A Vatican astronomer writes to me

December 14, 2020 • 1:30 pm

I was just in the middle of writing about something more interesting than religion when a new email, highlighted here, arrived. And so I stopped writing to take care of this latest “flea”, as Richard Dawkins calls his captious critics. I’ll get back to the other stuff tomorrow.

Presumably because my Conversation essay on the incompatibility of science and religion was reprinted this morning on Yahoo! News, I have been getting a fair number of emails today from offended believers who reject my thesis that science and religion are incompatible. In that essay, but especially in my book Faith Versus Fact, I contend that while that both science and religion make claims about what’s true in the Universe (religion of course does other things besides assert facts), only science has a way of testing those claims.

To me this is the heart of the incompatibility, and its existence seems indisputable to me. There are a gazillion religions, all making different factual claims about the world and its history, and there’s no way to resolve them. That’s why so many religions remain on the planet, many of them hating those who adhere to other faiths. In contrast, there’s only one science (though the guy below disagrees), and Hindu scientists aren’t at odds with Muslim scientists or atheist scientists about the tenets of physics and chemistry.

If you’re a Catholic, like the writer of the email below, your theology and morality must to some degree rest on acceptance of certain central factual claims of the Church: the existence of a divine Jesus as the son/alter ego of a divine God, Jesus’s Resurrection, which expiates us of sin, and so on. If those facts be wrong, on what is your faith grounded? After all, as Scriptures say (1 Corinthians 15:12-14, King James Version):

Now if Christ be preached that he rose from the dead, how say some among you that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there be no resurrection of the dead, then is Christ not risen. And if Christ be not risen, then is our preaching vain, and your faith is also vain.

So if Jesus didn’t come back to life—this of course assumes that Jesus not only existed, but was divine, claims supported by no evidence outside scripture—your Christian faith is useless. All three Abrahamic religions, like many other faiths, make factual claims that undergird their whole system of worship and morality.

Jesuits, of course, are more liberal than other Catholics, and perhaps more willing to interpret Scripture as metaphorical, but I’m willing to bet that this Catholic, a Jesuit, who’s Vice Director of the Vatican Observatory (I squelch my urge to make a Catholic pun) adheres to the myths about Jesus that undergird his faith. (He is, after all, a member of the Society of Jesus!) Presumably Fr. Mueller goes to Mass at least once a week and noms the wafer and quaffs the wine, accepting that some kind of physical but undetectable transformation occurs during that process. Presumably he goes to confession, thinking that if he tells his sins to another priest, God will expiate them. Well, I don’t know Fr. Mueller’s own beliefs save that he’s co-authored a book about why religion and science are compatible, and no, I haven’t read it, as it came out several years after my own. In fact, according to Fr. Mueller, I haven’t read anything substantive about the relationship between science and religion.

It’s the smarmy faux-niceness pervading this email—its sugary passive-aggressiveness—that made me decide to post it, which I don’t often do. Mueller’s note even ends with an invitation to visit the Vatican Observatory.

But it’s not just that tone that angered me. More galling was Mueller’s accusation that I haven’t read widely about the relationship between science and faith (he’s employing the Courtier’s Reply here), which is of course untrue. Apparently Fr. Mueller isn’t aware that I wrote an entire book on my thesis (with pages and pages of references), a book that of course he hasn’t read, since he’s responding only to my short article. Ergo, Fr. Mueller is even more guilty of the Courtier’s accusation.  Had he read my book—and it’s just one book, not the dozens he’d foist on me—he’d know that I already dealt with the first three points of his critique, including giving a very careful exposition of what I mean by “incompatibility” between science and religion.

Hiding yet another brickbat in his bouquet, Fr. Mueller assures me that he’s concerned to uphold my university’s standards of inquiry, as he himself has two degrees at the University of Chicago. Yes, I’m apparently guilty of shoddy scholarship. Even if that were true, though, at least I’m not guilty of believing in fairy tales.

I had drafted a reply to Mueller about the “standards of inquiry” that undergird his own beliefs, but of course I don’t know for sure what his beliefs are. But one thing is true: we know a lot more about our solar system than we know about the Catholic God or His purported sidekicks: Jesus and the Holy Ghost.

I decided not to provide Fr. Mueller with a list of all the reading I did about theology and its relationship to science, extending from Augustine and Aquinas down to Haught (does Mueller know I debated Catholic theologian Haught, who then tried to censor the video of our debate because he didn’t come off very well?), to Alvin Plantinga, Karen Armstrong, Ronald Numbers, the BioLogos Crew including Francis Collins, Ken Miller, David Bentley Hart, Richard Swinburne, John Polkinghorne, and many others—yes, the whole schmegegge of accommodationism.

I missed Rabbi Sacks’s book, but I did read the Dalai Lama’s. And I’m here to tell you that none of these people wrote anything that undermines my thesis about incompatibility. They really couldn’t, for they have factual beliefs based not on empiricism but on faith, Scripture, and wish-thinking, methods guaranteed to pull you into the rabbit hole of confirmation bias. At some point, one realizes that after reading 315 books on science and religion, you’re not going to find a new, world-shaking thesis in book #316.

I guess this will constitute my reply to Fr. Mueller, and I’ll call his attention to this post. But if you wish to chime in, please do so below. Remember, he’s trying hard to be nice (at least, that’s how it looks), so don’t bruise the man. Still, I find this kind of letter to be far more annoying that emails from straight-up creationists who say I’m going to hell and don’t claim that I’m their “colleague.”

Here you go:

Dear Mr. Coyne,

I recently read your article “Yes there is a war between science and religion” on the web site “The Conversation”.  If I may respond:

First: There is indeed a conflict between (on one hand) theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture and (on the other hand) science co-joined with philosophical materialism. If you had limited yourself to that narrow domain, your claims would be true, if unremarkable. However:

  • “Religion” is not reducible to theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture. That represents only a small part of world-wide religion — most notably, noisy Christian fundamentalists in the USA and sometimes-violent Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere.
  • “Science” does not necessarily include philosophical materialism. It is only in the English-speaking world that the notion is widespread that science entails philosophical materialism; in the rest of the world, that is decidedly a minority position.

