Why Catholics Like Einstein

This article originally appeared in the March 1996 edition of Crisis Magazine.

Science is mankind’s great success story since the Renaissance. Only the most obdurate Luddite can regret the computer chip, the Hubble telescope, and the heart bypass. But these material triumphs have come at a philosophical cost. The scientific method has been so successful in its own sphere that many intelligent people think it the only valid expression of knowledge. From this perspective, Christian belief appears as a relic of the dark benighted ages, when men still hearkened to the powers and principalities of the air.

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G. K. Chesterton, as usual, diagnosed the psychological flaw of scientific triumphalism: People who don’t believe in God don’t believe in nothing: they will believe in anything. The dogmas of faith have been replaced by the dogmas of materialism. Modern belief-systems like Marxism and Darwinism boil down to a single unproved, and unprovable, proposition: that all phenomena, including Homo sapiens, can be explained entirely by natural science. This core dogma of post-Christianity allows the famous rhetorical question of physicist Stephen Hawking: What need, then, for a Creator?

This sort of materialism is extremely old-fashioned. It ignores virtually everything we’ve learned about the universe since the nineteenth century. Why do so many scientists embrace it? The answer is simple: Scratch a physicist like Hawking who says that science has dispensed with a Creator, and you will find a person who won’t do science without first putting on philosophical blinders. You’ll also find a refusal to heed a simple ground rule: Science, being a description of nature, can have nothing to say about what, if anything, is outside of nature.

Far from being intimidated by science, Christians ought to rejoice in the fact that modern science points strongly in the direction of a Creator. They also ought to be aware of a simple historical fact that is seldom broached in textbooks: without Christianity there would be no science in the first place. As Stanley Jaki, the physicist and Benedictine priest, has brilliantly shown in books like The Savior of Science, science was “still-born” in every culture – Greek, Hindu, Chinese – except the Christian West. Science is a precarious enterprise that cannot get off the ground unless first given permission by philosophers and theologians. And this permission has been granted but once in history: by the great Catholic thinkers of the Middle Ages.

What is it about Christianity, and medieval scholasticism in particular, that paved the way for Newton and Einstein? First, the belief that the universe is rational. It was created, after all, through the Word, the divine Logos, which is rationality itself. When we read pagan accounts of the origin of the world, we find nothing but chaos. In the ancient Babylonian account, the universe, instead of being the deliberate act of an all-wise Creator, is the accidental byproduct of a drunken orgy. The Greek gods are somewhat more decorous, but even they decide things mainly by argument and deception – not by a single, definitive fiat.

Second, the Catholic philosophers of the Middle Ages formulated a realist metaphysics, without which science is impossible. Catholics believe in the reality of matter; the physical world is not simply a veil of illusions, as the Eastern religions would have it, but an order of being that has its own dignity and built-in laws. Buddhist science for this reason is a nonstarter.

Third, Christians believe that history is linear and not, as Eastern religions hold, cyclical. Only a universe with a beginning, middle, and end is hospitable to irreversible physical processes like the second law of thermodynamics. The work of Newton and Einstein would have been impossible without this simple assumption.

Since Western science owes its existence to the realism of Catholic metaphysics, how did the situation arise where educated people assume that science and Catholic dogma are antagonistic? The answer is simple: Galileo. Galileo is one of those hot button words, like Inquisition, which are used to end any discussion about the compatibility of Catholicism and human progress. There are even educated Catholics who wish that the whole sorry episode surrounding that great scientist could be swept under a rug and forgotten.

This is not, however, the attitude of Pope John Paul II, who has a keen interest in modern science. Shortly after becoming pope, he established a commission to look into the Galileo affair. The commission’s report affirmed that Church authorities in the seventeenth century had indeed gravely violated Galileo’s rights as a scientist; but it also interestingly supported the anti-Catholic Victorian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley, who examined the Galileo case and reluctantly concluded that “the Church had the best of it.”

The great irony of the Galileo affair is that until Galileo forced the issue into the realm of theology, the Church had been a willing ombudsman for the new astronomy that emerged in the sixteenth century. In 1543, Nicolai Copernicus, a Polish canon and devout Catholic, published his epochal book supporting the heliocentric (earth around the sun) model at the urging of two Catholic prelates, dedicating it to Pope Paul III, who received it cordially.

