Who’s listening in?
And then I wrote… In 2017 I was invited to contribute a chapter to a book called Theism and Atheism: Opposing Arguments in Philosophy (which came out finally in 2019) by my friend, the late Fr. Joe Koterski SJ, one of the editors of the book and a philosophy professor at Fordham. The chapter is long, so I have broken it into multiple parts. This is part 5; click here for part 1 , here for part 2, here for part 3 and here for part 4. If you want to see the whole thing, why not check out the book itself?
Carrying the Conversation Further
I have no doubt that many atheists who pursue science do so for exactly the same reasons I have stated here: the desire to know, the joy of knowledge. I know very few scientists of any religious stripe who would fake their data, knowing that they could get away with it until after their grant has been spent and they are long dead—or, at least, I know of no scientist who would think that such an act was a praiseworthy act of science. Lies are not science. In that sense we have the same motivations, and those motives are directed toward something transcendent, not measurable, like truth or joy.
The difference between the atheist and me, however, is that I identify this desire for something transcendent, something more than material gain, as a desire for God. The meta-reasons underlying science are for me exactly the pointers that direct me toward God. The very thing that makes science worth doing and desirable to do are the places where I see God. It is in that common ground that I find the hope for conversation and connection.
One goal of this book is to foster communication between theists and atheists. As a traditional believer and a traditional scientist, I find that I have more than one front to fight in this battle. For this reason, I want to end this chapter with a discussion of what I have learned so far in promoting such dialogues not only with the atheists but also with the fundamentalists. The parallels, to me, are striking.
I was once asked to give a lecture on how to talk on frequently answered questions on science and faith, and the answers that satisfy. As with this chapter, I tried to fulfill the charge of the title, but I found that I do not always have answers that satisfy. What I found that I do have, however, is a lot of experience dealing with the public: twenty-five years at the Vatican Observatory, serving as an example how one can be both a scientist and a person of faith.
As it happens, someone in my position, a very public scientist and a Jesuit (working at the Vatican no less) is likely to find himself under attack from two different sides. There are, of course, the skeptics who think that a real scientist must reject religion. They tend to be suspicious either of my scientific bona fides or, even worse, of my religious sincerity. (“He’s figured out a clever way to get funding for his research,” I overheard one fellow comment.) Even more problematical in my experience are those people who think they are being devout Christians by rejecting my science.
How, then, do I answer tricky questions, especially questions from folks whom I consider my scientific colleagues or fellow believers? I do not claim to be a master or exemplar on the matter, but I know someone who was. What would Jesus say? He spent three years of his life wandering the Holy Land, engaging both the ultra-devout and those outside religion, in the temple and in the market square. How did he handle the questions he received?
The Lord of Twitter
Of course, unlike Jesus we do not meet in the temple or the market square or even the parish hall to debate points of theology. That is not to say we do not have such debates. The difference is that nowadays we find these kinds of conversations online. In fact, the verse-by-verse way that these stories are told in the New Testament reminds me of the conversations I see on Twitter.
I can just see the Scribes tweeting:
Imagine 7 brothers; the 1st married, died childless; his widow marries his brother; the 2nd did the same, also the 3rd, down to the 7th. Last of all, the woman herself died. In the resurrection, whose wife of the seven will she be? For all of them had married her. #gotcha!
Jesus tweets back:
You know neither scripture nor God’s power. In the resurrection they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. Haven’t you read ‘I am God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob’? He is God not of the dead, but of the living. #notsofast.
Notice what Jesus does. First of all, he does not hesitate to engage those who would try to trap him. There is a time when it is better not to feed the trolls; there are other times, however, when the trolls must be confronted. When they bring the argument to him, he is not afraid to respond. That is his job, and he is good at it. (That does not mean that all of us must do that; we may not be as good at it as he is.)
Next, just as on Twitter, he is aware that he has two audiences. He is speaking to his opponents, but he is also speaking to the wider audience that is listening. Sometimes we tweet (or argue) directly with the person talking to us and forget that each of us has a hundred or a thousand followers, with more who might find the retweets, and that audience may not know the backstory to our argument. Are we friends bantering, familiar with each other’s sense of humor, or are we strangers speaking rudely to each other?
Even though we may be confident that the person to whom we are talking knows scripture, or science, we can in no way be confident that the other thousand followers (if we should be so popular) understand the references. We have to spell them out. Even worse, of course, is playing only to the audience in our tweets and forgetting that the poor person who first asked the question, who might be sincere, has merely become the butt of our clever cutting humor. We forget that they, too, can bleed.
Finally, notice how Jesus wins this argument. He changes the grounds. He does not attack the logic of the scribes and Pharisees. These are smart people; they can reason as closely as anyone can. Instead, he attacks the assumption that they made. Who says the widow has to be anyone’s wife? Indeed, most arguments are based on assumptions made without even realizing they are being made.
Then he pulls back from the confines of the argument itself to the larger frame. The question of the Resurrection is not about who gets to be married to whom. It is a much bigger question: it is a question about the nature of God. Who is God? Who does scripture say that God is? If our conclusion runs against something as fundamental as that, then all the cleverness in the world will not save us. We have made a mistake somewhere.
Conversing with the Religious
Notice another thing about encounters like these. For the most part, Jesus gets grief not from those who have lost faith, but rather from those who think they have already got faith and do not have to look any further for it.
This parallels my own experience. Hostility from scientists does still happen, of course. Still, except for a few aging white males (who tend to be biologists and British) who are found more often on TV than in the lab, in my experience the scientists who do not follow a faith are more likely to be quietly amused by my odd behavior than to show any overt hostility. For example, Neil de Grasse Tyson, the host of Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, is hardly a friend of religion, but he is a friend of mine, and he is not afraid to share that friendship in public.
