In 2014 a scientific report was published detailing the DNA analysis from five samples of consecrated hosts stolen from churches throughout the USA and Canada. The analysis showed, beyond any doubt, that the DNA found in the host was that of wheat and not from a human subject. This was held up as undeniable proof against the Catholic dogma of transubstantiation, that
“by the consecration of the bread and wine there takes place a change of the whole substance of the bread into the substance of the body of Christ” (CCC 1376).
For the authors of the study, words like change and substance sound very scientific, and what is the most basic substance known to all living things? DNA of course. So, a change in substance would show a change in DNA, and yet it doesn’t – therefore, transubstantiation is false. However, that’s not what transubstantiation is. For the Church, the substance of the Eucharist is not a temporal reality – it isn’t something you can see or taste or touch. So the DNA of the consecrated host wouldn’t change, but the substance – the true nature of the thing has transformed into the literal body of Christ. The meanings and details of transubstantiation are not important right now – what is important to notice is the language and the way in which we use it. The authors of the study thought they understood what they were arguing against, and when they didn’t, bad things (like desecration and sacrilege) happened.
I recently came across a video of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Colbert debating religion and the existence of God. As I watched I became very aware that they were speaking very different languages: Gervais insisted on the superiority of science while Colbert tried to speak from the religious perspective. Unfortunately, science won, and Catholicism lost, both in this particular argument and in general.
Ricky Gervais is a famous proponent of the New Atheism which largely argues that the existence of God is a scientific hypothesis, and like all hypotheses, the claim can be tested in a scientific manner. This presumes that all knowledge, wisdom and experience is explained by science as if it is the ultimate frontier of truth.
That’s not science, it's Scientism (the view that science is the only way to objectively see reality); it’s not an academic discipline, it’s an ideology. Science can tell us amazing things about the greatest stars and planets and the smallest subatomic particles, it has given us great advancements in technology (like the way you’re reading this blog right now), and yet it cannot tell us about things like love, or sacrifice or redemption. Science can tell us the ‘how’ of the universe, but it tells us nothing of the human condition. Science can put a man on the moon, but it can’t explain the feeling a mother has when she holds her newborn for the first time or the feeling a young man has when he realises ‘I’m going to marry that girl'.
It reminds me of the time my nephew (who was maybe four years old at the time) asked me, “Uncle, what’s an atheist?” and I replied, “Well, it’s somebody who doesn’t believe in God.” I will never forget his response, as he said with something like grief or sorrow in his voice “Oh. That’s sad.” That little conversation still haunts me, even ten years later, because he’s absolutely right. Even at that age, my nephew was able to recognise that somebody who does not experience God’s love is missing something fundamental and essential to the human condition; it was as if he realised, perhaps for the first time, that there can be something other than love in the world, and it broke my heart.
In a similar way, somebody (who was probably agnostic at best) once said to me that the Church
has nothing important to say to the modern world. I wasn’t able to respond to him in the moment, either because I was too reluctant to get into an argument or I didn’t know how to respond – it was probably both. But this claim is the same tragedy that my nephew encountered: look at the media we consume – everybody loves a love story, and everybody loves a good redemption arc.
Why do you think the Harry Potter series (essentially a story about sacrifice) resonates with an entire generation? Why are there so many superhero movies? It’s because the world is looking for a saviour. The answers to all of the questions that modern society asks itself – what is love? What is honour? Is sacrifice a good thing? Can I be a good person? The answers to all of these questions can be found in God, yet our culture manufactures them in the media we consume as if that will fill the God-shaped void in our soul. It really is sad.
So how do we argue with an atheist as to the existence of God? We don’t. The 'Existence of God' argument is a scientific one, and it has been answered – there is no scientific evidence for the existence of God. Instead, we should insist on the existence of love, the power of sacrifice, the importance of redemption and salvation. And then we might ask our New Atheist friends to account for it. We cannot prove the existence of God in the language of science, but we can show His existence in the language of Love.