Four conversations on science and religion

by Augustinus


My call to science, I am sure, came to me when I was just a boy. My heart and interests lay more in the realm of the stars, the forests, the mountains, the ocean, the rocks and fields of my youth than in the human realm around me. My earliest memory is of me at about 4 or 5 years coming out of a building situated at the top of one of the highest hills in Fitchburg, MA (my hometown) holding the hand of my mother and looking up to see first, my breath condensed into very fine white particles of ice, (for it was coldest winter) and then, as my breath cleared, spread out all around and above me, a vast plenitude of stars which covered the whole night sky in such  profligate beauty that I was left breathless with amazement. They seemed to billow out of the nothingness into a glorious and ravishing display of mystery. It was my first glimpse of the unimaginable number and excess of wonders which pour ceaselessly into the abundance of the world around me, the things that I was later to discover science was dedicated to cataloging, appreciating and understanding. That vision has never entirely left me and it has fueled a long term commitment to the scientific study of the natural world and its mysteries.

I spent the rest of my childhood sitting on the rooftops of the houses we lived in and peering at the night sky through the primitive telescopes my family obtained for me, and dreaming of one day getting closer to those celestial objects. In my teenage years however, my interests turned inward. Stilled awed by the cosmos and the science that could unlock its mysteries, I now felt a more pressing need to grasp something of the meaning of that vast cosmos and my place in it.  Not finding any answers in my astronomy books I turned to religion and philosophy.

I have always been both attracted to, and repulsed by the religious realm. I am attracted to religion because of its ability to produce saints, cultures, and communities, but I am repulsed by its addiction to groupthink, sanctimony, arbitrary moral codes, superstitious thinking, infantilization of its adherents, its “mercy” posturing, its out-group stigmatizations, and its fueling of violent conflicts all over the world. But when I was a teenager I was just looking for answers and religion seemed to promise something more than a vast and indifferent cosmos.

I soon was introduced to my family’s parish priest. He was a burly, chain smoking, wily intellectual guy, with wispy hair, black bushy eyebrows and eyes that lit up whenever he was allowed to speak of the virtues and gifts of others. He was the first person that I met with whom I could have a serious and extended conversation about the role of science and religion in my life and in the world at large. Fr Gothing lived to talk and he could talk about anything including science, philosophy, politics, history, and, of course God. For Gothing there was no conflict between science and religion. He often told me that any faith that could not be intellectually challenged is mere superstition and not genuine faith. Faith had to be rooted in truth and we reach truth through reason and through love. He insisted that revelation was consistent with reason, but a form of reason that was itself rooted in the whole man, heart, mind and soul. Science was a vocation– a call from God who demands you answer that call by developing your intellectual talents to the full. “You follow science” Gothing claimed, “and it will bring you to God”.

So it was a priest who first convinced me to answer that call to science I had experienced when just a kid. But religion in the meantime had ignited a kind of burning and insatiable thirst in me for its truths, as it demanded the whole of me; not just my intellect, heart or soul but all of me. That demand for total commitment was characteristic of both utterly destructive cults and whatever was best and beautiful in the human enterprise so I wanted to taste it. An indifferent or timid response to life seemed unthinkable to me-not after I had learned something of the staggering vastness and beauty of the cosmos and the equally perplexing mysteries of the people around me.  But how should one respond to the mystery exactly? With awe? Thanksgiving? Wonder? Puzzlement? Love? Gratitude? Resentment? Hatred? Terror? Inquiry? Any of these was better than indifference or timidity.

I chose sustained inquiry. I began to read more widely within the philosophies and cosmologies that religion offered. But the deeper I read the more absurdities I encountered and despite my thirst for religious truths my scientific commitments told me there were few to be found here. Throughout my college years I struggled intensely with these two passions of mine …science and religion-never fully reconciling them but often coming close to ditching religion altogether as the patently absurd option in my life.

Imagine my surprise then, when the next great conversation I had on science and religion was with an atheist who convinced me to continue my religious quest. This interlocutor was a famous mathematician who urged me to continue both my religious quest and my scientific work by combining the two. A scientific inquiry into religious phenomena would uncover its truths if any were to be found and expose its absurdities if they were really there. At the time I was a newly minted Ph.D. casting around for a set of topics to pursue that would not only interest me but would allow for a significant contribution from someone with the set of skills I had.

