The wonders of the Catholic faith and of the created world go hand in hand

By Todd H. Ahern

(This article appeared in the June 2017 issue of Columbia, the official magazine of the Knights of Columbus.)

For much of my life, I thought an educated person had to make a choice between religion and science, faith and reason. Surveys show I was not alone. Many scientists describe themselves as atheists or agnostics, and many young people turn away from religion because they are taught that science is incompatible with belief in God.

Today, as a committed Catholic and a tenured professor with a Ph.D. in neuroscience, I want to assure my fellow fathers that faith and science are not opposed. We can teach our children to seek the truth in both.

The popular perception that the Catholic Church is anti-science is simply untrue. Yes, there are examples of conflict; Galileo likely comes to mind. But such incidents are rare, oversimplified and do not accurately represent how important the Church has been in the development of science.

The physicist who first proposed the “Big Bang” theory in 1927 was Georges Lemaître, a Catholic priest. Nicolas Steno, a 17th-century bishop, helped establish modern geology and paleontology. Gregor Mendel, a 19th-century Augustinian friar, is the father of modern genetics. The list of priest-scientists is very long.

Spend some time with your kids looking up how many craters on the moon are named for Jesuit astronomers. For centuries, the Vatican has run a respected observatory, and devoted Catholics continue to contribute to the sciences.

If we do not teach our kids about faith and science, a false dichotomy will damage our culture and the next generation. My own experience may offer some insight. Like many children, I loved books about animals, dinosaurs, the sea and astronomy. I saw the world as a treasure trove to be discovered, unpacked and catalogued.

But during high school, I devoured popular science books by Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and others. These remarkable scientists offered great insights into the physical world, but they also promoted scientism, a reductive understanding of the world that excludes God or religion. At best, they saw religion as a byproduct of random evolution; at worst, as a cultural virus. Unaware of how much the development of science owed to Catholic thought, I made the false choice of science over faith.

Eventually, I earned a doctorate in social neuroscience, exploring the biological basis of attachment, social bonding and the interplay between family dynamics and biology, including the upbringing of the next generation. I learned much about the influence of genetics and neurochemical reactions, but the hard science could offer no model for heroic virtue or help me understand the mystery of God’s grace. It provided no guidance for how I should love my wife or for the self-sacrifice needed to raise my children well.

Inspired by my wife’s philosophical training and Catholic faith, I came to see that Jesus Christ and his Church offer insights into reality and the human person beyond what physical science can provide.

While the Catholic Church has made invaluable contributions to nearly every scientific discipline, it also widens our view by proclaiming God’s revelation — truths that go beyond reason but are not contrary to it. We are not simply a sum of our genes or walking, talking machines. In his sacred humanity, Christ “reveals man to himself” and calls us to our true identity as sons and daughters of a loving Father (cf. Gaudium et Spes, 22).

So, dads, encourage your kids to explore the created world, and encourage them to explore the deep truths of our faith. They will be better for it, and so will we.

(Two resources for learning about the faith-science link are: Society of Catholic Scientists and the book How the Catholic Church Built Western Civilization by Thomas E. Woods.)

About the Author

Todd H. Ahern is an associate professor in the behavioral neuroscience program and psychology department at Quinnipiac University in Hamden, Conn., and a member of Father Michael J. McGivney Council 10705 in New Haven. He and his wife, Erika, have five children.

Action Points

  1. One way to let children know that faith and science go together is to explain the physical world in terms of God’s creation. From a young age, whenever you talk about physical laws such as gravity, end by saying, “That’s the way God made the world.”
  2. Take a few minutes to check your child’s science textbook each year to see if there are any sections that seek to downplay or denigrate religion.
  3. From time to time, ask your child to tell you what he or she is learning in science to see if a bias against religion is creeping into the curriculum.