’t so much his teaching as his presentation. The Church was open to science as granting a deeper understanding of the Scriptures. Cardinal Bellarmine (assigned to investigate Galileo) wrote: “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 [by science] is false. But this is not a thing to be done in haste, and as for myself I shall not believe that there are such proofs until they are shown to me.” In other words, his problem wasn’t with the possibility of contradicting the traditional understanding of the Scriptures, but that he believed Galileo was rushing forward by proclaiming something that didn’t yet have sufficient data to support it—hardly an “anti-scientific” objection! Bellarmine believed that, if proven correct, Galileo’s theory would actually aid in Biblical studies by helping to distinguish what is literal from what is figurative. Even today, like the Bible, we often speak of “sunrise” and “sunset,” without meaning to make geocentric claims! There is more to be said about the case, but even here we see an example of how faith and science can work together.

I would also like to respond to the challenge that faith is “blind,” and requires us to hold something without any proof. In fact, this challenge begs the question—what counts as “proof?” If we define it as “empirical scientific study,” then of course it will be limited to scientific study! Spiritual realities (God, souls, angels, grace, etc) by definition are things that are not made up of matter, and so can’t be detected by the use of microscopes, telescopes, etc. God is not a part of the world, but the creator of the world. You shouldn’t expect to find the architect of the house by rigorously examining all of the parts of the house. Likewise, the physical sciences can’t directly prove or disprove the existence of God. A popular response to this was to say that, if we can’t disprove the existence of God, we might as well believe in a “flying spaghetti monster!” However, we believe that there is evidence for our belief, even if not a scientific proof (remember, at this point I am only talking about the existence of God, not any particular revelation or faith group). We see an abundance of claims to encounters with the divine, and especially miracles. People have claimed to encounter effects without physical causes, which indicates the existence of spiritual realities (to my knowledge, none of these have been testimonies to a flying spaghetti monster!). Certainly some of these claims have been false, but materialism/atheism would require every single one of them to be false. The topic of miracles deserves its own post. Suffice it to say, scientific investigation does not clear up all of the claims. This evidence isn’t a strict proof, although gives reasons for belief. Faith is not a claim made contrary to evidence, but on account of evidence that has been encountered in a different manner.

As always, much more could be said. In conclusion though, I’d like to use the image of Pope John Paul II, who described faith and reason as the “two wings” of our flight towards God. The problem arises when one of the two wings is clipped. If we cut off the wing of human reason, then our faith loses an important clarifying light. If we cut off the wing of divine faith, our reason becomes closed in on itself. We lose insight into the deeper questions. The physical sciences help us to understand better *how* creation came about, but faith provides insight into *why* something exists rather than nothing. Faith and science do not exist in completely separate categories, and so at times will come into apparent conflict. However, the Church believes that, in the end, “if it’s true, it’s true!” (to quote my old teacher, Fr Fabian). Faith and science do not need to be seen as enemies. The sense of conflict comes from a simplistic understanding of the two concepts. One can love both faith and science (such as Fr Georges Lamaitre, the Catholic priest who proposed the Big Bang theory). If God is truth, then we are a friend of the truth wherever we find it.

Why believe in God? Part II: the problem of evil

Thomas Aquinas identified the problem of evil as one of the main objections to the existence of God—if God exists, why do we see so much evil in the world? Eight-hundred years later this is still a powerful question, and one that most have to confront directly in their lives.

First, we can take a moment to think about what we mean by the term “evil.” Would we say that it is evil to paint a rock red, yellow, or green? No… but we would say it is evil to paint over traffic lights and cause accidents. This is because we define evil in relationship to some good or purpose. The color of a rock doesn’t affect its purpose or dignity. Evil disrupts what *should* be there. It is an experience of something that has gone wrong. To use another example, we wouldn’t react in shock if we saw a human without wings, but we probably would if we saw an eagle without wings. As Augustine says, evil is the absence of some good that should be there.

However, this leads to a sort of paradox. The sense that things *should* be different implies a sense that there is a purpose or dignity to things. If there were no God (and creation truly was just the product of random chance), there wouldn’t be any more inherent purpose to a human being than to a rock. Both would come from the same source and have the same dignity. Therefore, it wouldn’t be more “evil” for a child to suffer and go hungry than for a child to be cared for and loved. Both cases would just be random interactions of atoms among beings destined for non-existence. So, in this paradoxical way, the reality of evil provides not only a challenge to faith but also evidence of belief in something that transcends atheistic existence.

