The Christian Old Testament tells beautiful stories. It is poetic, rich in morals, and well-written. The beginning of the world, as described by Genesis 1, creates a haze whereby from nothing, God creates something.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth,” the Bible reads. “On the first day, God said, ‘Let there be light,’ and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light, ‘day’ and the darkness, he called ‘night.’”
According to the BBC, Earth was formed by accretion (the coming together of matter due to gravitational force to form larger bodies) from a solar nebula creating an incredibly hot mass, covered in toxic volcanic gases. Though the Bible does not acknowledge the empirical creation of the world, and the BBC does not acknowledge the Biblical explanation, the two are not mutually exclusive.
Before being pummeled by meteor impacts and cooling down enough to form a crust, the Earth did look like the formless, empty, and dark Earth described in the Bible. According to some scientists, however, the Bible’s later claims that God made everything from birds, the moon, and trees—creationism—are false. But the Bible is not a scientific paper, written to stake claims about the world and our surroundings. Rather, it is a book—a very old book—compiled of historical texts and sources from different authors and civilizations.
“The Bible speaks a language that’s over 2,000 years old [and] when some people try reading it as if it scientific fact, you start to distort what is actually meant,” my brother, Alex Nevitt, a seminarian at the Gregorian University in Rome, explained. “You need to speak theology to understand what’s written in the Bible.”
I, like many others, do not speak theology. I am a scientist and an atheist. Though my mother is agnostic, my father is an extremely devout and practicing Catholic and my brother is studying to become a priest. Admittedly, dinner is weird.
“I don’t believe in creationism, I don’t think it’s a truth,” my brother continued. “That is something that’s happened in modern times where the Bible has been read as if it is speaking in scientific language [....] However, the Bible doesn’t speak that way.”
When I was younger, I had a hard time reconciling the Bible with my education because all stories and explanations were always inexplicably tied to God, and my public school never mentioned Him. But my devout father always tried to keep Him in my heart.
“I was brought up in the faith since I was a baby,” my father, Bill Nevitt, explained. “I went to Catholic grammar school, Catholic high school [...] and finished and graduated from a Catholic college.”
Like all traditional Catholics, my father had my brother and I baptized.
“When we marry in the Catholic church [we promise] to raise our children in the Catholic faith,” my father said. “Every child needs something outside of themselves, whatever it may be. [They] need some sort of guidance, [a] being above to help them know the difference between right and wrong.”
This guidance began at birth for me. I was baptized, received the sacrament of Holy Communion and Confession, and, at the age of 16, I was confirmed—a sacrament that aimed to signify my being sealed with the gift of the Holy Ghost and strengthened faith. These milestones are part of the Seven Sacraments of the Catholic Church: Baptism, Confirmation, Holy Communion, Confession, Marriage, Holy Orders, and the Anointing of the Sick. However, after (and, admittedly, even a bit during) my Confirmation, I started to realize that God was a piece that didn’t fit into my puzzle. At school, I was studying the laws of physics, biology, chemistry, and math. But at home and at Sunday school—where Catholics learn about the Bible and guided through their Sacraments—I was learning about a giant worldwide flood that wiped out most of humanity.
“I think if we try to use science to explain religion, we’ll fail to explain things like Noah’s Ark and the Flood,” my mom, Florence Bouche-Nevitt, explained. “But, that being said, even Albert Einstein said that ‘Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.’ If we have one without the other, we miss something.”
But what does science give to religion, and, what does religion give to science?
“[The seminarians] in a way [use] the scientific method,” my brother explained. “We take it to our faith and we take it to the study of God.”
The only difference is that the science of God cannot investigate its primary source. This, my brother and his fellow seminarians take as given. And for believers, that’s okay.
“I’m someone that doesn’t need scientific proof that God exists,” Desiree D’Souza, a Master’s student studying Cognitive Neuroscience, said. “I understand that I’m never going to get that—I mean maybe I will, who knows—but I’ve [accepted] that part of my faith is this belief.”
But in the study of science, the absence of a primary source is arguably a fatal flaw. Despite this, according to the Anuario Pontificio, the annual directory of the Holy See, there are 1.27 billion Catholics in the world, which represents about 15 per cent of the global population. When you consider the number of religions in the world—estimates hover around 4,300—an unbelievable proportion of people believe in the Catholic faith. Moreover, according to a study published in Pew Research Center, by 2050, only 13 per cent of the world’s population will not be religious.
To many, predictions that there will be an increase in believers is shocking. With popular science figures like Peter Atkins, Bill Nye, and Richard Dawkins leading the atheist parade, many presume that the church of science has taken the reins. And to an extent, it has, but only in the US. Between 2007 and 2014, the percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular’ has increased from 16.1 per cent to 22.8 per cent, according to another study by the Pew Research Center.
Starting at the age of 16, I belonged to this percentage. Yet having come from such a religious family, my path to atheism has been strange. At first, I was highly influenced by my peers. I spent a lot of time on Reddit, reading posts about how ‘stupid’ and ‘weak’ religion was.
“More people today are [...] questioning, questioning, and questioning, and the questions that they have are not being answered,” my father said. “They’ve grown out of what they learned as children and sometimes they don’t go back.”
I began questioning everything around me. My brother was involving himself more deeply in the church, assisting with marriages, baptisms, and special holidays, and I felt like I was constantly drawing the short stick. Initially, I did not understand why I was not invited to participate in those proceedings, despite having the same number of years of seniority as other altar servers or lecturers. Then I realized it was because I was a woman. After that point, I couldn’t stop seeing the Catholic church as misogynistic. This is not to say that I thought all Catholics were against women as the Catholic Church does retain a number of strong women figures like Mary, the Mother of Jesus.
