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Science, Religion and the Disaffiliation Crisis

by Joe Vukov

A student approached me after a discussion focused on the possibility of miracles: “Honestly, how do you believe this stuff?” How could I, as a philosopher (one who even regularly reads in the sciences!), still buy the Catholic Church’s line about the reality of miracles? How could I be on board with the Incarnation and the Resurrection and Marian apparitions? Surely, I must be trying to hoodwink him? The question was not a challenge – it came from a place of genuine bafflement. How could someone be both religious and a proponent of philosophy and a lover of science? The student couldn’t see how those commitments could mesh. Surely, something had to give.

This student was no outlier, but the norm. Among Millennials, 40% now identify as having no religious affiliation.   That number is no doubt higher among Generation Z – the generation to which the majority of today’s college students belong – and all statistics indicate it will only continue to grow. 

What are the causes of the so-called Disaffiliation Crisis? They are legion. But a primary cause is a perceived conflict between religious faith and science. Among young adults with a Christian background, 29% feel “churches are out of step with the scientific world we live in,” while another 25% believe “Christianity is anti-science.”   In short: we have good reason to think young people are leaving religion in droves and that a large part of their motivation comes from a perceived conflict between science and their faith. If you are presented with an either/or choice between science and religion, who is going to choose musty religion over shiny new science? The statistics shout the answer. 

But things needn’t be this way. In Ex Corde Ecclesiae, St. John Paul II embraces engagement with the sciences as essential to a life of faith, not at odds with it. He argues: “[a]n area that particularly interests a Catholic University is the dialogue between Christian thought and the modern sciences… such dialogue concerns the natural sciences as much as the human sciences which posit new and complex philosophical and ethical problems.”   According to St. John Paul II, faith need not meekly retreat from the best science of the day but can converse with it as a peer. 

St. John Paul II’s call for dialogue between science and religion follows a template laid out by Ian Barbour, a scholar of science and religion. According to Barbour, there are several ways of modeling the relationship between science and religion: these models include both the dialogue model of St. John Paul II and the conflict model, embraced so widely by others.

Before turning to dialogue, however, let’s give credit where it is due: the conflict model can be tempting. It can be easy to get caught up in the drama of either-or debates, debates in which science and religion face off in a zero-sum game where only one can win. Either evolution or creation. Either a material account of consciousness or an immaterial one. Either a naturalistic account of morality or a theistic one. These debates and scores of others are premised on the conflict model, a model that assumes science and religion are battling it out to provide answers to the Big Questions. 

We also see the conflict model embraced by proponents of two views that are otherwise at loggerheads: scientism and fundamentalism. These views -- respectively, the views that either science or religion should always win out when the two conflict -- often agree about little but are united in elevating the epistemic status of either science or religion to near infallible heights. For the proponent of scientism, the scientific perspective always trumps the religious one. For the proponent of fundamentalism, the religious perspective trumps the scientific. For both, the presumed relationship between science and religion is very often one of outright conflict.

What’s the problem with the conflict model? Well, nothing intrinsically. Sometimes, science and religion do quarrel, and the conflict model can help us understand the dynamics. For example, Christianity, in its commitment to creation ex nihilo, stands opposed to any cosmology positing an eternal universe. 

But to assume conflict in every interaction between science and religion – and to assume that when this conflict occurs, there must be a “winner” – closes ourselves off from the possibility of multiple, complementary perspectives on the Big Questions. The way in which proponents of scientism and fundamentalism deploy the conflict model thus raises distinctively epistemic problems. Both scientism and fundamentalism are distinguished by a kind of intellectual pride, one that assumes a single perspective can offer all the answers, rendering all others mute in deference. The conflict model, deployed poorly, devolves into an exercise of intellectual hubris. 

And this is not the only problem the conflict model can face. The conflict model also falters in the face of many of actual experiences of the interaction between science and religion. Indeed, when we consider these experiences carefully, things are often more subtle than the conflict model can allow and are often captured better by the dialogue model endorsed by St. John Paul II. Take just a few examples: 

  • Our best astrobiology suggests the possibility (if not likelihood) of extraterrestrial intelligent life. The Drake Equation provides us with guidance for reflecting on these questions, and while much work must yet be done to fill in the equation’s variables, things might well turn out in E.T.’s favor. Indeed, as of this writing (May 2021), speculation about extraterrestrial intelligent life has reached a fever pitch, with an intelligence report on UFOs due to Congress next month. The confirmation of extraterrestrial intelligent life would pose deep questions for Christian anthropology, which sees human beings created in the image of God, and God Himself as becoming human. If there are intelligent species in far-flung galaxies: are they too created in the image and likeness of God? Did they fall? If so, did Christ come for them as well? Good questions. Despite their difficulty, Pope Francis, speculating on baptizing such a being, answered in the affirmative, entering into dialogue with rather than simply rejecting contemporary astrobiology.

  • Our best science tells us that human-caused climate change is a real and pressing problem. Much of the world is rightly concerned, as we seek to learn more about what changes might be in store for us and what we might do to mitigate the effects. But why think that climate change matters in the first place? And what should we do about it? Climate science itself can’t answer these questions. The problem stems from a general feature of the sciences: they are by their nature descriptive, not prescriptive. Indeed, science is indebted to the normative pursuits – religion among them – for providing its tasks and values, and for guiding our deliberations about what we should do about its findings. It isn’t that climate science reveals to us what matters and spurs us to action. It is rather that we rightly care about the environment, and so seek to understand how we are affecting it. And then, once we’ve learned more, it is the normative sphere that spurs us to action. From Ex Corde: “Because knowledge is meant to serve the human person, research in a Catholic University is always carried out with a concern for the ethical and moral implications both of its methods and of its discoveries. This concern, while it must be present in all research, is particularly important in the areas of science and technology.”

