Faith and Reason—Friends, Foes or Strangers?

March 1, 2017

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On the first day of class when Eric Watson, S.J., walks in wearing a collar and clerics, his new students sometimes look confused, seemingly wondering whether they inadvertently registered for a theology course. While Father Watson certainly knows his way around theology, he is, by trade, an associate professor of chemistry. 

His students are not alone in thinking that priest-slash-scientist is an odd combination—if not an outright contradiction. 

This idea that science and religion just don’t mix was the starting point of a presentation Father Watson gave Feb. 28, titled “Reflections of a Jesuit Scientist.” (The talk was part of the Institute of Catholic Thought and Culture’s Jesuits in Science Series.) 

Speaking to a standing-room-only crowd in Wyckoff Auditorium, Father Watson (right) invited attendees to consider for themselves the nature of the relationship between faith and reason: “Do they engage, oppose or ignore each other? Are they friends or foes or strangers?” 

He pointed to a Pew Research Center study in which a majority of respondents—nearly 60 percent—believe science and religion are often in conflict. (Interestingly, a much smaller percentage responded that their own beliefs conflict with science.) The media, Father Watson said, is significantly responsible for reinforcing this perception. He quoted Oxford University biochemist and Anglican priest Alister McGrath, who said, “There is a world of difference between saying that ‘science and religion are necessarily in conflict’ (which is historically indefensible) and ‘science and religion are sometimes in conflict and sometimes work together’ (which historically is true but will seem unexciting to many)." 

Conflict, Father Watson added, is actually just one of four models by which the relationship between faith and reason can be understood. He identified the other three as independence (science and religion are “polite strangers” operating in a sort of parallel, peaceful coexistence); complementarity (religion and science are in dialogue, informing and keeping one another honest, while still pretty much autonomous); and integration (science and religion are viewed cohesively through the prism of a personal relationship with a creative, active and loving God).

Father Watson deftly drew upon the wisdom and insights of scientists and theologians alike to elaborate and critique each model. Speaking from his personal experience as a priest and professor on campus, he shared his views on how Seattle University fosters an integration of religion and science. “Jesuit education promotes dialogue between faith and culture, which includes dialogue between faith and science.” Along those lines, he added that “It’s rewarding for me to see some of my students at Mass on Sunday and then at class on Monday.”

He also spoke with passion about his research. “This is what I make,” he said, pointing to a slide on the screen, “triple-decker organometallic compounds. They’re interesting…they’re colorful…they have eventual applications…but really, I love these things because they’re beautiful.” 

“There’s a lot of harmony,” Fr. Watson concluded, “between my life as a teacher, a priest and a researcher.”