Religion in the face of scientific progress

Religion in the face of scientific progress.
En torno a un libro-survey by José María Gironella

Author: Mariano Artigas
Published in: Aceprensa, 12/95
Date of publication: 1 February 1995

In his recent book Nuevos 100 españoles y Dios (Planeta, Barcelona 1994), Gironella poses seven questions. Two of them refer to the relationship between science and religion, and the answers give rise to some reflections on this issue, which is so important today.

For several decades, I have been studying the relationship between science and religion with particular interest. I am often asked what the experts think. Therefore, when Gironella's book fell into my hands, I focused my interest on the two questions along these lines.

As the book is voluminous (486 pages, albeit with many photos), I first looked for the people I found most interesting; I guess that's what almost everyone does. When I had read a few answers, I seemed to notice that the interviewees who are scientists or have studied science do not see any civil service examination between science and religion, and that, on the contrary, those who think that such a civil service examination exists are people who, although they are educated, have not been involved in science. I found it interesting to test whether this hypothesis was valid, and I set about testing it at test by studying all the responses. My conclusion was that the hypothesis holds up quite well.

A survey inside the survey

I do not claim that this conclusion has a general value. First, because it is only based on the answers of 100 people and, moreover, it refers only to some of them: on the one hand, to professional scientists (and people with a scientific university degree training ), and on the other, to those who, without being scientists, think that science is opposed to religion. Moreover, I have only looked at the relationship between science and religion in general, leaving aside more particular aspects. Even so, it seems to me that this is an interesting conclusion.

In Gironella's book, only 3 interviewees are presented as scientists: Fernando Jiménez del Oso, who is a psychiatrist; Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Full Professor of Biochemistry ; and Vladimir de Semir, mathematician and scientific journalist. It seems logical to expand the list with 6 practicing physicians (doctors, professors and specialists), making a total of 9.

We could add another 13 people who are professors or graduates at Economics, industrial engineers, or doctors or graduates in science, although some of them work in other professions. At the end of this list are people such as Jordi Pujol, graduate in medicine who is a politician; Jesús Gil y Gil, a businessman who studied programs of study at Economics and veterinary medicine; and a professional astrologist. This brings the total list to 22. For those who would like to check data, and taking advantage of the fact that Gironella has numbered the interviews, these are interviewees numbers 9, 14, 21, 24, 25, 25, 28, 28, 33, 33, 41, 42, 46, 48, 48, 52, 57, 57, 65, 67, 68, 76, 79, 80, 85, 89 and 97.

Of course, these 22 people are not, nor do they pretend to be, the representatives of science: they are simply those who have the most direct relationship with the scientific world among the 100 people chosen by Gironella, who belong to the most varied professions.

There are books, similar to Gironella's, in which only scientists are interviewed and, moreover, the questions refer exclusively to the relationship between science and religion. In these books there are answers to suit all tastes, which means sample that science is not a decisive factor for belief or unbelief. Taking Gironella's book as a basis, the reflection acquires a special nuance: sample that, among people with an important social impact, those who are most closely related to the world of science are usually those who do not see difficulties in combining science and religion.

It seems to me possible to say that, on the contrary, those who claim that there are serious difficulties in reconciling science and religion often have little or no connection with science. However, I leave that check to the reader, if he or she wishes to do so. I have done it myself, but I will not dwell on this point, which could be construed as a criticism of individuals. I have no desire to make such a criticism, and I have respect for anyone who sincerely puts forward his or her ideas, even if they do not seem to me to be correct.

Some numbers

Let's look at some significant numbers for my particular survey . I will refer to those that are most significant and can be easily summarised.

First of all, the existence of God, which is the first question proposed by Gironella. Among these 22 people, 16 clearly state that they believe in a God staff, 1 expresses a belief mixed with some uncertainty, 1 rather seriously doubts, and 4 deny the existence of God or proclaim themselves agnostic. It is clear that, on this question, the affirmative answer is clearly in the majority.

Secondly, about the existence in us of something that survives temporary death (Gironella's second question), 14 affirm it, 4 are inclined to affirm it, and 4 deny it or declare it unknowable. Again, the affirmative answer obtains a clear majority, although not as resounding as in the first question.

Thirdly, on the divinity of Jesus Christ (Gironella's third question), 13 say they believe in it, 2 propose some nuances but consider Jesus Christ to be a unique being and value him positively, 1 is rather doubtful, and 6 are negative. There is therefore a new absolute majority, although somewhat less than in the second question.