Second: In modern scholarship, it is commonly understood that it is not possible to speak meaningfully about the relationship between science and religion. There are many sciences, and there are many religions. Serious and meaningful discussion is possible only in reference to particular sciences and particular religions.

Third: If you’re going to take Daniel Dennett (a “God-denier”) as your guide in defining religion, then shouldn’t you take take a science-denier, or an evolution-denier, or a climate-change denier as your guide in defining science? To express the point more soberly: Shouldn’t the conceptions of “religion” which you engage be intrinsic to religion (i.e. furnished from within religious traditions) rather than extrinsic (i.e. imposed on religion from without)?

Finally, I am surprised that you would make such sweeping claims about science-faith without showing evidence of having entered more deeply into the vast scholarly literature in that area. It doesn’t seem possible that you would be innocent of serious engagement with such scholarship, but if so a suitable first step could be John Haught’s God and the New Atheism. A fuller and more nuanced entree could be Jonathan Sacks’ The Great Partnership. For historically sensitive exploration of the peculiarly American conflict between biblical fundamentalism and scientific materialism, there’s the excellent scholarly work of Ronald Numbers — for example, The Creationists (2006) and The Warfare Between Science and Religion: The Idea That Wouldn’t Die (2018).

I write this message to you not only as a University of Chicago alumnus who is concerned to uphold the University’s standards of inquiry, but also in the spirit of the words of Pope John Paul II in a 1988 letter to George Coyne, who was then the director of the Vatican astronomical observatory: “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.”*

Thank you for your kind attention. If you should find yourself at Rome and you would like to visit the Vatican astronomical observatory at Castel Gandolfo, please feel free to contact me.

Collegially yours,

Paul Mueller

     MS Physics, 1996, University of Chicago
     PhD Conceptual and Historical Studies of Science, 2006, University of Chicago
  Paul Mueller
  Vice Director
  Vatican Observatory


* JAC note: No, religion can’t.

103 thoughts on “A Vatican astronomer writes to me

    1. One microscope and one telescope would provide more knowledge than a collection of every theological work written in every culture for the last 10,000 years.

  1. “Smarmy faux-niceness” and “sugary passive-aggressiveness” are great phrases! (I only included by “Ten Questions” essay in the website window below in case Mueller would like to see it.)

  2. Mr Mueller:

    “Religion” is not reducible to theism co-joined with a literal interpretation of scripture.

    We do know this.

    “Science” does not necessarily include philosophical materialism.

    We know that also. Materialism is an end-product of scientific enquiry, not a pre-supposition.

    There are many sciences, and there are many religions.

    Yes, but all of the sciences are based on following the evidence where it leads. And all the religions are based on wishful thinking and/or believing what you were told as a kid.

    And *that* is why science and religion are incompatible.

    1. There are many sciences, and there are many religions.

      Yes, but all of the sciences are based on following the evidence where it leads.

      There is a very non-trivial point that all of the sciences are profoundly interdigitated, and errors (or mismeasurements, shifts in calibrations etc) in one area are frequently picked up in others. An example would be the “problem” (just over a century ago) of the precession of the perihelion of Mercury, which didn’t “work” in a Newtonian universe. So people were looking for ways to explain the error, such as the pseudo-planet Vulcan. But in a seemingly unrelated field of theoretical physics which grew out of electrodynamics, one A.Einstein came up with a logically distinct understanding which coincidentally dealt with the Mercury problem.
      The sciences are a whole, and people working in distant, almost unrelated corners serendipitously solve problems in other corners. And it happens all the time.
      I don’t see many Hindu scholars resolving problems in (I may be showing my iggorance here) Augustinian apologetics. Which is a demonstration of how mutually incompatible the Nine Billion Names of God are (sorry, ACC). That doesn’t itself prove that the unity of science is correct, but science is damned good at predicting “if you do this, this will happen”, which is a pretty good indicator that it is a more accurate description of the universe.

      Materialism is an end-product of scientific enquiry, not a pre-supposition.

      ‘Scuse me, but didn’t the “rules of the club” (well, one of the first “science” “clubs”, the Royal Society) explicitly exclude using supernatural forces as an explanation? I don’t normally waste time on philosophy, but that sounds pretty close to having “Materialism” baked in at the bottom of the rule set? Unless “Materialism” has been given some non-obvious meaning by the philosophers sharpening pin-tips for the angels to dance upon.

      1. Yeah, the sciences are a whole, because they are all trying to make sense of the same thing, reality. It really is pretty simple. The sciences are just methods of trying to figure shit out about the universe we find ourselves in. The different branches specialize on one or a few narrow aspects of reality, but it’s all the same reality. If your social science hypothesis conflicts with known chemistry, or physics, or geology, or biology, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s wrong.

        1. Not that I’m a fan of social sciences and such, but where in the club rule book does it say that the social sciences shall be subservient to physics and chemistry and geology and biology (any more fields you’d like to add?)?

      2. “Scuse me, but didn’t the “rules of the club” (well, one of the first “science” “clubs”, the Royal Society) explicitly exclude using supernatural forces as an explanation?”

        As Jerry has rightly pointed out on many occasions, all explanations, including supernatural explanations, are available to scientists. It just so happens that in this particular universe they don’t work as well as physical explanations. But they could have.

        Coel has it exactly right, even though many people make the unscientific error of ruling out supernatural explanations a priori.

