Research shows that a third of millennial Catholics abandon their faith citing a disconnect between science and religion, but they’re missing the real awe of both.
A recent issue of Our Sunday Visitor profiled some eye-opening research in an article entitled “Young People Are Leaving the Faith: Here’s Why” (“In Focus,” August 28, 2016). It was an analysis of two national studies conducted by The Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) to provide insight into the reasons why a third of “millennials” who were raised Catholic reject the faith of their parents as young adults.
In the CARA studies, “Millennials” are defined as those born in 1982 or later. The majority of the young adults who responded with comments on the research indicated that they left their faith for science, concluding that Catholicism cannot be reconciled with science at the high school and university level. They report finding little in the Catholic presentation of faith that challenges that view. The OSV summary included a sampling of the responses behind their decisions:
- “As I learn more about the world around me and understand things that I once did not, I find the thought of an all-powerful being to be less and less believable.”
- “Catholic beliefs aren’t based on fact… nothing can be disproved, but it certainly shouldn’t be taken seriously.”
- “I realized that religion is in complete contradiction with the rational and scientific world, and to continue to subscribe to a religion would be hypocritical.”
- “As I started to enjoy math and science more, I realized the discrepancy between religion and science… Catholicism especially did seem to clash fairly well.”
- “[Faith] no longer fits into what I understand of the universe.”
These responses reflect a pattern of thought familiar to many parents of young adult Catholics and others concerned about the dismal conclusions of the CARA research. This is also one of the most common pleas I hear from the readers of These Stone Walls whose children or grandchildren have set aside their faith as young adults. There is no easy answer except to encourage them to broaden their understanding of both science and faith. The disconnect is not a problem of religion alone.
AT LEAST PART OF THE PROBLEM IS SCIENCE
I have some firsthand experience with the challenging questions posed by science for the faith of younger Catholics. As the 2014 academic year got underway at one university, the son of a reader of These Stone Walls, a science major, sent me a letter filled with questions. The previous summer, his mother had emailed him with a link to one of my forays into the science of cosmology entitled, “Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation.”
It was posted in mid-June in 2014, and the student wrote that he pretty much just dismissed it as irrelevant. He read his mother’s email, but didn’t bother clicking on the link until two months later. The student wrote that he grew up in a devout family that accepted Catholic teachings about the world and universe without question. He attended Catholic schools until switching to a public high school, then abandoned his faith in adolescence because his interest in science made faith seem irrelevant.
He believed, or rather was led to believe, that science and religion are mutually incompatible, unable to coexist in a person of science. “The bias fed to me in academia,” he wrote in a much later letter, “was that science is the new source of all faith, and to be taken seriously as a scientist requires setting aside the faith of my parents in this new world order.” And thus ended his identity as a Catholic. It’s a troubling story given that for every convert entering the Catholic faith in America last year, more than six others left.
The exit of millennials is not at all for the reasons typically put forward by older Catholics who become disenchanted with their Church. In the CARA study, Catholic scandal and the Latin Mass are barely touched upon as influential reasons. And the millennials are not leaving to embrace some other faith. They now constitute the fastest growing expression of religious belief in America – the “Nones,” who self-identify with no religious affiliation at all. In “A Crisis of Faith, Not of Worship,” a soul-stirring post at The Catholic Thing, (Aug. 24, 2016) Father Mark A. Pilon makes this point well:
“The, real underlying problem is simple: it’s a massive loss of faith… About thirty years ago, a reliable survey revealed that only about 30 percent of Catholics believed in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist any longer. Why didn’t the bishops call an emergency meeting to reflect on this loss of faith, as they did in 2002 to deal with sexual abuse? The highest priority has to be this basic question: What caused this massive loss of faith, and how do we work to resurrect that lost faith?”
