physiology

The Relationship Between Science and Religion

One of my favorite features of my Catholic faith is its relationship with science. Many say science and religion don’t belong together. I get it. Some attempts to bring them together are downright embarrassing. Prime example: Christian creationists who built the Ark Encounter in Kentucky, which scientists have decried, questioning its “scientific” roots like dinosaurs and humans living on the earth together.

There’s a long-standing idea that the Catholic Church is anti-science. Why? It persecuted poor little Galileo, but that story is mostly misconstructed myth than truth. The Catholic Church has always promoted the study of science because in studying nature, we study the beauty of God’s handiwork.

I love how St. Pope John Paul II described the relationship between science and religion in his 1988 letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory:

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

– St. Pope John Paul II, 1988 letter

Catholics love science. Pope Francis has a technical degree in chemistry and worked as a chemist prior to entering the Jesuit seminary. The Jesuits in particular have always had an affinity for science, but as the Wikipedia page of Catholic clergy scientists will tell you, all sorts of orders can say they have scientific clergy. There’s a good list of lay Catholic scientists on Wikipedia as well!

If you need more proof than Wikipedia (because let’s face it, inaccuracies exist!), look no further than the Vatican itself.  The Pontifical Academy of Sciences is an organization of prominent scientists regardless of religious background that meet to discuss scientific issues, which was established by the Vatican in the early 17th century. For example, in 2012, it meet to discuss pluripotent stem cells – stem cells not derived from aborted fetuses but rather reverted back to an earlier state. (For more on stem cells, see the National Institutes of Health FAQ here).

One of the greatest little joys to me in my advanced physiology class this semester is reading about some great Catholics and the influences they have made in the field of science. Sure, their names don’t have their clergy letters after them (if applicable) or described their faith in any detail. Nevertheless, their stories inspire me to allow science to influence my faith, and my faith to influence my science.

Here’s a couple faithful scientists in particular who have been coming up in my genetics readings:

Fr. Gregor Mendel

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Considered the father of modern genetics, it’s near impossible to go through any lecture on genetics without his famous experiments on garden peas being mentioned. Mendel discovered dominant and recessive traits are passed along unequally and established the laws of Mendelian inheritance.

What’s not always mentioned is that he was an Augustinian friar and the famous 1856-1863 pea experiments occurred in the garden of the monastery of St Thomas’s Abbey in Brno in the modern day Czech Republic. The monastery has an exhibit in his honor called the Mendel Museum. According to the translated museum’s website, Mendel preferred beekeeping to pea breeding, but he’s well-known for the latter.

Mendel never enjoyed the fame he does now for his work while he was alive. Though he presented his work in his lifetime and even corresponded with eminent biologist Carl Naegeli, his discovery was mostly ignored by the scientific community. His papers were “discovered” about 30 years later. From the little I can gather about the man, I think he would have preferred it that way regardless.

Dr. Jérôme Lejeune

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One cannot genetics for very long without discussing trisomy 21, better known as Down Syndrome. The disease is hallmarked by facial features such as a small head with a flattened face and cognitive delays. Most recently, I saw Down Syndrome in the news cycle when CBS covered a story about how Down Syndrome in Iceland is disappearing. In reality, it is disappearing because babies with the disease are being aborted, so only 2-3 are brought to term annually.

Sadly, Down Syndrome is the genetic disease with the highest rate of elective abortion rate. (Newer studies are difficult to find because many countries do not track prenatal diagnosis prior to abortion). Yet the man who helped discovered the genetic link to the disease was staunchly pro-life. That man was French pediatrician and geneticist Jérôme Lejeune.

In 1958, Lejeune was working with Dr. Raymond Turpin and fellow student Marie Gauthier in a laboratory in Paris that studied Down Syndrome when he discovered that people with Down Syndrome had 47 chromosomes instead of the usual 46. (Interestingly, it was only discovered two years earlier in 1956 that humans had 46 chromosomes) The additional chromosome was because of a trisomy (presence of three chromosomes) on chromosome 21. , but by 1959, Lejeune was presenting internationally about the discovery.

Lejeune continued his research on the link between genetics and disease, noting the link between a missing segment of chromosome 5 and Cri du Chat Syndrome as well as researching the link between folic acid and birth defects. But the thing most loved about him was his passion for the handicapped, as his daughter laid out her her memoir Life is a BlessingHe is said to have missed his opportunity to receive the Nobel Prize for his advocacy for the handicapped since many of his colleagues disagreed with his pro-life beliefs.

What I admire about Lejeune is his humility. Gauthier has disputed Lejeune’s role in the discovery of trisomy 21, but from his daughter’s account, he was a very humble man. As a child she did not even realize her father was a well-renowned scientist. While the idea of being acclaimed a Nobel Prize winner may have kept many from voicing their unpopular beliefs about abortion, Lejeune did not shy away from advocating for the handicapped, to find a cure for their disability instead of causing their demise. I think he very much would have loved that Gerber chose a child with Down Syndrome to be their 2018 Gerber baby and this TEDtalk by Karen Gaffney:

Dr. Francis Collins

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OK, he’s not Catholic, but Francis Collins is one cool Christian scientist. Collins is a physician and a geneticist, was a lead scientist on the Human Genome Project, and (no big deal) the current director of the National Institutes of Health. Collins embodies a very St. Francis of Assissi like attitude of “Preach the Gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.” In Collins’s own words,

“I don’t think I was particularly outspoken about [my faith]. But I was never secretive either. And I did at times offer to meet with medical students who wanted to discuss science and faith, and whether they were compatible. But certainly, the academic environment is not particularly welcoming to open discussions of this sort. There’s a bit of an unwritten taboo that you can talk about almost anything else in terms of the search for truth, but maybe you ought not to talk about religion.”

