Integral ecology

Stephen BarrThe thesis of the conflict between science and faith is a myth generated by the polemics of the end of the 19th century".

D. in theoretical particle physics, Stephen Barr is president of the Society of Catholic Scientists. Member of the American Physical Society, In 2007 Pope Benedict XVI awarded him the Benemerita Medal and in 2010 he was elected member of the Academy of Catholic Theology.

Maria José Atienza-November 24, 2023-Reading time: 5 minutes

Stephen M. Barr is Professor Emeritus of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware and former Director of the Bartol Research Institute, a research center of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Delaware. 

Together with Jonathan Lunine he founded the Society of Catholic Scientistswhich has more than a thousand members from over 50 countries. Hundreds of scientists, theologians, philosophers and historians have attended its conferences.

This association, one of the leading associations in the field of the study of the relationship between science and faith, is conceived as a place where Catholic scientists can share their knowledge, perspectives and intellectual and spiritual gifts with each other for their mutual enrichment as well as a forum for reflection and debate on issues relating to the relationship between science and the Catholic faith.

This relationship between science and faith, its history and the myths and truths that are intertwined in this field, is the central theme that has been dealt with -with interviews with leading figures and collaborations such as Juan Arana-, the November issue of Omnes magazineavailable for subscribers.

How and why was the Society of Catholic Scientists born?

- In 2015, an eminent astrophysicist, Jonathan Lunine, a convert to the faith, told me that his pastor had suggested founding such an organization. I myself had been thinking about it for a long time. So Jonathan and I launched it in 2016. 

We had several motives. One was to show the world that modern science and the Catholic faith are in harmony. 

A second was to foster spiritual and intellectual communion and fellowship among Catholic scientists. Religious scientists and science students can feel isolated, although they are in fact very numerous, because they are often unaware of each other's existence. 

A third motive was to create a place where people with questions on the subject could find quality information and discussions on issues of science and faith.

Is it scientifically reasonable to have religious faith? Is it possible to be a recognized scientist and a believer today?

- Many great scientists have had religious faith; in fact, almost all of them, from Copernicus in the 16th century to Faraday and Maxwell in the 19th. The founder of genetics, Gregor Mendel, was a priest, as was the founder of the cosmological Big Bang theory, Georges Lemaître.

One of the best physicists in the world today, Juan Martin Maldacena, who created a revolution in the understanding of the relationship of quantum theory and gravity, and who in science is considered on a par with Hawking, is a member of the Society of Catholic Scientists.

One can also point to eminent contemporary scientists of other faiths. Dozens of Nobel laureates have been religious. I can think of two Nobel laureates in physics who converted to the Catholic faith (Bertram Brockhouse and Sir Charles Kuen Kao).

Where do science and faith converge - do they complement each other or are they incompatible?

- Faith and science have many of the same roots: a sense of wonder at the existence of the world and its beauty and order, the conviction that there are ultimate answers and that reality makes sense, and the belief that human beings have the capacity to arrive at truth and the obligation to seek it. Faith and science complement each other, is a good way of putting it.

St. John Paul II said that science shows us how the world works, while our faith tells us what the world means.

The late Rabbi Jonathan Sacks also said so. But the issues addressed by science and religion overlap in some areas, especially when it comes to the nature of human beings, since we are part of nature as well as transcending it.

 Why, in many academic circles, is the non-existence of God still a kind of premise for accepting scientific advances?

- Outside of pure mathematics it is difficult to find rigorous proofs. In the natural sciences, for example, we do not speak of "proving" theories, but of finding confirmatory evidence.

As for the atheistic and materialistic premises found in many academic circles, I believe they are often the result of unexamined intellectual prejudices or inherited misconceptions, though not in all cases, of course.

Intellectuals are not immune to the "herd instinct".

Disinformation also plays some role. For example, the idea that religion has been perpetually "at war" with science has been very damaging to the credibility of religion. But contemporary historians of science agree that this "conflict thesis" is a myth generated largely by the polemics of the late 19th century.

Nevertheless, there are many academics who are religious or have respect for religion.

Is there interest in science in the Catholic world? Are we satisfied with superficial knowledge?

- The Catholic world is a broad and diverse place. But, in general, Catholics have a great respect for science. Traveling and giving many talks to Catholic audiences of various kinds, I have found a great interest in what science has discovered and a strong desire to understand it better. Much of what is presented to people about science in the popular media - even some popular science media - is superficial, or sloppy, or confusing, or exaggerated. It seems to me that Catholics and others want to know what the real story is.

Are we believers sometimes afraid that science will "steal our faith"? 

- Yes, it is a widespread fear, but totally unjustified. People have been taught that breakthroughs in science have generally overthrown ideas that were previously considered "intuitively obvious", "self-evident" and matters of "common sense" and have been shown to be naive. Think, for example, of the revolutionary ideas of Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein and the founders of quantum mechanics.

Consequently, many people live in fear that science may, at any moment, make some great discovery that proves that our deepest convictions and most cherished ideas are equally naive).

There was a newspaper headline in the U.S. not long ago that a quantum experiment had shown that "there is no objective reality." (When people heard that something called "the God particle" had been discovered, they imagined that it was supposed to do the things that God had traditionally been thought to do.

In reality, the Higgs particle is no more God-like than electrons or protons, and physicists laugh at the term "God particle" and never use it.

Perhaps believers would be less nervous if they understood that some of the great advances in modern science have actually supported certain traditional notions that had been threatened by earlier science.

To give just one example, before the 20th century it seemed that physics had demonstrated that the laws of physics were "deterministic," which was seen as overthrowing the idea of free will; but in the 20th century "physical determinism" was in turn overthrown by quantum mechanics.

I discuss this and four other examples in my 2003 book "Modern Physics and Ancient Faith".

Science follows a winding path, but Catholics have reason to be confident that, in the long run, it will not stray from God, who created the world that science studies.

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