Vatican astronomer hunts for faith in Silicon Valley

VATICAN CITY – Engineers, scientists, and computer whizzes study or manipulate nature and machines to find sound, logical solutions to nagging questions and everyday problems.

But if hard empirical evidence is what makes a techie brain tick, then how is he or she able to justify or believe in something as scientifically unprovable as God or as mind-boggling as transubstantiation?

Jesuit Brother Guy Consolmagno, a self-described techie and Vatican astronomer, argues in a new book that a nerd is not necessarily a nihilist, and geeks can and do believe in God.

In “God’s Mechanics: How Scientists and Engineers Make Sense of Religion,” he shows that atheism is actually very rare among men and women scientists.

He told Catholic News Service “the more common stance is to be agnostic – they don’t want to make a claim one way or another, but really what they’re shy about is belonging to an organized church.”

Brother Consolmagno said some hold preconceived, mistaken notions that the people they’ll find in the pews might be intellectually inferior or even “repellent.”

The Jesuit astronomer said, “One fellow put it to me very bluntly, ‘I don’t mind God, it’s his fan club I could do without.’“

He said the idea for his fifth book came after some techie friends asked him to explain the “nuts and bolts of how” to believe in a particular religious creed.

These friends were interested in joining a church, and they were looking for “intellectual support” and help in explaining certain aspects of the Catholic faith, he said.

He soon realized techies look at religion differently than most folks and likewise have different needs when it comes to pastoral care and outreach.

So two years ago, Brother Consolmagno bade a temporary farewell to his telescopes and went from gazing at the heavens to peering into fellow techies’ hearts and souls.

“The techies, they’re my tribe. I’m one of them and I want us to be better understood by the church,” the planetary scientist explained.

The discoveries he made from a two-month journey traveling up and down U.S. Highway 101 in California’s Silicon Valley became the core of his new book.

He interviewed 100 “hard-nosed, rational, dyed-in-the-wool techies” and asked them the reasons they went to church, what they did and didn’t get out of church, and why they belonged to one faith community and not another.

He said the answers were as varied as one would find in the general population, but that several unique characteristics stuck out.

For example, skeptics weren’t saying, “Prove to me God exists,” but had more pragmatic concerns like “whether he exists or not, why should I believe? Why should I care and what does it get me?”

Also, people in the world of science tend to be “rule followers” and see the church as a book of rules, he said.

In fact, “a very common fallacy” among techies, he said, is believing salvation is the result of following the rules.

In their work world, techies see that “if I follow the rules then the program should run, but religion doesn’t work that way,” said Brother Consolmagno.

He also got the feeling that a lot techies weren’t exactly convinced they could ever know “the truth.”
He said one family had actually been “church shopping” and was ruling out churches that were “obviously wrong.”

He said this family wasn’t looking for proof of which religious community was right, they just wanted one that “had a greater chance of being correct,” like one that has “existed over a long period of time and in a lot of different cultures.”

The Vatican astronomer said the biggest surprise to come out of his research was that, for techies in general, the biggest motivation to belong to a church was the search for community.

Being part of a community was really important, he said, “in part because community is something a lot of them didn’t have growing up; when you’re the geek nobody likes you. But also because techies work better in community, because most scientists and engineers do their work as a team.”

Many in the tech world aren’t going to church to find the truth, he said, “because by the time you’re in your 30s or 40s you’ve pretty much decided what the truth is. The reason they go to church is for tech support; it’s once-a-week scheduled maintenance,” he said.

But in some churches, that community support may be lacking, especially if the techie individual is unmarried or far from family.

“The sort of alienation that comes from a techie life is something a parish ought to be addressing, and yet most parishes don’t even recognize the problem,” he said.

Parishioners with science backgrounds should be more vocal about their interests and could try starting up an astronomy, computer, or science fiction club, he suggested.

When asked how he explains to scientists complex facets of Catholicism, such as transubstantiation – that Christ is truly present in the Eucharist – Brother Consolmagno said he first explains what the statements actually mean.

“One of the problems that techies have is they don’t necessarily understand that words do have power. But if you think of words like, ‘Yes, I’ll marry you,’ or ‘You’ve just been accepted to MIT,’ these words change reality,” he explained.

He follows that with the analogy of a small child getting a birthday cake.

“Why is the birthday cake different from any other cake? It has to be on your birthday, it has to be brought by mom” and it has to have all the special details and ceremonies associated with it that make it different from every other cake and “a little kid understands it really is different,” he said.

“I’m not saying the Eucharist is a birthday cake,” he said, “but it shows the power of words and that words do change reality.”

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.