When Children Wonder if Faith Conflicts With Science

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My first grader, Lucy, is learning about Adam and Eve, Original Sin, and The Fall. Typically, she’s dotting her i’s and crossing t’s. Typically, I’m bracing for the usual question. “Wait Mommy, who did Cain and Abel marry?” I’ll explain how we do not know, and for the first time she may wonder if faith conflicts with science. That pains me a little. Her first kindergarten science lesson was “God Made Everything.” She plays with toads and salamanders, examines veins in leaves, sculpts birthday cakes out of mud, and hears her older sister wail when anyone stomps a spider because it was “one of God’s creatures.” She is awed by creation. The wonder drives her to love science, and I don’t want her to lose that.

Like her sisters, she marvels at fossils in books and wonders what it would have been like to roam with dinosaurs. She is already interested in the same-named female hominin whose 3.2 million year old skeleton was found in Ethiopia. Someday she’ll probably learn about the genus Homo and the extinct Homo species that might have been ancestors of Homo sapiens. She’ll probably read about Homo habilis, how they had good manual dexterity and made tools out of pebbles, or about Homo ergaster and their family structures in which parents protected children. She might read in science journals that genomic studies suggest Homo neanderthalis interbred with modern humans. If she takes a university biology course, she’ll likely hear scientific theories that challenge the Adam and Eve story I teach her now.

And she’ll probably still be paying a great deal of attention to the details. Will she know how to think these questions through? If I don’t teach her how, she may naively abandon her unexamined beliefs. I want my children to be so confident in their faith that they are unafraid to explore the hardest questions in science. Scientific discovery will go on righting itself in places where better discoveries are made and forging ahead where brighter imaginations tread.

Faith and science are both a search for truth. What is true for one ought to be true for the other, and ultimately it is. The tension of apparent conflict is due to our incomplete knowledge. Maybe we do not yet fully understand the point of Genesis. Maybe science will reveal more about our first parents and what it means to be human. After all, no scientist can deny 1) we are united as one species, 2) our species stands above all the others, and 3) human cultures have always searched for God.

So I’m learning to teach these kids to stand back and say: “Well, here’s this and there’s that. I’m not sure how it fits together, so I’ll keep learning.” Deeply I want them to know the search for truth must be guided by faith, to remember to order their thinking as adults the same way they did as children—awed by creation, driven by wonder, firmly grounded in what God has revealed.

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About the Author

Stacy Trasancos is a wife and homeschooling mother of seven. She holds a PhD in Chemistry from Penn State University and a MA in Dogmatic Theology from Holy Apostles College and Seminary. She worked as a chemist for DuPont in the Lycra® and Teflon® businesses.

She teaches Chemistry and Physics for Kolbe Academy Online and Homeschool Program and serves as the Science Department Chair. She is teaching a set of summer mini-workshops titled "Science in the Light of Faith" for students, parents, other educators, or any Christian interested in the nuts and bolts of navigating science.

Similarly, she is teaching a "Reading Science in the Light of Faith" at Holy Apostles College & Seminary next Fall (2016). The course is funded by a John Templeton Foundation grant through John Carroll University for teaching science in seminaries. She is on the Board of Directors for ITEST (the Institute for the Theological Encounter with Science and Technology) where the essays from the course will be shared with the public.

Also in the Fall of 2016, she will teach a "Theological History of Science" course at Seton Hall University, where her mentor, the late Fr. Stanley L. Jaki was a distinguished professor. She is the author of Science Was Born of Christianity: The Teaching of Fr. Stanley L. Jaki.

Her new book, Particles of Faith: A Catholic Guide to Navigating Science is forthcoming with Ave Maria Press...

She teaches, researches, and writes from her family's 100-year old restored mountain lodge in the Adirondack mountains, where her husband and children (and two German Shepherds) remain her favorite priorities. Here is her website.

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3 Comments

  1. Great piece. I fully concur with the approach you are taking.
    The issue you raise is the one thing that concerned me from the moment our son was born, too.

