First-ever Wonder Conference boldly goes to frontier of ‘science and religion’

Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minn., is seen speaking at the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore in this June 11, 2019, file photo. Bishop Barron is the founder of the Catholic media apostolate Word on Fire. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)


(OSV News) – Are science and religion fundamentally opposed to each other? That common notion has “worked a lot of mischief”, said Bishop Robert Barron, who launched a new conference held on January 13-14 to show how the Catholic Church champions “the unity of faith and reason”.

Some 1000 clergy, religious and lay attendees joined the first-ever Wonder Conference, which took place at the Gaylord Texan Resort and Convention Center in Dallas. The inaugural event was hosted by the Word on Fire Institute, part of the nonprofit Word on Fire Catholic Ministries media apostolate founded by Bishop Barron, who is bishop of the diocese of Winona-Rochester.

In 2020, the apostolate received a US$1.7 million, three-year grant from the John Templeton Foundation to address the perceived disconnect between religious belief and scientific inquiry, with the funding helping to sponsor the conference.

The conference featured an array of experts in physics, philosophy, technology, theology and history, including among others Jesuit Father Robert J. Spitzer, president of the California-based Magis Center of Reason and Faith and the Spitzer Center; Jennifer Wiseman, senior astrophysicist at the Goddard Space Flight Center; Karin Öberg, professor of astronomy at Harvard University; Christopher Baglow, academic director of the Science and Religion Initiative at the McGrath Institute for Church Life at the University of Notre Dame; and Stephen Bullivant, director of the Benedict XVI Centre for Religion and Society and professor at St Mary’s University in London.

The “supposed conflict between religion and science, or faith and reason” has become “a major reason for (religious) disaffiliation among our young people”, said Bishop Barron in his January 14 keynote address.
He added that St Thomas Aquinas, a famous Dominican theologian and philosopher from the 13th century, would be “turning in his grave” at the prospect, since the Catholic Church “(stands) for the unity of faith and reason”.

Bishop Barron said that part of the blame for that opposition lay with the Catholic Church itself.

“We dumbed down the faith after the (Second Vatican) Council, and it was a pastoral disaster,” he said, prompting applause from the audience.

A 2015 study by Pew Research found that nearly six in 10 adults, or 59 per cent of the US public, viewed science and religion as often conflicting. Nearly three out of four of those who seldom or never attended religious services were most likely to think science and religion mostly conflict; however, 68 per cent of US adults surveyed at the time said their personal religious beliefs and science did not conflict. Pew Research found religion most likely affected people’s views of scientific topics when it came to human evolution and the creation of the universe.

Bishop Barron said the “fundamental problem” is not science, but rather scientism, or “the reduction of all knowledge to the scientific form of knowledge”.

But scientism cannot address questions of beauty, morality or transcendence, which become “meaningless” when reduced to scientific facts, the bishop said.

In his address, Bishop Barron said that he aimed to survey how the world is fundamentally knowable, the mind is not material but immaterial, and the “inescapability” of metaphysics, or knowledge about what exists beyond the physical world. He cited the late Pope Benedict XVI whose writings stressed the “unique creative Intelligence” to which both the universe and human reason pointed.

In his January 13 presentation entitled “The Evidence for God from Science”, Father Spitzer – who referenced a number of prominent scientists, including physicist Stephen Hawking and cosmologist Thomas Hertog – said the once-popular concept of an “eternally inflating, infinite multiverse” is now “(fading) into the world of fantasy”.

As scientific inquiry into its origins is refined, the universe is shown to be “exceedingly fine-tuned for life” by “a super intelligent, transcendent creator whose image cannot be suppressed”, said Father Spitzer.

Father Sinclair Oubre, pastor of St Francis of Assisi Parish in Orange, Texas, told OSV News that the conference was an important professional development opportunity for parish religious education staff. Father Oubre, who did not attend the conference, sent two of his religious education directors to participate so they could better prepare young people in their high school programmes as they head to universities where they may be challenged by atheistic professors.

The priest said he was grateful for Bishop Barron’s initiative in addressing the “false conflict” between science and religion.

“The Catholic Church has always recognised that reason and what is revealed in natural law is an aspect of God’s revelation,” he said.

Photo: Bishop Robert E. Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minn., is seen speaking at the spring general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops in Baltimore in this June 11, 2019, file photo. Bishop Barron is the founder of the Catholic media apostolate Word on Fire. (CNS photo/Bob Roller)


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