This column for The Tablet first ran in May 2006; we first ran it here at The Catholic Astronomer in 2015. It has been one of the more popular postings...
“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.