Astronomy and Belief: Catholic Scientist Pens a Great Piece

I have posted about science vs religion before and you all know I believe them to be entirely compatible–and so does the Church. Here is a really great article by an Astronomer for the Vatican Observatory that I had to share on my blog.

‘Why does the Vatican have an observatory? Aren’t there more important things to do than look at the stars?’ Vatican astronomer Guy Consolmagno SJ has been asked these questions many times; indeed, he asks them of himself. At an event hosted by the Mount Street Jesuit Centre last month, he explained how he encounters God in his scientific studies:

There are three religious beliefs that you have to accept on faith before you can be a scientist. You may not think of them as religious, but I can name religions that do not have these beliefs.

The first thing you must believe is that this universe actually exists. This may seem obvious; but if you believe, as some religions do, that ‘everything is illusion,’ then what is there for a scientist to study? If you were a solipsist, then being a scientist would be just wasting your time studying a figment of your imagination.

The second thing to believe is that the universe operates by regular laws. How can you go searching for the physical laws of the universe if you do not believe there are physical laws to be found? Today we have a thousand years of finding those laws and seeing how we can use them to make the telephones work; but who was the first person a thousand years ago to think that such laws exist, and that they could be discovered? Where did he or she get the faith to believe that there might be laws to be found?

If you were a pagan Roman and you saw lightning strike, you said the god of lightning threw it; if you saw crops grow, you attributed that to the goddess of crops. If you believe that everything that occurs in the universe is the result of the whims of demons and deities, there is no point in looking for scientific laws.

Christians in Roman times were accused of being atheists, because they refused to believe in these pagan gods. And rightly so; there are many gods I do not believe in. Indeed, even Richard Dawkins only believes in one fewer God than I do!

And the God I believe in is not of the universe, but existed before the universe began; not a part of nature, but super-natural. If you believe in that kind of God, then there is room to ask how the rest of the world works, and room to wonder if it works by regular laws. We know from scripture that God is responsible for the universe, in a step-by- step manner. Genesis outlines a creation story that is fundamentally different from the Babylonian story in that rather than the physical universe being an accident, Genesis tells us that God deliberately willed it to exist.

And here is the third thing you have to believe as a scientist: you have to believe that the universe is good. We get that, again, from Genesis. If you think the universe is a morass of temptations, then you will be afraid to be too involved in it; you will want to meditate yourself to a higher level, perhaps. If you believe that, you are not going to want to be a scientist. But instead, we believe in a God who so loved the universe that He sent His only Son…

So why do people think that there is a conflict between science and religion? Too often the assumption is that science and religion are systems of epistemology, ways of knowing facts. Science gives me one set of facts, religion gives me another set of facts, and so surely there is going to be a time when the two systems conflict.

But that is not what science is at all, and not what religion is at all.

We all learn science in school, where it is taught as a big book of facts; and you had better use this year’s book, because last year’s book of facts is out of date. But that should immediately tell you that science is not just facts. Science continues even as the facts change. What we do in science is learn how to have a conversation about those facts… how we can talk about understanding how the universe we have observed seems to work, and how we can use that understanding to guess the next place to look. Science is not the facts, it is the conversation.

In the same way, faith is not about a bunch of things I must accept, blindly, closing my eyes to the truth. On the contrary, remember what Moses says to his people after giving the Tablets of the Law: ‘do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them fade from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.’ (Deut 4: 9) It is not, ‘close your eyes’ but rather, ‘pay attention to what you have seen.’

Faith is not accepting a bunch of facts in the absence of evidence. It is making choices in the absence of all the facts… whether it is your choice of school, or job, who you will marry, where you will live. When you made those choices, there was no way you could know how it would turn out. That’s life, making choices in the absence of sufficient data. But you make these choices in the expectation that things will turn out well. That’s faith. Sometimes that expectation is going to be shattered, but you go ahead anyway; what else can you do?

These expectations based on faith occur in science all the time. When I choose what field…

Read the rest of his piece here by clicking this link.

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6 thoughts on “Astronomy and Belief: Catholic Scientist Pens a Great Piece

  1. Thanks for posting this article and clearing up a lot of fuzzy thinking about science and faith.

  2. This i, without question my favorite topic. I have found the convergence of science and God to be not only compatible, but the same. Many argue and that is fine. For me, it brings total peace to understand that underneath every bit of knowledge we possess as humans, we still come down to one word ~~ “Infinity” … for some this is science for some this is God.

    I could write for days on this …. Lisa

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