Bill Nye the Science Guy is awesome at science. If you ever watched his TV show, you’ve probably got that theme song in your head by this point (for which I do not apologize). If you haven’t seen the show, episodes just went up on Netflix. (Cancel your plans, pop some popcorn, and get ready to binge-learn.) It’s some of the most enjoyable education you’ll ever see, and the Science Guy is a great teacher. And I think he’s more Catholic than most evangelical Christians.
“But wait,” you say, “he’s an agnostic!” It’s true; he doesn’t believe in God. In fact, last year, he got national attention for his “duel” with Ken Hamm, leader of the Creationist Museum, and for saying that he thinks creationism is dangerous for America and that we “can’t afford” to raise students “who don’t have the skills to think scientifically.” So why, as an agnostic opponent of Christian scientific theories, does he resonate more with Catholicism than one might think?
Because he knows the difference between faith and science (or as they say on the show, SCIENCE!).
Consider the Following
The Catholic Church is slow to jump on bandwagons because some bandwagons end up crashing and burning (smoking doesn't cause cancer!). The scientific process as we know it today is still very new, and it's always discovering new things and exploring new theories. That's why the Church hasn't, and I'm guessing won't, make any kind of scientific declaration about the origins of the universe. And also, the Church understands that science can provide valid understanding about the nature of the universe, which reflect the nature of God:
"The question about the origins of the world and of man has been the object of many scientific studies which have splendidly enriched our knowledge of the age and dimensions of the cosmos, the development of life-forms and the appearance of man. These discoveries invite us to even greater admiration for the greatness of the Creator, prompting us to give him thanks for all his works and for the understanding and wisdom he gives to scholars and researchers" (Catechism of the Catholic Church [CCC] 283).
Creationists, however, go waaaay too far in the other direction.
Many of them adhere to the sola scriptura doctrine–the idea that the Bible alone is the source of truth. Because the Bible is their only source of truth and there is no interpreting Tradition, they have to take the Bible literally, even when some parts of it (while true) are not necessarily literal. Because of sola scriptura, they have to follow their personal understanding of the Bible, even if it flies in the face of reason as expressed through scientific research. Hence, creationism.
Bill Nye objects to creationism–the idea that the Earth is about 6,000 years old and that ancient man lived at the same time as the dinosaurs–because there’s no scientific evidence for it. And he’s totally right; creationists get their hypothesis from the Bible, which is not a scientific textbook. And Bill Nye is an agnostic because there’s no scientific proof for the existence of God.
Yeah, I said that.
There really isn’t, y’all. I mean, there are great arguments for the existence of God (graciously provided by St. Thomas Aquinas); there are logical reasons for believing in God. But there’s no scientific proof of it out there. Nobody’s ever going to find God by looking through either a microscope or a telescope.
But guess what? That’s totally fine.
The faith is not spiritual rocket science.
You see, we live in a strange time for people of faith. In the era of moral relativism, the only things that are deemed true are the things proved by science. If something is observable and can be tested and retested and shown to be true, then it is true. There’s no other objective standard of truth anymore, so we’re left with the scientific method. And the scientific method works pretty well–for science.
When science and faith have a debate, science comes armed with facts and graphs and reports, and faith is tempted to either argue about how many days it takes to create a solar system or at walk out of the room muttering something about the “fires of Gehenna.”
The problem is this: we’re treating our faith like spiritual rocket science, like we need to prove what we believe in the same way that science proves things. That’s why we end up with silly phrases like “Christian scientific theories”: we’re getting two things mixed up.
Faith cannot make scientific claims, and science cannot make faith claims, because the two things are categorically different. Faith is concerned with invisible, spiritual reality. Science is concerned with the observable material universe. You see the problem?
Bill Nye gets this. He’s not anti-religious; he’s not a burn-the-Bibles atheist; he’s an agnostic. As a scientist, agnosticism is not a dishonorable position. From his point of view–from his observation of the material universe–he can’t see proof of any God, but he’s not going to run around saying there can’t be a God, because that’s not his area of expertise.
And we Catholics, while we don’t believe in creationism, do believe in God. But just because we can go chill with the Creator of the Universe in adoration doesn’t qualify us as scientists (although it’s definitely way cool).
“So how exactly can Bill Nye be more Catholic than creationists?” you repeat. I understand your confusion; at this point, it seems like faith and science should just not speak, for the benefit of everyone involved. It would seem an oxymoron for the Science Guy to be sitting in the pews with us.
It’s also clear that faith and science need to talk because they can inform each other. Science has provide amazing insight into the complexity of God’s creation; faith can help steer science to better achieve the good of mankind. But they need a mediator. And guess who can help us find what that is?
Do you remember what line of Mr. Nye’s I quoted earlier? He said we “can’t afford” to raise scientist with flawed ideas about science. He’s making a moral claim here. Unless I miss my guess, that’s called doing philosophy.
And philosophy is what can bridge the gap between believers and scientists. Here’s the funny thing: science can’t tell us why studying science is a good thing. (Just like the Bible never says it's the only source of truth. Hmmm...) The claim that science is good is a moral one, and morality is not the realm of science at all.
So when we Catholics are talking to scientists about scientific facts, let’s stick to scientific facts, and let’s hold our agnostic/atheist/creationist friends to the same standard. When we begin evaluating the direction, purpose, and implications of science, let’s make it clear–to ourselves and to those we’re speaking with–that we’re in the realm of philosophy. I think that’ll save lots of people a lot of frustration and establish an middle ground for honest dialogue between faith and science.
We can make this distinction during conversation because, as the Catechism says, "Though faith is above reason, there can never be any real discrepancy between faith and reason. Since the same God who reveals mysteries and infuses faith has bestowed the light of reason on the human mind, God cannot deny himself, nor can truth ever contradict truth" (CCC 159).
Did you know that? Now you know.
In the end, I think Bill Nye is closer to being a Catholic because he’s already being a great example for Catholics. He’s a measured voice spreading the truth he knows, and he tries to teach kindly and without vitriol. On top of that, he’s a great scientist. Scientific study requires a constant curiosity, rigorous discipline, and a humility before the facts, and those sound kinda like virtues to me.
And anyway, with the ever-present bowtie, the Science Guy is already dressed for Mass.
Blog By Conor Hennelly
Conor Hennelly has been writing for fun since age ten. He graduated from Ave Maria University with a degree in philosophy and works in marketing.