Across the Universe: Tending Towards Paganism

For reasons I do not know, an interview I gave in 2006 bubbled back to the top of the Internet recently. Following that interview, I wrote this column for The Tablet, which ran in May 2006

“Believing that God created the universe in six days is a form of superstitious paganism,” proclaimed a Scottish newspaper earlier this month, citing as its authority no less than “the Vatican Astronomer, Guy Consolmagno.” I was as surprised as anyone; though I do worry that creationism can tend towards paganism, I don’t remember being so blunt. Well, he was careful not to put those words into quotation marks.

But even if it is an accurate statement of what I believe, does it qualify as news? I’m not a theologian, much less a spokesperson for the Vatican. I’m an astronomer who happens to be a Jesuit, who happens to work at the Vatican. Of course, I have my opinions on matters of theology, but are they any more newsworthy than the opinions of a punter at the pub about the prospects of his favorite football team?

I got the feeling, talking to the Scottish reporter, that my everyday Catholic approach to science and religion was a shock to his prejudices. Rather than accepting that his old preconceptions were wrong, he decided that what I was saying must be something new. And, judging from the response his article got, those prejudices (and shocks) must be rather widespread.

Those words made it into the “blogosphere,” that virtual world of the Internet where people pass around jokes, recipes, and outrages of the day. I received a dozen angry e-mails from creationists, upset that I had called them pagans; and another dozen from pagans, angry that I had called them creationists. So far, no one has spoken up for the superstitious.

But why would I think that there was a connection between the Genesis 1 description of creation, and paganism? Actually, for several reasons. For instance, Genesis 1 speaks of God forming the universe out of a pre-existing chaos; taken by itself, it implies that God only forms rather than creates. By contrast, the later book of Maccabees (2 Macc 7:28) speaks matter-of-factly about God truly creating, ex nihilo, out of nothing. The former vision is closer to a pagan one; the latter, Christianity. (The Genesis 1 description also ends up with a flat Earth covered by a dome, a point that most creationists appear to ignore.)

Likewise, insisting on a universe that needs a direct intervention of God to accomplish some things but not others (thus leaving telltale “thumbprints” of that intervention), reduces God to not much more than a functional equivalent of Jupiter, god of thunder, or Ceres, goddess of grain. The Christian belief of a supernatural God places Him normally outside of nature (that’s what makes the Incarnation so special), yet ultimately responsible for all of it. In essence, it’s all thumbprints.

The Old Testament talks about God’s creation in many places, not just Genesis 1. To understand where the truth lies, you need to account for all these different descriptions, to avoid misunderstandings due to word choices, translation errors, etc. And you need to recognize the settings in which they were written, to account for systematic biases as might arise from taking words intended for the ears of wise, if unscientific, pastoral peoples and reading them as if they were instructions from an engineering textbook.

One of the most important lessons a scientist learns is not to be too swayed by one data point. We know that every measurement is afflicted with both random and systematic errors. You take lots of data, and hope the random errors average out. You compare your results against known points of truth, to detect and account for any systematic tilt. And at the end of the day, you still recognize that your final result is, at most, only probably true.

This parallel with theology should not be surprising. Theology was the first science; it taught science the rules of reason.

Br. Guy Consolmagno

About Br. Guy Consolmagno

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ is Director of the the Vatican Observatory and President of the Vatican Observatory Foundation. A native of Detroit, Michigan, he earned undergraduate and masters' degrees from MIT, and a Ph. D. in Planetary Science from the University of Arizona; he was a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard and MIT, served in the US Peace Corps (Kenya), and taught university physics at Lafayette College before entering the Jesuits in 1989.

At the Vatican Observatory since 1993, his research explores connections between meteorites, asteroids, and the evolution of small solar system bodies, observing Kuiper Belt comets with the Vatican's 1.8 meter telescope in Arizona, and applying his measure of meteorite physical properties to understanding asteroid origins and structure. Along with more than 200 scientific publications, he is the author of a number of popular books including Turn Left at Orion (with Dan Davis), and most recently Would You Baptize an Extraterrestial? (with Father Paul Mueller, SJ). He also has hosted science programs for BBC Radio 4, been interviewed in numerous documentary films, appeared on The Colbert Report, and for more than ten years he has written a monthly science column for the British Catholic magazine, The Tablet.

Dr. Consolmagno's work has taken him to every continent on Earth; for example, in 1996 he spent six weeks collecting meteorites with a NASA team on the blue ice regions of East Antarctica. He has served on the governing boards of the Meteoritical Society; the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences (of which he was chair in 2006-2007); and IAU Commission 16 (Planets and Satellites). In 2000, the small bodies nomenclature committee of the IAU named an asteroid, 4597 Consolmagno, in recognition of his work. In 2014 he received the Carl Sagan Medal from the American Astronomical Society Division for Planetary Sciences for excellence in public communication in planetary sciences.

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