Archive for November, 2010

This is a belated write-up for this site’s patron saint, Albertus Magnus, whose Feast Day of November 15th was recently celebrated by Catholics; this year’s feast being the 730th anniversary of his death — I had originally intended to be spending the week on which the Feast occurs in Taizé, but due to scheduling conflict ended up canceling that trip. Instead, I ended up going a few days later to the Episcopal Discernment Conference, which I posted about previously. Unfortunately that meant I did not have time to write this until now!

It might seem odd for scientists to have a patron saint — indeed, the concept of sainthood itself has become quite controversial these days. As an Episcopalian, my idea of what sainthood entails certainly does not involve the power to intercede with the Almighty; nor does the Episcopal Church require someone to have performed miracles to be commemorated; only that three successive General Conventions assent to it (one learns useful tidbits like this from being in a Discernment conference with three priests, one of them previously a Catholic

Ironically that is actually harder than it is to be beatified and canonized in the Roman Catholic church, since John Paul II opened the floodgate by his 1983 “reform”

So what do we know about Albertus Magnus? He was a Dominican friar from Bavaria, who served as Bishop of Ratisbon (Regensburg); he had a reputation for humility, refusing to ride a horse, and resigned after three years. A polymath, he is renowned for his breadth of knowledge, especially his commentary on Aristotle; despite being a theologian, he argues for a study of nature free from supernatural suppositions:

“In studying nature we have not to inquire how God the Creator may, as He freely wills, use His creatures to work miracles and thereby show
forth His power: we have rather to inquire what Nature with its immanent causes can naturally bring to pass”

De Coelo et Mundo, I, tr. iv, x

To me, Albertus Magnus symbolizes what it means to be a Christian and a scientist: cultivating rationality, having faith that what we discover about how Nature works glorifies, rather than diminishes, our Creator. He was a man of his time — as reflected by his interest in subjects that modern-day scientists would consider bizarre, such as astrology and phrenology — but the scientific process is iterative, not a big-bang revelatory process; indeed, the same is true of theology, despite its mischaracterization by both religious fundamentalists (who insist in a perfect, eternal, revelation) and fundamentalist atheists (who insist in the irrevocably flawed nature of revelatory religions).

As scientifically-minded Christians, may our faith evolve as we discover more of the splendor of God’s creation. And may we be witness to others, through our work, to the complementary role of faith and science, and thus help heal the long-lasting, acrimonious split between the two camps.


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note: this is a short account of the Convocation of Episcopal Churches in Europe‘s recent Discernment Conference, held during the weekend of Nov 19th-21st 2010, to appear in the next issue of Church of the Ascension‘s Ikon newsletter

With two dozen Episcopalians from around Europe (except for Rev. Kate Harrigan who flew in from Pennsylvania), the picturesque and historic Villa Palazzola in Rocca di Papa (“Papal redoubt”) across the lake from the Pope’s summer residence, and a weekend lived in discernment in a Eucharistic setting, the discernment conference organized by COMB (Commission on the Ministry of the Baptized) was a wonderful, blessed experience. Truly the Spirit was among us.

As a liturgical denomination, it is natural that our discernment process is shaped by the Eucharist’s fourfold nature — we meditate on what ministry we “take” to the altar, the talents and resources we are “blessed” with, our brokenness and challenges (“break”), and affirm, in groups of three, each other’s ministries (“give”) as we discern them.

It was a wonderful experience, being surrounded by so many earnest co-religionists, each with their unique spiritual path — indeed, in this case, all our paths lead to (just outside) Rome. The Collect for Richard Hooker, whose Feast Day was on Nov. 3, reads, in part, “Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth”. And after more than two years of becoming an Episcopalian, I finally see my church as that — not a compromise, not “Catholic Lite” (cf. Robin Williams), but a vibrant, moderate, open-minded, living body of Christ.

One’s ministry does not necessarily lead to ordination — but as the life, death, and resurrection of Christ reconciled us with the Divine, so are we called to a mission to the wider world. I heartily recommend anyone who is exploring their calling to go to the next discernment — and to keep discerning. Just as the Holy Spirit continually reshape our life, so might opportunities arise to which we might be called.

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That’s what Mano Singham, writing in the Chronicle for Higher Education, would have everyone believe. In his article, The New War Between Science and Religion, he said this about us:

The former group, known as accommodationists, seeks to carve out areas of knowledge that are off-limits to science, arguing that certain fundamental features of the world—such as the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and the origin of the universe—allow for God to act in ways that cannot be detected using the methods of science. Some accommodationists, including Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health, suggest that there are deeply mysterious, spiritual domains of human experience, such as morality, mind, and consciousness, for which only religion can provide deep insights.

