The wonders we see in the universe “should draw us out of ourselves,” an Ivy League scientist said last week, “looking out not just towards the wonders themselves and towards the truths they reveal, but also towards the source of all truths and the ultimate Creator of all things.”

Karin Öberg, professor of astronomy and director of undergraduate studies at Harvard University, said her work as a scientist has helped her to appreciate that we live in a universe that “has a beginning, a middle, and an end that’s unfolding over time.”

She also said that belief in God, far from being an impediment to scientific inquiry, actually can be helpful for scientists because of the “sure foundation” that belief in a Creator provides. Öberg herself is a convert from atheism.

“I think we should feel quite confident that having a true philosophy, and a true religion, should make it easier to make scientific discoveries, and not the opposite,” Öberg said in a Jan. 13 speech.

Karin Öberg delivers a keynote address at the Wonder Conference on Jan. 13, 2023. Credit: Word on Fire/Screenshot
Karin Öberg delivers a keynote address at the Wonder Conference on Jan. 13, 2023. Credit: Word on Fire/Screenshot

Öberg delivered the second keynote address Jan. 13 at the Wonder Conference, organized by the Catholic media apostolate Word on Fire, which took place in Grapevine, Texas, and attracted about 1,000 participants.

Öberg, a Swedish-born scientist who serves on the board of the international Society of Catholic Scientists, primarily studies the formation of stars and planets. The “empty” space between stars — what’s known as the “interstellar medium” — is not actually empty at all but contains vast quantities of gas and dust. Over millions of years, interstellar clouds can start to collapse in on themselves, and that is how stars form, Öberg said.

Many scientists today and in the past have been guided in their scientific inquiry by their faith, Öberg said. Father Georges Lemaître, who first proposed the theory known today as the Big Bang, helped to mainstream the idea of the universe having a beginning, and thus needing a Creator.

“I can’t help but wonder if … the reason that he had the idea, instead of some of the other brilliant scientists that he was surrounded by, had something to do with his Catholicism. I mean, he already knew, by faith, that the universe had a beginning in time,” Öberg said, referring to the Catholic belief in creation as narrated in the Book of Genesis.

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“And I can’t help but wonder that that made it easier for him to accept this idea … [and] there’s a reason, I think, that many atheists were very concerned about The Big Bang theory as it was being presented.”

Öberg said despite a reverence for science and the scientific method among many of her colleagues, it is important to note that the scientific method has limitations.

“There are many questions about the universe that we can ask that are not scientific … things like: What do you learn from beautiful art? What makes art beautiful?” she continued.

There exists a common idea, she said, that “you can only know if something is true if you can demonstrate it scientifically.” In reality, there are many ways of arriving at truth, “science being one of them,” but not the sole method. There are some questions — such as those of morality — that are reserved to the religious and philosophical realms. And most scientists can intuit this, she said.

“If you talk to a scientist [and ask] why they have a particular idea or hypothesis, they often say things such as: ‘It was an inspiration.’ When, at the heart of it, [the scientific method] is supposed to be a hyper-rational process,” Öberg said. Instead, “You’re basically calling on the Holy Spirit,” she said, laughing.

The rationality and order that scientists observe in the universe — and which make scientific inquiry of all kinds possible — point to a Creator that is the source of all rational thought, she continued.

“The scientific project relies on there being order and intelligibility in the universe, which is not something that science can prove that there is. It’s something that it assumes there to be,” Öberg said.

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Moreover, she said, “if all we are are sort of animals that are evolved to survive and procreate, there’s no reason that that should come with a reason that’s finely attuned to finding truth.” The fact that humans are rational and seek after a high power points to our souls being “patterned on God himself.”

The intelligibility of the universe, as scientists continue to uncover, “shows the incredible generosity of the Creator in sharing his causal powers with creation again in a way that I think would have been impossible to imagine in the pre-scientific world.”

The inaugural Wonder Conference, which took place at the Gaylord Texan Resort & Convention Center in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, was billed as an “opportunity to engage with theologians and other experts on important issues at the intersection of the Catholic faith and secular culture.” The conference, which was funded in part by a grant from the Templeton Foundation, featured talks from both religious scholars and scientists, as well as from Bishop Robert Barron of Winona-Rochester, Minnesota, the founder and face of Word on Fire.

“A perceived incompatibility between faith and science has led to a rise in the number of religiously unaffiliated. This perception runs counter to the experience of the Catholic tradition, which conveys the beautiful harmony between faith and science,” the website for the conference says.