Mr Mathematician was a slender man, with wire-rim glasses and a hyper-rational style when speaking. He virtually never became emotional but always spoke calmly, logically and intimately, as if he only wanted you to hear what he was saying. He had a tremendous command of facts from contemporary history, politics, and philosophy.  If I challenged him on one of his claims in these areas he would pause, tip his head back and appear to do a search through his prodigious memory banks for the relevant information. Then, having completed the search would tip his head back down again, look at me and matter-of-factly say “No, I was correct.” He routinely quoted from memory whole paragraphs from historian’s monographs, newspaper articles and technical reports. During our meetings we would walk down Mass Ave in Cambridge then through Kendall square and over the salt and pepper bridge crossing the Charles River then up the river on the Boston side and back over the river via the Mass Ave bridge, talking incessantly all the way.

I once asked him “Do you believe in God?”  He replied “All of us only provisionally “believe” in anything. We have to rely on free unrestricted rational inquiry to get anywhere near the truth on anything and when we do build up a little knowledge here and there it is always only provisional knowledge, valid only until further inquiry verifies it or requires revision.” “Fair enough,” I replied. “It sounds like you recommend humility in pursuit of science and truth.” Nodding his head he said “Yeah, of course, given the mysteries we face.” “Is religion helpful in that project of unrestricted free enquiry?” I asked. Pausing and looking out over the Charles River he considered his words and then said:  “To the extent it protects people from arbitrary power, then yes but when it itself, which all too often happens, prevents free inquiry then it is just one more force promoting servility. Still, religion needs to be studied like every other human faculty. There is so much we do not know.”

He spoke of religion’s myriad incarnations down through history; from its bloody sacrificial monstrosities among the Aztecs, to its extravagant displays of sacrificial love among the catholic saints who defended the defenseless poor under attack from both right and left wing dictatorships in Latin America. Listening to his multidimensional take on religion, I began to see religion as a phantasmagoria of cultural excesses, a kind of generative cultural dynamo that was forever churning out rituals, pageantries, dogmas, gods, goddesses, dances, basilicas, temples, fanfares, taboos, silences and pilgrimages.

I began to see that religion’s claims, dogma’s and rituals are not merely negative or costly absurdities. Instead, they manifestly possess the power to send their adherents into everything from the most depraved lunacies up to the most sublime of contemplative states where one encounters the true, the good and the beautiful. Unlike democracy, religion isn’t interested in creating mere mediocrities. Instead it prefers monstrous sinners, grotesque impostors, febrile and apocalyptical madmen and extraordinary saints. How could I as a budding scientist not want to study that?

After my conversations with this extraordinary man, I began to use scientific techniques to study religion itself in hopes of either burying the religious option for myself once and for all, or of creating a kind of personal reconciliation between my scientific commitments and the burning need I felt to encounter God face to face.

After 20 years of investigation into religion I cannot report that I have come any closer to reconciling my religious quest with my scientific work. While I think it is fair to say that I have inched the natural understanding of religion a little further, I have concluded that all religions are ultimately dead ends. They can take you so far and then no further. I do not consider Roman Catholicism a religion as it contains ultimate truth and is not designed to confer mere gnosis on its adherents. It promises nothing less than salvation but that is a story for another time.

I recently have had a third conversation on science and religion with a man who is a professional religious philosopher …and who unlike most academics I meet these days has somehow managed to preserve a traditional religious outlook while simultaneously penning the most abstruse analytic tomes on the question of God and religious experience I have seen. He is a tall, bearded guy with a bald head, fierce eyes and an easy going and engaging demeanor. He’s a heavy pipe smoker, with yellowed teeth, and a speech style drenched in nicotinic-studded, multi-syllabic subordinate clauses.

I told him that I thought the most accurate description of the human religious scene was Borges’ “Library of Babel” wherein a group of mad librarians frantically attempt to find some pattern in the avalanche of randomly constructed texts in an otherwise infinite library that leads nowhere and goes nowhere.

