And then I wrote… this article was written for a book called Touching the Face of the Cosmos
I was a Sputnik kid. The world’s first artificial satellite went into orbit when I was in kindergarten; men landed on the Moon when I was a rising senior in high school. In between, like all boys of my generation (and a few girls, as well — I had secret crushes on all of them) I knew I was going to be a scientist.
It started with my parents, of course, who encouraged me at every step… themselves the grandchildren of immigrants: Italian father, Irish mother; both Catholic, and also both college educated. My dad had always loved astronomy himself and he’d learned the sky as a B-17 navigator in the Army Air Corps during World War II; he took me out at night to show me the major navigation stars, and got me my first copy of H. A. Rey’s wonderful guide to the constellations, The Stars. Every Christmas and birthday brought a new science kit, from a model planetarium to a make-your-own computer. I had a wonderfully elaborate chemistry setup in the basement; in one experiment, the power supply from my Lionel trains got taken over to electrolyze hydrogen and oxygen from water. (No bunsen burners or strong acids, but I was allowed to use an alcohol lamp at least. My mother kept a watchful eye, from an appropriate distance.)
And then there were the after-school programs at the Cranbrook Science Museum, just two miles (an easy bike ride) from my home in the northern suburbs of Detroit. I learned everything from banding birds to hunting fossils. The planetarium was a special treat.
Of course, the public library with its shelves of science fiction provided yet another encouragement to my astronomical appetite. Heinlein, Clark, and Asimov spoke to me of a future where space travel would be taken for granted. Planets were places where people had adventures.
All of this science education was reinforced by the good Sisters of Charity at Our Lady Queen of Martyrs Grade School. They gave me enrichment classes in math and science. Besides the usual science fairs, I recall participating in a special program on the nature of heat when I was in the fourth grade, and a self-paced algebra class when I was in the seventh grade. And of course, every Mercury and Gemini launch of American astronauts into orbit was an occasion for someone’s dad to set up a “portable” TV in the classroom, so we could all watch the rockets together.
The sisters taught us evolution and the Big Bang. They also taught us the standard 1950s American credo of Progress, where “science” and “technology” were all mixed together. “Science” had won the war (World War II, of course, the only war that mattered); and there was no disease that wouldn’t some day be conquered by bigger and better factories and power plants. In those days, science was an unalloyed good, the key to the future well-being of the human race.
At the same time, however, the sisters also emphasized the importance of a Catholic education… of avoiding the “dangers” of secular universities, for instance. There was still a sense of proudly living in a Catholic ghetto, where the rest of the world was not to be trusted.
In other words, I was the product of my upbringing, a wonderful mixture of 1950’s optimism and 1950’s Catholicism. It never occurred to me, or to anyone, that the world was more complicated than Progress and God. Certainly there was no thought that space travel – or science in general – might be at odd angles with religion.
The ecology movement, beginning in those 1950’s with Rachel Carson’s The Silent Spring, blossomed in the 1960’s. It fit with the zeitgeist, which recognized in civil rights marches and the Vietnam War that the America of the 1950’s had issues that factories and space travel would not solve. Indeed, “progress” came at a high cost.
At the same time that the political left was learning to view technology with suspicion, the growing battle lines of the culture wars were drawing religious people on the right likewise to become more suspicious of science… or, at least, of scientists.
Actually, the rise of such religious fundamentalism wasn’t a rejection of science per se. I mean, if someone goes to the trouble of writing journals and books and even opening museums dedicated to what they call “creation science” then obviously they want to capture the cachet of that word “science” and all it implies, and appropriate it to their own beliefs. They wanted to think that their religion was “scientific” because they felt somehow that “scientific” means good, and smart, and reliable, and true… even while, at the same time, they rejected what they had heard scientists on TV talk shows saying about what science teaches. It became a badge of honor among some religious folks to say “I reject evolution” not because they reject “science” but as a short-hand way of saying they were “religious.” To them, anti-evolution implies pro-religion.
In the same way, you could find people who say “I reject religion” as a short-hand way of saying they were “scientific” because they thought being seen as “scientific” implied they were a full-fledged member of the side of our common culture that was smart and reliable and true… even while, at the same time, a strict materialism like they claimed to espouse would not admit the reality of “smartness” or even, in its extreme versions like deconstructionism, of truth.
