Musings on lecture by Vatican Astronomer

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Vatican Observatory, Arizona (source: goo.gl/cl7EpF)

Jesuit priest and Vatican observatory director Brother Guy J. Consolmagno visited Adelaide in August and gave a public lecture at UniSA.

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Guy J. Consolmagno (source: goo.gl/Sxui6h)

I arrived early to have a meal at the Mawson Lakes hotel. Paul Curnow (ASSA vice president) and I spotted each other. He was at a table with a group of people, two of whom wore clerical collars, so I assumed one was Brother Guy. Paul invited me to eat with the group, a mixture of amateur astronomers (ASSA members) and Catholic church members, and in some cases, possibly both.

During dinner I asked Guy about the forthcoming southern edition of his book, Turn Left at Orion. He recently co-authored another book, Would you Baptize an Extraterrestrial? Whatever my pre-conceptions may have been, he seemed smart and witty, hard not to like.

His talk was titled The Heavens Proclaim: Astronomy and the Vatican after a now out of print book. It quickly became clear that he was a very good Science communicator (in 2014 he was recipient of the Carl Sagan Medal for excellence in education and public outreach) and a long-time practitioner of the Scientific Method. He also writes an interesting blog. The talk ranged widely from the Vatican Observatory‘s roots in the Gregorian Calendar reform of 1582 to the work of the Jesuit astronomers at the observatory’s current (and surprising!) location in Arizona.

A number of slides in the talk were devoted to Galileo. Guy admitted that while the whole sordid business was more nuanced than is sometimes realised, the church should not have gone after Galileo in the way it did. Contrast this to Mother Theresa who said she would have sided with the church over Galileo! It should of course be still further admitted that the fact that it took 350 years for the Catholic church to pardon Galileo (not until 1992, and assuming he needed pardoning at all!) of the charge of heresy should be more than a bit embarrassing to the Church. I don’t want to dwell on this here though.
Guy mentioned religion at various points during the talk, quoting scripture a handful of times, citing for example the number of occurrences of “star” in the Bible. He didn’t justify why he thought Christianity and the Catholic denomination in particular was the correct one out of all the possible religions (or none at all). Given the convictions of a substantial part of the audience, I suspect he didn’t feel the need to do so.
He wittily reversed the atheist quip about believing in only one less god than a monotheist, saying that he believed in only one more god than Richard Dawkins; not a valid move of course, but funny.

I wondered whether Guy’s view of the relationship between Science and Religion would align with the late evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould’s Non-overlapping Magesteria:

Here, I believe, lies the greatest strength and necessity of NOMA, the nonoverlapping magisteria of science and religion. NOMA permits—indeed enjoins—the prospect of respectful discourse, of constant input from both magisteria toward the common goal of wisdom. If human beings are anything special, we are the creatures that must ponder and talk. Pope John Paul II would surely point out to me that his magisterium has always recognized this distinction, for “in principio, erat verbum”—”In the beginning was the Word.”

In his talk, Guy said that Science brings him closer to God. According to his wikipedia page:

He believes in the need for science and religion to work alongside one another rather than as competing ideologies. In 2006, he said, “Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism.”

The relationship Guy espouses seems more strongly aligned with Science than does NOMA, with a focus on preventing religion from going off the rails, yet still it’s clear (and not surprising since he’s a Jesuit priest) that for Guy, religion acts to inspire his relationship with Science.

Guy commented upon Georges Lemaître, the Belgian Catholic priest who published a paper in 1927 titled A homogeneous Universe of constant mass and growing radius accounting for the radial velocity of extragalactic nebulae, and later the idea of a “primeval atom”, making him the father of Big Bang theory. In the paper he proposed a value for the estimated rate of universal expansion subsequently confirmed by Edwin Hubble, now called the Hubble Constant. There’s an argument to be made that it should have been the Lemaître Constant after the less widely published Belgian scientist.

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Georges Lemaître (source: goo.gl/BN6EKm)

Although Lemaître may have been sympathetic to the essence of NOMA, he helped to persuade Pope Pius XII to stop making proclamations about the relationship between science and religion, stating that there was neither a connection nor a contradiction between religion and his hypotheses.

During question time at the end of the talk, someone asked Guy how young people could be encouraged not to abandon religion as they learn more about Science. Guy responded by agreeing that adopting a scientific world view doesn’t mean abandoning religion, reiterating that Science brings him closer to God, and suggesting that an atheistic worldview was unnecessary and perhaps even a little further, at least to him and the questioner, not tasteful.

As an atheist and secular humanist, I obviously disagree with this viewpoint. It’s possible to retain a sense of wonder and a hunger for knowledge without the need for a deity.

Guy spoke about the fact that Lemaître understood the importance of allowing the data to speak, to provide evidence in support of (or not) an hypothesis.

In relation to the god hypothesis, that is all an atheist claims.

What I don’t understand is why the god hypothesis is different from any other. Is there supporting evidence for a deity of a particular kind, the god(s) of the Bible, for example? Shouldn’t the Scientific Method be applied here? Does Guy consider this valid? That’s the question I would ask if I spoke with him again, I think.

My only other criticism was the brief mention Guy made about how the Catholic church helps the poor, arguably not appropriate for a talk about astronomy, but not surprising when you accept that it was part lecture, part sermon. I’ve sat through (and given enough in my misguided past) sermons to know one when I hear one. I’ve written more about the relationship between the church and the poor elsewhere.

There’s no doubt that Brother Guy Consolmagno and the other Jesuit astronomers at the Vatican Observatory are doing good Science. In particular, Guy’s research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies and he employs the observatory’s 1.8 metre telescope to observe Kuiper Belt objects.

Of course, you need math, science, and a telescope or at least data from someone else’s telescope to do astronomy. You don’t need religion to do astronomy.

To borrow the title of the 2009 Intelligence Squared debate, “is the Catholic Church a force for a good in the world” insofar as astronomy is concerned? It would seem so, but in the end, I can’t help but feel that the Vatican Observatory and its astronomers stand in stark contrast to the Catholic church’s irresponsible prohibitions against contraception, the scandal of child abuse by clergy, and the extravagance of beatification.

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