Why Would a Catholic Priest Blog About Science?

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Father Michael K. Holleran wrote three pieces for discovermagazine.com in the fall of 2006.

Why am I daring to undertake this blog? The short answer is that the publisher and CEO of Discover personally asked me to try it. I was his parish priest in Greenwich Village, in Manhattan, and we had many fruitful exchanges about religion in the modern world. The deeper answer is that we both consider the current interplay of science and religion to be too much cast as clash and not enough sensed as symphony. My first entry on the blog develops this theme.

Two cautions about my qualifications are in order as we begin—one on science and one on religion. As to the first, I admit I am not a scientist but simply have an educated layman's fascination with the subject. My college studies in the field were an exhilarating time of discovery both of the beauty of science and of its grand potential as a dance partner with religion. What's more, my own father is indeed a scientist and a major source of inspiration for me, in this as in many other areas. He taught postgraduate chemistry at St. John's University for nearly 40 years and at the age of 85 is still doing research and having papers published in his field. At the same time, he has long been a fervent Catholic, an avid reader of theological issues, and dedicated to service within his church community.

The second caution has to do with what we mean by "religion." As a Roman Catholic priest, I obviously come to the conversation with my formation in the wondrously rich intellectual tradition of Catholicism. I do not, however, have a formal theological degree. What I do have is Jesuit training, not only from high school (Regis) and college (Fordham), but also as a Jesuit myself for five years. Perhaps more importantly, I have over twenty years' experience as a hermit contemplative monk in the Carthusian Order. (The life of the Grande Chartreuse, where I lived for seven years, is the subject of the recent documentary Into Great Silence. While there I was in charge of the production of our liqueur—Chartreuse—a job that surely mingles not only herbal ingredients but also art and science!) For this reason, I do not consider my stance to be either conservative or liberal but contemplative. By this I mean an attitude that shuns ideology and rests in the grateful and often scary appreciation of the real as it reveals itself in all its splendor. For this reason, too, I have an immense respect for other religions and their traditions, and look forward to having blog participants enlarge the discourse with insights from their own spiritual backgrounds. I myself have training in yoga and more especially in Zen Buddhism, and hope to be able to offer for your consideration some contributions from these venerable world views.

Perhaps a better way of saying this is that I have an enormous respect for the often tortuous and frequently exciting personal journey of each individual in sincerity and freedom. This brings me to yet a third caution, which is perhaps the most important of all, and which I touch on in the inaugural blog post. However contrary it may be to the rules of discourse (or lack thereof) in the contemporary blogosphere, I hope we can engage in a gracious and courteous conversation. I deem that the only mode worthy of the truth. We should by all means challenge and question one another, but I should hope our interchange would never descend to the level of mere unvetted venting, or, much less, to ad hominem argumentation. Caveat scriptor (let the writer beware)!

May we be embraced by the light, however we imagine it; for I suspect that is somehow already the condition for an authentic search for the light.

And may that be truly what we seek.

—Father Michael K. Holleran

Jesus Fish and Darwin Fish

Posted by Anonymous User at 2007-09-24 09:24 I also am a Catholic who does not see a real conflict between religion and science. But it's not clear that other people feel the same way. In my 50,000 miles of driving, I have seen Jesus-fish bumper stickers and Darwin bumper stickers (the fish with legs), but I have never seen a car with both. Maybe this is just because people who don't see things in terms of conflict don't get bumper stickers at all, but I know there are people who really think that religion and science are absolutely incompatible. We have today the current crop of books by scientists claiming precisely this. And we all know that religious dogmatism has in fact been invoked, by people who should in theory be "experts" on what religion is, to stifle religious inquiry. So here's a place to start: knowing exactly what the proper domains for science and religion are. If people knew what kind of claims each side can effectively advance, they may be more adept at recognizing irresponsible claims coming from either side.

Blindness of Religion

Posted by Dave Jarvis at 2007-09-25 18:13 Kurt Wise, a keen, educated geologist, stated (In Six Days, Ashton [1999]): "Although there are scientific reasons for accepting a young earth, I am a young-age creationist because that is my understanding of the Scripture. As I shared with my professors years ago when I was in college, if all the evidence in the universe turns against creationism, I would be the first to admit it, but I would still be a creationist because that is what the Word of God seems to indicate. Here I must stand."

Undoubtedly, he stands in stark contrast to the ideas and ideals of science. In science, when facts are found to be incorrect (even in a matter of a slight degree), subsequent publications on the matter seek to illuminate the mistake, and consequently correct it. The same cannot be said for holy texts. When religion encounters logic, it dodges, it refutes. Religion shuns, spurns, and douses Truth with might that only Faith seems able to wield. It comes across like an idiosyncratic dogmatic mantra: The holy book is true, and if evidence contradicts it, the evidence itself must be dismissed.