Instead, I find that the most troubling place where the science/faith debate occurs is in the pews. Our problems start with the “pharisees” of our own faiths who want to secure their sanctity by heaping abuse on science.
That makes me notice an interesting aspect in the example of Jesus engaging his Pharisees. That was risky for him to do, and he knew it. He did not have to talk to them. There were plenty of religious sects of his time who separated themselves from the general run of society and its authorities and hid out in monasteries in the desert.
Likewise, it would be easy to just let the antiscience faithful of our own faiths have their own way, to let them continue with their foolish preconceptions about science, as long as they do not bother us. Jesus did not do that. Neither should we.
So Obvious That It’s Boring?
Recall my story of the student from College of Charleston, South Carolina. To a Catholic like me from the urban North of the United States, South Carolina evokes images of those terrible southern fundamentalists. It is easy and tempting to merely dismiss such people as ignorant. Too easy. Too tempting.
For most of us, the failures of fundamentalism are so obvious that it is boring to even talk about them. I remember one time, during the 1990s, when I was traveling through Italy by train. As an American I had bought a rail pass that let me travel in first class. Of course, the only other people one would meet in first class were other Americans also traveling on rail passes.
As it happened, in the car with me was a couple from Cambridge, Massachusetts, home of Harvard and MIT, and all they wanted to talk about was American politics. I wanted to look out the window and enjoy being in Italy; they wanted to gripe about the Religious Right.
I had lived in Cambridge for fifteen years. I had studied at MIT and taught at Harvard. There was not a thing they were saying that I had not heard a million times. In fact, I already agreed with most of it. How boring! So how could I shut them up? Because I knew their culture, I knew just what to say. I put on my most serious face and intoned, “You realize that the Religious Right have been marginalized by the intelligentsia in America.” Oh! A marginalized minority!
It did shut them up. It also shut me up, because as soon as I had said it, I realized that it is true. Those of us who are bleeding heart liberals—I am a proud member of that tribe—need to remember it and treat the fundamentalists with the same care we would treat any other marginalized population. With respect. With careful listening. With the recognition that no matter how “primitive” their strange rites and rituals may seem to us, maybe we can learn from them some things we have lost in ourselves.
Science and Cultural Identity
Notice an important element of that story. I knew the attitudes of the Cambridge couple because I was one of them. I was also different from them. As a result, I was very hesitant to dare to express, in that small space on the train, anything that I knew would be a red flag to them—like my own religion. I did not want to be ostracized. I liked Cambridge. I liked living there. I admired the people I met there. I wanted to be identified as one of them. That is why I tried to divert their circularly endless discussion with what I had thought was a joke.
It turns out that that sort of cultural identity is an important element in any conversation we have with people whose ideas about anything, much less of science and religion, are different from ours. Yale University’s law school hosts the Cultural Cognition Project. They have an excellent website exploring how cultural values shape public policy arguments and decisions. When they look at the great polarization between political groups and the ways different groups deal with questions of science, they come up with surprising results.
First, we have all seen how some people tend to bend scientific evidence to fit their own preconceptions. By “some people,” we generally mean those with whom we disagree. It is absolutely true; it happens. It is not the result of some sort of conservative penchant for authoritarianism; liberals do it too.
It is not a case of some people using too much emotion instead of rationality when they approach these issues; in fact, one surprising result from the Yale study was that the more rational one’s thinking, the more likely one is to take a polarized position. In fact, such bending of the facts comes about precisely as the result of reading the evidence rationally but entirely in the light of previous assumptions. We see all evidence as a way of validating that which we already believe or want to believe, because it is a marker of the social group with which we identify.
That is exactly what we do in science all the time. For example, we scientists know the laws of thermodynamics; they are now a part of the set of assumptions that make up our scientific cosmology. When someone brings us a supposed perpetual motion machine, we know it is fake. When we devise an experiment of our own, it already has built into it many assumptions about what sort of result we are likely to see. If we did not have that idea, we would not know what to look for or how to recognize it when we saw it. All data is theory-laden.
More than that, we all use these data as a way of reinforcing our identity with our colleagues who hold the same worldview that we have. As Dan M. Kahan, one of the researchers from the Yale group wrote, “Ideologically motivated cognition is a form of information processing that promotes an individual’s interest in forming and maintaining beliefs that signify their loyalty to important affinity groups.” (Kahan 2013, 407)
Minding the Gap
I truly believe that fundamentalists are wrong: wrong in their science, wrong in their religion. My belief is so firm that I have to recognize it derives in no small part from the community of scholars, both scientists and educated Catholics, who hold the same beliefs I do. I rarely bother questioning the wrongness of fundamentalism any more than as a scientist I bother worrying about testing the laws of thermodynamics.
I have to recognize that the fundamentalists believe they are right, for equally strong affinity-group loyalties. It is important for that boy in Charleston to be able to go home to a mom who will be proud of him, just as it is important for me to be able to go back to MIT without hearing people whisper behind my back about my religion.
How do we get around this conundrum? How does one communicate across different affinity groups? The Yale group suggests that the way to do it is to find areas of common viewpoints between ourselves and those with whom we would argue. Jesus relies on scripture when speaking to the scribes, but he does not when he speaks to a Roman centurion elsewhere in the Gospel. Of course, it might seem tricky to use religion or science as our common points, because those are the very points under dispute. In fact, those might be the very grounds that we can share.