A couple of years ago, I received a phone call from a theologian named Chris Baglow, whom I didn’t know. He told me that he had just completed the first draft of a textbook on science and religion for use in Catholic schools and colleges and wanted to know if I’d be interested in taking a look at it. A textbook on science and religion? What a great idea, I thought, and yet how obvious! Why had no one thought of writing such a textbook before? (Or maybe they had, and I hadn’t heard of it.) How badly needed such a book is right now. The world is now awash in propaganda for scientific atheism, and yet virtually nothing is being done to prepare our youth to meet this challenge.
The next thought that occurred to me was that such a book could be worse than useless—could even be a disaster—if not done well. As I talked with Baglow, however, my fears on that score evaporated and my enthusiasm grew. I discussed many issues with him, scientific, theological, and philosophical, and (from my point of view) he was hitting all the nails squarely on the head.
Chris Baglow’s book, the title of which is Faith, Science, and Reason, has come out at last, and I urge anyone who is interested in Catholic education to buy and read it. Baglow’s book would be an excellent textbook for high school or college courses, for homeschoolers, for adult education classes, or for that matter anyone interested in the subject. Though a Catholic text (carrying an imprimatur), non-Catholic Christians and Jews would doubtless find much of interest in it, many valuable insights, and perhaps even inspiration in developing similar materials for use in their own institutions of learning.
Here is the Foreword I wrote for the book:
The most important goal of education is to give a student a framework for understanding reality. For a Catholic, of course, the overarching framework is the Catholic faith and the revealed truths that it teaches about God, man, and the world. There is another order of truths, however, that we know, not by divine revelation, but by reason and experience. Of this kind are the truths discovered by science. How do these fit into the framework? A truly educated Catholic is one who is able to integrate the different kinds of knowledge he or she has, and keep them in proper balance and perspective. In other words, he or she is a person who does not compartmentalize life but has a coherent view of it. This is the primary reason for a textbook such as this. But there is another reason, which makes this textbook by Dr. Baglow of especially urgent importance.
A Catholic student going out into the world will face challenges to his or her faith. Some of these will be in the form of sharp questions about Christian beliefs. These questions may come from those who wish to mock or from those who sincerely wish to learn. In either case, the questions will not always be easy to answer for someone who has not thought much about them before. Or maybe the Catholic student has thought about them before, but lacking guidance has been left in a state of confusion. For example, he or she may be asked, How does the biblical account of creation relate to the Big Bang theory? How do Adam and Eve relate to what we have learned about the evolution of modern humans from Australopithecus afarensis and Homo habilis? How do spiritual realities, such as the soul, fit into the world of matter described by physics, chemistry, and biology? Is it possible to believe in miracles and also the laws of nature? Is scientific reason compatible with religious faith? What about life in other parts of the universe? Do the discoveries of modern science really imply that we are just material beings without free will, as some scientists have claimed? Does the case of Galileo show that the Catholic Church been hostile to science?
Some people, perhaps, avoid these questions because they are afraid that the answers may be unsettling. But avoidance only means that students will grow up nursing secret doubts and fears and be easy prey for the first “scientific” atheist they meet in college or later life. Nor is avoiding questions compatible with our nature as rational beings made in the image of God. We are seekers after truth. That indeed is what leads us to God, who is Truth itself. What we have to fear is not truth, but rather half-truths and untruths. And, sadly, when it comes to the relation between science and religion, what many people are told consists largely of half-truths and untruths. That is why this book by Dr. Baglow is so urgently needed.
There is hardly any subject about which there is more widespread ignorance and misinformation than the relationship between the Catholic faith and science. This ignorance extends to all sectors of society, from the “man on the street” to the professor at the elite university; and it has taken a terrible toll. Gross misconceptions about the Church’s teachings and about her historical record with regard to science have undermined the faith of many believers and have created suspicion towards religion in many nonbelievers.
