Interview: On faith and science with Vatican Astronomer Br. Guy Consolmagno

The director of the Vatican Observatory explains why it's possible -- and rational -- to be a scientist and believe in God

Is an imperfect understanding of the relationship between science and faith contributing to a culture of unbelief? Recent surveys may suggest so.

This week, the Public Religion Research Institute said that the so-called “nones,” people who have no religious affiliation, make up 25% of Americans. The group has grown at a phenomenal rate since 1991, when only 6% of Americans self-identified as a “none.”

The leading reason is simply unbelief: a person just stops believing in a religion.

Furthermore, the share of Americans who identify as atheists has roughly doubled in the past several years. Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Study found that 3.1% of American adults say they are atheists when asked about their religious identity, up from 1.6% in a similarly large survey in 2007. An additional 4.0% of Americans call themselves agnostics, up from 2.4% in 2007.

Many people see a rising interest in science as contributing to the growing culture of unbelief. But are science and faith necessarily mutually exclusive? We spoke with someone who is not only a prominent Catholic but also a world-renowned scientist, Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, the director of the Vatican Observatory. Brother Consolmagno speaks around the world on issues of astronomy, science and faith. He brings to those talks not only his impressive academic credentials—a master’s degree from MIT and a Ph.D. in planetary science from the University of Arizona—but his 23 years of experience at the Vatican Observatory. His latest book is Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

Why is it the case that some teens move away from religion as they become more interested in science?

There are a lot of scientists who are deeply religious. When I became a brother, I discovered that many scientists I knew were actually going to church. They just weren’t saying it. People are afraid to discuss it with colleagues.

I think the biggest thing for me was that before I got to college, so many of my science teachers were priests and nuns. I never saw science as opposed to religion. It is important to show the world that the Church supports science. We must proselytize science to Catholics.

At the Vatican Observatory Foundation we have a blog called The Catholic Astronomer where we write about pure astronomy as well as issues of astronomy and faith. Part of my work as the head of the Vatican Observatory Foundation is to show that the Church supports science. I am working on a website on faith and science which should be up and running soon.

How has your background helped you in your field?

I grew up in a great Catholic family of an Irish mom and an Italian dad. I was educated by nuns and never had a crisis of faith. My yen to be a scientist was developed by going to a Jesuit high school. You learn the real science in college, but the skills needed to do real science, I learned in high school. We learned public speaking. I was the yearbook editor. I learned about language. I learned how to analyze data when I learned how to analyze poetry. It’s the same skill. I learned how to edit from the experience on the yearbook.

Science does not isolate you from other subjects.

How has science allowed you to understand God better?

As you learn scientific truths, you learn what truth looks like. If I try to understand God, I understand what truth is. The real world is not just logical, it is also beautiful. It gives you the feeling of joy. Joy is a sense of God’s presence. God is a God who can make incredibly complicated things based on simple rules. When life is complicated, maybe it means that what you really should be doing is having fun.

What has your profession taught you about humanity?

As a planetary scientist at the Vatican, I tell people that I deal with bureaucracy all the time. Everybody hates bureaucracy. People say it is out of touch. This might be true, but remember: NASA was able to send people to the moon. Sending men to the moon took more than one person. We need community, even when our neighbor is driving us nuts. I embrace this.

What have you understood about the nature of God?

God is bigger than I can imagine and cleverer. Yet he gives me the ability to see how big and beautiful the world is.

What is the intersection of faith and science? How do they differ?

The intersection of faith and science is in the human being. Who does the science? Human beings. Who has the faith? Human beings. People want to put these two areas in watertight compartments. But you can’t. Our faith affects our underlying assumptions about the universe and vice versa.

I have known scientists who have become religious over the years. I gave a tour of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome to a colleague once, and at one point he said, “Wow. The people who built this place really believed this.” He began going to church soon after that. Science challenges your assumptions. If it challenges your religious assumptions, that’s fine. But I don’t know of anyone who has lost their faith as an astronomer.

What about Stephen Hawking? He is an outspoken atheist.

Stephen Hawking is outspoken and an atheist. But he doesn’t know theology or philosophy. The mistakes he makes in his book you could learn in Philosophy 101. If you want scientific heroes who are religious, there are plenty. You can start with George Lemaître, who happened to be a priest. He came up with the Big Bang Theory.

The difference between me and Stephen Hawking is not that great. I believe in one more version of God than he does. I know there’s only one God and I’m not afraid to say it. An atheist must have a clear idea of the God that he is discounting.

Most world class scientists are agnostic. Many are religious. But remember, who you see on TV and who is a world class scientist is not always the same person.

My field of planetary science is pretty small. Everybody knows each other. We dress the same way when we go to conferences. I was a scientist for 15 years before I became a Jesuit. But I have to tell you that after I became a Jesuit, at nearly every scientific meeting I go to, someone will want to talk to me about the Faith, about ethical issues or about personal problems. Even people who are not religious embrace me. When I was discerning my vocation to becoming a Jesuit, I reached out to several colleagues in the science world. Everybody thought it was wonderful idea.

Will we find life on another planet? There seems to be a discovery nearly every week of a new planet.

Faith is trusting in things unseen. I haven’t found any evidence of life on another planet yet. I believe it could be. God is a whole lot cleverer than I am. Did Jesus die for aliens? We don’t know. But it forces us to ask important questions: what does it mean to have a soul? The art of science is coming up with good questions. When Mary came back after finding Jesus in the Temple when he was 12, she “pondered these things in her heart.” We are called to do the same, to ponder. The richer the questions are, the richer the possibilities.

How do you explain miracles?

Miracles have nothing to do with science. Miracles are not a violation of the laws of science. Remember, we had miracles before we even had science. Miracles are an unusual event which directs our attention to God. Suppose you have an uncle who hates cats. Suddenly, you find your uncle cuddling a cat. Well something unusual has happened. You’ve seen a sign that makes you pay attention. It’s a moment of grace.

More: Watch Br. Guy talk about dividing the world into “Kirk” and “Spock”