“All you religious philosophers are doing is charting imagined patterns where none exist in the randomly arranged stacks of gibberish that surround us on all sides of the library.”

Whereupon he replied: “Recall, however that Borges’ library was generated by a simple combinatorial rule, the recombination of every possible mix of the 26 letter alphabet into books and thus any book that ever could be written with that alphabet was written and was stored in the library. So there is a book in that library that contains your entire life story, from beginning to end and every possible variation of that life story.”

I pounced: “But doesn’t that near infinite library with my life story all laid out in excruciating detail in trillions of books therefore rule out the possibility of any fundamental science or of a loving creator God? After all if a loving rational God exists why would he write out every possible outcome of my life beforehand? Do I really have free will if all of the possible actions that I will ever perform, all the good and all the evil I will ever do is already known and written out in minute detail in a set of books stored and ready to be read in a near infinite portion of the near infinite great Library of Babel?”

“No not in the least!” he replied. “Two facts about the library prove God’s existence and that He is a loving God. First, once again note that the library is generated by a very simple combinatorial rule and thus it is intrinsically knowable by organisms like us who have minds that can use reason. And second, note that we who are trapped or find ourselves within the library can discover that combinatorial rule and thus unlock the secrets of the library. I do not see in the library just seas of gibberish but there is also an infinite garden of delights waiting to be discovered. And don’t forget that within the library there is a book that tells the story of how you unlocked the secrets of your own heart and found indestructible peace. Why can’t we seek out those books that god has provided for us within the library”

“Well, for starters, (I replied somewhat impatiently) that good and gracious God of yours buried those wonderful books within a near infinite sea of books of horror, gibberish, rubbish and misery so that the good books are near impossible for us to find or access. And even if we could find them how does the existence of these books outweigh the existence of all of the books where my life story is drenched in suffering, evil, misery and horror?”

“That is a question whose final answer will only be revealed when God brings an end to the world and library itself. But reason suggests that the two (the good and the bad books) cancel one another out and we are left with what is; reality, which is neither wholly good nor wholly evil, but is definitely not just another book in the library and therein lies a clue to the meaning of the library itself.”

Unconvinced by these arguments, I changed the subject and asked him point blank: “How do you do it? How do you reconcile your faith in God with reason and science?” Then he replied:

“You have to do it personally. You have to verify for yourself, personally that God is a reality, a personal, living being.”

But how? I cried. “By inviting Him in. You have to ask him into relationship with you. He will not appear without your invitation.” When I replied that I had tried that before and experienced nothing, he pulled reflectively on his pipe, blowed out a few rings of aromatic smoke and replied “Well try again. Don’t give up! A good scientist chases the truth. He does not give up.”

“Look”, he said “religion and certainly God, cannot be grasped by the mind alone, unless we enlarge our conception of what is meant by the term: “mind”. We need an enlarged conception of reason and of science if we are going to grasp the world’s or even religion’s capacities for good and evil. We have to use that form of reason that can not only discover the combinatorial rule that generates the Library of Babel, but that can allow us to find the books that really matter for us. As numerous of my colleagues, the religious philosophers have pointed out, religion is a matter of the heart, as well as reason. This is not some sentimental appeal to emotion or a flight from reason or the scientific method. Rather it is giving reason or Mind—and religion their due.

You can verify for yourself whether reason involves neutral computations on inert clumps or matter or instead is a kind of discovery and valuation process. Think for a moment about what you have learned about the universe. Science reveals an enormously large universe and a potentially infinite set of large universes like the Library of Babel. We are inured to the wonder these facts should evoke in us. Our world is just a little speck of dust when considered from the point of view of space-say, a satellite orbiting the earth. An astronaut circling the earth, cannot see any people down there on the earth. Alls he or she sees are oceans and continents. But, the earth itself, of course is just a speck of dust from the point of view of the boundaries of the solar system. Even the sun, only 8 minutes (in light years) away from the earth dwarfs the earth into nothingness. But the sun itself is just a speck of dust from the point of view of the boundaries of our local sector of our galaxy. But our sector of the galaxy is very, very small compared to the size of the galaxy itself. And how noticeable am I from the point of view of the galaxy itself? But wait again, our galaxy is just a speck of dust from the point of view of another galaxy or cluster of galaxies perhaps thousands of light years away. But there is a real possibility that this gigantic universe, (that contains me as only a speck of dust, on a speck of dust-so small that I am vanishingly small) may be only one of a huge number of such universes!