SCIENCE AND FAITH ARE NOT IN COMPETITION FOR TRUTH
The answers to these questions are not as simple as seeking relevancy by replacing faith with science. True believers in both find not only “common ground” but windows to the universe that will leave the believer in awe. I think the student I have been writing to, for example, might be on his way back. As the summer of 2014 wore on, his mother asked him what he thought about the TSW post she sent him. He scurried to find “Science and Faith and the Big Bang Theory of Creation” buried in his inbox, and then he actually read it.
He later wrote that he was “bowled over” by it, and that it turned on its head the entire scientific orthodoxy he embraced about how only freedom from religion could legitimately engage him with the world of science. Science with a bias against faith experience prevented him from seeing the bigger picture. This student had many questions, and multiple letters went back and forth between us before I could answer them all.
First and foremost among his questions was this: “How is it that you, a person obviously well versed in science, could endure such injustice and still also believe in God?” It was a good question, but the answer requires something other than science’s doubts about faith. A better beginning question was the one I posed in return: “How is it that you, a science major in an American university, never before heard or read that the scientist now considered to be the Father of The Big Bang and Modern Cosmology was a Belgian astrophysicist who was also a Catholic priest?”
That question generated another dozen letters over the last two years, suggesting TSW posts that he has read and reread and shown to other science majors at his school. Before I get into that, however, I want to describe another development that I read just a few weeks ago by Beckie Strum in The Wall Street Journal: “U.S. Loses Top School Ranking to U.K.’s Oxford” (WSJ, Sept. 22, 2016).
For the first time, a university outside the United States has been ranked the best university in the world, unseating the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) as number one. The U.K.’s Oxford University, the oldest college in the English speaking world, founded in the year 1096, has taken the top spot in the World University Rankings. Oxford knocked CalTech down to second place, M.I.T. to fifth, and Harvard to sixth.
Oxford is also host to something missing from more narrowly focused American universities. Oxford is home to a research center called the Ian Ramsey Center for Science & Religion. Its Research Director is Father Andrew Pinsent, a Catholic priest and particle physicist who was formerly on the science team at CERN, the European Council for Nuclear Research.
Father Andrew Pinsent holds a Ph.D. in particle physics from Oxford, a Ph.D. in philosophy from St. Louis University, and advanced degrees in theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He is a member of the United Kingdom Institute of Physics and the Vatican Conference for Scientists.
Father Pinsent has also been a guest writer at These Stone Walls. His 2015 post, “Fr Georges Lemaitre: Father of the Big Bang” was the final leverage that my university friend and correspondent needed to accept the fact that something essential has been missing from his encounters with both science and religion. The fact that his science education did not include the story of Georges Lemaitre – the Astronomer, Mathematician, Physicist, and Catholic Priest who changed the mind of Albert Einstein on the nature and origin of the universe – told him that it was science, and not faith, that deprived him of a wider world view.
This is a story that has been covered and uncovered on These Stone Walls in some of my own posts. (I’ll list a few with links at the end of this one.) Reading these, and especially exploring Father Pinsent’s work, has opened my friend’s eyes as a young scientist, but it was a part of Father Andrew Pinsent’s guest post that more fully opened my own when he wrote:
“What is to be done to help raise the profile of people like Fr Georges Lemaitre? Among Catholics with some kind of popular outreach, Fr Gordon MacRae, through his widely-read blog These Stone Walls, has done more than almost anyone I know in recent years to draw attention to Fr Lemaitre. Inspired in part by Fr Gordon’s work, my colleagues and I in England have put together a series of posters called the “Catholic Knowledge Network.” (Fr Andrew Pinsent, “Fr Georges Lemaitre: Father of the Big Bang,” Sept. 21, 2015)
THE UNIVERSE THROUGH A LENS OF SCIENCE, MATHEMATICS, & FAITH
I think I have come to understand Father Georges Lemaitre whose footprint in the history of modern science is parallel to that of Albert Einstein. They were colleagues who became friends, primarily through Einstein’s great respect for Fr Lemaitre’s gifted mathematical mind. After a lecture about his theory of relativity at a European university in the 1930s, Einstein was approached by a science writer who asked him whether he thought anyone in the audience really comprehended his work. Einstein’s simple answer was “Lemaitre, certainly. As for the rest…”
The scientific dogma of the age was that the universe was static, eternal, and unchanging. Einstein also embraced this view, but it dismissed the beliefs of established religion that the universe was created from nothing.
