The New York Times touts a fake amity between science and religion

March 23, 2023 • 9:15 am

I’m posting this new NYT article not because it shows that Jesuits are engaged in science, which is well known (there’s an observatory in the Vatican), but because of “lesson” the paper draws from this fact, a lesson outlined by me in red in the subheadline below. Jesuit astronomers show that science and religion are pals!

But of course nobody doubts that religious people, even priests, can do science or love science, and nobody doubts that scientists can be religious.  The real conflict between religion and science lies in their both asserting certain truths about the universe, but with only science having a way to determine which “truths” are really true. (If religion had a way of determining what was true, there would not be lots of religions making conflicting claims.)

Anyway, click to read:

The take-home lesson of the article is that a few asteroids have been named for Jesuit astronomers, and that’s all she wrote. A couple of excerpts:

Centuries after the Holy See muzzled and burned Roman Catholic stargazers for questioning the centrality of the Earth in the cosmos, Jesuit astronomers from the Vatican’s in-house observatory are increasingly writing their names in the heavens.

The Vatican, run by Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope in history, recently announced that three more Jesuit scientists from its Jesuit-run observatory had asteroids named after them as part of a fresh batch that included the 16th-century pope who commissioned the Gregorian calendar and a Tuscan pastry chef whose hobby is the firmament.

Jesuits, while not quite yet as numerous as the stars, have had more than 30 asteroids assigned to them since the space rocks began to be formally named in 1801. That “should not be surprising, given the often scientific nature of this community,” said the astronomer Don Yeomans, who worked at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., and is now part of the group that gives official approval for the names given to asteroids.

This fact is taken as evidence that science and religion are not at odds:

The history of the observatory, which has been staffed by Jesuits since the 1930s, is a rebuttal to the notion that the Roman Catholic Church has always sought to stand in the way of scientific advancement, an idea perpetuated by high-profile cases like those of Galileo and Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition during the Renaissance.

“There are institutions like the Pontifical Academy of Science that tell the Vatican what’s going on in the world of science, but we actually do the science,” said Brother Guy Consolmagno, an asteroid honoree (4597 Consolmagno) and director of the observatory, whose website tagline is “faith inspiring science.” In a 2017 interview with The New York Times, Brother Consolmagno said that part of the mission of the observatory was “to show the world that the church supports science.”

It’s telling that a former director of the observatory, the Jesuit astrophysicist Rev. George V. Coyne, who died in 2020, played a significant role in getting the Vatican to shift position and formally acknowledge in 1992 that Galileo might have been correct.

No, George Coyne is no relation! Note, though, that it was only in 1992 that the Vatican finally acknowledged that it treated Galileo badly: 350 years after the fact! If Catholicism were so down with science, why did it take more than three centuries for them to admit that they shouldn’t have condemned Galileo to house arrest for suggesting that the Sun doesn’t orbit the Earth?

The rest of the story is about how the asteroids were named, what rules are used to name them, and a bit about the three honored Jesuit astronomers.

As I said, if your view of the harmony between religion and science is that scientists can be religious or religious people can be scientists, then I’ll agree with you. Priests can even propose testable scientific theories: the Catholic priest Georges Lemaître (1894-1966) proposed early on that the universe was expanding and had originated in an event at a single point, now known as “The Big Bang”.

But when those astronomers walk to their telescope, they’re not using faith to find cosmic bodies, even though their search may be inspired by faith. They leave their religion at the observatory door.

And that’s the argument I make in Faith Versus Fact: Why Science and Religion are Incompatible, available in fine bookstores anywhere, with the hardcover now only twelve bucks on Amazon.  Religion and science both make claims about what’s true in the universe, but the set of tools each “magisterium” uses to discern truth are different. Science uses reason, testability, doubt, empirical research, replication, predictions, and so on. Religion has three tools only: scripture, authority and faith.  Those three are incapable of discerning truth, which is why every religion has a different set of truths that are often incompatible.  For example, Jesus is God/the son of God in Christianity, but he’s only a prophet to Jews and Muslims.

By the way, the claim that religion makes no truth claims was part of Steve Gould’s “non-overlapping magisteria” (NOMA) idea: that the domain of religion is determining and enforcing morality, and the domain of science is empirical truth. Gould said that these domains did not overlap. He was wrong (see my critique here).

So if you think that Catholicism and religion are not at odds, ask a pious Catholic these questions, or related ones:

    1. Is there a God? If so, what is His nature?
    2. Was Jesus the son of God who was sent to earth to be resurrected, thereby giving us all a shot at salvation?
    3. Is there a heaven where we will go if we are good?
    4. Do we have souls? If so, what do they consist of?
    5. Was Jesus born of a virgin?
    6. In what way do wafers and wine literally become the body and blood of Jesus during the Eucharist?
    7. If you don’t confess your sins to a priest, will bad things happen to you after you die?

These are truth claims, some of them foundational for Catholicism, and there are many more.

(I know someone is going to point out that Jesuits may not believe in any of this stuff, but surely many of them do. If they said they didn’t, they’d be excommunicated.)

You get my drift: these involve truth claims of Catholicism, and those of a scientific mindset have no confidence in them because there’s no evidence for any of them. Thus the very same astronomers who peer through the Vatican’s telescope will go to Mass on Sunday, eat their wafers, go to confession, and accept the fact that Jesus was killed but came back to life, offering us salvation.  THAT is a conflict! For all of the questions and assertions above, the difference between science and religion rests on following up each “truth claim” with this question:  HOW DO YOU KNOW THAT? Science can give you a convincing answer; religion can’t.

