The TEDx: Via della Conciliazione Conference taking place today in Rome brought an array of scientists, artists, musicians, and scholars together to discuss the subject of Religious Freedom in their respective fields.
Among the speakers present was Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Planetary Scientist at the Vatican Observatory. Brother Consolmagno is also the curator of the Vatican meteorite collection, which is one of the largest in the world. In a spirited presentation, the Jesuit brother told participants that he is proof that one could be both a “fanatic” about science and a “nerd” about Church.
After his talk at the TEDx Conference, Brother Consolmagno sat down with ZENIT to expand upon his thoughts on the conference, the relationship between science and faith, and the search for Truth.
ZENIT: Could you briefly introduce yourself?
Brother Guy: I’m Brother Guy Consolmagno. I’m the Curator of Meteorites and an astronomer at the Vatican Observatory. I basically spend half of my year in Castel Gandolfo at our headquarters where the meteorite lab is and the other half of the year in the United States mostly where the telescope is located.
ZENIT: What are your first impressions of the TEDx Conference?
Brother Guy: I’m impressed by a number of things. The quality of the talks are first rate. The intensity of the audience; these are serious people who are not here just for a show. And, this sounds terrible but despite being in Italy, its so well organized. I’m quite impressed with that.
But certainly the range of people they have, and the concerns that are touching all of us are coming from all different directions. When I first heard about it I certainly was wondering, “Where is this all going?” Now I see and I’m quite impressed.
ZENIT: Your talk spoke about the relationship between science and faith.In your experience, why is that relevant in today’s society?
Brother Guy: Its really important for a lot of practical reasons. Most of the world economy, more and more, is being based on high tech which means you are dealing with human beings who are approaching life’s questions with a technical mindset. And I think its really important for religion to get used to thinking the way “techies” think. To know how they ask questions and what kind of answers they are looking for. Not to say that we have to go over to their side but to bring them to recognize that the scientific world view is beautiful and wonderful, but an incomplete world view and to encourage more philosophical thinking among the “techies”. Because at the end of the day, as I said in the talk, we are all searching for truth. More than that, we are all imbued with the desire to find this truth which in itself also is a sign of God’s presence in us.
ZENIT: Recently, there was a Conference on Stem Cell Research sponsored by the Vatican. Many people have had the perception that just now the Church is starting to become more open to science when in fact its been open to science for years.
Brother Guy: Its a tough myth to break because it was so firmly established in the late 19th century. There were a lot of constituencies who really, desperately wanted to foster a war between science and religion for their own purposes. A lot of political purposes that have actually gone by and nobody remembers it anymore.
But it was part of the unification of Italy that the anti-clerical Italian government invented this myth of the Church suppressing science. Its exactly the opposite. Most of the scientists were even noblemen or clergymen because who else had the education to do the science then.
In America, there was a sense of suppressing the Catholic Church really because they were afraid of immigration but using the excuse of “Well, they’re a bunch of ignorant people from Southern Italy. What do they know about science?” which was the thought in the late 19th century.
This impression still exists today but the myth has taken on a life of its own because its such a popular myth and its so easy to paint people as either a “Kirk” or a “Spock” (characters from Star Trek). When in fact, no human being is like that, even Kirk and Spock aren’t like that.
But there is also, thinking of stem cell research, there is a separate problem which is a fundamental misunderstanding that the scientists themselves are partially responsible for: of the difference between science, technology, and the use of technology. Just because I don’t like nuclear bombs, that doesn’t mean i disbelieve nuclear physics. Just because I’m worried about the ethical implications of the technology that comes out of bioengineering doesn’t mean that I have to be opposed to the science of biology. There is a complete separate question here and it works both ways. Just because I’m an expert in biology doesn’t mean that I’m the right one necessarily to decide what its ethical use could be. Maybe it’s precisely because I’ve got a dog in that race and I don’t want to be the one to make that decision.
ZENIT: You made a strong statement at the end of your talk which was “Science and religion worship the same God, which is Truth.” Can you expand on that because I’m sure it struck many people.
Brother Guy: Well, lets take a scientist who thinks he’s an atheist. I’ve met a number of wonderful scientists who disdain religion. Would that scientist fake his or her data in order to get a grant, in order to become famous knowing that “Ah, by the time it comes out, I’ll be long dead”. No, they wouldn’t. It would go against everything they believe in. They wouldn’t be a scientist if they did that. Truth is more important than their own reputation, than their own glory, than their own income, if you’re a good scientist.
Truth is something that you can’t weigh or measure, but it exists as a transcendent, outside of ourselves to which we devote and use as the compass of our lives. I just described God!