However, Georges Lemaitre and Russian mathematician Aleksander Friedmann had more faith in Einstein’s mathematics than other scientists of their time. At first, Einstein payed little attention when they used his own equations to conclude that the universe is not static but expanding, and its rate of expansion is increasing when all established science said the opposite.
It was the American astronomer, Edwin Hubble (in whose honor the Hubble Space Telescope is named) who in 1929 discovered physical evidence that Lemaitre is right, that the universe is in fact expanding. Two years later in 1931, Father Georges Lemaitre concluded that the universe began “On a day without yesterday,” 13.8 billion years ago, with the explosion of a primeval atom from which space, time, and matter were created.
The idea was ridiculed, and “The Big Bang” was the term some scientists used to taunt the physicist priest. But he was right, and he turned science on its head with this revelation that has since been demonstrated with the discovery of the gravitational background waves that emanated from The Big Bang.
Einstein, who first disagreed, ended up applauding the idea as “The most beautiful explanation of creation I have ever heard.” It was a bigger bang for science than even Einstein realized. It took the language of mathematics to comprehend that it points to what faith always told us: a universe arising out of nothing.
I think I finally came to some rudimentary understanding of the science behind this through the language of mathematics. For this I owe thanks to Robyn Arianrhod, and her book, Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the World Through the Language of Mathematics (Oxford University Press 2005):
“In 1932, Lemaitre sowed the seeds of the Big Bang theory when he suggested that the universe had started as an explosion of a ‘primeval atom’ that… continued expanding from that explosive beginning. Some of the world’s most ancient creation myths have also imagined the world exploding from some sort of cosmic seed…”
“In 1970, English physicists Stephen Hawking and Roger Penrose showed that Einstein’s equations predicted the universe had expanded not from a tiny piece of matter located in an otherwise empty cosmos, but from a single point in four-dimensional spacetime. This meant that the Big Bang was not an ordinary explosion which took place at a specific three-dimensional location at a given time on the cosmic stage, but that Space and time themselves were actually created in the explosion, along with all matter and energy. Before this point … there was no time and no space. No geometry, no matter, nothing. The universe simply appeared out of nowhere. Out of nothing.” (Einstein’s Heroes, p. 187)
“The universe simply appeared out of nowhere. Out of nothing.” Take a moment-to-ponder that conclusion of science and it will sound a lot like a tenet of faith. Science, mathematics, and faith all open a window to the universe onto the same panoramic vista. And the awe this truth evokes is at one and the same time the comprehension of science and the inspiration of faith.
And as for my student-friend’s first question about the mystery of suffering in the light of faith, I can only gather up some prescientific humility to echo God against the protest of Job:
“Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?… Can you bind the chains of the Pleiades, or loose the cords of Orion?” (Job 38: 4, 31)
Note from Father Gordon MacRae: If you know a student who is wandering from faith, or if you enroll your children in a Catholic school or homeschool, consider providing them with a set of posters on Catholic contributions to science created for the Catholic Knowledge Network and Oxford’s Fr Andrew Pinsent:
You might also like these other posts from These Stone Walls:
- A Day Without Yesterday: Fr Georges Lemaitre and The Big Bang
- Did Stephen Hawking Sacrifice God on the Altar of Science?
- The Higgs Boson God Particle: Of All things Visible & Invisible
- Lumen Fidei: The Science of Creation and a Tale of Two Priests
- Fr Georges Lemaitre Father of the Big Bang by Fr Andrew Pinsent