        1. Isn’t a supernatural explanation by definition one that lies outside the laws of physics (and the other sciences)? If, say, we found consistent and convincing evidence for the effectiveness of prayer (particularly in relation to things that would not be susceptible to the placebo effect) then that would move prayer and its effects from the realm of supernatural to the realm of physics. We would start to investigate the mechanisms by which it worked and if we found consistent and convincing evidence that it works by getting a white-bearded fella on a cloud to intercede then the existence of said deity would move from the supernatural to the natural and so on. When looking to explain natural phenomena we might not completely rule out the possibility that the explanation could be something we would currently consider supernatural but as soon as we have serious evidence supporting such an explanation it ceases to be supernatural.

          If a time traveller had shown an electric flashlight to a palaeolithic cave-dweller he would very likely have considered that he was being shown something magic explainable only by the action of spirits, gods or some other supernatural mechanism whereas we, with the benefits of several centuries of scientific endeavour to inform us, understand how the battery’s chemistry gives rise to an exchange of electrons and how the resistance to this flow of electrons in part of the circuit causes it to glow brightly.

          Religion relies on supernatural explanations for all natural phenomena and does so not on the basis of evidence but on the basis of the authority of scripture and of the priests, shamans, mullahs etc who claim special knowledge. Physical evidence that calls into question the validity of the supernatural explanations is either dismissed out of hand or explained away by yet more supernatural contortions (‘fossils were put there by the creator’).

          1. Sastra (does she still comment here?) had a nice definition of the supernatural as “mind without matter” (iirc), which seems to allow the supernatural to be investigated by science (had we any evidence for it) while keeping it distinct from naturalism (wherein mind emerges from matter & interacts with other things via matter).

            Who was it who observed that anyone can bend a spoon with their mind, by causing their hands to move?


          2. That argument seems logically equivalent to the argument that we can dismiss supernatural explanations a priori. It is just defining away the issue. But the kind of process you just described, the old man on a cloud who intercedes to affect physical events, is pretty much what many religious persons ,mean by “supernatural”, If such a thing really existed, we’d have to admit that the associated religion really was right. You can argue that it shouldn’t be called “supernatural” anymore because the old man is a part of the universe, but that’s just winning an argument by a choice of words. The substantive issue is whether there is a disembodied causal force that has personality and responds to our prayers. It doesn’t matter what we call it.

      3. Let me try :

        There are many literatures, there are many recipes

        There are many musics, there are many sounds

        There are many medicines, there are many wellnesses

        Oh man that’s fun – conjuring up dual deepities the way one cooks up a stack of pancakes!…. mmmm, pancakes…..

      4. ‘Scuse me, but didn’t the “rules of the club” (well, one of the first “science” “clubs”, the Royal Society) explicitly exclude using supernatural forces as an explanation? I don’t normally waste time on philosophy, but that sounds pretty close to having “Materialism” baked in at the bottom of the rule set? Unless “Materialism” has been given some non-obvious meaning by the philosophers sharpening pin-tips for the angels to dance upon.

        Official Website Physicist Sean Carroll has an excellent post on this from ages ago: https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/blog/2005/11/16/the-kansas-school-board-is-right/

        When you think about it, it makes sense: The supernatural must have an effect on the natural, otherwise it might as well not exist. And if it has an effect on the natural, we can use science to investigate it. It’s just that we’ve tried supernatural explanations and they’ve failed time after time.

      5. Is “materialism” synonymous with “naturalism”?

        Isn’t “methodological naturalism” a basis of scientific inquiry?

        And then we find that science reveals detailed naturalistic explanations for almost everything, enabling us to conclude “philosophical naturalism” is valid? (Per Forrest.)


    2. Coel: ‘Yes, but all of the sciences are based on following the evidence where it leads. And all the religions are based on wishful thinking and/or believing what you were told as a kid.”

      Exactly! End of discussion. 😉

  3. The letter writer makes so many assumptions, right from the beginning, that are so easily proved false and he asks many questions that are easily answered: no.

  4. “religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes.” – Yup, just like it tried to with Galileo Galilei…

    1. I’m not sure anyone who recites the Nicene Creed on a weekly basis (at least) has a leg to stand on when it comes to freeing people from false absolutes.

    2. My favourite historical statistic is
      1859: Catholic Church finally removes Copernicus’s De revolutionibus from their list of banned books, having realised it was probably not such a good idea to put it on their in the first place.
      1859: Darwin publishes On the Origin of Species…

      1. According to Wikipedia, which cites the Catholic Encyclopedia as reference, De revolutionibus was removed from the Index in 1768.

  5. It’s worth noting that (after a quick scout) Fr Mueller doesn’t seem to actually be an astronomer or scientist (meaning, someone with a track record of publishing in the primary scientific literature). His background is in theology and the history and philosophy of science. Very often, such people simply don’t actually understand science.

    1. I was wondering what happened to (I’ll have to check the name) Guy Cosmolango, who was head of the Vatican Observatory for donkey’s years – I think Galaxy formation/ evolution was his field.
      But on second thoughts, I have a feeling he retired a Pope or two ago. [Wiki search]”Consolmagno” – my memory was playing “Cosmic” tricks. And meteorites were his thing. Booted upstairs to the Purgatory of Administrivia in 2015, poor penguin.
      How he squares the circles inside his head is beyond me. It’s also his problem, not one I’m interested in. I bet he’d be fodder for the psychobabblologists, if he ever fell into their cage.

  6. In modern scholarship, it is commonly understood that it is not possible to speak meaningfully about the relationship between science and religion. There are many sciences, and there are many religions.

    I suppose there is some hypothetical religion out there which treats no authoritative word, person, or personal intuition as a form of evidence. However I have yet to see one. Christianity is certainly not that. Thus, PCC’s point might not apply to every hypothetical religion, but it certainly applies to the author’s.

    I do constantly wonder why religious people take methodological incompatibility with science to be such a threat. Humans use lots of different decision-making and belief-adopting mechanisms – not just science – and they are pretty much all incompatible with each other in one way or another. If I were them, I’d just shrug, say yes you’re right, and move on to worrying about the much bigger problem – conclusion incompatibility, which has been methodically destroying Christianity’s claims about the world since Galileo pointed a telescope up.