The summary on these three questions is quite straightforward. Of the 22 people, 13 answer affirmatively to all three questions: they are those who affirm the divinity of Jesus Christ and, logically, they also affirm the existence of God and the immortality of the soul. Another 4 answered in the negative to all three questions. The remaining 5 are those who oscillate: for example, 3 of them affirm the existence of God but are divided or find it difficult to admit the immortality of the soul and the divinity of Jesus Christ.

It is clear that the truth about these questions does not depend on a survey, even if it were much broader. But what emerges from these data is that the vast majority of respondents who have or have had a special relationship with science find no incompatibility between science and the central claims of religion. Let us look at some significant responses.

Between science and religion there is no civil service examination

This is the categorical response of Federico Mayor Zaragoza, Full Professor of Biochemistry and director general of Unesco, who goes so far as to say that science could only have a negative impact on religion to the extent that ignorance and lack of intellectual openness allow it: questions of the spirit and scientific questions belong to a different conceptual domain, he adds.

Juan Rof Carballo, Full Professor of medicine and head of the endocrinology service, as well as member of the Royal Spanish Academy and author of several books on man, affirms that science is a minuscule and at the same time grandiose form of human knowledge, and adds that, if before science seemed source of incredulity, today sample its radical neediness, underlining that the most audacious science spurs faith rather than doubt.

Alfonso Balcells, Full Professor of medicine, also agrees. He thinks that science does not negatively affect faith, except through ignorance. He adds that science and theology are different levels of knowledge. And he stresses that the rational and the suprarational are complementary and not contradictory.

Balcells tells an interesting anecdote. He says that the prestigious neurologist Rodríguez Delgado was recently asked if he thought, like Severo Ochoa, that love was pure Chemistry. agreement He replied that he did not agree with his friend Ochoa, and reasoned as follows: "Love does not exist without oxygen, does it? But that doesn't mean that love has to be related to oxygen. Love, like hate, is something more complex than Chemistry".

Harmony between science and faith

José Botella Llusiá, Full Professor of medicine, affirms that the material progress of the modern world does not distance us from God, but rather should bring us closer to Him. And, at the same time, he recognizes that sometimes an effort is required to achieve this harmony, which is possible.

According to Botella Llusiá, it is not always easy to harmonise scientific advances with the idea of God, but it is possible. Nobody stops believing in the Scriptures because the Earth moves, and it is perfectly possible to admit that Homo sapiens came from a series of mutations of Australopithecus without stopping believing. He adds that at the present time a new ideological revolution is coming with neuroscience, but the religious person should not be afraid to face the truth. And he underlines this with a little anecdote: last autumn, he says, a few Spanish scientists were received by John Paul II: "Truth will set you free," he told us, "keep on investigating".

Vladimir de Semir, too, from a somewhat different perspective, also takes a positive view of John Paul II's attitude to science, even quoting a textual quotation of the Pope in March 1980: "basic science is a universal good which every man must be able to cultivate free from any form of international servitude or intellectual colonialism".

The decline of positivism

Ricardo de la Cierva is known as a politician and historian, and so he is presented in Gironella's book. But he is also a doctor in chemical sciences, as well as a doctor in Philosophy and Full Professor of history. And he uses here his direct and incisive style that, at least, invites to think. In fact, he states that the Spanish public, apart from a small minority, does not have the slightest idea about science and technology: if they knew more about today's science, he adds, they would be closer to God. He also comments that atheistic positivism is withered, and he adds: the enemies of God seek other much more subtle ways of aggression; it is Nietzsche who is dead, God lives.

Positivism asserts, among other things, that scientific progress facilitates the elimination of religion. The opposite is asserted by Jaime Salom, who studied medicine and specialised in ophthalmology, although he is much better known as a playwright and novelist. Salom denies that advances in science have to interfere with the notion of God; rather, they would show that man, by going deeper and deeper into the dark spaces of nature, gets closer to Him, as long as the beauty and perfection of the newly discovered tree does not lead him to forget the forest. To draw facile consequences like the anatomopathologists at the beginning of the century, who came to the conclusion that the soul did not exist because they could not find it in the corpses they dissected, does not seem serious.