    The way I decided to tackle it was to teach him about the errors of Biblicism and Scientism, and basic informal fallacies early on (about age 4). But, admittedly, I had been reading him a child’s Catholic Bible every night from much earlier, so he had got the main structure of Salvation History by then as we had read the whole thing dozens of times so could draw out the patterns and chat about them in very simple terms.

    Now, the reason I mention his age is that I don’t think he’s some genius I want to brag about, but that the person who was the main influence on my return to the Church was Bernard Lonergan, SJ, and I think he has some important things to say…

    From Lonergan, I learnt that the fundamental building block of knowledge is the insight, not knowing or knowledge itself, but also that 4 year-olds grasp insights regularly. One can see ‘the penny dropping’ in their minds at quite an early age about all sorts of things.

    Also, even if they can’t grasp the technical aspects of a problem, they get the problem, the error in the thinking, or what Lonergan would call bias, scotoma, or such-like for themselves. Children can see that Scientism, when explained simply, doesn’t quite add up. They get the game being played because they see it thwarts reasoning, because they understand reasoning intuitively. They just ‘get it’. Socrates shows this so many times in his dialogues, and I think it’s vital we help children to see – to learn – how they’re learning, and what’s involved in that, so they can see explicitly how, when, and where, it goes of the rails, deliberately, or not.

    The biggest evidence of this, I’ve found, is the child’s innate sense of justice, irrespective of how dysfunctional their background. They might be the nightmare child in the class who is the source of most of the injustice, but yet, will also shout foul as soon as an opportunity arises, if they consider themselves treated unfairly!

    I think the key is whether the parents (or catechists) themselves understand – have had an insight into – what they are teaching, or whether they’re merely parroting doctrine (Notional Assent), and it is at this point, that one sees that Lonergan took his cues from Newman, and not Kant, as many mistakenly assume.

    For me, Real Assent is required, and the illative sense – ‘insight’ – brings together the pieces into a whole: a cable of many strands which is far stronger than a single iron bar, to use Newman’s analogy. If one can’t understand the context of the content one’s teaching, any unanticipated question cannot be met wisely. Our ‘incomplete knowledge’, as you called it, is a ‘virtually unconditioned’, true, but open to revision in the advent of new questions or data, and this teaches us a level of humility, as well as responsibility.

    One of the problems we have, though, is that most parents swim in the sea of relativism and use that as the lens through which to view everything. It’s not intentional, it’s just all they know. But, at the same time, from experience, they can smell a rat, they just can’t articulate it, because they intuitively grasp there must be objective good and bad, truth and error. But, Insight is not correlated to memory, ‘IQ’ or ‘intelligence’, but one’s ability to get a joke.

    I see my job to be our son’s optician rather than teacher – give him the skills to think really objectively, not just fill his head with facts – so he can ‘see clearly’ with the right spectacles when I’m not about. I think that’s why Newman wrote the Grammar when he realised that something else was required to deal with Modernism (Relativism).

    Modernism, like Scientism, isn’t intentionally objective, but riddled with vested interests, and the trick is to make everyone think it’s open-minded, when it’s anything but, and kids get that as easily as adults when it’s pointed out, and we need to be their ‘midwife’ in giving birth to that.

    The downside is that it de-mystifies adults, scientists, and even priests, as being the fount of knowledge purely owing to their station in a pecking-order: it ‘corrupts the young’ as the Sophists would have said, as no-one likes people seeing through them and the games they’re playing (especially as a father!).

  2. Once again you pose the questions all parents must deal with if their children are to survive in faith in the modern world. All parents of faith should read this piece; they themselves might be strengthened in their own personal understanding of Faith and Science interrelationships.

  3. Throughout your piece, you assume that the declarations of godless science are true and, hence, pose a problem for parents of faith. This need not be, and you provide the solution is the last paragraph. You write, “Deeply I want them to know the search for truth must be guided by faith, to remember to order their thinking . . . firmly grounded in what God has revealed.” The foundation of truth is the revelation of God, and a search for truth not guided by faith can yield distorted results. Teach your children not to be afraid to stand for the faith and discard so-called truth should that be necessary.

    P.S. Cain and Abel married their sisters.

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