Debunking the Science vs. Religion Myth

01 Sep 2015

"Science and Religion: Strangers, Rivals, or Partners in the Search for Truth?" was the topic of a University of Notre Dame seminar this summer lectured by Providence College STI expert Rev. Nicanor Austriaco.

STI Experts

What does the University of Notre Dame’s Science and Religion seminar aim to achieve?

The aim is to help Catholic high school science teachers to speak knowledgeably in their classrooms about the intersection between science and religion. Several years ago, the John Templeton Foundation awarded a grant to the Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame to this end. I have been invited these last two summers to present several lectures on how faith and reason are brought to bear on philosophical and theological questions raised by evolutionary theory.  

What do you talk to them about?

In my first lecture, I wanted to introduce the participants to St. Thomas Aquinas’ robust philosophical account by addressing preliminary questions to any theological discussion of God’s creation through evolution. Most importantly, I showed them that human knowledge requires both faith – understood here as justified belief based on the reasonable authority of another – and reason. Even science presupposes faith understood in this way because every scientist needs to believe the results of many of his colleagues whose experiments he cannot replicate in the lab himself. We then moved to an incredibly challenging question: What is God? Not, who is God, but what is God. In my view, St. Thomas’ insight that God is a verb - i.e., God is the act of existing - is critically important to grasp if one is to properly bring contemporary science into conversation with theology. Finally, I ended with a brief discussion of how this God who is a verb actually acts in the world.

In my second lecture, I moved to four common difficulties that Catholics often bring up when they are asked about the beginnings of our species, Homo sapiens. Appealing to St. Thomas Aquinas’ account of instrumental causality, I discussed one model for how God wrote Genesis. Hopefully, this gave the seminar’s participants a deeper understanding of why we do not need to treat the creation narratives of Genesis as scientific or historical texts. We then turned to the question of the human soul and to the deeper question of when the human soul first appeared on the stage of human evolutionary history. My answer: Human souls were created when hominins became speaking bipeds, where language is a sure sign of the power of the intellect to abstract universals. I concluded this lecture with an attempt to bring the Church’s doctrine of original sin in conversation with what we now know about human origins because of discoveries in paleogenomics. I love thinking about this sort of stuff!

So you were teaching teachers to teach… 


And did you learn anything from them?

Indeed. I was able to interact with the teacher participants every afternoon for several hours during small group workshops where they grappled with hard questions and figured out strategies to bring these questions and the answers they had learned into their classrooms. I was incredibly impressed by my colleagues’ desire to understand the complexities of theology, philosophy, and biology, so that they could adequately respond to their students’ many questions about how theology can be reconciled with evolution. The teachers came from all over the United States, so if they are representative of all the Catholic high school teachers out there – and I do not have any reason to think otherwise – then I am hopeful for Catholic education. Their passion, excellence, and faith, were exemplary. 

How is this work related to your work that you discussed at STI’s 2009 Focus on the Embryo Experts Meeting?

Several years ago, I spoke in Barcelona on the ontological status of human entities at the beginning-of-life after thinking about how contemporary systems biology could be used to re-imagine the hylomorphic metaphysics of Aristotle. This effort continues as I develop a metaphysical account that explains how human beings can still be understood today as embodied souls. 

My lectures at Notre Dame involve another dimension of what I see as my intellectual task of bringing contemporary science into conversation with the philosophical and theological synthesis of my brother, St. Thomas Aquinas. Here, I am working to bring evolutionary theory into conversation with contemporary Catholic theology to understand how evolution alters the way we understand God and how He created us as speaking bipeds. 

My eventual goal that will bring this all together? To articulate a natural law virtue ethics for speaking bipeds understood as embodied souls, that is in continuity with the insights of Aristotle and St. Thomas Aquinas.

Visit Nicanor Austiaco’s expert profile