10/21/2014 03:38 pm ET Updated Dec 21, 2014

Science, Religion and the Assumptions We Make

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One of the great advantages of being a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican Observatory is that, since we are supported by the Church, we don't have to worry about writing proposals, sitting on committees or even teaching classes. We can concentrate on doing interesting, long-term scientific projects.

Of course, we do have our own personal commitments. I live in a community of a dozen Jesuit priests and brothers (most of us with doctorates in astronomy or related fields), and as a community we care for each other... picking up a fellow Jesuit at the airport, or taking an elderly brother to a doctor's appointment. But generally our vow of celibacy means that we're free to go where the work calls us, whether it's traveling to conferences or staying late in the lab. We don't have to worry about a child with the flu or a spouse's job search.

There is one call on our time, however, that my married colleagues don't face. It's the emails and letters we receive, regularly, asking us about our lives of science and faith.

Of course, the whole reason the Vatican established a Vatican Observatory was to show the world that the Church supports science. Answering that constant stream of questions is an essential way we "show the world," even if it is just one letter at a time.

To try to reach more people, my colleague Paul Mueller and I have just written a book that addresses some of the most frequently asked questions. In Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? we try to give more space than just an email reply to issues ranging from the Big Bang or Galileo to the Star of Bethlehem and, yes, the what-if of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Behind all those questions, of course, is the puzzle that some people have seeing religious people as scientists. Mind you, a lot of techies are also churchgoers (a topic of an earlier book of mine, God's Mechanics). But if you've never gotten to know a scientist, you may not have seen how religion and science actually work together in practice.

Typically, the argument we hear runs something like this: Science is all about finding and evaluating evidence for things, right? So what evidence is there that the Bible is correct about a Creator? And why is that evidence any more compelling than other religion's stories?

But notice what that question assumes. It acts as if the big questions of life -- Love, Beauty, God -- can be solved with the kind of answer you'd find in the back of a physics book. But Love is not a puzzle that can be "solved" with "evidence"; it is a reality that grows, in beauty and complexity, the longer you live with it.

Even worse, that way of asking the question presumes that God is something you can finally arrive at on the basis of "evidence." Besides the obvious fact that evidence can be misleading -- we tend to find only what we expect to see -- God is not something that comes at the end of a logical train of thought. Rather, my faith in God is my basic foundational assumption, the axiom that I start with when I do my logic. In fact, mathematicians remind us that all logical systems require starting assumptions. What you conclude, depends a lot on what you assume.

So what do I assume?

I assume we live in a real universe -- we're not in the Matrix, or figments in the imagination of some computer gamer.

I assume that this is a logical universe that operates by laws -- it's not the universe of pagan nature gods who did everything by whim, but rather a universe that can be rationally understood and whose behavior can be reliably predicted once we begin to figure it out.

Finally, I assume that I live in a universe that is ultimately good and beautiful and worthy of spending my life to study it.

Notice, those are all religious assumptions. There are other religions that might teach that "all is illusion" or that the universe is inherently corrupt and evil; other religions might rely on nature gods to explain all the things that puzzle us. But those aren't my religion.

I believe that the physical universe we study was was made deliberately by God who found it good -- and who makes Himself known in the things He created (to quote St. Paul). Thus scientific truth is a pathway to God. Even a scientist who denies the existence of any creator God must nonetheless worship at the altar of Truth, or else that science is worthless.

And why, at the end of the day, do I choose one religion over another? I can accept that all religions ultimately are looking for the same God. But I suspect that some religions do a better job of it than others... just as Newton's physics was an improvement over the medieval view, and quantum physics picks up where Newton's version fails. The religions of The Book -- Judaism, Christianity, Islam -- all recognize a God outside of nature who created this universe and found it good. Of these, I adopt the Catholic view because to me it is the most complete, most coherent vision of God and God's interaction with our universe.

I find that my religion's understanding of the universe is consistent with everything that I observe about life: not only in science, but in my experience of beauty, love and all the other transcendentals that science does not treat... including those experiences that I interpret as prayer, my direct experience of God.

It's not a proof. But it is a consistency argument. Your mileage may vary.