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Young People Leaving the Church Because of “Science” — 6 Comments

  1. I think that “Going. going, gone” points to one of the critical points on which the future of the Church in the 21st Century hinges: our relationship with the scientific world view. I agree that this an issue that can, indeed I would argue, must be addressed as an immediate priority, but I think the “fruit” is not quite as “low hanging” as you suggest. Indeed even among the clergy we are witnessing an increasing move away from dialog with the sciences in favor of “neo fundamentalistic” fideism among much of our clergy and even our educated (e.g. in the law) laity. This in spite of the fact that significant numbers of the the Catholic laity and even prominent members of the clergy (such as this distinguished body) are well placed throughout the scientific establishment. Perhaps we need to look more closely at the work of our Catholic colleges and seminaries.

  2. The fruit is still low-hanging. Again, “I left the church because I don’t like eating fish on Friday” differs from “I left the church because it conflicts with science”. Fish on Friday is a real thing; conflict with science is not. The idea that this conflict exists is so widely promoted, and so widely accepted, that it is perceived as real; those clergy and others that you mention may have thus accepted it as real; but that does not make it real. The young person who leaves the church because of conflict with science leaves over a falsehood. The young person who leaves because of fish fries does not. (Of course I do not think a lot of young people leave over fish — that is just a nice, silly example — but if they did, they would not be leaving over a falsehood.)

    Also, keep in mind that most people — and thus most young people all the more — don’t know that much about science and how it works. And, most of the science that they might think is in conflict with religion is stuff that may well be different four centuries from now. I doubt young people leave the church over conflicts between church teaching and ironclad stuff like the Law of Conservation of Momentum or the Law of Definite Proportions. Suppose a young person is saying, “original sin is incompatible with what science tells us today about human origins”. Well, even if we grant that statement to be true (many would not), how ironclad are our current ideas about human origins? You can bet your house that four centuries from now they will still be teaching the laws of the Conservation of Momentum and Definite Proportions in physics and chemistry classes; don’t make that bet on human origins. This is not to say that our ideas about human origins are bad science — it is just to acknowledge how science works: that much of science is not at the level of the Law of Conservation of Momentum. And, keep in mind that a few centuries back the scientific idea from Aristotle and others was that the universe was eternal and cyclic, and there was no “origin” to anything; humans just went back forever in an endless cycle, so there could be no “first humans” and thus no “original sin”. And yet Aristotle’s ideas became widely seen as compatible with the church teaching — and also Jewish and Islamic teaching — even though Aristotle’s idea of “no origin” would be much more at odds with a biblical account of creation than is today’s idea that there is an origin, but just not quite like is recorded in the biblical account. So, there is a long history of dealing with perceived conflicts between “scientific” ideas and “religious” ideas, and that history is shared even with other faiths.

    This is an issue of perception, and of education, not an issue of substance (as would be the case with fish). That is why it is low-hanging fruit.

  3. Thanks for your very thorough (and prompt) reply to my comment. I actually take a good bit of solace from your confidence in our ability to counter the view that the Church (or religion in general) is hostile to the scientific enterprise. Still I maintain that this view — which we both agree is ill-founded — is widely held, has apparently been fostered by naive views of both science and religion and has not been effectively countered. I welcome your effort to change that I am happy to volunteer whatever humble personal support I can add. I think the effort is critical and urgent.

  4. Excellent post to put forward Chris. The question, “Are youth leaving the Church because of science?” is a complex one. In my ministry, I think science becomes more of a “turning to” something. Youth long for certainty, consistency, integrity, truth,
    and love. Therefore, when they read about scandal in the Church, hypocrisy is identified and a judgement is rendered. When they develop a friendship with someone who is gay or wonder if they themselves are gay, they see the Church’s teaching on marriage as judgmental and bigoted, choosing to stand with their friend, distancing themselves from anything associated with the Church. Business, social services, politics, you name it, if it is an overarching structure that has shown to be fallen, suspicion is cast and distancing occurs. Science, for many youth, emerges as the one “objective truth” that remains untarnished. As we all know, there’s problems with each one of these presumptions. I could pick apart each one, but it would come back to the same issue: We have developed an obsession with certitude. I could go on, but I’ll wait for a response before I offer an essay! 🙂 Are there any young people reading this who are members of Sacred Space Astronomy that could offer insight?

  5. As Leonard McCoy said, “Look, Jim, I’m a scientist, not a theologian”, but since you wait for a response:
    The science question may be low-hanging fruit insofar as it is merely a matter of education and perception, but improving education and perception is nevertheless difficult. As Mr. Hopko says above, these are ideas that are widely held. Still, science is not the “untarnished objective truth”, nor is it free of taint of hypocrisy. Yes, some areas of science have been remarkably successful—discoveries in electromagnetism and chemistry have brought us our modern technologies. But, there has also been stuff like spontaneous generation, scientific racism, eugenics. Ugh! If I had to defend science as untarnished truth or church teaching on marriage, I think I would find the latter to be easier—the church’s view on marriage being itself “scientific” in that it sees children as inherent in marriage; that children are begotten of a man and a woman is a basic fact of nature—of science—not a product of bigotry. Many people do not understand that a man and a woman who declare that they want no children cannot be married in the Catholic Church, whereas they can be married in many other churches. Again, the difficulties of education and perception. But, this is stuff I don’t really know much about—“I’m a scientist….”

  6. Great points re: scientific “misses” like spontaneous generation and I would add phrenology to the list. Eugenics, however occupies a special status in that it points not merely to a faulty hypothesis regarding a limited area of empirical investigation, but to a fundamental danger in the whole scientific enterprise: namely the tendency towards a hubris the presumes to understand what it means to be human, what’s desirable or not in our character and what types of lives should be preferred. I would submit that these sorts of questions lead beyond the proper scope of science and are most appropriately regarded as theological, although scientific findings have, will and should inform our theological understanding.

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