These fundamentalisms, I would argue, are really based on a sort of tribalism, not religion. After all, the religion that the science-rejecters actually practice today would have been unrecognizable as “religious” in the 1950’s. Many of these same people who want to be identified with “traditional morality” have no problem with divorce and remarriage (the only sexual sin specifically called out in the Gospels) or even with sex outside marriage – just see the attitudes they have towards the peccadillos of their favorite preachers, pundits, and politicians, to say nothing of how they behave in their own personal lives. That kind of attitude would have been anathema among the conservative religious people of the 1950s and 1960s. Likewise, many of them behave as if they have no concept of the traditional Christian teaching concerning the care for for widows or orphans, and strangers in our midst, or the injunctions against piling up huge amounts of personal wealth.
It’s not science that bothers them. It’s the sense of alienation they feel with a culture that has embraced science but rejected the certainties they had enjoyed in the 1950s.
In a similar way, I’ve found that (in America at least) the most vocal of the militant atheists – the ones most likely to be seen selling their worldview on television or the internet – are often trying to assimilate themselves into their idea of the mainstream of intellectual thought by loudly rejecting their own upbringing. For many of them, they were raised in a subculture known for strong religious ties, a culture that now embarrasses them… Southern Baptist, or New York Jewish, or Irish Catholic, or African American. It’s not religion per se that they hate; it’s their fear of being placed outside of what they perceive as the mainstream culture.
I joined the Jesuits in my late 30’s, well into my scientific career. When I arrived at the Vatican Observatory in 1989 I noticed a defensiveness among the older Jesuits in how they presented themselves and their science in public. They felt a need to explicitly emphasize the complete lack of any kind of religious influence on the science they did. But my experience of “coming out” as a religious person was quite different from the situation those older Jesuits had encountered. Many of my scientific colleagues finally felt free to speak to me about their own religious faith. And even among non-believers, I found that among my contemporaries, especially in the US – less so in Britain – there was a real opposite trend: an openness to people of all religious beliefs, coupled with an acceptance that science doesn’t have all the answers, or even all the questions. Indeed, they are much more likely than the naïve religious folks to recognize the limits of science. After all, they live with those limits every day; and they, too, had gone through the 1960’s awakening of the limits of technology.
In that sense, even if (sometimes, especially if) they themselves are non-believers, a lot of younger scientists felt the same embarrassment towards the so-called “new” atheists (who are, after all, mostly a bunch of old white men) that most religious people feel towards religious fundamentalists. They saw the evangelical atheists as trapped in a sort of 19th-century understanding of science and religion that does not connect with their own experience of either, and which is seen to be very narrow minded, and dangerously bigoted.
In summary, one might say that those who claim to be people of faith but reject science, have no faith in their faith; and those who claim to be ultra-rational people of science but evangelize against religion, are not being very rational.
It’s delightful to make fun of those people who disagree with me, of course. I’m a moderate; anyone who disagrees with me, must be an extremist! But the scary truth is that the faults we most see in others, are the faults we are likely to be secretly guilty of, ourselves. So it is perhaps worthwhile to take a closer look at the unexamined incongruities that a middle-of-the-road Catholic space buff like me must live with all the time.
How do I reconcile the idea of being a part of claims to be a “catholic” — i.e., universal — religion and the reality that its presence here on our little planet is but a drop in the bucket of the larger universe?
Oh, sure, this is a twist on a question I answer all the time. If I am so small, and the universe is so big, then either God can’t possibly notice me; or, the fact that nonetheless God does know me intimately, from the womb (Psalm 139), just tells me how immense God really is. The bigger I learn the universe is, the bigger in return the Creator of this universe turns out to be. Fine answer, yes. But that’s God; what about religion? Is there a cosmic significance to my Church? Or are we always doomed to be outsiders in the cosmos?
In our recent book Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? my coauthor Paul Mueller (the source of most of the good ideas in that book, I confess) has a fascinating way of addressing that issue. The problem, he pointed out, is the difficulty of understanding how the human race could be “special” in a universe of the scale we now recognize. But he said, what if we’re looking at it the wrong way? What if the human race is special not because it is different from the other 13.8 billion light years of stars, but because we have within us something that is utterly characteristic of the whole universe?
As Fr. George Coyne, another Vatican astronomer, would always emphasize, in us human beings the universe has self-awareness. Perhaps this self-awareness and, even more, the ability to freely choose to love or not to love, is the essence of what the entire universe is created for. Then our human souls – self aware and able to love, which is to say in the language of Aquinas, possessing intellect and free will, the image and likeness of God – are not uniquely special and different but uniquely central to the universe.
