Sunday, March 29, 2015

Book Review: Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial?

Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? and Other Questions from the Astronomers' In-Box at the Vatican Observatory
Guy Consolmagno and Paul Mueller
Science, theology

DISCLAIMER: I've heard Brother Guy Consolmagno speak several times, and spoken with him very briefly.

In some ways I'm the wrong reader for this book. None of the science, and not much of the philosophy, is new to me. Even the specifically Catholic aspects of the dialogue are not entirely unfamiliar. Would You Baptize an Extraterrestrial? is genially written and unsophisticated, but I didn't find it terribly challenging.

In essence, WYBaE? is an extended riff on what Steven Jay Gould termed "Non-overlapping magisteria." Science explains some things. Religion explains some things. They don't explain the same things, but that doesn't invalidate either domain.

It's a familiar refrain, but it's not an entirely satisfying one. Both science and religion make some claims to universality. That is, most scientists would agree with the statement "Nothing is exempt from scientific inquiry," while theologists have historically been very clear that "Nothing is irrelevant to the Divine purpose."*

But some universalities are more universal than others.

The difference becomes clear in WYBaE? in the chapter "What Was the Star of Bethlehem?" The authors first discuss a variety of plausible astronomical hypotheses. When they turn to the religious side, they aver that the story of the Star doesn't have to be taken literally to be religiously meaningful. The Bible operates in many modes, including story-telling. Sometimes a good story is the best way to communicate a truth.

Fair enough. But they do not--they cannot--entertain some hypotheses that the scientist would consider equally plausible. Is it not possible that the episode of the Star, as written in Matthew, is no more nor less than a propaganda piece? That, in other words, it was either (a) a folk tale (or what we'd now call an urban legend) that eventually got written down, or (b) a conscious attempt to "sex up" the story? 

Such things manifestly do occur. I certainly don't assert that they did occur in this case. As a matter of science, however, I'm free to suppose that they might have occurred. Brother Guy and Father Paul, for all their erudition, are prohibited ex cathedra from even considering these explanations. So they don't.

Still, the book is a quick yet searching overview of the interface between science and faith. I'd recommend it as an introduction for non-scientists who are interested in Catholic teaching on the subject. I wouldn't recommend it to religious fundamentalists, however, because the authors flatly state that the Bible is not meant to be taken literally; if that doesn't square with your beliefs, nothing in this book will sway you.

*The relative prestige of the two has certainly flipped over time, though. 18th-century scientists were anxious to assert that science didn't undermine religion; 21st-century "creation scientists" are no less eager to pretend that Biblical literalism is compatible with science.


  1. There is nothing like a religious discussion to completely disengage me. Unfortunately, it shows up in a lot of the fiction I read. Not sure what it is about religion and science that fascinates the science fiction writer - most of the fiction I read is still in that genre, though I am reading more thriller/mystery than before - but it shows up consistently. At the appearance of the word "priest" in a story, I'm tempted to put it down, and occasionally have. Fortunately, I have the intestinal fortitude to plow through to the meat of the story most of the time.

    1. I know how you feel. I have to make a conscious effort to take cognizance of religion and religiosity. If I'd never met Gary Moorehead, I probably would never bother.

      I blame my upbringing. In my family, religion was considered in roughly the same light as, say, yak herding. Sure, the yak industry was probably important to someone in the past. There are probably still some yak devotees out there. But .. for us? In Amherst, Massachusetts? Seriously?

      It came as a genuine shock when I realized that some of my classmates actually went to church.

      That makes me a permanent outsider to the religious experience. I can study it, but I can't get any closer than that. At the same time, I'm sometimes shocked by the depth of my own ignorance. Hence my occasional shallow forays into the subject.

      By the way, the place where I met Brother Guy Consolmagno was Boskone! He's an avid science fiction fan and a very enjoyable speaker. If he hadn't been one of the coauthors, I doubt that I would have picked this one up.