On tap at 2024 Society of Catholic Scientists convention: AI, evolution, and the nature of faith

SCS 1 Attendees at the 2019 Society of Catholic Scientists convention listen to a talk in South Bend, Indiana. | Credit: Photo courtesy of Stephen Barr

What does the development of artificial intelligence say about the human soul? Do humans actually have free will? What leads scientific-minded people to convert to Christianity?

The Society of Catholic Scientists’ (SCS) annual convention, taking place June 7–9 at Mundelein Seminary northwest of Chicago, promises to tackle these questions and more. 

Stephen Barr, a Ph.D. physicist at the University of Delaware and founder of the group, told CNA that the group has grown to over 2,000 members worldwide since its founding in 2016, with its first annual conference taking place in 2017. 

On the society’s website, the organization describes itself as an answer to the call of St. John Paul II that “members of the Church who are active scientists” be of service to those who are attempting to “integrate the worlds of science and religion in their own intellectual and spiritual lives.”

In addition to connecting members with opportunities and resources of common interest, the group has sought to provide educational resources to those outside its membership by providing on its website answers to common questions related to faith and science

Five of the 13 scheduled talks at the upcoming SCS conference deal in some way with the topic of artificial intelligence, a hot subject both in the secular and Catholic worlds. The Vatican under Pope Francis has in recent years emphasized the ethical use of AI, while a number of Catholics around the world are working to develop new catechetical tools that make use of AI technology for the purposes of sharing the Catholic faith. 

Karin Öberg, left, professor of astronomy at Harvard University, talks with fellow attendees at the 2019 Society of Catholic Scientists convention in South Bend, Indiana. Credit Photo courtesy of Stephen Barr
Karin Öberg, left, professor of astronomy at Harvard University, talks with fellow attendees at the 2019 Society of Catholic Scientists convention in South Bend, Indiana. Credit Photo courtesy of Stephen Barr

Barr said one of the AI-related talks he is most excited for is one to be presented by Alexander Pruss, a philosopher and mathematician at Baylor University, on the topic of AI and human souls. 

Other highlights will include a talk by Martin Nowak, a renowned Harvard mathematical biologist, on the topic “Does Evolution Lead to God?”; Suzanne Bohlson, a professor of biology at University of California-Irvine, will speak about how and why scientists convert to Christianity and the nature of faith. Other presentations will focus on topics such as the existence of free will and the problem of evil.

The Catholic Church has long supported the sciences, sponsoring for centuries endeavors such as the Vatican Observatory and hosting conferences in recent years on scientific topics such as quantum physics.

Barr said despite the Church’s long-standing support for science, he still encounters the misconception that most scientists are atheists.

“Many ordinary people looking at science completely from the outside; they have a misconception that all scientists are atheists,” Barr observed. “I think they imagine that if you’re in science, you must be surrounded by hostile people, people hostile to religion. And that’s not really true … there’s a wide spectrum of attitudes, and the people who are hostile to it are really a small minority.”

Dr. Stephen Barr, a physicist at the University of Delaware and president of the Society of Catholic Scientists, told CNA the organization has grown to over 2,000 members worldwide since its founding in 2016. Credit: Dr. Stephen Barr
Dr. Stephen Barr, a physicist at the University of Delaware and president of the Society of Catholic Scientists, told CNA the organization has grown to over 2,000 members worldwide since its founding in 2016. Credit: Dr. Stephen Barr

Barr said despite the large numbers of scientists who are religious, many of them may feel they can’t share their faith openly in the scientific settings where they work. 

“[R]eligious scientists tend to be a little quieter and maybe more cautious because they’re playing it safe…You keep your head down a little bit. Why invite trouble?” he said. 

One of the main goals of the SCS annual conference, he said, is to be a place where Catholic scientists meet each other and have fellowship with each other, spiritually and intellectually. 

“If you feel isolated, that makes you more reticent. And so what we want to do is break that vicious cycle and show the world and each other that there are a lot of religious scientists, particularly Catholic scientists. There are a lot of Catholic scientists out there.” 

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“I think our organization will help younger Catholics in science see that they’re actually quite a community, that they’re part of a very large community, and overcome their sense of isolation, make them more confident.”

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