Pope’s Astronomer Says No Conflict Between Faith and Science

People gather to watch images projected on the facade of St. Peter's Basilica, at the Vatican, Tuesday, Dec. 8, 2015. The Vatican is lending itself to environmentalism with a special public art installation timed to coincide with the final stretch of climate negotiations in Paris. On Tuesday night, the facade …
AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca
THOMAS D. WILLIAMS, PH.D.

The belief that science and religion are opposed to one another is based on false premises, according to the director of the Vatican Observatory, one of the world’s foremost astronomical research institutions.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Guy Consolmagno, an American Jesuit brother with a PhD in planetary science, said that the public perception of a war between science and religion is fundamentally false, since there is no inherent disagreement between the two realms.

“To a scientist who’s a believer,” Consolmagno says, God is not the abstract conclusion of a long chain of reasoning about the universe.

“I’ve already experienced God. I’ve already had religious experiences,” he says. “I’ve already had things that have made me look at the universe and say: ‘What’s going on?’ Whether they’re tragedies like the death of a loved one or miracles like the birth of a loved one, there are things that make you say, ‘I’m experiencing something that’s more than physical things can explain. Where did this come from?’”

“Or maybe it’s just something as simple as: ‘I exist. Why do I exist? Why does anything exist? Why does existence itself exist?’” he notes.

“Let’s assume that there’s a God that’s outside nature, who is responsible for the existence of the universe,” Consolmagno proposes. “When I start with that axiom, does the universe make sense? Does the universe make more sense than if I assume it’s all done by random chance? Am I able to see things I couldn’t see before? Am I able to understand things I couldn’t understand before? Is it an axiom that works?”

“And to me, yes—that’s the answer,” he says.

Brother Consolmagno’s understanding of the compatibility of faith and science flies in the face of reams of recent literature by popular atheists who insist that the two cannot possibly coexist.

Religion is “an enemy of science and inquiry,” wrote Christopher Hitchens in his bestselling 2007 book, God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Religion hates science, he reasoned, because religion is about power. Therefore, church leaders will always try to thwart science.

Or as another atheist popularizer, Richard Dawkins, wrote in his 2006 work, The God Delusion, Religious leaders want faith “to stay mysterious.”

“One of the truly bad effects of religion is that it teaches us that it is a virtue to be satisfied with not understanding,” he said.

According to Brother Consolmagno, this is simply not the case.

That science might conflict with his faith “never occurred to me,” he says. “It was the nuns who taught me science when I was in grade school.”

As the sociologist Rodney Stark has argued, science was “still-born” in the great civilizations of the ancient world, except in Christian civilization. Why is it that empirical science and the scientific method did not develop in China (with its sophisticated society), in India (with its philosophical schools), in Arabia (with its advanced mathematics), in Japan (with its dedicated craftsmen and technologies), or even in ancient Greece or Rome? Stark asks.

Science flourished in societies where a Christian mind-set understood nature to be ordered and intelligible, Stark contends, the work of an intelligent Creator.

Science grew where people assumed that the natural world is intelligible and bears the imprint of its author. Far from being an obstacle to science, he suggested, Christian soil was the necessary humus where science took root.

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