– Francis Collins, in an interview

I first heart about Collins on a date, of all things. I was working on the East Coast, and Tinder was becoming a thing. It was 2014, and I was travel nursing, I didn’t know a soul in Connecticut, and the dating app was not the creepy thing it is today. Anyway. I went out with a Molecular Biochemsity PhD student whose name I can no longer remember (Nick? Brian? No idea.).  I do distinctly remember he enjoyed coding to Disclosure and their hit song Latch. And he got really excited when he learned I was Catholic because he had just finished Collins’ book The Language of God.

I had known really early into the date it was not going to work, aside from the blantant fact that I was leaving in a couple months to move to California. No-Name PhD student (Luke? Dan?) grew up conservative evangelical Christian in Texas, and he was struggling with the idea of God and molecular biology. His field obviously told him evolution had truth to it, but his upbringing told him evolution was a lie. He didn’t know how to reconcile his spiritual and scientific beliefs. During the course of our conversation, Jesus came up.  I was profoundly uncomfortable talking about Jesus, mostly because me and the Big J were going through some growing pains at the time. Yet, I tried to talk Jesus, the symbiotic relationship of faith and science, and I had no idea if anything I said made any sense.

At the end of the date, Matt (Nope. Definitely not it.) had the most serene, peaceful expression to his face. He had the kind of smile that says someone has found peace. I sincerely think Nathan (Yes! That was his name!) found God that day, and I pray for his conversion every time I hear the song Latch after I laugh manically for a second remembering that weird, crazy, hilarious, God-inspired interaction.

But back to Collins. As a graduate student, Collins has said he considered himself an “obnoxious” atheist until a conversation with patient inspired him to look look more closely at faith. He asked a Methodist pastor some questions and was introduced to C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity While hiking in the Cascade mountains, he decided to be Christian observing a frozen waterfall. He became to be a believer and has described himself as a “serious Christian.” Collins felt prompted to write his book The Language of God to demonstrate that one can be a serious scientist and believer. Obviously his work has been inspirational to two people, at the very least.

I read his book a couple years ago and enjoyed it.  Collins describes at the end of his book. I did not agree with his book, but Collins is logical and truthful. I think that is what people admire about him.  Christopher Hitchens, a religious critic and atheist, described Collins as a great man. Many – though they may disagree with his beliefs – admire Collins. He seeks truth wherever it may lead him, and I deeply admire that quality.

Too, Collins is a team player. Though he was instrumental in the Human Genome Project, he did not take all the credit. Collins was director at the National Center for Human Genome Research at the time (which is not an Institute), succeeding the famous James Watson of Watson and Crick who discovered the shape of DNA.

Humble, fair, and in search of the truth. That what I think of when I think of Francis Collins. And I love how He admires the Lord. In his own words:

My God is bigger than that. He’s not threatened by our puny minds trying to understand how the universe works. And He didn’t design evolution so that it had flaws and had to be fixed all along the way. My God is this amazing creator who at the very moment that the Big Bang occurred, already had designed how evolution would come into place to result in this marvelous diversity of living things.

– Francis Collins, in an interview

Fr. George Lemaître

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Ok. I’m not astrophysicist. But I cannot end on Francis Collins talking about the Big Bang Theory (not the TV show) without mentioning Fr. George Lemaître. Lemaître was Belgian Catholic priest who was the cosmologist who hypothesized the Big Bang Theory in 1931. He taught in Brussels for decades and was the President of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences from 1960 until 1966, the year of his death.

As early as a 1927 paper, Lemaître argued that the universe was expanding, a radical departure from the popular thinking of the day that the universe was static. By 1930, other astronomers agreed that the static universe was an unsatisfying answer to new knowledge. Astronomer Arthur Eddington – his former teacher – convinced Lemaître to publish his 1927 in English. Lemaître even corrected Einstein on his views of the universe since he told Einstein his general relativity field equations were a better fit for an expanding universe, not a static one.

In 1931, Lemaître proposed that if the universe was expanding, it logically needed to start at a finite point. Thus, the Big Bang Theory was born. In 1951, Pope Pius XII incorporated the theory into an address about science proving God and complimenting philosophical Thomist arguments. Afterward, Lemaître requested a meeting with Pope Pius XII to clarify some points. The discussion is uncertain, but afterward, the Pope removed content to an upcoming speech to Assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), saying while great strides were made we may never be able to fully understand the cosmos. And that message was echoed in St. Pope John Paul II’s letter to the director of the Vatican Observatory.

InLemaître’s own words:

“As far as I can see, such a theory remains entirely outside any metaphysical or religious question. It leaves the materialist free to deny any transcendental Being… For the believer, it removes any attempt at familiarity with God… It is consonant with Isaiah speaking of the hidden God, hidden even in the beginning of the universe.”

– George Lemaître, noted here

Like St. Pope John Paul II described, Lemaître delicately balanced faith and science. Lemaître was cautious in having his theory be “proof” of God and possibly discounted as science. Precisely because Lemaître was able to delicately balance his faith and science, other astronomical research including his own provided more validity to the Big Bang Theory, which was been refined by more current knowledge but hinged on his original thinking.

Though I have many other science-minded saints and scientists in mind for this post (and possibly a future one!), I will leave you with Lemaître, Collins, Lejeune, and Mendel. These four men who advanced our knowledge of the micro and macro universe while faithfully following our Lord. Their relationship with science and religion was St. Pope John Paul II described: their pursuit of science purified their religious beliefs from error and superstition while their religious beliefs purified their pursuit of science from idolatry and false absolutes.

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