01-06-2008 - Traces, n. 6

INSIDE america

Dispelling the Fog
A discussion about "Science and Faith" at the World Science Festival at NYU became
an unexpected occasion to affirm that there is no contradiction between faith and reason

Recently, I was invited to participate in a celebration of a “World Science Festival” sponsored by some of the leading foundations that support scientific research. The Festival was like a “mini-Rimini Meeting” consisting of some 40 events in 4 days. Most of these took place around the campus of New York University in Washington Square, including outdoor exhibits and presentations and panel discussions in the various auditoriums of the university. I was invited to be part of a two-hour panel discussion on “Science and Faith.” I understand that this was the first time such a topic was part of this kind of activity.
I accepted the invitation and there I was, in a panel discussion about some of the most controversial issues of the day with a winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics, a self-described Jewish atheist who is the American director of research in a study of the “biological origins of religious convictions” paid for by the European Union, and a cognitive psychologist from Hawaii who is examining how the brain functions during religious experiences.
It became clear to me that the discussion would be entirely theoretical, centered on the claims and experimental “discoveries” of science about the origins of the religious sense. Following what we have been learning in the School of Community and the Fraternity Exercises, I refused to join the discussion in those terms. I realized that the underlying assumption of the discussion was the separation between reason and experience.
The physicist proclaimed himself a Christian (a Methodist) and defended the position that there is no opposition between science and faith since both deal with different aspects of reality. He insisted that faith must be reasonable and related to tradition and experience, but the relation between these remained entirely abstract. It was an intellectual problem to be solved. The cognitive psychologist announced that she was a Unitarian who had converted to Catholicism, but she made it clear that this had nothing to do with her experimental research or even her view of what constitutes a “religious experience.”
Indeed, the most interesting person was the Jewish atheist. He was certainly not a dualist, and he kept insisting that he was not an agnostic but a totally convinced atheist based on the evidence of his scientific research. This was the only path to knowledge of reality, and it had convinced him that belief in God was an evolutionary accident, and it corresponded to no real need of the human species. He was not out to wipe it out from human life–believers were responding to a real evolutionary development, even if its origin was accidental.
At one point, the atheist wanted to know how many in the audience believed that evolution was enough to scientifically explain the origin and history of the human species without any need to appeal to divine interventions. I would guess that a vast majority of those present raised their hands, and so did I! I wanted to insist that belief in God was not based on divine “interventions” detected by scientific research and its methodological presuppositions. The moderator of the panel asked me to respond to the atheist’s claims. He asked me what was my first reaction to the project financed by the European Union to prove the biological origins of belief. I do not remember my exact words at this point, but I realized the moment had come to question the usefulness of the entire discussion. My certainty concerning God, I said, was not based on the results of scientific experiments, but on my certainty concerning three absolute conclusions of my experience: 1) once I did not exist; 2) someday I will die; and 3) this provokes in me a question that is reasonable to pursue, namely, what the heck is going on? No other species but the human seems to be provoked to find the answer to this question. Why does it provoke us? The only way I can crush the question in me would be to deny the first two certainties, and this would not be rational. It is this path that must be examined, tested by experience, and followed in order to arrive at certainty about God. The event that leads us to faith occurs within this path, and this is why faith is a reasonable way of knowing reality. The reaction of the crowd was astounding. It was as if a gust of fresh air had cleared the fog. At one point, the atheist told me: “Either I am not an atheist, or you are not a believer, because I agree with you more than with anyone else on the panel.”
All I thought about in the limousine (!) ride back home was Fr. Giussani’s face, smiling!