My only question is why this article is using the naming of asteroids to show that religion and science are buddies. Lately the New York Times has been very soft on religion (viz., the mawkish Sunday columns of Anglican priest Tish Harrison Warren). Just once I’d like them to have a column by an atheist, or to consult with atheists when writing palaver like the column above.

16 thoughts on “The New York Times touts a fake amity between science and religion

  1. “Religion has three tools only: scripture, authority and faith.” – J. Coyne

    Those doing “natural theology” will object that…

    “In contemporary philosophy…both “natural religion” and “natural theology” typically refer to the project of using all of the cognitive faculties that are “natural” to human beings—reason, sense-perception, introspection—to investigate religious or theological matters. Natural religion or theology, on the present understanding, is not limited to empirical inquiry into nature, and it is not wedded to a pantheistic result. It does, however, avoid appeals to special non-natural faculties (ESP, telepathy, mystical experience) or supernatural sources of information (sacred texts, revealed theology, creedal authorities, direct supernatural communication). In general, natural religion or theology (hereafter “natural theology”) aims to adhere to the same standards of rational investigation as other philosophical and scientific enterprises, and is subject to the same methods of evaluation and critique. Natural theology is typically contrasted with “revealed theology”, where the latter explicitly appeals to special revelations such as miracles, scriptures, and divinely-superintended commentaries and creedal formulations.”

    Natural Theology and Natural Religion:

    1. But there will be certain propositions (at a minimum, the statement ‘God exists’) that are off-limits when it comes to empirical investigation. And you can bet that ‘introspection’ won’t be subjected to much critical analysis, either.

      1. No, it is possible to get some evidence for God’s existence. As Victor Stenger said, the absence of evidence is evidence for absence IF THE EVIDENCE SHOULD BE THERE! The world is not organized in the way it should be if an omnipotent, omniscient, and loving God were in charge.

        1. I quite agree. What I was trying to say was that these ‘natural theologians’ like to give the impression that they are prepared to use all the tools of rational exploration, but when it comes to their fundamental beliefs (for instance, that God exists), they will not be prepared to make use of those tools. For them, ‘God exists’ is non-negotiable. And of course Stenger’s right.

  2. After being burned so badly by the Galileo saga—and not to mention all the other claims that science has systematically dismantled—maybe the Jesuits were simply looking for a way to restore at least a bit of religion’s credibility. Religion and science can never be compatible so long as they have conflicting empirical claims and conflicting methodologies for adjudicating them.

    As an aside to your “by the way,” I wish that Steve Gould had not written his Magisteria book and I don’t really understand how he came to believe that religion and science are compatible, but I did observe that he seemed to have quite a bit of respect for religious institutions, and was particularly enamored with the art and music associated with western organized religions. That said, I just don’t get it.

  3. Once again, an excellent rebuttal to nonsense. I couldn’t add anything if I tried. I saw that NYT article and immediately thought; “Dr PCC(e) would shred this”.

  4. For me, religion is irrelevant to science. Religion is losing its relevancy, it keeps sidling up to science hoping some will rub off.

  5. One thing the Bible is not,” Father Coyne told The New York Times Magazine in 1994, “is a scientific textbook. Scripture is made up of myth, of poetry, of history. But it is simply not teaching science.

    That’s nice of him.

    I didn’t know about 23238 Ocasio-Cortez 🙂

    The article is not as bad as I expected it to be. If it is saying that religious people can do serious scientific work, then it is not saying anything new. It does say that the asteroid labels challenge ‘the idea that science and religion make awkward partners’. That religious people have done and continue to do science is not new, so it looks like it is setting up a statement to challenge.

  6. I am pleased to note that our host’s putative relative, the Jesuit astronomer George Coyne, said “that he was open to the existence of extraterrestrial life and that Christianity could reconcile its theology with such a discovery.” It would be interesting to speculate on how Jesus’ career on earth, rather than elsewhere, would be explained to the little green humanoids on planet Ixneria.

    We should also bear in mind that the Pontifical Academy of Science had such notable members as Werner Heisenberg (although you would think his presence was uncertain) and Erwin Schrödinger (although he might have been simultaneously a member and not a member). My post-doctoral mentor, the late François Gros, received an honor of some sort from the Pontifical Academy when I was in his lab in Paris, and I well remember that we all celebrated it.

  7. Amity between science and religion? How could there ever be amity when religion is opposed to science at the most basic level of life and creation. The faithful cannot accept that humans are not a special creation of a father in heaven, with an eternal soul no less. GROG

  8. Even Lemaitre always strictly made it clear his work and religion were unrelated and he was simply summarizing what his calculations said. A very agnostic view.

  9. Anyone intrigued by the interplay between Jesuit theology and science may be interested in reading James Blish’s classic, 1958, Hugo Award-winning novel, ‘A Case of Conscience.’

    It tells the tale of a priest who is sent to investigate a race of intelligent reptilians on the planet Lithia who lack religion but possess a flawless, inborn sense of morality, the existence of which conflicts with Catholic teaching (this is a paraphrase of Wikipedia, but serves well enough).

    It’s thoughtful, a little old-school (should pose few problems for readers here, but the hypersensitive “woke” might want to stay away), and ultimately harrowing.

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