  7. ” There are many sciences, and there are many religions.”

    But the all various branches of science rely on methodological naturalism, observation, and experiment and do not assert different values for (say) the force of gravity according to whether they are astronomers, engineers, or materials scientists. Different religions espouse different supreme beings, different moralities, different explanations of the creation of the universe, different afterlives (if any) – and they have no willingness to converge on common values. So your ‘many sciences, many religions’ is a false equivalence.

  8. “If you’re going to take Daniel Dennett (a “God-denier”) as your guide in defining religion, then shouldn’t you take take a science-denier, or an evolution-denier, or a climate-change denier as your guide in defining science?”

    This is one of your “not even wrong” sentences. They always told me that Jesuits were the logical ones.

      1. We should be grateful for small mercies. That would have made his email much longer — “For me, God is the ground of being, the ineffable spirit of spirituality, the essentialist essence of the Essenes, the warts of the warthog” etc etc.

      2. I always find this suspicious. When I accuse someone of misunderstanding a concept or misdefining a word, I always provide what I think is the correct one. That’s not a matter of careful discipline or thoughtful courtesy. I’m jumping at the opportunity. And this is especially true if I consider the topic to be important to me, and something I’ve studied. I’ve already got it, so trot it right out.

        If it’s complicated, say that. If it’s incomplete, admit that. But the idea that this good gentleman who’s studied the subject so thoroughly is incapable of putting down two or three sentences that condense and inform the curious leader to some degree of improvement is unlikely. It’s more likely that clarity and brevity don’t have a good relationship with the concept or word. And I won’t suggest that he’s hoping to score a point by making us ask.

      3. I don’t think it’s useful here (or almost anywhere, except a First Amendment court case) to define “religion”. Outside of highly constrained mathematical and scientific contexts, most words don’t have precise definitions. (A dictionary is just a glorified thesaurus and allows you to trade one vague concept for some others.) The human mind works in a different way than the use of necessary and sufficient conditions, most of the time.

        Of course, you can always stipulate, for some particular conversation or context, a more rigorous definition. The courts have done that for “freedom of religion” and in that context, atheism and Calvinism are treated alike. Such a definition runs the risk of overly-narrowing or broadening or changing the subject.

  9. I am always staggered by how the ‘debate’ ever gets this far. Am I correct in thinking that Mr Mueller is carefully distancing himself from those with a ‘literal’ interpretation in the hope that a ‘non-literal’ interpretation might sound , somehow, more scientific? If Jesus wasn’t ‘literally’ raised from the dead then where do we go from there?

    Might you, if you do ever have the opportunity to visit Castel Dangolfo, might I recommend Ristorante Pagnanelli, perched on the cliff with an amazing view and an equally impressive wine cellar? After a long lunch there one is inclined to believe that God might actually exist, after all.

        1. Even more if the wine has been consecrated (unless Jesus has been on a binge? Still, after 40 days and nights in the desert he would be thirsty…)

  10. It was Richard Dawkins who wrote in one of his recent books that if humanity one day wakes up to discover they have forgotten everything, then how will we re-invent civilization from scratch?
    In brief, and here i must paraphrase, we would probably re-invent religion, but different peoples would come up with different religions. None would be Judeo-Christian, or Buddhist, etc., but there would be other completely different religions.

    Meanwhile we would also re-invent science. And guess what? It would be the same science. Same laws of physics & chemistry. Same science of astronomy, geology, and biology. And in biology we would have evolutionary biology and this would include shared ancestry of species, and natural selection.

    I don’t need to explain here why that is.

  11. Sometimes I imagine Someone with whom (while talking) a modern eminent man, armed with all his knowledge, would feel like a child.

    How could a man feel at the time when religions arose I can only guess.

    Such a fantasy.

  12. Read Jerry’s book!

    I always find it amusing that one has to be a theologian to fully understand religion & its argumentation, according to a theologian. Therefore they snootily offer up lists of their works which you MUST read to fully appreciate a god & its (invented) relationship with humans.

    Religions rely on the authority of fiction & can offer no better argument. What about compatibility of religions with each other?

    Science accumulates facts that help illuminate our understanding of the world. What does religion offer? Various fictions.

  13. My other favorite: Religion has been at it for thousands of years (huge head start on science!). Why hasn’t it converged on one truth? One true religious set of beliefs and practice? If this truth is out there and the religious apply the principles of science, they should have converged. The answer is obvious: Religions and all man-made fictions.

    1. “Yes, it’s remarkable that, in striking contrast to science, which converges on the facts of the case (by design of its method), religion, far from converging, has a long history of diverging and diverging and diverging on whatever aspects you care to name.

      The nature of their god(s)
      How they expect us to behave
      How they are to be recognized or worshiped
      What clothes one should wear
      What foods one should eat

      Clearly these are the hallmarks of Bullshit, not truth.”

  14. Does he not realize that the christ fairy tale is an immortality ideology – there are dozens of these fairy tales.

    Does he not realize what original sin really is?

    If one mistakenly bumps into someone else what does one (if they are normal) say?

    One says: sorry, PARDON me!? A form of atonement.

    I take up three dimensional space. I am not responsible for this body. I am thankful for it (usually) . I must owe someone for it. For this gift, for it not developing a lump, a black spot/melanoma, another cancer . . .

    The only way to get around this corporeality is ultimately to *deny* it. But simple denial is not enough. One needs denial plus. That is transcendence.

    The trinity is just such a fairy tail. It is acorporeal, asexual. It obviates biological generation, thus *there can be no degeneration.*

    Ergo, the two generations are conflated. Father and son. In a ghost story. A holy 👻. Also the mechanism of transcendence.

    This has been figured out a long long time ago

    Have he not heard of Kant’s characterization of the Enlightenment as humanity’s “emancipation from self-imposed immaturity”?