It would be easy to blame this state of affairs entirely on the hostility of militantly atheist or anti-Catholic people. And indeed, for well over two centuries there has been relentless propaganda about the supposed warfare between religion and science. However, it is also the case that Catholics have not been vigorous enough in confronting these issues and telling our side of the story.
Talk to any audience of Catholics, whether adults or high-school students, and ask them what name comes to mind when they think of the relation of the Catholic Church to science and the result is always the same: “Galileo!” they shout out. That is almost all they have been taught on the subject. Have they heard of Niels Stensen? Francesco Grimaldi? Georges Lemaître? Every educated Catholic should—and yet almost none have. (No, I won’t tell you who they are. You will have to read Dr. Baglow’s wonderful book to find out!) Looking over my oldest daughter’s shoulder one day, I saw that there was a paragraph in her high-school biology textbook about the experiments of Lazzaro Spallanzani, one of the greatest biologists of the eighteenth century. I asked her, “Did you know that he was a Catholic priest?” She didn’t. How could she? The textbook didn’t mention it, and her teacher had never heard it either.
And it is not just on questions of history that Catholics have not been given an accurate or full story. Too often, what they know about scientific discoveries is filtered through the interpretations of scholars or journalists who are at best indifferent to religion and sometimes deeply hostile. Fortunately, in recent years many scientists who are Christian believers have undertaken to write about science from a theologically informed perspective. This includes Catholics, such as Fr. Micha Heller, a scientist at the Vatican Observatory who does research in quantum gravity; Peter E. Hodgson, a professor of nuclear physics at Oxford University; Kenneth R. Miller, a professor of biology at Brown University. It includes non-Catholic Christians as well, such as Dr. Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project; Prof. Owen Gingerich of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics; and the Rev. John Polkinghorne, formerly a professor of particle physics at Cambridge University, and now an Anglican theologian. Dr. Baglow has drawn upon the insights of these and other scientists to produce a textbook that is impressively sophisticated in its treatment of science while remaining highly accessible to students.
But it is not only the relevant history and science that have often been neglected in the education of our students. Much of the rich tradition of Catholic theology and philosophy has been neglected as well. What does the Church mean by “Creation”? What has she historically taught about evolution and human origins? What is meant by saying we have “spiritual souls”? How does God govern the universe, and what is meant by divine Providence? In what sense is God the “First Cause,” and what is meant by “secondary causes”? What is faith, and what is its relation to reason in general and scientific inquiry in particular? One cannot begin to discuss science and its discoveries from a Catholic perspective without the theological tools. Here again, Dr. Baglow has done a masterful job of presenting the crucial doctrines and the theological and philosophical insights of Catholic tradition in an engaging and illuminating way.
There are so many ways that a book on science and religion can go wrong. Some authors think it is necessary to jettison or radically revise doctrines of the faith to be consistent with what science says. Others think it is necessary to dismiss well-established truths of science to be faithful to Scripture. Some put science and Catholic theology into a blender and end up with a pseudo-mystical mush that is neither genuinely Catholic nor genuinely scientific. Some retreat into what amounts to nature worship.
Not this book! Dr. Baglow takes authentic and unadulterated Catholic teaching and authentic and unadulterated science and shows them to be in wonderful harmony. He makes his own the words of a great scientist, whom he quotes:
“Many people think that modern science is far removed from God. I find on the contrary, that . . . in our knowledge of physical nature we have penetrated so far that we can obtain a vision of the flawless harmony which is in conformity with sublime reason.”
Dr. Baglow’s careful analysis and lucid exposition make one apparent difficulty after another melt away. He shows that the record of the Church in relation to science is one to be proud of, and indeed quite glorious. The student will come away with a deeper understanding of the Catholic faith, of science, and of their coherence with one another.
We are all deeply in Dr. Baglow’s debt. There has been a terrible drought of classroom instruction in this area. This book is not just a few drops of water on the parched earth—which itself would have been welcome—but a drenching, reviving rain.
Stephen M. Barr is professor of physics at the University of Delaware and author of Modern Physics and Ancient Faith and A Student’s Guide to Natural Science.