And then I wrote… ten years ago there was an active blog site (which I can no longer find online) edited in Britain called “Book Foxes” where a number of writers wrote about books and the people who wrote books.
This was soon after I had published my book God’s Mechanics, which in my opinion of all my books has the highest "quality to readership ratio" — in other words, I think it is really good, but hardly anyone ever saw it. Kirsty Jane Falconer, a British author who has gone on to become a successful freelancer living in Italy, decided to interview me about that book for the site.
The interview was split into two parts, which is also how I will run it here. Since I don’t have access anymore to how it appeared online, what follows is the version that I submitted to her.
Which question do you most often hear when you do science outreach?
“Would you baptize an extraterrestrial?”
I have tried being funny (“only if they ask”) and tried being serious. (I wrote a chapter about it in my book Brother Astronomer and a booklet for the British Catholic Truth Society, mostly saying “we don’t know” in as many different ways as I could think.) But obviously nobody ever listens because they keep asking the question anyway and treating the answer as if it were news.
Have you noticed an evolution (ahem) in public perceptions of the relationship between science and religion in the course of your academic life?
I can see two different, and in some ways contradictory, changes in the atmosphere around science and religion over the years I have been involved in both. To appreciate these, you have to remember where I am coming from...
I was taught science by the Sisters of Charity in my Catholic grade school. They taught us evolution and the Big Bang. They also taught us the standard American credo of the 1950s, which after all was the culture they were brought up in, where “science” and “technology” were all mixed together; where “science” had won the war (that’s World War 2, the only war that mattered); and no disease existed that wouldn’t some day be conquered by bigger and better factories and power plants. In those days, science was pretty much an unalloyed good, the key to the future well-being of the human race.
At the same time, however, they also emphasized the importance of a Catholic education... of avoiding the “dangers” of secular universities, for instance. There was still a sense of living in a Catholic ghetto, where the rest of the world was not to be trusted.
Likewise, among scientists of that era, there was either a complete reticence about letting anyone know one’s religion, or at least a tendency to imply that if anyone did go to a church it was merely for the sake of his wife – after all, this was an era when scientists were expected to be male, while religion was more a woman’s role.
As a part of this attitude, I noticed when I first arrived at the Vatican Observatory 20 years ago that among the older Jesuits there was still a defensiveness in the way they presented themselves and their science in public. They felt a need to explicitly emphasize the complete lack of any kind of religious influence on the science they did.
Then, coming first as a hint in the 1960s and then more and more...
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