Size is one thing, essence is another. I am truly just a speck of dust-at least in terms of size. But what about my essence? The fact that I can stand apart from this gigantic universe, from this massive Library of Babel and evaluate it objectively, suggests that my essence, my reason is a powerful faculty not reducible to the Library, the universe or its constituents. If my reason or consciousness can stand outside the entire cosmos and evaluate its size and composition both morally and scientifically, then Reason or Mind cannot be a purely mechanical process. Instead it can judge whether it itself is a mechanical process. It can stand apart from “it”, observe it, evaluate it and then judge whether “it” is the same or different from some other “it”—therefore it cannot be reduced to “it”.   Mind can also judge the value of things in the cosmos and whether or not they are good. In that sense it stands in judgment of the cosmos—this small puny human speck of dust can condemn the universe as worthless if he wishes. He can reject as gibberish any book found in the great library and this rejection in favor of meaning will matter infinitely for him and his loved ones. Finally reason or mind can reflect on itself; it is (uncannily) aware that it is aware. Thus, science and reason must involve passion, heart, valuation and judgment-not mere tabulation, cataloging, computation or contemplation. When we approach the world, the Library or even religion and science with this enlarged conception of reason what do we find?  We find a universe composed not merely of randomly arranged shelves of gibberish, but of “persons” as well. We find those disembodied (and fully embodied!) agents that the naturalists despise but that the religions universally celebrate. Persons can evaluate any given portion of the library as meaningful or as gibberish and therefore they are different from any possible book that can appear in the library.”

I grew impatient with his claims and tried to steer the conversation back to my personal religion and science concerns. “OK, I am different from any book that has been written about me and that is contained in the library….but how does this information get me any closer to God?”

He replied “Only you and God can answer that and when you invite God in he will actually show up.”

“And if and when he shows up what then? I asked sarcastically.” “Then…he’ll answer you… everything will seem the same but be different. Listen to Pascal’s first encounter with God (At this point he set aside his pipe and pulled out of his wallet a scrap of paper that he apparently carried around with him): “…joy…silent, quiet, deep, indestructible, searing and exultant, joy and happiness…he felt his heart blazing up within him…he felt the Lord there with him, the sacred one whose heart too was blazing- the two of them silent with eyes of fire and peace and beatitude. He leapt up and ran out into the street with prayer on his lips and with gratitude in his heart. Yes he had seen it now and nothing would ever be the same.”

“Sounds like gibberish to me…” I replied but thanked him for the conversation.

I am back in my hometown with my 6 year old daughter. I take her to see the old family house way up there on the hill. I show her where I played as a boy of 4-6 years old. Strangers living there now. We knock. No answer. We turn and walk into the darkness of the night and the frigid dark air. We breathe in and out the fresh cold air, she follows her breath as it drifts up and dissolves into the freezing night sky, and then she exclaims… “Papa look! She is pointing up into the night sky and with wonder in her voice says “Look at them Papa!” I just nod, smile and lift her up on my shoulders so she can drink in the beauty and mystery that awaits her.



3 thoughts on “Four conversations on science and religion

  1. Steve Shields

    Wonderful article!
    I am so glad to read you write about you.
    I have to admit some of those priests in the 70’s were a bit strange.

    “After 20 years of investigation into religion I cannot report that I have come any closer to reconciling my religious quest with my scientific work”

    “But how? I cried. “By inviting Him in. You have to ask him into relationship with you. He will not appear without your invitation.” When I replied that I had tried that before and experienced nothing, he pulled reflectively on his pipe, blowed out a few rings of aromatic smoke and replied “Well try again. Don’t give up! A good scientist chases the truth. He does not give up.”

    “He replied “Only you and God can answer that and when you invite God in he will actually show up.”

    1. Steve Shields

      the rest of my reply was lost (apparently too many letters)

      what I really wanted to say is that God always answers us. I know he will answer you. Just ask Him.



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