Jesus responds to the question of evil a number of times. In Matthew 13 he addresses the parable of the weeds and the wheat (“Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where have the weeds come from?”); John 9 considers the case of the man born blind (“Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”); and John 11 describes the death of Lazarus (“Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died”). Jesus doesn’t give a comprehensive answer to every aspect of the question of evil, but he gives an exhortation to hope. He denies that evil is a part of God’s desire for creation, and that the evil someone suffers is always the result of a personal sin on their part. He teaches that evil is permitted for only a time, and will come to an end when the final redemption is complete. However, he teaches that there is some plan or purpose to why it is tolerated to exist for a time. In the parable of the sower he addresses the harm that would be done to the wheat if all the weeds were pulled up. With Lazarus, he speaks of the way God’s grace is manifested through the crisis. Christ exhorts us to faith in the goodness of God to believe that a plan is being accomplished. God does not directly cause or desire evil, but permits it at times for the sake of some purpose that is often mysterious to us.

This isn’t a completely blind faith. At times we are able to see glimpses of why certain things happen. We might recognize it like the painful surgery that brings about health. Other times we do not. Yet, we see Christ crucified on the Cross. We see that in his life he did not ignore suffering, but identified himself with the suffering. He embraced the full reality of evil and opened a door to redemption. He invites us to trust him on account of his goodness in the moments when we do not understand.

We arrive, then, at this choice: do we trust him in the face of evil? Will we take confidence in a knowledge that surpasses our own? The alternative (belief in no transcendent reality) also robs the sense of evil from any grounding in how things “should” be. Without God, evil becomes meaningless. Do we believe that we are correct when we see something “wrong” with the world, and that our desire for a world without evil has a basis in the truth?

This doesn’t give a definitive answer to the question of evil, and an aspect of mystery will continue to be with us on this side of eternity. But, it gives us reason for faith in the existence of God even in the face of evil.

Why believe in God? Part I: God or Atheism

In a previous post I mentioned three key questions: Why believe in God? in Christ? in the Church? Today I want to start looking at that first, foundational question. Why would someone believe in a God (theism), rather believing in no God (atheism)? Or, how does one overcome uncertainty (agnosticism)?

First, I think it is important to recognize that this is a question that exists outside of any particular revelation. Being an atheist is more than just rejecting the Bible (or any other claim of a teaching revealed by God). It is the claim that there is not a God of any kind (revealed or not). So, let’s look at an example of someone who did not reach his belief in God through any particular religion.

The Greek philosopher Aristotle lived a few centuries before Christ, and pursued knowledge of the causes of things. For an effect to exist, a sufficient cause was required. So, why did something exist rather than nothing? He argued that there must ultimately be an “unmoved mover,” i.e., a First Cause that wasn’t caused by something else.

A classic example of his reasoning is setting up a chain of dominoes and knocking them over. There must be a first domino knocked over to cause the rest. Or, if someone has a tractor and says they borrowed it from a friend (who in turn says he borrowed it from another friend, etc.), you eventually have to reach the person who somehow acquired or made the tractor in the first place. Or, for a final example, if you see a train moving along a perfectly flat surface, you can logically conclude that there is something that gave it a driving force.

If there was no First Cause, then either 1) there would be no effects, or 2) there would be no need of causes to produce effects. Both he saw as contrary to reality—created things exist all around us, and follow the law of cause and effect. Therefore, he concluded that the Greek polytheism must be incorrect, and that ultimately one Unmoved Mover must exist. Aristotle speculated about what the nature of such a thing must be (infinite, eternal, etc.), but his concept of the Unmoved Mover contains the heart of what we mean by the word “God.”

This is a very simplified explanation, but it shows one road to belief in God that does not rely on any divine revelation. In revelation we believe that we learn more about the nature of God, the process of the creation of other things, how we interact with God, etc. However, at its root, atheism isn’t a rejection of these particular things. Atheism is the belief that there is no ultimate cause or purpose to reality, whereas belief in God is the claim that there is such a cause (whatever the particular qualities of that cause might happen be). Again, there is much more to say on the matter! I’ve provided one example of a path to belief, and want to continue this topic in the following posts by looking at two of the most significant objections to God: materialism and the existence of evil.