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Science and religion: can we talk?

George V. Coyne, S.J., addresses a timeless topic from his perspective as an astronomer-priest.

Did the universe begin out of nothing? Did it have a beginning at all? Is there anything special about human existence? Is there a God? Even now, pairing off scientists and theologians to answer such questions is often billed as a debate: science versus religion, as if the two were in a death match.

I am often asked how I can be both a Jesuit priest and a professional astronomer without taking sides in this debate. That's just it: I don't think there should be a debate, in the sense that only one side can come out the winner. Dialogue is more productive.

Science and religion (or, more generally, spirituality) are not sacred cows, each bearing the exclusive answers to fundamental questions of origin. The universe is big enough to accommodate many different points of view. Other scientists, theologians, philosophers, and laypeople--religious believers or not--feel this way as well. It's not that they don't hold firm, often conflicting beliefs. What's changed is that they are listening, respectfully, to each other's ideas about the role of the divine, if any, in the origin of the universe and in the emergence of human intelligence.

My optimism about this shift was confirmed during an international symposium convened by the Vatican Observatory in June 2002. It brought together graduates of our astronomy and astrophysics summer schools (S&T: May 2000, page 82) and a half dozen top scholars from the fields of science, theology, philosophy, and history. The symposium's speakers discussed how recent discoveries in cosmology are reenergizing the quest to answer questions about origins and the divine.

It turns out that if the strength of any force or the value of any physical constant were even slightly different, the universe would probably have evolved into something entirely unlike what we see today--and would not have led to the exquisite carbon chemistry that is key to the emergence of human life. Consequently, science historian Owen Gingerich (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics) believes strongly that there is an underlying purpose behind this fine-tuning of the physical universe. "A common-sense and satisfying interpretation of our world suggests the designing hand of a superintelligence," he noted.

I disagree. Dragging science in to establish the basis of religious belief on purely rationalistic grounds is an idolatry of science. We sort of latch on to God, especially if we lack sound scientific explanations for our discoveries. He is brought in as the "Great God of the Gaps." I have never sought to prove God's existence through anything like a scientific process or as the logical conclusion of rational thought. Instead, I believe in the God of Creation because doing so enriches my life.

Likewise, imposing theological conventions on scientific inquiry is an idolatry of religion--and if we do not recognize that idolatry has been a constant factor in both science and religion, then any dialogue that occurs will be nothing more than noise. There can be no progress unless this obstacle is recognized for what it is.

This doesn't mean that science and religion are mutually exclusive human endeavors. We need both. Conference speaker Trinh Xuan Thuan (University of Virginia), a Vietnamese-born astrophysicist who presented the Buddhist perspective, said it best: "When faced with ethical or moral problems which, as in genetics, are becoming ever more pressing, science needs the help of spirituality in order not to forget our humanity."

Based on feedback I received from conference participants, our efforts to promote dialogue rather than debate about science and religion have had some success. For example, Marina Kaufman, an Argentine doctoral student in high-energy astrophysics, says she is not a religious person but now sees no contradiction in being a scientist with a strong faith in God. "The point is to realize what a person is looking for in religion and in science," Marina wrote. "Religion doesn't try to prove or to demonstrate anything; it tries to give a frame of confidence to the person who is adopting it. In the case of science, one is looking for understanding [of] processes already existing in nature."

At a time when religious fundamentalism frequently makes headlines, and when astronomical discoveries are being made at a dizzying pace, respectful dialogue about the respective roles of science and religion in our lives takes on new urgency.

This year GEORGE V. COYNE, S.J., celebrates 25 years as director of the Vatican Observatory. Los Angeles-based science writer Elizabeth Maggio helped in the preparation of this essay.

The proceedings of the International Symposium on Astrophysics Research and on the Dialogue between Science and Religion, which was funded in part by the John Templeton Foundation, will be available in November from the University of Notre Dame Press.
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Author:Coyne, George V.
Publication:Sky & Telescope
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2003
Words:795
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