Brother Guy Consolmagno, S.J., astronomer

A Vatican astronomer talks about doing science because he believes in God, and why religion needs science to protect it from literal creationism. Interview by Alissa Poh

May 25, 2008

Photo courtesy of Vatican Observatory

Guy Consolmagno holds two degrees in earth and planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he wears a clerical collar—proof, he says, that "it's possible to be a fanatic and a nerd at the same time." He entered the Jesuit order in 1991 and was assigned to the Vatican Observatory in 1993. He serves as curator of the Vatican's meteorite collection in Castel Gandolfo, Italy, the Pope's summer home; his office is above the Pope's bedroom. There, he measures the densities and porosities of meteorites and studies the origins of asteroids, dwarf planets, and objects orbiting the sun beyond Neptune. He even has an asteroid named after him: 4597 Consolmagno.

Consolmagno, 55, also studies philosophy and theology. He recently published his sixth book, God's Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion. Religious people, he finds, "can be quite accepting of all sorts of science if they hear it coming from someone they trust isn't trying to undermine their faith." At the February 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Boston, he was a panelist in a packed symposium on 'Communicating Science in a Religious America.'

The National Academy of Sciences states that creationism doesn't belong in the classroom. Do you agree?

That's what the Catholic Church has been saying all along. After the law was passed in Kansas [forbidding teaching of evolution in schools], the only place you could learn about evolution was in a Catholic school. Creationism isn't science; it's theology. And in fact most religious people aren't creationists. That's an incredibly naïve understanding of religion.

What is 'creationism,' anyway?

There are different flavors to it. In the U.S. context, if it's "Do you believe God created the universe?" — I think most Western believers would say yes. But creationists have a creed that the Bible is literally true; Genesis is a blow-by-blow description of what God did at the beginning. That's not how Genesis was written; it's a very flawed understanding of how to read the Bible. It's also kind of peculiar, because there are three different creation stories in the Bible, so which is true?

What do you mean?

Genesis 2 doesn't fit with Genesis 1 — the order in which things occur. If you're treating the Bible as a science book, then the two chapters don't agree. I have two thick books in my office. One of them is the Bible, the other is Gravitation [by Misner, Thorne, and Wheeler]. The Bible is 3,000 years old. Gravitation is 20 years old, and it's out of date. Science books get outdated; they're supposed to. And that, if nothing else, should tell you science books are very different from the Bible. Shakespeare doesn't go out of date, nor do the Iliad and the Odyssey.

So a creationist is also a Biblical literalist?

In the current context, both terms appear to be interchangeable.

Can a person take the Bible literally and still do good science?

That depends on what science they're doing. But it's a tricky answer, because in many cases, the creedal belief is something where you raise your hands and say, "Yes, I believe," as a form of membership in your church, your social group. For example, Science News had an article in 1996 — an interview with several creationists and pagans — which found a significant number of people who said, "Yes, the Earth was made 6,000 years ago," but who also said, "Dinosaurs roamed the world millions of years ago — oh yeah, I believe that." It means these statements have no mathematical significance to these people, because they don't think like techies do. But certainly there are devout evangelical Christians who are also very good scientists. Because they're scientists, they understand the problem of dinosaurs millions of years ago versus a young Earth, and they're careful to say they don't believe in the second idea.

What about physics?

Oh, there's lots in that realm where you could be a Biblical literalist and still do good science. You could even accept the experimental evidence everyone else sees, but begin with a different set of assumptions. How do I know the world wasn't made 6,000 years ago with all the isotopes exactly the way they are to make it look like it's 4.5 billion years old? I can't know; but speaking as a scientist, I don't find it very nice of God that He would play such a trick. But if you believe in a tricky God, I can't prove you wrong.

Wikipedia quotes you as saying, "Religion needs science to keep it away from superstition and keep it close to reality, to protect it from creationism, which at the end of the day is a kind of paganism — it's turning God into a nature god."

I suspect I never said those words quite that way. But it's close enough to my beliefs that I'm not going to fight it. And I've realized that, properly spoken, there's some truth to it. The idea is this: If you're making God the direct cause of everything — trees grow because God made them grow; lightning strikes because God made it strike — you're turning God into Jupiter or any other god of the pagan pantheon, where people said things occurred because the gods caused them to happen. One breakthrough in Christian theology, going back to Thomas Aquinas and Augustine, was recognizing the difference between primary and secondary cause. This theological point is really important to science. The simplest explanation is that God made the laws of physics and has chosen to follow them. So nature has a certain amount of freedom within it; humans certainly have free will. We're not puppets, controlled every moment by this omnipotent puppet God.