Rather typical of the “new atheists” to attempt to paint everyone who disagrees with them with the same brush. Or rather, two brushes: one is either an “accomodationist” or a “religious fundamentalist”. The article also insinuates that accomodationists are just cowardly refusing to let go of their faith — well, what about agnostics and atheists who also advocate a reconciliation with moderate religion? Secular humanists of all stripes are divided on this issue, this is more than just between scientists who hold religious delusions and those who have been “enlightened”. Just look at, for example, the recent secular humanism conference, and the heated exchange between Chris Mooney and PZ Myers. And from one of the key new atheist, Richard Dawkins’ own article on the Beyond Belief conference:

For others, the idea that it is somehow unacceptable for scientists to maintain a religious belief was going too far. “They’re doing science, they’re not a problem,” said Lawrence Krauss, a physicist based at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio. Scientists are not a special class of humanity, he pointed out, so it is hardly surprising that a small number of academy members are also believers. “It would be amazing if that figure were zero,” he said. “Scientists are people, and we all make up inventions so we can rationalise about who we are.”

Krauss himself is not religious; you don’t need to be to seek an understanding with religion. See what he has to say for yourself: science should enrich faith by moving us beyond faith. It is incompatible with blind belief, but can inform faith. We don’t need to respect all aspects of faith, but criticize it when that is called for (e.g. the earth is not 6,000 years old, and if one’s faith is based on that then one is in trouble!).

It seems like Krauss and mainstream Christians would be both reviled by the fundamentalists; I’d highly recommend Sinclair Lewis’ novel Elmer Gantry for examples of unfortunately all-too-typical diatribes by the latter against higher criticism, and anything not justified by a narrow, subjective, moralistic interpretation of the Bible. Religious fundamentalism is not new and is, unfortunately, part of every faith tradition; likewise, militant atheism is not new either — just look back at the French Revolution’s Cult of Reason.

Let’s look at another claim Singham makes:

Accommodationists frequently brand us new atheists as “extreme,” “uncivil,” “rude,” and responsible for setting a “bad tone.” However, those accusations are rarely accompanied by concrete examples of such impolite speech. Behind the charges seems to lie the assumption that it is rude to even question religious beliefs or to challenge the point of view of the accommodationists. Apparently the polite thing to do is keep quiet.

Hm. We have PZ Myers calling Francis Collins a “clown”, and people who don’t share his “truth” “liars”. Not mistaken, or deluded, mind you. It’s as if there’s a giant anti-science conspiracy out there, and us moderate religious folks and moderate scientists are a fifth column! And surely one does not have to be religious to see the desecration of a faith’s precious symbols (Myers again) to be “rude” and “uncivil”? Sure, Myers burned a book of Dawkins’ God Delusion book as well to claim he’s impartial. But I’d suggest a closer parallel would be smashing down a statue of Richard Darwin, or Isaac Newton, or Albert Einstein. Figures that are revered in the scientific community — secular saints, almost, though naturally it does not follow that what they say are automatically true. Even in my most agnostic phase I’ve always been Kraussian in feeling that gratuitous attacks on religion are counterproductive at best and a sign of fanaticism at worst! And I happen to feel strongly against book burning, no matter which book it is: people still burn books in America today, and it’s bad form to encourage them.

One has to suspect that tactical considerations are at play here. The majority of Americans subscribe to some form of faith tradition. Some scientists may fear that if science is viewed as antithetical to religion, then even moderate believers may turn away from science and join the fundamentalists.

The only nod Singham makes towards seeing us as anything but illogical people. While the religious scientists are holding two incompatible positions in their head, the agnostic ones like Krauss are insincere and just tactically wish to appease moderate believers for fear of radicalizing them. Needless to say, it’s a sad misunderstanding, showing a lack of familiarity with moderate religious traditions, where one does not blindly apply one’s interpretation of scripture. The history of Christianity is one of tension between dogma on one side and reason on the other; in the American context, even the early Puritans, who are dogmatic in their anti-Papism, gave rise to the Congregationalists (now part of UCC) and the Unitarians (now part of UUA), two of the most liberal denominations there are. My own Anglican / Episcopal tradition is likewise quite progressive, and preserve rich rituals from our long church tradition, showing that reason and tradition can be intertwined harmoniously. There is a rich tradition of Torah commentary in Judaism, and while the interpretations of the historical rabbis necessarily have much authority, like the writings of our Church Fathers, as long this is a living tradition rather than a dead one, with followers blindly applying pronouncements made centuries ago to their daily lives, we have much to gain from both our religious traditions *and* our scientific tradition.

As George Santayana said,

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

Us religious folks should not blind ourselves to the possibility that morality is impossible without a belief in God; if we believe that we are all God’s creations, then surely God in His/Her wisdom imbue us with a conscience that is not the same as that instinct for religion that, apparently, some people lack? As Frans de Waal observed in his New York Times article Morals Without God?, even primates and some other animals are capable of altruism; and they most probably do not possess the intellectual capacity for religious belief! If they can be altruistic, surely we can be moral creatures.

Likewise, those of us who are scientists should refrain from adopting the worst tenets of fundamentalism and seeing things only in black-and-white terms. Some of us, rather than trying to show that one *can* be moral without God, tries to go further and say that since there are moral atheists, therefore religion is completely wrong and should be dismantled! When the common mindset is dualistic — science vs religion, right-wing vs left-wing, etc. — sadly it is the voice of reasoned moderation in the middle that all too often get trampled by both sides. But whoever said faith (likewise, science) was supposed to be easy?

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