    1. There are some curious ‘related products’ on the Amazon page – “Essential oils for dogs”, “Win your partner back after a break-up?” (bit puzzled by the question mark on that one) and “Behind the Enigma: the authorised history of GCHQ”. God moves in mysterious ways indeed!

  15. “If there was a higher power that interacts with the material world at the level of human experience, science would have discovered it by now because the laws of physics regarding the particles and forces capable of interacting with the material world at the level of human experience are fully understood.”


  16. Dr Mueller: “Shouldn’t the conceptions of “religion” which you engage be intrinsic to religion (i.e. furnished from within religious traditions) rather than extrinsic (i.e. imposed on religion from without)?”

    That’s a fair point. He could have suggested a better conception, but for some reason, didn’t.

    Religion (all kinds of it), and science (all kinds of it), are incompatible in that science is a cumulative, collective activity that can be passed on to others and progress. Religion cannot progress. This should be obvious. Someone can invent a telescope and give it to others who can take that as a starting point and build on it. Even assuming that the risen Christ can appear to someone and save them, this person can’t then pass on the risen to Christ to anyone else. Again, this distinction or difference between religion and science should be obvious.

    Were it conceded by religious people that revelation is necessarily private and subjective, there would be no overt conflict with science, (only a private one, and people could be free to deal with it as they please). But conceding that would destroy the basis of the priesthood, and instantly render as politics and not religion all attempts at converting others. Religion would be seen clearly to cease and politics to start at the moment one opens one’s mouth to blab about it.

    Even more importantly in this debate — and I’m surprised fans of religious history haven’t woken up to this trap yet — the very fact that science progresses makes it a really poor basis for theology. Go back to previous centuries and read how the science of the day was held to “prove” the existence of God, and then notice that that old science was based on Aristotelian cosmology, Galenic physiology, Cartesian atomic theory….. It’s just the same for today’s quantum neo-neo-neo-neo-Darwinian God. He will soon be lying in the trash next to some old Deepak Chopra books.

    In short, science progresses, but religion claims to already be complete. One is moving, the other is still. One has helped people cure polio, discover our biological origins, and fly about in space ships; the other hasn’t made a single step since the time of Plato.

    1. While not obviating the general validity of your statement, “Religion cannot progress,” I would point out that the Mormons/Latter-Day Saints have put a twist on this in their teaching that Revelation is ongoing and that theoretically every individual Mormon can have a Revelation from God. Ongoing Revelation is why the LDS Church modified its original teaching to allow Black people full membership in the Church and why the Church recently stopped and has urged others to stop referring to its members as Mormons and to use the name Latter-Day Saints instead. Of course, the potential revelations of individual members are ultimately subordinate to the unassailable revelations of the Church’s President and Prophet, who has a private phone line with God and is thus inerrant in his (and the President has always been a man) proclamations, very much like the Catholic Pope when he speaks ex cathedra. The rub in all this is that some LDS members have claimed and still claim that their revelations are also inerrant. This has led to many renegade Mormon splinter groups who have taken refuge in remote areas of the United States, especially in the West. Jon Krakauer writes about this as well as many other troublesome issues of the Mormons in his book, Under the Banner of Heaven, which I highly recommend. Readers of this website would be especially interested in this book’s postscript, which is one of the great statements of irreligion.

      1. Black people were always allowed full membership in the LDS Church but Black men were not ordained into the priesthood. I think a number of things led to the revelation that Black men could enter the priesthood. Perhaps a recognition that this was unnecessarily prejudicial was part of the motivation. Some of the motive could have come from the general attitudes in society. Another may have been that proselytizing in Central and South America was particularly successful for the Mormons and some countries like Brazil had large Black communities. Or it could be god finally got around to revising the nineteenth century rules. In this case the Mormons made progress but the repeated splintering following the death of Joseph Smith would not be a sign of progress. Neither would the current Utah congressional delegation indicate progress despite including Mitt Romney.

  17. Odd that he seems not to have done enough homework to know Jerry researched his book well past the point of human endurance. The extensive reading of theologians would have killed a lesser man.

  18. I recently read a quote by Carl Sagan that I thought summed up the incompatibility of science and religion quite nicely: “Claims that cannot be tested, assertions immune to disproof are veridically worthless, whatever value they may have in inspiring us or exciting our sense of wonder.”

    1. But is that modern science though?!

      Global religions today make essentially 3 magic claims, all of which has been rejected by observation:

      1. The way you act or think ritually affects nature. Rejected 2006 by meta-analysis of blinded intercessory prayer studies.

      2. You get a reward by magic thinking, either by understanding yourself as ‘soul’ or by an ‘afterlife’. Rejected by 3 sciences now, of which particle physics 2012-2017 is the latest and the most impressive robust – we are entirely biochemical machines.

      3. Cosmological creationist magic. Rejected in both its theist and deist forms by cosmology 2018.

      Sagan lived in a time where there were still room for dragons under the bed. But we have moved on.

      1. Good point(s). Yes, in his time, many of the untested claims could not be tested and now they can. Thanks for pointing that out.

  19. Presumably Fr. Mueller goes to Mass at least once a week and noms the wafer and quaffs the wine, accepting that some kind of physical but undetectable transformation occurs during that process. Presumably he goes to confession, thinking that if he tells his sins to another priest, God will expiate them.

    Presumably Fr. Mueller does those things in the opposite order, since it is verboten for a Catholic to take communion with a mortal sin on his or her soul. I was never clear on that whole concept, but as a school kid I imagined a mortal since as a big black mark on your inner-Casper-the-Friendly-Ghost.

    But then, when I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things (you know, just like Saul of Tarsus in First Corinthians).

    That deal went down for me a couple weeks shy of my fifteenth birthday, as best I recall.

      1. I think that glass is supposed to be a “looking glass” (as in mirror), but if I had my druthers, it would’ve been a glass of good Kentucky sippin’ bourbon, 🙂

        Or a pint of bitter, guv’nor.

