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ROME – There’s an episode of “The Simpsons” that pivots on the discovery of a fossil that appears to be in the form of an angel, which triggers a round of religious fervor until it’s revealed to be a publicity stunt for the opening of a new mall.
This being America, the affair gave rise to a lawsuit in which a judge places a restraining order on science, ordering it to stay 500 years away from religion at all times. The scene reflected the popular conception that science and religion are natural enemies, and that things turn combustible whenever they intersect.
Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Jesuit who directs the Vatican Observatory, has spent the better part of his career trying to debunk that view of things, and now he’s hosting a major conference that puts an exclamation point on the idea: A May 9-12 summit at the papal summer residence in Castelgandolfo, which is also home to the Vatican Observatory (to escape the distracting lights of Rome), on “Black Holes, Gravitational Waves and Space-Time Singularities.”
“The Vatican Observatory was founded in 1891 by Pope Leo XII to show that the Church supports good science, and to do that we have to have good science,” he said, arguing that’s what this gathering is about. He noted that among the speakers will be a former Nobel Prize winner in physics and a former Wolf Prize winner.
Some two years in the works, the idea behind the conference is to bring together experts in both theoretical and observational cosmology, to ponder new questions arising from the discoveries of puzzling elements of the universe such as dark matter and dark energy.
The gathering also marks the 50th anniversary of the death of Father Georges Lemaître, a Belgian priest, physicist and mathematician, who’s widely credited with founding the “Big Bang” theory to explain the origins of the physical universe.
In a sense, Lemaître was a living reductio ad absurdum on the idea that religious faith is necessarily hostile to science. He taught at the Catholic University of Leuven and was a faithful Catholic priest, in addition to a brilliant physicist who pioneered many of the foundational concepts in modern cosmology, including the idea of an expanding universe.
At a Vatican news conference on Monday, Jesuit Father Gabriele Gionti, organizer of the conference, suggested it’s the sort of thing that ought to push rational people to get past the idea of a rupture between a scientific and a religious way of seeing the world.
“This fear of science people talk about is a myth,” Gionti said.
“Lemaître always made a distinction between the beginnings of the universe and its origins,” he said. “The beginning of the universe is a scientific question, to be able to date with precision when things started.”
“The origins of the universe, however, is a theologically charged question,” and answering it, he said, “has nothing at all to do with a scientific epistemology.”
For his part, Consolmagno cautioned against a lazy tendency among many believers to handle the Big Bang theory by replying that God is the one who caused it – which both short-circuits further scientific investigation, he said, and also cheapens the concept of God.
“If you look at God as merely the thing at started the Big Bang, then you get a nature god, like Jupiter throwing around lightning bolts,” he said.
“That’s not a god I want to believe in,” he said. “There are many ideas of god, which means there are many gods I don’t believe in.”
“We must believe in a God who is supernatural,” Consolmagno said. “We recognize God as the one who is responsible for existence, and our science tells us how he did it.”
To unpack the point, Consolmagno made a quip that probably brings down the house at physicist parties.
“Stephen Hawking said that he can explain God as a fluctuation in the primordial gravity field,” he said. “If you buy that, it means God is gravity … maybe that’s why Catholics celebrate Mass!”
Most basically, Consolmagno said, it’s important to maintain the proper distinction between what science can prove, and what faith can add.
“God is not something we arrive at the end of our science, it’s what we assume at the beginning,” he said, adding emphatically: “I am afraid of a God who can be proved by science, because I know my science well enough to not trust it!”
Finally, Consolmagno called on scientists who are also believers to “come out of the closet” about it, sharing their scientific work with people in their churches and faith communities.
“More scientists who are church-goers need to make their science known to their parishioners,” he said.
“They should set up their telescopes in the church parking lot, or lead natural trails for youth groups,” Consolmagno said. “People in churches need to be reminded that science was an invention of medieval universities founded by the church, and that the logic of science comes out of the logic of theology.”
“If there’s a rivalry,” he said, “it’s a sibling rivalry.”
“It’s a crime against science to say that only atheists can do it,” he said, “because if that were true, it would eliminate so many wonderful scientists.”