“I really ground myself in that,” D’Souza said. “[It’s] something we address quite a bit [and] there’s a lot of support for women in the [Catholic] community.”
I, however, saw its foundations built and maintained on a male-dominated stage. Women cannot be the pope, bishops, cardinals, priests, or deacons. Women are allowed to be nuns—set aside, subservient, and made to be quiet.
“The main reason [I think you turned away from the church] was misogyny,” my mother explained. “You felt like boys had a boost, girls couldn’t become priests, it was your first irritation. You realized that there were negative aspects with religion.”
I had a lot of pride growing up; I still do. So, to constantly feel slighted for something I had no control over did not sit well with me. I moved into something where I felt like I could shine: Science. Though women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields still suffer similar issues, the notion of a successful woman in science was not as impossible as blazing a trail to becoming the first female priest.
During high school, I took Advanced Placement (AP) physics, chemistry, biology, and calculus, amongst other science-heavy courses. As I learned about the physical laws of the universe, the spiritual laws of God seemed flawed, improbable, and quite frankly, silly. To me, the two had become mutually exclusive: A scientist did not believe in God.
I quit the church, I quit God, and I became arrogant and judgemental. I looked down on those who were faithful as being weak and small-minded. I sneered at those who spent time investing in their faith; I invested in science. This created tension in my family, considering I had a brother who was pursuing a future in the Catholic faith. But whenever he would speak about his beliefs, dreams, and activities in the Church, I laughed.
It took me a while to realize that the two were not so incompatible. Not because they were similar or because they held the same values and beliefs, but because they demanded from each other the same thing. Take for example, oil and water. Oil and water cannot mix because water is polar and oil is nonpolar; however, the moment you add an emulsifier, the two mix. Science and religion can also be emulsified: Through respect, communication, and understanding.
“When [we] look at things from a scientific point of view, we’re trying to see where we came from and where we’re going,” Father Owen Moran, my childhood priest, said. “[Believers] see science as a gift from God. We don’t have to be able to explain everything in the past. We don’t have to be afraid of the future. Because, even if the scientific facts of the future aren’t what we would like, we’re given the strength and the courage when the time comes to put up with any challenges because of our faith in Christ.”
For many, this is why they go to church. It is a way to connect to the community, to make friends, and to pray for the strength to make it through the day.
“St. Barbara’s in Brooklyn was my community,” my father, said. “My father and mother were everything in the church. They ran bingos, ran the bazaar. When he passed away I became an altar server, I sang in the choir, I was in the five drummer bugle corps. I did everything a young man could do for the church.”
What I initially perceived as weakness slowly transformed into compassion, empathy, and patience as I spoke to individuals about their experiences with religion. I began to respect my brother’s kind acts and the psychological benefits they had—like delivering the host to the sick and elderly.
This does not ignore the horrible things that have come in the name of religion (see this past week alone, the events in Lahore and Brussels), but rather acknowledge the good things that have.
“There are not one hundred people in the United States who hate the Catholic Church, but there are millions who hate what they wrongly perceive the Catholic Church to be,” Venerable Fulton Sheen said on /ABC/ in the early 1950s.
It’s strange, and sometimes terrifying, to revisit the past to mold the future. When I look back, I’m ashamed with how unequivocally, blindly, and quickly I dismissed religion for science. And I see this problem remaining amongst many of my peers.
“Science and religion can communicate to each other, but they’re speaking two different languages,” my brother said. “There needs to be translators. There needs to be people who know science and religion, and to help enable that conversation to happen together. That’s the most important thing to remember.”
Unfortunately, few are willing to have this conversation. Science has been called the new religion, and certain individuals have fought ceaselessly to present its superiority to religion.
“Religion closes off the central questions of existence by attempting to dissuade us from further enquiry by asserting that we cannot ever hope to comprehend,” Atkins wrote in his essay, The Limitless Power of Science. “Science, in contrast to religion, opens up the great questions of being to rational discussion, to discussion with the prospect of resolution and elucidation [....] Science is the apotheosis of the intellect and the consummation of the renaissance. Science respects more deeply the potential of humanity than religion ever can.”
Biting words like this are mimicked in works and letters published by Dawkins, Thomas Edison, and Alan Turing. Today, these words are spread by modern atheists on social media in a sort of aggressive arrogance against those who are Christian. Interestingly, and what many fail to realize, is that there are arguably equally as many believing scientists as non-believing. For example, individuals like Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Brian Kobilka, 2012 Chemistry Nobel Prize winner, and Colin Humphreys, a director of Research at Cambridge University have all identified themselves as being Christian.
“The first gulp from the glass of natural sciences will turn you into an atheist,” Werner Heisenberg, the winner of the 1932 Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation of quantum mechanics, stated. “But at the bottom of the glass God is waiting for you.”
The science versus faith argument is polarizing. Individuals might associate religion with dogmatism, myopia, and truth; and science, with pragmatism, hyperopia, and truth. I’m realizing that these are two hands of the same being. A scientist is dogmatic, myopic, hyperopic and pragmatic in their work—as is the modern Catholic practitioner.
“It’s important to know that [the Church] seeks always for the benefit for all humans,” my brother said. “[The Church] asks science to be slow. To be cautious and careful. To be morally unambiguous. [Our faith] is a gift from God that can enable us to study and learn more.”
Human beings search for purpose and identity. Finding that identity, however, can be tricky and takes time. But if that identity is built on sacrificing the well-being and the happiness of others, then I believe it is flawed. When a scientist—believer or non-believer—does not respect and seek to understand the decisions of another, then they are not truly a scientist. For scientists are seekers of truth, knowledge, and understanding in their world and in their surroundings, without omitting people.
This, after 22 years, is what I have finally determined to be what I believe.