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Written in the stars

30 November, 1999

Can a scientist believe in God? Chris Moss, Jesuit priest and astronomer, says yes. From the very beginning, some might say, Chris Moss’ future was ‘in the stars’. Growing up in Preston, the only town in England with its own research observatory, he rubbed shoulders with astronomers before he even left school. He would say that he had a vocation. In fact he had two vocations: when he marched into the Jesuit noviceship in Edinburgh in 1964, he had a very strong conviction that he wanted to be a Jesuit scientist.

Of course, he wasn’t the first person to have this dual vocation. Since their foundation in the sixteenth century, the Jesuits have always been at the cutting edge of scientific discovery within the Catholic Church. Most notable was Pietro Angelo Secchi SJ (1818-1878), who attached a spectograph to a telescope and drew by hand the spectra of approximately 4,000 stars, classifying them into different types. Later on, the Vatican established its own observatory, and Pope Pius XII was a keen amateur astronomer.


However, the experts on astronomy that Chris had seen on television all seemed to be atheists, and so he was pleasantly surprised when he went to Sussex University to find that he wasn’t unique in his combined religious faith and scientific interest: “The person who shared my office was a leading member of the Baha’i faith in the university. There were two Anglicans who went to daily Eucharist. We even had a Fundamentalist, doing an M.Sc., who believed that the world was created in 6,000 B.C. – though goodness knows how he related that to his astronomy.”


Science v. religion
Asked if science challenges his faith, Chris says “The scientist really is awed by what he discovers because, time and again, the observations astound. You go out to investigate the universe and your assumptions are challenged and you come across a much more’wonderful picture than you would even have expected. So, the scientist is called to be honest and to be open, and goes about his or her investigation with a real sense of vocation.” Moss finds an openness to surprise among scientists that theologians could learn from.


But is religious faith an asset to the scientist? Obviously, a scientist could lead a life of scholarship totally insulated from social realities, but when Chris Moss went to work at the Vatican Observatory in the Arizona desert he managed to achieve something of a balance. Monday to Friday he worked on his current project, a survey of spiral galaxies in clusters of galaxies, and at the weekends he worked on the reservation with the Papago Indians. His work at the Observatory verged on the mind-boggling, looking back through time at galactic interactions, but the Indians proved equally revelatory: “They are amazing. Theirs is a culture of consensus. When something must be decided they sit in peace and patience until everyone has spoken and then they decide. I was doing pastoral work, saying mass, blessing cemeteries and so on, but I felt they were evangelising me more than vice versa.”


Liberation theology

What then, does faith say to science? During a stint in the University of Texas, Chris Moss became involved with committed Christians who gave sanctuary to the droves of Latin American refugees who crossed into the US fleeing political persecution at home. There he became convinced of the importance of liberation theology. Now he feels he must ask of science the same questions that liberation theology asks: “Whose social interest does this intellectual enterprise serve?” In answer to his own question he admits that while scientists have a strong sense of vocation, they are also deeply involved in the structures of power in today’s world and in the exploitation of nature. “That has been going on ever since Babylonian times. It’s ever increasing,” he adds ruefully.


But whose interests does Chris think he’s serving? He admits to feeling unsure: “I’d like to think that astronomy serves a wider cultural purpose, just like any form of art which serves to show our place in the universe and so on. I’d like to think that at its best, science serves to liberate people from superstition and to challenge prejudice in different areas.”


“And the Lord said, ‘Let there be a big bang…’”

One notable area where science has opened up possibilities is that of creation. The Big Bang theory of the 1930s provided the first alternative to the story of creation in Genesis: “Amazingly, the Big Bang model was invented by a Belgian priest, Fr Georges Lemaitre. Pius XII initially seized on it as confirmation of Genesis, but Lemaitre adjudged this rapprochement too facile. Today, many scientists are thinking of a universe in which Big Bangs occur in many places. So the Big Bang wouldn’t be unique and you wouldn’t be able to identify it with the moment of creation.”


Is there anybody out there?
Something which would surely provide an even greater test of religious faith is the idea of extra-terrestrial life forms. Here, Chris says, the scientific community are “completely in the dark”. “There are billions and billions of suns in the universe. In the next century, we will have an exciting time detecting the planets around the nearby suns, something which is still extremely difficult. As for life on them, we don’t know sufficiently how life is formed to know how probable or otherwise it is in a universe. If evolution is a random process, then there is no necessity for it to produce human life as its outcome, or any type of life.


Some people say that our sun is a relatively young sun in the galaxy, and if life had developed, it would have rapidly colonised the galaxy on a short time scale – a few million years. If there are other intelligent beings in the galaxy, we ought to have been colonised long since, and there ought to be other intelligent beings around. Some people firmly believe in life out there. We simply don’t have the information, but we are beginning the process of finding out about planets around nearby stars. It’s very exciting. We should find out early next century whether there was once the possibility of life on Mars. It’s all an open book.” This interview was conducted by Alan McGuckian, S.J., and it first appeared in AMDG, a publication of the Irish Jesuits.


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