        1. Yup, my emoticon was intended to signify my knowing that the question was intentionally dumb. Though I suspect that our Vatican correspondent is the one looking through the dark looking glass with incomprehension (and from the side that Alice briefly visited, too). Funnily enough, there’s as much evidence of the Jabberwock as there is of Jesus.

  20. Science is not about what you know; it’s about how you find out.

    This person doesn’t understand the first thing about science.

  21. Paul Mueller
    Vice Director
    Vatican Observatory

    Fr. Mueller,

    Exactly what vices do you direct at the observatory?

  22. “Science” does not necessarily include philosophical materialism. It is only in the English-speaking world that the notion is widespread that science entails philosophical materialism; in the rest of the world, that is decidedly a minority position.

    An example of a discovery in Eastern, Mid-Eastern, Siberian, Arctic, or other non-English-speaking area of the world which falsifies naturalistic materialism as a working theory would have been welcome here. Otherwise, we might think you mean something like reincarnation.

    There are many sciences, and there are many religions. Serious and meaningful discussion is possible only in reference to particular sciences and particular religions.

    Again, a specific example would have been nice. A serious and meaningful conversation between Geologists and Transcendentalists? String Theorists and Hindus? Entomologists and Animists? I don’t know, but I assume you’re thinking of something.

    Shouldn’t the conceptions of “religion” which you engage be intrinsic to religion (i.e. furnished from within religious traditions) …

    This … was a lost opportunity.

    I’m only trying to be helpful.

  23. Paul Mueller is a believer in superstition but presumably also well versed in the astronomy he references. So I will analyze his problematical claims on both accounts.

    As a religious believer Muller is of course explaining science from a theological view of philosophy as relating to science. I reject that – even if Jerry would disagree – since philosophy is as unfounded in facts of nature as is religion.

    Science on the other hand is the only known method to arrive at working knowledge. Which brings me to cosmology, something I have to assume Mueller is familiar with.

    Modern cosmology characterizes the whole system – LCDM cosmology. And since 2018 we are fairly certain that space is flat over sufficiently large volumes, meaning we have an observational constraint characterizing the system. I have it from good sources – and the publications of papers agree – that any remaining uncertainties in e. g. the expansion rate is unlikely to change that.

    This observational fact on a general relativistic cosmology such as LCDM tells us that the sum of all energy and the sum of all work must each be zero over such volumes – and that is what we see. You can no longer have omnipotent ‘gods’, and not even millipotent if you study subdomains allowed by the cosmic background data. At best there could be some local micropotent or clusters of nanopotent magic domains (‘microgods’ or ‘nanogods’, if you want to say with the magic labels).

    And the entire universe is the result of a spontaneous (adiabatic, free) expansion process – you can’t even have any putative initial conditions as magic.

    So there you have it – it is an astronomical observational fact that grandiose religion is wrong.

  24. Today this country passes through 300,000 deaths due to the virus in this country and that is in less than one year. At the same time today we started vaccinations to save our population from hundreds of thousands of more deaths and that is due to science. Religion had nothing to do with it and it never has in the thousands of years of religion. I do not really care about compatibility but science and religion are not even in the same town. I will take science any day.

    1. At least a half million deaths in U.S, will be a correct numerical description for the situation a year after the first few deaths. That can only be gotten as the difference between actual and statistically expected deaths over that period, and will be pretty darn accurate.

  25. Even though the points he made are acceptable in general, they are beside the point. I don’t quite understand what is such difficult for learned believers to understand the argument as plain as it is. His quibbles distract from the general approach.

    The religious hypothesis says that some knowledge has supernatural origin. I phrase it this way, because we are not concerned with an obscurantist swamp about truths, meaning, god, existence and other such questions that all need definitions and endless vain obscuring of matters, only transparent in that they are about protecting faiths. We want to know whether any knowledge exists that does not originate in nature; was not observed or experienced by anyone, but was instead revealed to humankind via some non-natural entity.

    Of course, back in time a sizeable portion of knowledge was thought to have supernatural origin. Observations had to fit into that revealed cosmos, and if it didn’t, people in the Vatican got very angry.

    It would be altogether unserious, or indeed dishonest, to say that “residues” of this structure would not exist anymore, and wasn’t still widespread among the religious. Believers at least need to accept that some teachings have supernatural origin, as brought up before. This must be the case, because believers don’t believe in afterlife, perhaps heaven and hell, Jesus or god “just so” out of nowhere. Their acceptance does not hinge on a spontaneous, random speculation by some person.

    The very next step after coming up with an idea is persuasion, and that activity is about giving an idea credence. It must be confessed as true. Granted, Christianity often spread by fire and sword, or as a social contagion, but it still held in place through the conceit that supernatural entities are real as much as the birds in the woods are real; that they — the supernatural beings, not the birds — have a plan of some sorts and that there is some kind of cosmic order, and even purpose.

    And none of this gels with actual knowledge. This conception of a cosmic order was evidently displaced. No scientific theory (understood as natural sciences) features the supernatural. The division between religious meaning and scientific knowledge has no overlap, but that shows this conflict, not a harmony, Noma or otherwise. Not only do we not know certain things, we found natural explanations that contradicted this cosmic orders, until they shattered altogether. Now mere shards remain that are stuck in the flesh of humankind.

    I see how this harmony or NOMA idea could arise: since sensible religious people go with scientific knowledge whenever available, they never truly clash with the faith. This conception of faith is mallebale, amorphous and compatible. Things that were seen more literal yesterday are taken as metaphorical tomorrow.

    But hand to heart, is this really how it is for religious communities, or religious individuals? This is not how it looks like even after the sleight of hand were fundamentalists are already sidelined (who have great problems even with best-substantiated knowledge, when it clashes with their faith).

    In the end, religious people still try to persuade, and still dress their claims in the language of knowledge: a cosmic order exists, with a god who cares about you, and so on, and one must believe it because…

  26. “There are many sciences, and there are many religions.”

