Vatican Observatory Director Talks Religion, Science and the Eclipse in Hopkinsville

Aug 20, 2017

Brother Guy J. Consolmagno, Director of the Vatican Observatory
Credit Vatican Observatory Foundation, via Facebook

The Director of the Vatican Observatory is in Hopkinsville to view the total solar eclipse and speak on the confluence of religion and science. Taylor Inman of WKMS News sat down with Brother Guy Consolmagno to discuss how the two are philosophically connected and how the eclipse should be interpreted in Christian faith.

 

One of the hardest things Brother Consolmagno said he deals with as a spokesperson for the Vatican Observatory are people who are afraid to let science and religion occupy the same space in their mind. “It’s not the way I was raised at all. It was the nuns in the Catholic school who taught me science,’ He said, naming religious scientists: Galileo, Newton, Kepler and Georges Lemaitre, the Catholic priest who proposed the Big Bang theory.

Consolmagno said it’s perhaps a matter of fear of losing faith that drives people to fundamentalism. There’s nothing wrong with sticking with the cookbook, he said, but a good cook can go beyond the cookbook. Same goes for ‘new atheists,’ he said, who don’t have faith in their science: "They're so afraid of their scientific credibility that they feel they have to double down by saying 'look at me I'm only trusting in science and there's no other truth' and that's a crazy thing to say unless you're really acting out of fear.”

To those who feel their faith precludes them from believing in the Big Bang, Consolmagno said religion explains who created the universe and why there is a universe, whereas science explains how it happens. He uses the analogy of a boiling kettle - why is it boiling? The answer could be because there is a fire under the kettle. It could also be that he wanted to make tea. Both are true, he said. Science explains the flame and religion explains the intent. The flame didn’t start itself, but the flame is needed to make the tea.

"Evolution is the best description we have at the moment of how life arose,” Consolmagno said, adding that there may be a different theory 100 years from now as insights deepen. The concept of evolution, he said, was pre-figured in religious writings of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine, where the idea of a developing universe is inherent in the description of Genesis, for example: “from dust to dust.”

Consolmagno said religion and science are not competing sets of answers to the same questions. "I don't have a big book of answers and that's science and a different big book of answers and that's religion and what happens when they contradict. It's not the way that religion works. It's not the way science works. Science isn’t ultimately a big book of answers it’s a big book of questions. And as we answer some question we develop five new questions. So we know we never know the whole truth. Religion is a description of how we understand the relationship between God and God's creation, including us."

Regardless of how science works out over time, he said, the ultimate answers of Genesis stay true since it’s not meant to be science. Science books hadn't been invented when Genesis was written, he said, adding that science books are always a little bit wrong. One wouldn't use the same science books in high school mom used because we learn things and throw the old books away. He said comparatively, people wouldn’t want to throw the Bible away - it's a different kind of knowledge.

So why study science? Consolmagno said studying science can be a means of studying God's personality, one who is both rational and ‘full of beauty,’ like the eclipse, for example. “We can predict the eclipse to within a second because the universe is so rational. And we can experience the eclipse with joy and awe and wonder because God is also a God of beauty,” he said.

Some people want to make the eclipse a supernatural event, but Consolmagno said this is not what God intends. "Stars are not to be worshipped. The eclipse is not something to be worshipped or feared. And this is part of our religious faith. It's something to be enjoyed. It's something to be able to sit back and as you appreciate the beauty you can say 'well done God. Wow.'"

For the Vatican Observatory, the eclipse is a way of engaging the public. He said members are giving talks at various locations along the path. Since Hopkinsville is very close to the alleged alien Kelly ‘little green men’ encounter, Consolmagno said he doesn’t believe in aliens, but entertains the belief that life could possibly exist on other planets. "Ultimately science depends on belief just as religion depends on reason,” he said.