Juan Velarde, Full Professor of Economics who has collaborated in international social organizations, expresses his agreement with Catholic doctrine. His answers contain interesting analyses about the evolution of the religious sense in modern times. He points out the difficulties encountered by faith today, but does not attribute them to science in itself: simply, current circumstances demand a mature faith from the believer.

Other answers focus on the compatibility and harmony between science and faith. Rafael Termes, an economist, points out that the scientific and technical work coincides with the plan foreseen by the Creator, so that its authentic achievements cannot go against the ties that bind man to God, but rather should reinforce them. He states that if the opposite sometimes happens on internship , it is because false consequences are drawn from scientific or technical discoveries.

Along the same lines, the engineer and businessman José Ignacio López de Arriortúa thinks that scientific and technical progress has a positive influence on religion. The more I study and the more I live life, he says, the greater the religious feeling I personally experience.

A concluding evaluation

It can be said that most of the interviewees who have or have had contact more direct contact with science agree that science and religion are not opposed to each other, and are even complementary. This coincidence is particularly significant if we take into account that these people do not agree when evaluating more specific aspects of Christianity.

Personally, the conclusion seems logical to me. The times of conflict between science and religion, when some claimed that science was opposed to faith and would even destroy it, are a thing of the past. Today, no one who is moderately informed would hold such a view.

Undoubtedly, there are still points where an effort is needed to understand the harmony between science and faith. But if we limit ourselves to the basics, it can be said that the spectacular progress of the sciences rather invites us to look at religious questions on an ever broader and more interesting basis. In fact, there is an abundance of current publications where scientists, philosophers and theologians study this subject, and the growing interest they arouse sample that the advances in science, far from cornering religion, provide it with new wings. Contrary to the positivist thesis , religion is not based on human ignorance, in which case progress would be enough to put it out of the game. Religious questions are inscribed in the human heart and touch on its most fundamental aspirations, which cannot be resolved by science alone, and refer to experiences and reflections that lie in the realm of religion itself.

Light and shade

Today's status is, in fact, somewhat more complex. Important voices point out that positivism, although discredited in theory, influences today's culture more than ever.

From agreement with the famous law of the three stages formulated by Auguste Comte, nineteenth-century positivism affirmed that humanity has passed through three epochs or stages. The first was described as mythical or theological because, according to Comte, when science and technology did not exist, man tried to find his place in the world by resorting to supernatural explanations that had no objective basis. In a second phase, the metaphysical stage, man would have replaced religious myths with abstract rational systems which, however, did not correspond to reality either. Finally, the development of science in modern times would have allowed man to enter the phase final, the scientific stage: leaving aside theological or metaphysical explanations, man focuses on the only thing that has real value goal, i.e. science. The ultimate, unanswerable questions are dispensed with, and the focus is exclusively on the study of phenomena, of facts, trying to relate them by means of laws that make it possible to achieve a mastery of nature. In this perspective, religion would be a passing product of humanity, destined to be abandoned when it reaches historical maturity, thanks to science and technology.

This positivist thesis does not allow us to understand that in our time, when more scientific and technical progress has been achieved than ever before, religion is still very much present, even in the lives of many people who are professionally involved in science. Moreover, it can be shown that positivism is too superficial, because science, although it has its own autonomy, is closely related to philosophical ideas: science has philosophical assumptions without which it could not even exist, and scientific progress acts on these assumptions, broadening and refining them.

In today's science Philosophy , the positivist thesis appears to be too simple and hardly anyone is willing to defend it. In the realm of specialists, positivism does not merit any credit , and it is accepted that science and religion respond to two different but complementary perspectives.

However, positivism is not dead. Far from it. It may be discredited as a doctrinal interpretation, but its basic idea is more influential today than ever. There are more than a few who believe that the ultimate questions are unanswerable, and that only the sciences provide objective knowledge. Or not even the sciences.

Today's positivism is often presented under degree scroll as naturalism. Naturalism aims to exclude God from any serious rational explanation. And it tends to concentrate on the study of the human person, which is reduced to its Materials, physico-chemical and neural dimensions. As one of the responses I have mentioned points out, the greatest challenge that religion must face today in the name of science is the one presented as endorsed by neuroscience: some claim to explain everything human, including consciousness and religion, through the Chemistry of the brain.

So the discussions continue. I fear they will continue forever. I have only tried to show that, in a survey addressed to people with public projection in the most varied fields, those closest to science are precisely those who maintain that science and religion are not opposed and even complement each other.