Catholics need to be more courageous in showing that religion and science co-exist says the papal astronomer who has just been awarded one of the world’s most prestigious awards in science.
Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, who was honored last week with the Carl Sagan Medal for “outstanding communication by an active planetary scientist” by the Division for Planetary Sciences of the American Astronomical Society, tells ZENIT how the Church is not opposed to science and shares what he considers to be the greatest misperceptions between the two realms.
Brother Consolmagno has been called “the voice of the juxtaposition of planetary science and astronomy with Christian belief”, and a “ rational spokesperson who can convey exceptionally well how religion and science can co-exist for believers”.
A renowned author and broadcaster, his books include the home astronomy guidebook “Turn Left At Orion” and he has his own BBC radio show called “A Brief History of the End of Everything.” The dynamic popular speaker is known for his many public lectures in North America and Europe each year which help convey the fascination of scientific inquiry to the general public. This year, he delivered the commencement address at Georgetown University.
In his late 30s, Consolmagno became a Jesuit after working for the Harvard College Observatory, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and the Peace Corps. He credits his Jesuit background for allowing him to help talk about his faith publicly.
The Carl Sagan Medal will be presented at the 46th annual Division for Planetary Sciences meeting in Tucson, Arizona, in November.
ZENIT: Could you give a little bit of background about yourself and your work, and explain why you were awarded this honor of the Carl Sagan Medal?
Brother Consolmagno: I’m originally from Detroit; I was a classic baby boom kid, starting kindergarten the year Sputnik went up, watching the Moon landing my senior year in high school. Though I had a love of astronomy from an early age, when I went to the Jesuit high school in Detroit, U of D High, I did classical honors and wrote for the school newspaper. I finally wound up at MIT with as much interest in reading (and writing!) science fiction as in science. However, I found doing science was easier than writing about it, and so I did a doctorate in planetary astronomy at Arizona and post-docs at Harvard and MIT.
But I kept wondering, “why do science when people are starving in the world?” — that Jesuit education kicking in. So I quit science to join the Peace Corps. In Kenya, the people there showed me why we do science: their curiosity about astronomy reignited my love of science; and their hunger to know about the universe reminded me that we do not live by bread alone.
I came back to a teaching job, at Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, and loved that so much I decided to enter the Jesuits so as to teach at a Jesuit university. Instead, they assigned me to the Vatican Observatory in Rome where, along with my science, I also do a lot of public presentations and science writing. So my original dream of being a writer has come back after all.
ZENIT: According to you, how can the Church show it is not opposed to science?
Brother Consolmagno: It’s not what “the Church” should do as an institution; by supporting us at the Observatory, the Church is already doing its part. Now it is up to us, the Catholics who are also scientists, to do our part. To start with, we have to be brave enough to speak up in our parishes and other Catholic settings, to tell our fellow Catholics (and fellow Christians) about how doing science or engineering lets us come closer to the Creator.
I have found that it’s not the scientists who need to hear about religion; in fact, most scientists are very familiar with religion and the proportion of religious scientists pretty much matches the proportion of religious people in the community where they live. But too many religious people only see “TV scientists” who are about as accurate a representation of science as “TV preachers” are about real religious believers. They need to see that real science is not the realm of atheists or narrow, egotistical fools.
ZENIT: Can you elaborate on how religion and science can co-exist for believers?
Brother Consolmagno: What makes us, as human beings, different from merely clever apes? Our ability to reflect on ourselves, our surroundings, our universe, and make free decisions to love and care for it or not. Intellect and free will are the activity of the soul; science is a realm where they manifest themselves.
And why do we, as scientists, do science? If it is for fame and glory, or for money or power, then we are stunting ourselves. But if it is for the sheer joy we experience when we see something new and beautiful in the universe, the joy of discovery, the sense of wonder… then I maintain that’s the kind of joy that surprises us in the presence of God. God manifests himself in the things he has created: that’s not me speaking, that’s a quote from St. Paul. (Letter to the Romans)
ZENIT: You have encouraged Catholic scientists to not hesitate to share their love of science with their communities. What exactly do you mean by this? Can you explain giving a concrete example or two?
Brother Consolmagno: A parish is a great place to start. A scientist or engineer could work with a youth program or clubs like the Knights of Columbus, teaching astronomy and setting up a telescope in the church parking lot; or starting a robot club, and talking about the implications of artificial intelligence. Parishes have the opportunity for classes; scientists should learn to share their passion and joy. Even just a little note about the local flora and fauna in the local parish bulletin can remind people that there are scientists in their parish.
ZENIT: You credit your Jesuit education for helping you to feel comfortable publicly discussing your faith. How so? Have there been certain times you felt uncomfortable to do so?
Brother Consolmagno: I have always been proud of my Jesuit education. What’s more, I find that the reputation of the Jesuits (which like most reputations is exaggerated!) has opened a lot of doors for me among my fellow scientists. We are known to be devout believers who are not afraid of the world; we embrace the universe, because we find God in all things.
ZENIT: What do you believe is the biggest misunderstanding that contributes to the notion that science and religion can’t co-exist? And do you believe it can be clarified somehow?
Brother Consolmagno: The ‘”eternal war between science and religion” has become one of those “everybody knows” factoids — like “Christopher Columbus proved the world was round” — that we learn by osmosis as kids, but which is obviously false. I think the only way to counter it is to give as many examples as we can of real scientists whom people can encounter for themselves, in the flesh, to counter the eternally false view of the world that we get from TV and the Internet.