Do you believe it's possible that we came from the great apes?

That we have a common ancestor? There's nothing radical about this belief, even as a Christian. Augustine talked about it in his writings, that we're all developments out of God's creation.

You don't agree, then, that there was one man and one woman at the beginning?

The important moral lesson is that all human beings share a common ancestry; we're all brothers. Identifying it as 'this was Eve,' 'this was Adam' — to my mind, that's fruitless and misses the point of the message. In Macbeth's opening scene, where the witches are brewing stuff, with one reciting the ingredients — if you take that as a cookbook and try reproducing the brew, you're missing the point of Macbeth.

Does intelligent design represent a threat to scientific education?

"It's not that I look for God in my science. I look for truth in my science. But the emotional sense of joy I get when doing a nice bit of science, the awe and beauty of the universe. . . these are what make me want to do science. So it's not that I believe in God because I do science; rather, I do science because I believe in God."

This idea of 'literally true' is a very false one of how anything is written. Science isn't literally true; the equation for gravity, for example, is only a metaphor describing how gravity works. So it's certainly a modern idea. It didn't exist when the Bible was written or interpreted by the earliest Christian scholars. That's not the way they read it.

How did they read it?

Oh, everything was symbolic. Their symbolism was stuff we would laugh at now.

You've described doing science as "one of the things that brings me into close personal touch with God."

My take is exactly the opposite of what some people think a religious scientist does. It's not that I look for God in my science. I look for truth in my science. But the emotional sense of joy I get when doing a nice bit of science, the awe and beauty of the universe. . . these are what make me want to do science. And I think these are signs of a good Creator who made a good creation. So it's not that I believe in God because I do science; rather, I do science because I believe in God.

What's your view of the Copernican Principle?

It's sometimes badly stated. A lot of history and philosophy of science covering the Middle Ages gets the Middle Ages very wrong. For instance, you'll find most astronomy books stating that before Copernicus, people thought the Earth was the center of the universe; then Copernicus showed it was just another planet, as if this was a demotion. And that's completely wrong. In Middle Age cosmology, the Earth wasn't the center; it was the bottom, the worst place. All the other planets were exalted above it. So when Copernicus said it was just another planet, this was in fact a promotion.

So assuming it's correctly worded . . .

It's turned out to be very useful, this assumption that the physics here and now is no different than the physics anywhere else, and Earth isn't in an unusual situation or place. It seems to have been a fruitful way of looking at things. A thousand years from now, when we've pushed things as far as we can? Well, we may have a more subtle understanding of it than we do now. I'd be disappointed if we didn't.

There's some concern about declining scientific literacy in America. For example, a National Science Foundation survey found that one in five adult Americans think the sun revolves around the Earth. Does this mean efforts to communicate sophisticated science in this country are futile?

A large part of the trouble may be that we intellectuals ourselves aren't as smart as we think. When I compare my knowledge of classical literature with that of intellectuals from a hundred years ago, like G. K. Chesterton, I'm ashamed of my ignorance. It's not only 'dumbness' being dumbed down, but also what counts for 'smartness.' How many experts quoted in that survey could themselves locate Kazakhstan on a map, conduct a conversation in a second language, or explain the significance of a three-sigma deviation from the norm? For that matter, how many could function in the worlds that so-called "dumb" people live in and fix a car, make the plumbing work, or program a computer?

What's your advice for scientist-believers who don't necessarily wear a collar?

There's nothing to be gained by talking religion in the scientific context; it doesn't belong there. I'd like to see more scientists who are churchgoers talk about their science in their church, to their fellow parishioners, letting them know science isn't the enemy. I think there's a great hunger for science among everyone; it's a human desire to know how the universe works. Also, you can't do science without admitting, "I don't have all the answers." Unfortunately, that's never the way science is communicated. Scientists like saying, "I've got the answers," when in fact real science says, "No, I don't have the answers, I'm still trying to find them." That would lower the temperature of any discussions.

Alissa Poh, a graduate student in the Science Communication Program at UC Santa Cruz, earned a B.S. in biochemistry from the University of Bristol, United Kingdom, and an M.S. in pharmacology from Dartmouth University. She has worked as a reporting intern at Dartmouth Medicine Magazine, the Stanford University Medical School, and the UC Santa Cruz news office. Alissa will work in Boston this summer as a writing intern at Boston Children's Hospital.

© 2008 Alissa Poh