Finding others on other planets (or between the planets) with no matter how many tentacles, but also with that same self awareness and ability to love, is no threat; no more than discovering – as a baby does – that there exist other entities besides itself is any threat. A universe with others to love is a far better place than a universe centered solely on me. If being “assimilated” means a Borg-like loss of the sense of self-and-other, then the assimilation so desired by the evangelical atheists is a terrible loss.
With such a vision, my religion takes on a new role. It is the language, indeed the operating system, that allows me to recognize and integrate this experience of The Other, just as it has allowed me to recognize and integrate the experience of God… an experience that all people have, whether or not they recognize it as such. I should not fear encountering another species’ religion any more than I would fear encountering an alien’s version of mathematics or physics. I am confident the fundamental truths are the same, even if we use different symbols to describe the variables.
Indeed, this comparison to another physics shows me how my religion gives me an extra dimension of freedom lacking in the strictly materialist worldview. As G. K. Chesterton pointed out in Orthodoxy, more than 100 years ago, “Spiritual doctrines do not actually limit the mind as do materialistic denials. Even if I believe in immortality I need not think about it. But if I disbelieve in immortality I must not think about it. In the first case the road is open and I can go as far as I like; in the second the road is shut.”
The fundamental assumption of cosmology is that the same physics and mathematics that we recognize here on Earth, also operate in all times and places in the universe. Without that assumption, we couldn’t use physics to try and understand the origins of the universe. And with that assumption, we’ve succeeded in making such progress that we have no reason to doubt its validity.
But even a thousand years of progress and “not-inconsistent-with-observation” success of our theories would not prove they are true. Eventually, we will encounter something that causes us to think twice. The Aristoteleans could not imagine a universe other than the world they knew, a sphere at the bottom of the universe surrounded by concentric spheres carrying the Sun, moon, planets and stars in perfect motion above our imperfect, corrupt planet.
Astronomy has succeeded in pulling us out of that depth (or, some might say, in pulling the rest of the stars and planets down into the same corrupt level that Earth is in). Rather than being the death of religion, it has given a new understanding of who we are and who God is.
Writing my master’s thesis at MIT on the evolution of icy moons, my science-fiction-addled imagination suddenly pictured a race of intelligent “tuna” living in the ocean between Europa’s ice crust and rocky core (which I had just deduced from my computer models). And I wondered, how could such creatures, living in a universe with an impenetrable roof over their heads, ever know about the existence of Jupiter, the planet their moon orbits, much less the stars of the rest of the universe? And then… what barriers exist in our own understanding of the universe that we don’t even know about, limiting us to what we can see and experience?
When I accept that the universe is larger than my own understanding (without rejecting my understanding), then I am free to experience, and evaluate, situations that my current understanding of physics might demand are unthinkable. Not every unthinkable concept is true; but if I never encounter a truth that I used to think was unthinkable, then I will never allow myself to learn anything new.
Science fiction, the literature of Space, has its own cosmological principle: the issues of right and wrong, the conflicts of worldview that make up the heart of good storytelling, also operate in all planets, places, and times. That doesn’t mean we won’t encounter something new as we explore the universe. Rather, it means that once we do encounter something new, we’ll be able to come home to our own experience of the universe back here on Earth and recognize that new thing, hiding in plain sight in our own worlds and worldviews. Anyone who has traveled or lived abroad knows that experience; we only recognize our home for what it is, by experiencing someone else’s home for what that is.
I am a product of the 1950’s, an era that is past and will never come again. I have experienced worlds that I never could have imagined at that time. They are called the 60’s, the 70’s, the 90’s, the present. My father who taught me the stars looked back at his life from the pinnacle of 100 years and reminds me that he (as are we all) is a time-traveller. We’ve grown, we’ve learned, we’ve enjoyed the long, strange trip. (And picked up some new clichés along the way!)
The most important part of traveling in space, be it with our telescopes and robots and imaginations or in actual spacecraft themselves, is precisely that we will learn things that will challenge our comfortable assumptions, which have insulated us too long from reality. If I have the ability to reason correctly in my science, I cannot help but conclude that the science I know today is woefully incomplete, and I will not be able to make it grow until I am willing to challenge it with new discoveries. If I have faith in my faith, then I will embrace the challenge that finding new worlds and even new races will bring. God is to be found in reality, not in our comforts.
The poet e. e. cummings, so popular in my high school literature classes back when I was growing up, had it right. It is a hell of a good universe next door. To travel into space is our destiny. But it is not leaving home; it will be coming home. Let’s go!