  • It has become nearly impossible to deny the evidence for human evolution: the genetic evidence alone is overwhelming. On its face, this may seem to pose a challenge to those traditions that accept the account of creation depicted in Genesis: an account populated by Adam and Eve and the Garden and the apple. Certainly, this Genesis account doesn’t seem compatible with a very old earth in which Homo sapiens emerged from a world ‘red in tooth and claw.’ Yet Pope Pius XII, in Humani Generis (1950), affirmed that Catholics could accept evolutionary theory.   But not without caveats: for one, Catholics cannot accept polygenism, the idea that human life emerged from multiple lineages at different parts of the Earth. Accepting polygenism, Pius XII argued, would mean undermining the doctrine of Original Sin.  

Here’s what all these cases have in common. In each of them, science and religion are not in outright conflict, yet also refuse to stand in a perfectly comfortable relationship. Their interaction includes a certain amount of tension for those with both scientific and religious commitments, and yet the tension is not one of two frameworks at loggerheads with each other. It is rather the productive tension of give and take, of mutual listening, and of open-minded humility. It is the productive tension of dialogue. 

But why engage in this kind of dialogue? Why not simply dig in our heels and let ourselves be guided by our preferred framework? Why not science or religion? Why both? Dialogue is tough. Why do the work? 

I’ll put my cards on the table: part of my motivation in advancing dialogue between science and religion stems from the Disaffiliation Crisis, a crisis which is in turn motivated in large part by a facile understanding of the relationship between science and religion. Don’t get me wrong. Disaffiliation can be motivated by intellectually serious reasons. For example, the Problem of Evil, in posing the question of how a good God could co-exist with gratuitous suffering, raises a pressing intellectual challenge to any theist. That’s the not the case, however, with the supposed conflict between science and religion. The idea that any scientifically-minded person must flee from religion is not intellectually serious and rests on a caricature of science, religion, and the relationship between the two. Something as serious as disaffiliation should not be motivated by a caricature. The idea of science and religion in dialogue, then, provides nuance to the intellectual appreciation of science and religion, nuance that makes simple abandonment of either seem hasty. 

But beyond a means for addressing the Disaffiliation Crisis, encouraging dialogue between science and religion serves a purpose that all of us engaged in university education can endorse: the relentless pursuit of truth. Dialogue, by multiplying rather than diminishing perspectives, encourages us to see things from different points of view. And that, in turn, helps us arrive at a more holistic sense of the way things are. Indeed, sans dialogue, we risk being akin to the art critic who takes in a sculpture from only one perspective, and then moves immediately to writing her review, assuming her take to be normative. What’s the problem with this? Sculpture exists in three-dimensional space. Truths about it are thus revealed only by adopting multiple perspectives on it and putting those perspectives in dialogue. So too with questions tackled by science and religion: they often exist in such a way that no one perspective – neither science nor religion – can fully grasp them. But we can make progress by putting the two into dialogue with each other. This involves treating them not as entirely independent pursuits, but rather as complementary pursuits open to the possibility of tension with each other. The full picture – one that gets closest to the truth – is one that neither science and religion can provide on their own, but must rather be arrived at through the productive tension of dialogue. 

And this – getting closer to truth – should be something all of us can get behind. As Ex Corde puts it: “It is the honour and responsibility of a Catholic University to consecrate itself without reserve to the cause of truth.”   That’s true of a Catholic University as a whole, and also of us as educators. As educators in Catholic Universities (and, I would argue, as educators in any University), the pursuit of truth is what we should be about: pushing aside appearances, biases, and misconceptions in order to get at the way things really are. That’s our task, and it should be one that all of us – those in the sciences, those in the humanities, and those tasked with teaching religion – should aim at relentlessly. 

Ex Corde adds a further gloss for theists: insofar as all truth is God’s truth, a relentless pursuit of truth is ultimately a relentless pursuit of God. The relentless pursuit of truth is, for the theist, motivated by “their essential connection with the supreme Truth, who is God.”   The relationship between science and religion, rather than pushing us away from God, can and should draw us toward Him.










1    “In U.S., Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace,” PEW Research Center, October 17, 2019, https://www.pewforum.org/2019/10/17/in-u-s-decline-of-christianity-continues-at-rapid-pace/.

2    See David Kinnamen, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving the Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2016), 136.

3    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, encyclical letter, Vatican Website, August 15, 1990, http://www.vatican.va/content/john-paul-ii/en/apost_constitutions/documents/hf_jp-ii_apc_15081990_ex-corde-ecclesiae.html, sec. 46.

4    Ian Barbour, When Science Meets Religion: Enemies, Strangers, or Partners? (New York: HarperCollins, 2000).

5    Elisabeth Días, “For Pope Francis, It’s About More than Martians,” Time Magazine, May 14, 2014. https://time.com/99616/for-pope-francis-its-about-more-than-martians/.

6    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 18.

7    Pius XII, Humani Generis, encyclical letter, Vatican website, August 12, 1950, https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_12081950_humani-generis.html.

8    John Paul II, Ex Corde Ecclesiae, sec. 4.

9    Ibid.

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Joe Vukov

Joe Vukov is an Assistant Professor and Graduate Program Director in the Philosophy Department at Loyola University Chicago. His research and teaching explore questions at the intersection of ethics, neuroscience, and philosophy of mind, and at the intersection of science and religion.Together with Dr. Michael Burns, he leads Loyola’s Science and Religion Discussion Group. In 2022, he will publish his first book on Science, Religion, and Intellectual Humility with Eerdmans.

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