If the issue had remained purely scientific, Church authorities would have shrugged it off. Galileo’s mistake was to push the debate onto theological grounds. Galileo told the Church: Either support the heliocentric model as a fact (even though not proven) or condemn it. He refused the reasonable middle ground offered by Cardinal Bellarmine: You are welcome to hold the Copernican model as a hypothesis; you may even assert that it is superior to the old Ptolemaic model; but don’t tell us to reinterpret Scripture until you have proof.

Galileo’s response was his theory of the tides, which purported to show that the tides are caused by the earth’s rotation. Even some of Galileo’s supporters could see that this was nonsense. Also, ignoring the work of Kepler, he insisted that the planets go around the earth in perfect circles, which the Jesuit astronomers could plainly see was untenable. In fact, the Copernican system was not strictly “proved” until 1838, when Friedrich Bessel succeeded in determining the parallax of star 61 Cygni.

The real issue in the Galileo affair was the literal interpretation of Scripture. In 1616, the year of Galileo’s first trial, there was precious little elasticity in Catholic biblical theology. But this was also the case with the Protestants: Luther and Melanchthon had vehemently opposed the heliocentric model on scriptural grounds. Another irony of the affair, pointed out by John Paul II, is that Galileo’s argument that Scripture makes use of figurative language and is meant to teach “how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go” was eventually taught by two great papal encyclicals, Leo XIII’s Providentissumus Deus (1893) and Pius XII’s Divino Afflante Spiritu (1943).

There are fundamentalists out there, Protestant and Catholic, who do not understand this simple point: Scripture does not teach science. The Book of Genesis was written in the archaic, prescientific idiom of the ancient Palestinians. The author of Genesis could not have told us that the universe is twelve billion years old, because the ancient Hebrews did not have a word for one billion, and even if they had the fact is hardly necessary for our salvation.

If the universe were roughly 6,000 years old, as a literal reading of Genesis would suggest, then we would not be able to see the Milky Way. The light would not have reached the earth yet.

As Catholics, we must believe that every word of Scripture is inspired by the Holy Spirit, a claim the Church won’t make even for ex cathedra pronouncements. But we must not think of the sacred writers as going into a trance and taking automatic dictation in a pure language untouched by historical contingency. Rather, God made full use of the writers’ habits of mind and expression. It’s the old mystery of grace and human freedom.

Once we understand how to read Scripture, the vexed subject of evolution should not present a problem. That evolution per se is not an issue for Catholics was made clear by John Paul II during a brilliant series of catechetical talks on creation at his Wednesday audiences in 1986:

The theory of natural evolution, understood in a sense that does not exclude divine causality, is not in principle opposed to the truth about the creation of the visible world as presented in the Book of Genesis. . . . It must, however, be added that this hypothesis proposes only a probability, not a scientific certainty. . . . it is possible that the human body has evolved from antecedent living beings.

The pope got it exactly right. Not only is Darwinism not proved, almost every aspect of it is currently subject to a heated debate among geneticists and paleontologists. Darwin’s model of gradual evolution does not square with the fossils, which show species appearing fully formed, staying around for a million years or whatever, and then suddenly disappearing (99 out of 100 known species are extinct). There are no transitional forms between any of the major animal groups, and even in “thought experiments,” smooth intermediates between, say, reptiles and birds are almost impossible to construct.

Darwinism also does not square with breeding experiments; dogs remain dogs, fruit flies remain fruit flies. While DNA allows a certain elasticity in a species for ecological adjustment, it programs living things to remain stubbornly what they are. The essence of Darwinism is the unwarranted extrapolation of the small changes that happen all the time within species into the really big jumps (reptile to bird); as any statistician will tell you, extrapolation is a dangerous business, and in the case of Darwin it goes flat against the evidence.

The earth is roughly 4.5 billion years old. Bacteria appeared 3 billion years ago, followed by blue-green algae and a few oddities. Then, 530 million years ago, came biology’s Big Bang: the Cambrian explosion. There was a sudden profusion of complex life-forms – mollusks, jellyfish, trilobites, chordates – for which there are no discernible ancestors in the rocks. A man from Mars looking at the subsequent fossil record would say that species are replaced by other species, rather than evolve into them. Primates as a class appear out of nowhere; Homo sapiens also makes an abrupt arrival, fully equipped with a will, intellect, and language – capabilities simply not found in apes.