Father Michael, you asked us to avoid ad hominem calls of hypocrisy, to turn a blind eye to the failures of the past: the atrocities of both religion and science. To imply, with some subtlety, that no modern theologian takes a literal view of the book of Genesis. However, therein lies one of the more brilliant points Dawkins makes in his book, The God Delusion. Religious people, Dawkins notes, "pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories." To discard those parts of the Scripture that no longer align with modern moral, humanistic standards, while admirable, shows how tenuous, even flippant, religious beliefs can be. How incongruent with the search for Truth, when truths can be rewritten or discarded by the whim of a single prophet.

Yet if we were to ignore the history of religion, to open the doors for future discourse, would we not also be turning a blind eye to the possible future pitfalls that has so marred its bloody past? Is it just to say, "Let us forget about the massacres. Forget about 9/11. Forget the Spanish Inquisition. Forget the Holocaust. Crusades? What Crusades? We will pretend the Saxon Wars never happened." And instead say, "Let us focus on how religion can enhance our understanding of the Truth, ignoring its shady past. Let us now find a way for science and religion to co-exist, in a civilised form"?

How is it possible to talk about the honest intent of religion when, when presented with irrefutable evidence to the contrary, the minds of the faithful do not budge to adopt and adapt new Truths? When, instead, they adamantly refuse to believe that which is in complete contrast to words written hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago? Or even flatly deny the outcomes of present day experiments, which also, in remarkable contrast, undermine stodgy beliefs?

Consider the results posted in the April 2006 issue of American Heart Journal. The Templeton Foundation tested, in a double-blind, controlled experiment whether or not prayer improved (or otherwise affected) the health of sick individuals. Just over 1,800 people who underwent coronary bypass surgery were split into three groups. Group 1 received prayers, yet did not know. Group 2 received no prayers, yet did not know (the control group). Group 3 received prayers, yet knew.

Groups 1 and 2 held no significant difference in recovery time (no surprise, really). However, Group 3 held significantly more complications than the others. Dawkins suggests that the most likely explanation was not that God was smiting them, or that God could somehow see through the test (and thus continued His oddly vacuous "testing of faith") but rather they suffered from "performance anxiety". However, the actual results are beside the point.

The Templeton Foundation saw a means to put prayer within the realm of science. It funded and successfully executed a double-blind study to examine the effect of prayer. The study very well could have yielded a positive result. The study could have established a link that praye rhas a positive effect on the sick. That, possibly, something "out there" is tuned in to the thoughts of various humans spread out across the land.

And had such an experiement shown a positive outcome, do you think that any religious individual would have "dismissed it on the grounds that scientific research has no bearing on religious matters?" I highly doubt it.

Of course, such an experiment will have little effect on the faithful. As Dawkins so wonderfully posits: Religious pundits "know" from personal experience that prayer works, as they have seen it work (anecdotes are scientifically invalid, by the way), so if "evidence fails to show it, we'll just soldier on until finally we get the result we want."

Religious zealots have shown, time and time again, that they have no interest in, nor respect for, Truth. And without truth there can be honest discourse.

So why even pretend?

Towards the Light

Posted by Michael K Holleran at 2007-09-28 05:41

Dear Dave,

It is unfair to criticize religion for not adapting and questioning when new evidence arises, and then turn around and criticize it for doing exactly that: adapting and questioning when goaded by fresh experience, whatever the source. We do indeed deepen in our understanding of just what the Scriptures contain. In this process, pace Dawkins, we do not "pick and choose which bits of scripture to believe, which bits to write off as symbols or allegories"; we accept it all as true and truly symbolic: a parable and paradigm of God's dealings with the human race, leading them from the inevitable obtuseness and obfuscation of the psyche that first received and expressed the message, and moving towards ever greater transparency as the saga unfolds. And it continues even today. Already around the year 600, in his famous homilies on Ezekiel, Gregory the Great noted that, because of their intrinsic richness and depth, the Scriptures progressively conform to the level of understanding and maturity of the hearer. And the Kabbalah has thought to plumb the profundities of Scripture by interpreting the whole of it primarily as a mystical allegory already for millennia. It was joined in this by Christian bishops and spiritual writers in the early centuries of our era who plugged into this current of thought, notably Ambrose in the West and Gregory of Nyssa in the East. And, incidentally, all language is ultimately symbolic, including that of math and science. Yet we don't "write it off" because of that, but use it with a chastened recognition of its limitations.

I do indeed advise going beyond the mistakes of the past, perhaps attempting to understand and even forgive them within the limits of their socio-political context, as tragic episodes along the arduous path towards the evolution of consciousness; but, I most certainly do not advise that we "forget" them or "turn a blind eye". On the contrary. As the saying goes, whoever ignores the errors of the past is doomed to repeat them.

The Templeton Foundation experiment was well-intentioned, but, in my view, grievously misguided. One cannot measure the value or meaning of prayer according to the number of people physically healed of some disease, as opposed to members of some other group. Such results were never promised us. And you mention yourself the complicating factor of "performance anxiety". In any case, at its most profound and authentic level, prayer is not about "getting results". It is an alignment of being, not an asking for things; a gift of oneself, not a gift for oneself.

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