    It is quite stunning that Paul Mueller still totally fails to recognize that no branch of science contradicts any other branch of science, while the hundreds of thousands (possibly exceeding into the millions) of religions contradict each other, and all too often even contradict themselves. The bible clearly shows that *all* of its gods (even including Jesus) are flat Earthers. As the late Isaac Asimov pointed out some time ago, religionists squeeze symbolism from their texts when the primitiveness becomes too embarrassing to continue to promote it as a literal “revealed truth”. There is no distinction between “revealed truth” and sacred superstition.

  27. And of course, “Supernatural Explanation” remains an obvious oxymoron. In science, to “explain” means to render “unknowns” in terms of “knowns”, while supernatural explanations get this exactly backwards and try to explain both “knowns” and “unknowns” in terms of even greater “unknowns”.

    Due to its testability requirements science *requires* methodological naturalism, while religionists try to distort that into philosophical naturalism where they can endlessly argue about how bad that is to their factually unsupportable faith.

  28. From an evolutionary point of view, religions have worked fairly well: they have been underpinning most human culture since well before the “evolution” of the recently formalised scientific method.
    The actual existential truth of a religion is not very important in this sense unless it has serious implications on survival.
    Behaviour based on an untruth may work well if it does not impinge on (or if it can facilitate)some other factor which confers advantage (religious cleaning rituals may protect against disease and pandemic).
    The onus on the “atheist” scientist is to provide a methodology which confers a survival advantage over “religious methodologies”.

    My mother lived by the rule “thou shalt not reheat chicken”. I tried to explain to her why reheating chicken can be very dangerous and also when it should be reasonably safe.
    Her response was “But I heard on the radio that you should never reheat chicken” and she returned to the rule.
    My mother is a very pragmatic person but has no scientific education.

    A simple rule (even if not based on logic or scientific observation) may be pragmatic and effective, even if the reasoning behind it is faulty (a bit like the giraffe’s laryngeal nerve).
    A similar simplistic approach to “does God exist?” works in the same way: if you decide “seems like he does”, you can abandon the question, stick with the unprovable answer and get on with something else. It frees up your mind from a more complex issue.

    If you take the Jesuitic/Rabbinic (or even scientific) approach you can even create a career or a social identity/role out of the question.

    1. I’m not sure why the onus should fall on the scientific atheist to prove that science is superior any more than on the religionist to prove the superiority of religion but it’s not hard to think of examples where science provides a survival advantage over religious methodologies:

      The priests pray for rain. Science seeks to develop drought resistant crop varieties and to develop better ways to harvest and manage water resources.

      The religious sect prays for the recovery of the child from sickness, refuses anti-biotics, blood transfusions and other medical therapies and calls the subsequent death of the child ‘god’s will’. Science seeks to understand the cause of the disease and to identify and test effective treatments.

      There are many others.

      You may be correct that some religious cleaning rituals may provide workable rules of thumb for avoiding food poisoning or disease (at least in a world without modern refrigeration and food hygiene techniques) but there are plenty of other instructions from scriptures that confer no such benefit and may be harmful. Lots of things that Levitacus instructs that are at best pointless and in many cases downright harmful and unpleasant.

      1. But expect, as always, the religious apologist’s response: “That’s not real religion.”

        You can’t reason with them.

      2. @JW
        I totally agree that the scientific rational will often be better. The point I was making was that the religious method predates the scientific method by millenia and was often the only methodology applied during the greater part of human evolution. Some rational logic must also have played its part! Also the fact that it continues to exist indicates its “successfulness” (from an evolutionary point of view).
        Leviticus may well be harmful and unpleasant, but the overlying structure has proven successful overall (advantages at some level must have outweighed the disadvantages). In the long term it may NOT prove successful: 2500 years is a pretty short time.

        Religion is also competitive as a “group unifier”: the scientific method hasn’t really created an “ism” (capitalism, Marxism, socialism, fascism, anarchism etc) which could function as a “group unifier” which competes with other “isms” or religion, and which can provide a consensual social view. Modern technology is mostly science based but often consumed by people who have a different (non-scientific) world view.

        Secularism exists but it is not a unified mindset: mostly just meaning “non-religious”.

        1. Rape and murder are still with us, too. Must mean that those strategies are evolutionarily successful too, right?
          DOn’t be ridiculous. The fact that it persists simply means that it persists. Perhaps there are reasons for that, but it doesn’t mean that, overall, religion is a net benefit to humanity. The “group unifier”, in the form of Islam, for instance, is responsible for oppressing a huge portion of its adherents (women), oppressing gays, and, like most religions, propagandizing children and denying them an education. Oh yes, and genitals get cut, too.

          If that’s the kind of “ism” you want, you can have it, and I don’t give a rat’s patootie that science is not a “group unifier.” It doesn’t have nearly the same bad effects as the “ism” of religion. What produced the coronavirus vaccine? I’ll tell you, pal, it wasn’t religion!

          1. Jerry, I think maybe you are misunderstanding what I am trying to say. I do not argue anywhere that religion is better than science. In evolution there is no “better” or “worse”, just what survives (persists).

            [Rape and murder are still with us, too. Must mean that those strategies are evolutionarily successful too, right?]
            Psychopathic behaviour, if it is genetically coded, and since it persists, HAS been “successful” in the evolutionary sense, otherwise it would be a “fossil” by now
            Evolution really doesn’t moralise.
            Psychopaths can thrive in certain human contexts: warfare for example, situations in which empathy is a disadvantage, competing in power structures, where manipulation of others gives advantage. They haven’t been selected out.
            Human violent behaviour doesn’t need to be genetically mediated: some cases could perfectly well be explained behaviourally.

            All the criticisms you make can be true of Islam.
            They are as unpleasant as corona virus: corona virus however is “successful” from the point of view of evolution.