Thus far, there is no coherent scientific explanation of how all this happened. But you have to go outside the Anglo-Saxon countries, where Darwin is dogma, to find honest admissions of this. The late Pierre P. Grasse, the most eminent French biologist of his generation, called himself an “evolutionist” on the basis that all life-forms share certain genetic material, but he was frankly agnostic about how the higher life-forms came about. He dismissed Darwinism as a “pseudo-science” and ended his book on evolution with the admission that on the question of origins, “Science, impotent, yields the floor to metaphysics.”

Whatever their differences, Darwin’s staunchest defenders – John Maynard Smith, Richard Dawkins, E. O. Wilson, Stephen Jay Gould – are all hostile to religion. Dawkins’s remark that Darwin made atheism intellectually respectable is typical. If you cut through all the verbal camouflage, the basic argument of the Darwinist camp is, “There is no God, therefore it had to be this way.” But this is ideology, not science. Darwinism – like Marxism and Freudianism – has too many philosophical additives to be fully trusted as a science.

Evolutionary materialism has a serious flaw that is never acknowledged by its proponents. If man is no more than an accidental collation of atoms, a product of blind material forces that did not have him in mind, then humans do not possess a free will. If this is so, we cannot trust any products of the human intellect, including books by Darwinists. This is the Achilles’ Heel of all materialist philosophies; their truth claims are self-canceling because they downgrade human consciousness to an epiphenomenon of matter. Walker Percy’s remark that Darwin’s Origin of Species explains everything except Darwin writing Origin of Species neatly summarizes the problem.

Darwin’s real motive, as revealed by notebooks not published until the 1970s, was to get rid of a Creator, a motive he shares with modern cosmologists like Hawking and Steven Weinberg. And creation is an unsettling idea. The notion that the universe had a beginning ex nihilo is one of the most radical concepts introduced by Christianity into the mind of the West. The Fourth Lateran Council defined it as dogma in 1215. It’s an idea that would have scandalized an ancient Greek, who thought matter eternal, as much as a nineteenth century positivist. Today, the fact that the universe had a beginning with, and not in, time is a commonplace of astrophysics.

When Einstein formulated the General Theory of Relativity, which deals with gravity and the curvature of space, he was perturbed that his equations showed an expanding universe, which points to its beginning. So he introduced a fudge factor, the “cosmological constant,” to keep the cosmos static. He later called this “the biggest mistake of my life.” When Edwin Hubble, the American astronomer, published data in 1931 showing that the universe was indeed expanding, Einstein finally accepted “the need for a beginning.” When in 1964 two scientists from Bell Labs accidentally discovered the three-degree background radiation throughout the entire universe, which can only be explained as a remnant of a super-heated Big Bang, modern cosmology came of age – and found Catholic metaphysics and theology waiting there all along.

The universe began with an “initial singularity”: all matter was packed into an infinitely dense space. The Big Bang, which may have occurred twelve billion years ago, must not be pictured as the expansion of matter within already existing space; space, time, and matter came into existence simultaneously, a fact that would not have surprised St. Augustine. What Stanley Jaki calls the “specificity” of the formation of the universe is breathtaking. If the cosmic expansion had been a fraction less intense, it would have imploded billions of years ago; a fraction more intense, and the galaxies would not have formed. Picture a wall with thousands of dials; each must be at exactly the right setting – within a toleration of millionths – in order for carbon-based life to eventually emerge in a suburb of the Milky Way. You cannot help but think of a Creator.

Einstein’s universe, which is finite and highly specific, presents an enormous opportunity for the rearticulation of the cosmological argument for the existence of God. Although the universe points strongly to its dependence on a Creator, Catholics have to be careful not to fall into the trap of “creation science.” Creation is a strictly philosophical concept; it has nothing to do with empirical science, which deals only with quantitative nature. It’s difficult to say who turns themselves into the biggest pretzel: creationists trying to fit science into a biblical template, or agnostic scientists trying to avoid the existence of a personal God.

Putting God in the gaps unexplained by science has always been a mistake, because science eventually fills those gaps with material explanations. An enlightened Catholic view of science must be anchored in the proposition that God delights to work through secondary causes. God concedes an enormous degree of causality to his creation, and we ought to be in awe as science explains more and more of it. At the same time, we ought to remind those who will listen to us that the universe will never finally explain itself. Modern cosmology will reach its final maturity only when it makes that admission.


  • George Sim Johnston

    George Sim Johnston is the author of “Did Darwin Get It Right? Catholics and the Theory of Evolution” (Our Sunday Visitor).

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