And then I wrote… in 2011 I wrote a lengthy piece for the Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica, which they ran in 2012, in Italian, as “Studio delle stelle e virtù teologali. L’esperienza di un astronomo.” An abbreviated version ran in L’Osservatore Romano on July 28 of that year. But I don’t think it ever appeared in its full form in English. In fact I wrote it in English and they did the translations… because it runs to nearly 6,000 words, I have split it into three parts and we’ll run it here over the next three weeks. Here’s Part I.
As a Jesuit brother at the Specola Vaticana, the astronomical observatory supported by the Vatican, I live in community with fellow Jesuits united by our common vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience… and by our work as astronomers.
The world of astronomy is a microcosm that reflects how we human beings motivate ourselves to do things that bring no obvious benefit, in terms of money or power or the other things that the world judges as benefits. (Consider the vows we all have taken.) There is no obvious profit in understanding, say, the spectra of stellar clusters. How, then, do we astronomers motivate ourselves to work together on things that none of us could do on our own? What sustains us astronomers, moment to moment, in our pursuit of knowledge? What are the underlying qualities that not only determine whether or not we are good scientists, but that make us want to be scientists in the first place?
In its essence, this question is where science meets religion. It is commonplace to talk about the “endless war between science and religion,” and one commonplace way to resolve this “war” is to say that science and religion each have their own realm of applicability: as Steven Jay Gould once put it, their own “non-overlapping magisteria.” I do science during the week, I do religion on Sunday. I don’t worry about how they mix; I don’t let them mix.
Yet those who would put up a watertight barrier between science and religion miss one very important point. Science and religion do intersect without doubt in at least one place…
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…in the human being who is the scientist. In the human being whose ultimate motivations and yearnings to pursue that science are, overtly or not, religious. In the human being, whose religious assumptions about the universe form the foundation for scientific reasoning.
Also, let us also remember that it’s also a cliché to equate all religion with the strictest form of Creationism, one that says the world was created in exactly Seven Days and Genesis is our only science text; or to think all scientists treat their science as their religion, and preach that there is no God but Biology, and Dawkins is its Prophet.
But there’s a reason why some good, sincere, and very smart people can espouse Creationism; while others, equally good, sincere, and smart, have abandoned religion for a materialistic version of science. The reason may be, both views are at least partly right. As the theologians remind us, every heresy is based on an important truth.
In order for atheists to say they do not believe in God, they must have a pretty clear picture of the God it is whom they are rejecting. And the god that the atheists reject may well be a god worth rejecting: one who is indeed far from the God we believers have experienced, and embrace.
We believe in God ultimately not from blind faith in a book or a guru, but as a response to an experience. Even if our faith is inspired or directed by such a book or such a guru, it is based at the very least on the experience of the guru or the one who wrote the book, and it is inevitably reinforced by our own experience of God. In that sense we are no different from a scientist, who observes and then tries to make sense of what is observed. The atheist denies the reality of our religious experiences, or claims that our understanding of them is false, that we’re just projecting “God” onto data that can be explained in other ways. The theist claims that the atheist is throwing away the data by refusing to admit the reality of any experience that doesn’t fit into one’s preconceived view the universe. Undoubtedly there have been times when each side has been right.
In rejecting supernatural intervention in the universe, science rejects a god of chaos, one without laws, who operates on a whim, who makes no sense. But then, so does Christianity.
Science rejects a god who mutters “Let there be…” at random. A simple or arbitrary god who creates by whim or at random is inconsistent with the complex but rule-bound nature of the universe. But though God of Genesis does indeed create (literally) by fiat, “let there be,” it is not at random. His rhyme and reason are also there. The story of Genesis tells us that creation was formed in stages, step by step, with the most subtle hints of an ultimate plan. So the Creationists are right, too, when they insist that discarding the Genesis story of creation and fall would mean throwing away the only clue we’ll ever get of the why and wherefore of this universe.
Of course, very few believers are Creationists. Furthermore, even Creationists drive cars and surf the web; they happily live with technology and a world-view that’s far removed from ancient Palestine. Indeed, my biggest argument with them is that in a funny way they embrace science too much, they give it too much credit. Creation is good enough for me; it doesn’t gain anything – rather the contrary – to dress it up as “creation science.”
And, as it turns out, most scientists are not strictly speaking atheists. The proportion you’d find in church on Sunday (or in a synagogue on Saturday, or a mosque on Friday) is not all that different from the general public at large.
Among my acquaintances, I have seen that even those astronomers who don’t belong to an organized religion still are, most often, theists — or at least agnostics, suspecting the existence of a God but never expecting to know Him. Most of the non-churched astronomers, I have found, would agree with Carl Sagan who once said, “an atheist is someone who knows more than I do.”
Few scientists claim to be atheists. And even an atheist scientist must still worship at the altar of Truth; at least, we all agree, the good ones do. Truth matters, even when it is not in your immediate best interest to admit that the result of your experiment, or observation, or improved calculation, goes against your pet theories; even when you know that you could fake your data, get tenure, and no one but you would ever know. This dedication to an abstract ideal, Truth, is not so different from the worship of a God who proclaims to be “the way, the truth, and the life.”
The biggest issue to those scientists who are agnostics is the question of a personal God who acts in our daily lives. But even the most unreligious of scientists looks in nature for a key, a rhythm, a sense of a familiar characteristic pattern, one that has succeeded in the past in providing a useful description of how things work, and one that can give a clue to future research, opportunities for further understanding. For lack of a better phrase, nature has a personality. And a successful scientist is one who is familiar enough with that personality to recognize when a theory gets it “right” or “wrong.” Just as we know our favorite characters from a novel or a TV show, and we react badly if a new writer tries to take them in a different direction and gets them “wrong,” so a badly worked out theory will set a good scientist’s teeth on edge, even before they go through the maths of showing why it doesn’t work. It is that “teeth-on-edge” intuition that motivates them to do the maths.
Those religious believers whose mistrust of science has kept them distant from it may never learn the personality of nature that the scientist has come to know. On the other hand, they may well know the Person whose personality the scientists only intuit. Recall how the God of Genesis remarks on creation, judging it good. Likewise, even the most atheistic scientists experience that sense of joy, that simple happiness, that sense of rightness, when they uncover the elegance in nature reflected in its laws of science.
The great astronomer Johannes Kepler referred to the mathematical motions of the planets among the stars as echoing “the music of the spheres.” And in the Book of Job, the Lord speaks of the moment of creation, “when the morning stars sang together, and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy.” The harmony of the morning stars is poetry of the highest order: it reminds us that in its essence, creation is a source of joy.
As with music, it takes skill and talent to perform our research. But anyone can gaze on that beauty and rejoice, just as non-musicians delight in the harmonies of a beautiful piece of music.
The scientific work of astronomy demonstrates that the whole universe operates on divine laws that make up a pleasing and consistent whole; the beauty of the stars and nebulae resulting from those laws is the expression of that joyous harmony. It motivates everything we do.
But to actually do that work requires more. Nowadays it requires a close familiarity with mathematics and physics, with chemistry and biology.
And it also depends on the three virtues described in St. Paul. In order to do science, you must accept articles of faith, hope, and love that are quite frankly religious in nature. Indeed, one can argue (as Stanley Jaki has done) that they are specifically Christian. Certainly, they are articles that not all religions necessarily believe.