            I don’t want any “isms” particularly, of any sort. Not a great fan.
            My point was that “isms” of any type function in groups and survive by natural selection.
            People need some kind of convincing world view and science needs to be part of that in order to appeal to the majority.

            Scientific methodology hasn’t been a commanding option for the greater part of human evolution. Religion, good and bad, has been there for all of human history.
            I was only interested in understanding and discussing it in that context.

            I do see religions as a purely anthropological phenomenon.

            [I don’t give a rat’s patootie that science is not a “group unifier.]
            If human society is to detach itself from religion, I think it would be a necessity that some kind of alternative, unifying view emerge. Common ground amongst people on which to proceed.
            I think that science CAN be a “group unifier” (probably not without inclusion of ethics and some profound sociopolitical implications): it needs to offer more appeal than religion currently does to a lot of people. The majority on the planet are religious and don’t have much science education.

            Corona virus is “successful” in the evolutionary sense.
            It’s true that science has produced corona vaccine, but it has also produced nuclear weapons and the technology for depleting the planet.

            1. Scandinavian society has divorced itself from religion. What kind of “group unifier’ do they have that allowed them to do that? This is true of most of northern Europe, too? Are you going to make up a “group unifier” that accounts for their success, or can you admit that a society can just leave religion behind and not need a substitute?

              1. Jerry: did not have spare time in order to reply recently

                [Scandinavian society has divorced itself from religion.]
                The Scadinavian situation is more of an estrangement than a divorce.
                The figures for Denmark (which seems to be the most secular of Sweden, Norway and Denmark) still only give 20% atheism (28% recognising Christ’s divinity).
                I am not aware of any country in which religion has actually disappeared (except temporarilly by force, when it actually just went underground).

                Athesist “isms” (for example Communism, Fascism, National-Socialism) have tried to artificially eliminate or by-pass religion,
                and could possibly in theory form a substitute.
                After Soviet Communism’s collapse, there was a resurgence of previously repressed religious practice.

                I was using ““group unifier” to mean within a group, not between groups.

                Many Western European countries have mixed socialist/capitalist political sytems and have achieved a high level of material well-being and reduced stress(low military involvement, little external political conflict).
                Religion has been descibed as an anti-stress phenomenon and resurges in periods of difficulty.

                [What kind of “group unifier’ do they have that allowed them to do that? This is true of most of northern Europe, too?]
                [Are you going to make up a “group unifier” that accounts for their success]

                Their group unifiers can have been various things: reduction of autoritarian religion since 1800, nationality, political opinions and changes, increased individual freedoms/democratic consensus, faith in changing socio-political-economic models (what I called “isms”), the more isolated urban nuclear family unit (as compared to the previous more extended small rural community families exerting pressure to group conformity), materialism.

                [can you admit that a society can just leave religion behind and not need a substitute?]
                If religion is genetically hardwired or deeply embedded as behavioural memes,
                then I think that it will never be substituted.
                I think it has never happened convincingly so far.
                It is also likely that the percentage of religious believers in Scandinavia will stabilise above zero at some point.

                Religion (like many human values) has (subjective choice) processes which do not require proof in the sense of the scientific method.
                This is in common with politics, government, law, pragmatics, values, ethics, aesthetics, group allegiance, race identity, gender identity.
                All of these are concerned with personal choices and opinions, they cannot be reduced to scientific “true or false”.
                They are “like better” or “like worse” choices.
                Nothing to do with (absolute) truth.
                Scientific reasoning can temper choices, but only up to a point.

                One piece of music cannot be shown to be better (or truer) than another piece of music: opinion based on (subjective) values.

                If you remove religion, there will still be politics (religion’s bastard cousin) which is equally emotive and conflictual.

                Happy Christmas, from one atheist to another!

            2. “I think it would be a necessity that some kind of alternative, unifying view emerge.”

              This assumes that religion offers a unifying view. It doesn’t. There are countless varieties all offering the one true version, all at each other’s throats.

              1. Just like politics.
                As unifier, I meant those having the same belief being unified together, rather than a bunch of individuals with no ideas in common.

              2. The strength of these “unions” is measured by in schisms, ubiquitous among the religious. And it is measured by the ferocity of conflict between groups who each are authorized by The Almighty to act in the most hideous ways.

  29. The writing shows a disbelief in disbelief.

    Also – as a sort of tribute to Hitchens, as his writing was the first time I saw this word used effectively – the Vatican astronomer’s small essay reaches a new level of unctuous – going to great lengths in matters scientific in order to spread a backdrop for Deeply Held Beliefs from which is derived Great Comfort, and shame on us if we cause anyone with Deeply Held Beliefs to be uncomfortable.

    Yes that was a run-on sentence – so sue me.

  30. The development of reason is a stage in the mental development of humans. Religionists have not achieved that stage as yet and will probably never do so.

  31. “…the relationship between science and religion. There are many sciences, and there are many religions….”—-from the good father. (Sorry, can’t resist a bit of sarcasm—Jerry did resist the “Vice Director” double entendre.)

    To say ‘chemistry is a science’ and say ‘chemistry is part of science’, I’m using the word “science” to mean two slightly different things, very closely related. That’s part of the nonsense in that statement’s attempted implications.

    But mainly it’s that “science”, in the 2nd sense of the set of all sciences, strives and gets mighty close to succeeding to be a consistent collection of propositions, never perfect of course, but always improving. And indeed extraordinarily successful in explaining the logical connections and overlaps between various sciences.

    Religion in that general sense is ridiculously inconsistent. Most of the religions in the 1st sense are themselves badly inconsistent on their own, and I speak even in the strict logical sense. But any two members of the set of religions (which set the second word ‘religion’ might as well be) are almost always inconsistent, that’s almost the definition of them being not the same religion.

    Thinking within an obviously inconsistent system is usually ridiculous.

    But incompatibility with good observation is by far the best dismissal of superstitions, and all religions are prominent among the many superstitions.

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